Time to suplex crime
Ahh, 2016. In many ways, it’s been kind of a terrible year – one where it seemed like just about everything that could go wrong did. Thankfully, though, amidst the onslaught of tragic, embarrassing, and downright dumbfounding affairs that persisted throughout the year, video games were actually pretty damn good. Last year, we’d joked about how slowly 2015 started before a strong finish, but 2016 brought the fire right out the gate and it never really let up. There was a ton of fantastic stuff released this year, and while I could easily compile a Top Twenty, I’m not going to, because fuck you, 2016. You sucked in just about every other way.
I’ve had to think long and hard about this list (I’ve been updating and rearranging it since like, June), and as much as I’d love to stick Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Virginia, or Dreamfall Chapters on my list, I just don’t have room. Which is a shame, because they’re all great games. So is Rise of the Tomb Raider, which would be on my list had it not come out at the tail-end of 2015 on Xbox prior to its 2016 release everywhere else.
Anyway. Let’s get to it!
10. That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon broke my heart. My family has a long history of cancer – I lost two relatives this year alone to the disease – and sitting through the Green family’s experience losing their son Joel hit me hard. That Dragon may be occasionally obtuse, and not everything works quite the way you feel it was intended, a particularly jarring kart racing segment being prime example, but when it does, man, it’s hard to sit through. The love Ryan and Amy Green felt – and still feel – for Joel is overwhelming. The sheer terror of listening to his pained, blood-curdling cries of agony during a long night in the hospital..it’s all too real, too unsettling, and because of that, it is so effective. I cried because of That Dragon, Cancer, and I can’t think of too many other times games have done that to me.
9. Shadow Warrior 2
In general, I kind of hate first-person shooters. For years they’ve been so dreary, so dull, so self-serious and slow, with bland colour palettes. Combine those ailments with a grim fetishization of war, with a tedious notion American exceptionalism sprinkled in and it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes. I’ve become increasingly weary of the genre, so to have such a drastic sea change in the genre this year has been beyond refreshing. Shadow Warrior 2 flew largely under the radar when it released in October, and that might be one of the biggest injustices in gaming this year. Fast, fun, chaotic and refreshingly old school (not to mention bookended by both “The Touch” and a second, new song from Stan Bush), Shadow Warrior 2 evokes the heyday of the genre in a way not many other games can. It’s just a shame the writing’s so bad, or it might’ve been much higher on my list.
8. Stardew Valley
I have never played a Harvest Moon game. It’s always been one of those series that I’ve almost gotten into, but every time young me would take that copy of Friends of Mineral Town up to the counter, something else would catch my eye. So when Stardew Valley hit Steam and set the world ablaze, I knew it was finally time to see what this whole farming/dating-sim life was all about, and boy, did I fall hard for it. I’m still not quite sure what it is about Stardew Valley that got me so hooked. Ordinarily I struggle to latch onto games with no set goals for any amount of time, but Stardew sunk its teeth into me, and it didn’t let go for a long, long time. I loved the town and characters, I found myself oddly wrapped up in the minutiae of everyday life as I went about my daily routine of farming, fishing, adventuring and trying to decide which of three NPCs to court. I probably played Stardew Valley for twice as long as any other game on this list, and for the longest time, I thought it’d be my sure-fire number one. Unfortunately, when I fell off, I fell off hard, and I never got back on. I keep meaning to, and maybe now that the year’s over and releases have quieted down I finally will, but I can’t help wondering whether I’ll ever recapture that magic. Maybe I’d have stuck with it if I’d married Abigail instead. She eats rocks, y’know.
“What is Firewatch, anyway?” was a question that the gaming community threw around for a couple years – only half-jokingly – before the game hit back in February. The answer, it turns out, is a pretty damn enrapturing tale of a lonely man and his sole point of contact, a woman he’s never met, and their blossoming relationship. Firewatch isn’t the most exciting game you’ll ever play, but it’s not trying to be. Instead, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric and evocative story, with gorgeous visuals, tremendous sound design and marvelous performances from its two leads, Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. There are moments of brilliant tranquility and genuine tension abundant in Firewatch, and the core mystery pulls the player through effortlessly. The ending left me a little cold, but for the vast majority of its run time, Firewatch captivated me in a way not many pieces of art ever manage.
6. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
I started writing my Game of the Year list in late June. I knew that far back Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was likely to be my Game of the Year – not because I had been disappointed by the year up to that point, or because I didn’t think there’d be anything else that could perceivably be worthy of GOTY honours, but because I knew that nothing was going to top Catalyst. And yet… I was wrong. Let’s be real here; Catalyst is by no means an outstanding product. It has some atrocious pacing, cringe-worthy story beats, the least likeable cast in a video game since, well, ever, and a twist so blatant that it’s laughable. It’s a game that screams mediocrity from almost every pore – and I even scored it as such upon release.
