Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 10 Games of 2016

Before we get to the list, I've got some notable exceptions to list here. Namely, this list is only based on the games I've spent a lot of time with, and does not include certain games that I think I will like when I finally get around to playing them, such as: Final Fantasy XV, Abzu, DOOM, and Hyper Light Drifter. Still, what's here I think makes a pretty solid top 10, and paints a promising portrait of the games to come in 2017.

10. Hitman
I haven't even played Hitman, but I have watched a lot of hours of Hitman being played and it endeared me to the embedded humor in that series that the image and public presentation of the Hitman games has never let on. It's one thing for players to purposefully go against what a game expects and find something absurdly entertaining, but Hitman teases you with those possibilities at every turn and slowly, subtly lets you know that it's OK to laugh at what's going on. I always saw Agent 47 as the personification of everything that is boring about macho bald white male protagonists in games, right down to his Bansky-knockoff neck tattoo. However, in this game, the developers, or at least the people I watched play the game, played up this straight-man routine for laughs, noting the irony that Agent 47 is supposed to be a master of disguise when very few of his costumes are terribly convincing and most of the time the dude looks like the textbook definition of "assassin." When the world of Hitman is approached as an absurdist sandbox, the game not only allows for humor, but is also relieved of the constraints of realism that is so often burden creative design.

9. Furi
There's something kind of shallow and weightless to Furi, but the slickness with which it combines fighting games, dual-joystick shooters, and character action games into a fluid, interchangeable combat system is revelatory. As I noted in my review, Furi isn't a rhythm game, but the action does click with the music at times in ways that makes you feel like you've stumbled into a hidden flow state that perhaps even the game's designers didn't fully intend. This is propelled by the soundtrack featuring some electro heavy hitters (Danger, Carpenter Brut, Toxic Avenger, Lorn) composing original synth grinds that elevate the entire experience beyond what you might expect out of a "free" Playstation Plus game.

8. Inside
I have to confess that I haven't played Inside yet either (but I will! I own a copy now), but given the linear nature of the game, I have watched most of it on YouTube. I know the story beats, and I know how it ends. It's a small story in some ways, but it builds on the foundation that Playdead began with their previous game, Limbo. More than anything, Inside is oozing with production design that seems downright tactile. I confess that my interview with composer/sound designer Martin Stig Andersen may be skewing my perspective a little bit as knowing that certain heartbeats are internally recorded actual heart thumps really enriches my engagement with what the game has to offer. Granted, maybe it's not necessary to know these behind-the-scenes details for the production design to have the same effect, and if that's the case (and judging by the high praise for the game, it is), then all the more reason to pile on the accolades.

7. Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
Kentucky Route Zero's fourth chapter was perhaps its most anticipated. There was the longest gap between acts so far, and Act III set an incredibly high bar for emotional resonance, thanks to the character Junebug's devastating musical performance. Act IV doesn't play into the hype, instead keeping matters low-key and opting to send the hapless crew drifting downriver with less of a stated objective than a curious aloofness. All of the aesthetic trademarks are here: caves, obsolete technology, magical quirk, whiskey. The result makes less of an impact than Act III, preferring instead to literalize the importance of the journey over the destination that the series' performative play has been hinting at this whole time. As an aside, don't wait until the final act is out to start playing Kentucky Route Zero, lest you remember everything a bit too clearly.

6. Pokemon GO
A lot of folks seem to be acknowledging Pokemon GO begrudgingly, as if its mere status as a phenomenon should be enough to laud it critically. I happen to think the game deserves the praise. It's certainly not perfect and I agree with most of the criticisms that have been leveled against it, but they aren't enough to fully dampen the entertainment I've been able to wring out of this thing. I love booting the game up from my house and seeing if my yellow team still holds the gym housed in an abandoned caboose down on the train tracks, and taking it over if that's not the case. It's made me territorial of the area around my house, which is a place where, as was made starkly clear this election season, I don't see eye-to-eye with a lot of my neighbors on a lot of things. I'm only renting my apartment, but my team owns that gym, and I intend to keep it that way. Also, here's a pro tip: rename your Pokemon; the game is at least 3x more enjoyable when Bosco, Doug, and Drippy are defending your turf instead of the hundredth iterations of Arcanine, Snorlax, and Vaporeon.