But there’s just something about Catalyst that touches me in a way that other games simply haven’t since the original Mirror’s Edge. There’s something about the way the series plays, the way it looks and feels that just activates every pleasure center in my brain and reduces me to mush. Opening Mirror’s Edge up and giving you free reign on the city of Glass makes all the difference; the world becomes your own personal jungle gym, and the feel of the flow is unparalleled. I waited almost a decade for Catalyst, my reverence for the source material never wavering, and despite all its flaws, of which there are many, if you asked me which game that came out in 2016 I’d still be playing ten years from now, the answer’s Catalyst. My heart seems to scream “THIS IS YOUR FAVOURITE GAME THIS YEAR, NIALL”… but I can’t justify it. I know my heart is wrong. I know that story is just too bad, the pacing so atrocious, the characters so infinitely awful that I just… I can’t bring myself to put it ahead of the rest of this list. I’m sorry, Faith. I still love you.
Remember how I said Shadow Warrior 2 was evocative of a time when shooters were fun in a way most games could only dream of being? Well, take everything I said and magnify it by about a thousand, and you get DOOM. I had absolutely zero expectations when DOOM hit shelves, especially after its horrendous beta period, but I was proven wrong within, oh, I dunno, ten seconds of the game starting? DOOM is absolutely relentless; it starts at eleven, but it still somehow manages to keep cranking things up from there. It’s everything you could possibly want from a shooter in 2016: it moves so smoothly, so quickly, it feels just perfect, and having the game’s unmatched unruliness scored by unforgiving blast beats and shrieks is just… so good. It’s such a shame that DOOM eventually runs out of ideas, and that the final hour or two have the game dragging its feet on finishing. DOOM should’ve had the good sense to end at its apex, but instead, like so many metal bands, it stuck around just a little too long to be my number one.
I spent four years in university learning sound design, and it kind of bums me out knowing that, however hard I may try, however big a budget I may someday get to work with, I will never, ever, ever come close to creating something that sounds the way Oxenfree does. Yes, Oxenfree benefits from some tremendous writing, well-fleshed characters and a tremendously told and genuinely creepy story, but, boy, that sound design. I played through Oxenfree in one sitting, headphones on, lights off, and throughout found myself genuinely blown away. Not just by how good the game sounds, but by how it kept getting better. My romance with Oxenfree was a one-night stand, but it’s a one-nighter that I would happily revisit any time.
Remember when HITMAN was announced and everyone kinda just shrugged? Square Enix and IO were so poor at communicating just what exactly HITMAN actually was amid delays and an astonishingly poor press cycle, that one could be forgiven for barely remembering it existed at all, let alone thinking that it’d be any good. So when what arrived was easily the best game in a long-running series, one which finally seemed to embrace the inherent silliness and stupidity that comes with stepping into Agent 47’s shoes, it was easily the best surprise of the year. Gone was the strangely self-serious, plodding tone of Absolution, replaced by a much campier, sillier, and approachable game. Breaking HITMAN into bite-sized chunks worked wonders too, allowing players to keep coming back throughout the year, while some wonderful elusive target missions kept things fresh during downtime. Throw in a bevy of so-dumb-they’re-genius kills, and the presence of the indomitable Helmut Kruger, and you’ve got something special in HITMAN.
For the past few years, we’ve been hearing more and more about the issues and challenges surrounding online privacy, something that especially blew up this year following certain events. Orwell is here to give you a lesson on online privacy, and it’s one you don’t want to hear: that it’s probably already too late. Sure, the name Orwell is about as on-the-nose as it gets (although to its credit, the games does acknowledge this), but look past the name and what could be a very surface-level peek at government surveillance, and suddenly Orwell strikes you as being all too real. As you dig through online articles and social media posts involving your suspects, you begin to learn just how much can be gleamed about a person, their friends, their family, from seemingly innocuous records online. Orwell, it turns out, might be the best horror game of 2016 – it made me think in a way that made me genuinely uncomfortable, and the ending I got only further hammered that home.
1. VA-11 HALL-A
Here’s the thing about VA-11 HALL-A – it fucking rules. Before this year, I had only ever given one five star review in my time reviewing games, both here at Chooch and years ago at another publication. VA-11 HALL-A was the second, something which I stand by to this day and probably always will. I love VA-11 HALL-A so much that it’s hard to know where to start; from the absolutely awesome soundtrack (which I still listen to regularly all the time), to the wonderful writing, the charming characters, and maybe, above all else, that it’s really unlike anything else. Simply dismissing VA-11 HALL-A as a visual novel seems derisive; it’s so much more complex and involved than most games in the genre, with tons going on beneath the hood of its beautiful, cyberpunk engine.
VA-11 HALL-A is a masterclass of world-building and character-development, with complex characters who feel genuinely human (even if not all of them actually are), and a reality that is entirely believable. You may not really see outside the bar or Jill’s apartment, but it doesn’t matter. Despite its synthetic abundances, the world feels alive, like there’s genuinely more happening outside…if only you could reach it and see for yourself. But you can’t, you never do, and yet, VA-11 HALL-A uses those limitations to its advantage, it hands you the basic materials and lets your mind imagine the vibrant cyberpunk future in which it’s set. VA-11 HALL-A captured my imagination something fierce, and it still hasn’t let go. I don’t think it ever will; nor do I particularly want it to. And that, friends, is why it’s my Game of the Year.