5. Slither.io
I can't stop playing Slither.io. There's not that much too it, but I think that's part of what I like about it. It's deceptively simple in the way you play the game, but there are enough analog components that keep it from being something you could win with a spreadsheet. For the unfamiliar, Slither.io is like a large-scale multiplayer version of Snake (you know, that game you could play on a graphing calculator), except instead of not running into your tail, you can't run into anyone else's, and everyone else is trying to make you do just that. Some may consider it a secondary sibling to Agar.io, but I find the strategy in Slither.io more dynamic and the customization options less troll-prone. There are more options at your disposal, even as a tiny snake, than in Agar.io. In Slither.io, even the big snakes need to be on guard as one false move is an opportunity for even the smallest snake to turbo in front of you and end your run. You have to adapt strategies as you go, judging your environment and the risk/reward of heading into crowds. In fact, playing it safe as a big snake gets really boring, playing off your natural temptations to break form and take a dare.

4. AM2R
It turns out Metroid II is actually a pretty cool game, especially when you don't have to play it on a Game Boy. Joking aside, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed AM2R's take on Metroid II. The fan remake is the same basic game structure as the Game Boy original, but with graphical enhancements and a few tweaks and additions here and there. Samus is on an extermination mission to kill every last metroid, which is a horribly dark premise for those of us who are metroid sympathizers out there. However, the mutant metroids in AM2R don't go down without a fight, and the little stinger sound that plays every time one soars into frame had me jolting in fright more times than I'm willing to admit. Structurally, the game isn't all that different from other exploration-heavy Metroid titles. You still need to acquire certain items to open specific doors and traverse one obstacle or another. It's ironic to think about AM2R (literally Another Metroid 2 Remake) as just another Metroid game, but hey, those games are really good and this is a very good one of those. It just happens to have been put together by a fan with a copy of Game Maker, not Nintendo.

3. The Last Guardian
I'm still making my through The Last Guardian as of this writing, but it's left a serious impression on me. It's the sort of impression that I hoped for a long time that the game would have, but feared for just as long that I'd be let down. The way Trico, the adorable chimera, plays off of the way that I understand what my cat is trying to tell me, is pretty remarkable. Sure, I occasionally look to Trico for "videogame clues," as to what to do, but just as often I respond to the digital creature in the moment. What does it need or want? What is it trying to say? Does it actually like me or is it just using me to help it get where it wants to go? And like my cat, those answers don't seem entirely black and white. My cat might be independent and standoffish most of the time, but catch her in a particularly sleepy mood and she'll cuddle next to you on a blanket. Trico's communications are similarly non-binary, and in an environment that basically asks if the puzzle is solved or not, having those organic moments of observation and connection provide a very uncommon oasis.

2. Thumper
Ever since I played a demo of Thumper in a suffocating Airstream trailer, I've been sold on it. Actually, scratch that. Ever since Brian Gibson and Marc Flury coined the term "rhythm violence," I've been sold on Thumper. The game makes simple button presses have visceral impact. I honestly don't have too much to add that I didn't say in my review, but Thumper is a game I find myself coming back to with relative frequency. It's a game that had the guts to ask you to memorize an original score (and it is not your typical score) instead of reciting a pop/rock chart-topper. The result is a game that is about reflexes and finding patterns and discovering and internalizing where those patterns break formation. There can be a flow to Thumper, but more often than not, the game pushes against the limits of flow. It becomes a rhythm highway as survival game. With practice, you might find the music, but until then you'll be lucky just to stay alive.

1. The Witness
No game so thoroughly absorbed my attention and charged my desire to unpack its dense array of symbols, quotes, and puzzles as The Witness. I solved every puzzle in the game (thanks to some hints online) and only wish there was a Zelda-like second quest with a rearranged and remixed version of the fantasy island. There's just so much richness on display; the design is as lush as the banyan forest with all of those bridge puzzles. I mentioned in my review that I wasn't sold on the implementation of the audio-logs, and I still maintain that stance, but I can at least see, on paper, where they seem like a good idea. After all, my argument wasn't that the audio logs were bad so much as redundant and ham-fisted. The truth is that all of those highfalutin concepts are present in the design of the island and its puzzles, and they communicate those ideas with more grace than a pedantic lecture. So, I don't bring them up to complain about the game, but to show how sophisticated The Witness' construction is that it is able to translate these complex theoretical notions into the rhetoric of its systemic framework. Art, scientific fact, the human condition; these are subjects better left as subjective considerations and contextualized platforms for individual thought. The Witness' island does this, and I'm hard pressed to think of any game that's done it better.

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