The Dean's List: Austin Walker's Top 10 Games of 2016
One of them is a game he never played and the other uses something called "dice." Who is this amateur?
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
Hitman is, as I said over at Giant Bomb, an intricate clockwork world where you play as a wrench. Except here's a catch: I didn't even play the most recent Hitman this year. I just watched hours and hours and hours of people use hammers and cans of spaghetti to execute on terrible plans.
This time last year, I kept a couple of games off of my top 10 list because I hadn't played them at all, but this year I've had a change of heart. We engage with games in a number of divergent ways: competitively and casually; looking sometimes for immersion and others for artifice; holding controllers, drawing maps on tabletops, debating romantic choices, building fantasy football teams (and fantasy football teams, too).
"Watching" is just one other way that we engage with games all the time, and the lack of direct agency has never stopped humanity from judging the quality of our pastimes before. Talk to anyone who follows sports what their favorite game of the year is—or broader, which sport is generally the most interesting to watch. Or take a look at the stats behind DOTA 2 and LOL spectatorship—the former has a much smaller player base, but the two are real rivals in terms of viewership. Games can be evaluated on the quality of their spectatorship.
And Hitman is the best thing I've watched all year.
9. Dark Souls 3
I like it when things end so much that I commissioned critic Cameron Kunzelman to write an ongoing column about endings, apocalypses, and other finalities. The Souls games, meanwhile, have been intelligently challenging the notion that anything ever really ends for seven years now. So, seeing the developers of Dark Souls 3 commit to armageddon, well, that was already going to bring me to the table.
On top of being one of the most enjoyable games I played this year, Dark Souls 3 is also a game deeply burdened by its own past—and I mean that in a positive way. The weight of familiar places and names; old weapons brought to bear again; the mighty cycle made front and center. God, when a series begins to play with its own history… I just love that shit.
I also love the fact that game's major bosses were failed leaders, either too selfish or too heartbroken to do what was necessary to keep the world alive. Each of them is, in their way, a player character who took a different route. Each a reminder that both action and inaction have costs.
8. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a late addition to this list. So late that I literally only played through it late, late last night. But c'mon y'all:
Not only is Diaries' aesthetic my entire jam, it also delivers on a unique, clever premise.
In Diaries you play as a broke janitorial android, trying to get by day by day through a combination of commission-based cleaning and some savvy buying and selling of the more profitable scrap you find. Oh, also, you're cursed by a skull that screams at you every few minutes. Whoops.
Diaries threads together a few disparate things that have happened in the independent and alternative game scenes over the last few years. On first blush, it feels like an extension of Tom van den Boogart's Bernband, placing a firm structure around similar alien shapes and colors. Diaries also echoes the singular and brilliant Crypt Worlds, both in its humor and in its depiction of a surreal, yet knowable world. Elsewhere, it feels like a sci-fi Cart Life, blending systems and aesthetics to evoke the precarity of being marginalized.
In Diaries, you're always a few bucks short of something you need: Food, sleep, your gender-shifting drugs, and (of course) money. Also, don't ever get too close to the red scarf wearing cops—they'll take your cash and literally eat it in front of you. And ugh, don't even get me started on the projectile vomiting. Life's rough in the spaceport.
But here's the real achievement of Diaries: It joins all of that rough shit with a city that brims with life and energy and possibility. It presents a familiar tension: This city is killing me, but it's also the only place I ever want to live.
7. Titanfall 2
Back in my 2014 top ten list, I wrote the following about the firstTitanfall:
Understand this: As a #teen, my favorite episode of anything ever was Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team #10, "The Shuddering Mountain (Part 1)". Unlike the rest of the Gundam oeuvre, 08th MS Team was grounded—jungle combat, urban warfare. Just a team of buds and a lot of shitty situations. "The Shuddering Mountain (Part 1)" was that in concentrate: Just robots and buildings and time.
The firstTitanfall already delivered on that once, so to some degree, I expected that the sequel would hit me more softly.
It did not.
While I never committed to its (totally solid) multiplayer as deeply as I did the first, Titanfall 2's single player campaign was a (wall-)running masterclass on first person shooter level design.
My favorite type of joke is one that I start laughing at a second or two before the punchline hits. Titanfall 2's levels are filled with this: high towers filled with fan blades and fire; a ship too far to reach, unless, of course…; a room, then a house, then a neighborhood slowly constructing itself, bit by bit, until you realize it is an arena special built to fight in. And then, like a good comic, Titanfall 2 shows restraint. It delivers its punchlines and moves on instead of stretching the bit further than it could.
(My favorite joke of this type this year, by the way, is the ankle holster scene in The Nice Guys. The best version I've ever seen, maybe, is Norm MacDonald's moth joke.).
6. Mafia 3
Okay, one thing: On my list of hopes for the game, I never would've included "The combat feels really expressive." I knew I wanted a lot from the frame story structure, from the game's take on history and race, and from the atmosphere of the world. But I just sort of assumed that the combat would be stock standard third-person, open world fare. Instead it was bombastic. Every punch is a haymaker and every bullet a broadside blast... even the silenced ones:
As Ed Smith said in a piece for us this week, a lot of this has to do with level design: " Mafia 3 propelled you from one gratifying gunfight to another. It understood that interiors, with their tighter spaces, awkwardly placed cover and implicit character, make for better staging grounds for set-pieces than the outdoors." The importance of level design is something that gets forgotten in the conversation about open world games, and Mafia 3 nails that in a dozen different ways.
It's a game that takes a lot of risky leaps, and thought it misses here or there, it sticks its most important landings.
Here is my favorite emergent gameplay story from 2016: I was a space emperor with a dilemma. After conquering and assimilating a nearby starfaring civilization, I was faced with a faction of the new members of my society who were less than pleased with my rule. They were striking, refusing to work and produce the resources I needed to keep up my war efforts elsewhere in the galaxy.
This was a big problem, and there were a handful of solutions: I could've become a more fearsome ruler, forcing them to work, or a more manipulative one, enacting policies to trick them onto my good side. I could remove them from my empire all together, in a number of terrible ways. And then I figured out the answer—or, actually, I figured out the real problem.
They were spread out over three planets, each of which sat in one "district" of my far-reaching empire—I'd just sort of grouped together the planets that I'd recently conquered, assigned the whole group a single governor, and said "yeah okay, good enough." That gave them political power because it grouped them together as, effectively, voters.
It only took a few clicks to split that administrative district up between my other star sectors. Suddenly, they weren't a majority in a small district, they were a tiny speck in three much bigger ones. Yes. Stellaris led me down the dark path of gerrymandering.
But the joy of Paradox style Grand Strategy games is that years later, one of the rulers of my empire came into power on a platform of equality and justice, and I used her ascension as an opportunity to move my space empire towards a more a cosmopolitan culture. Time is a hell of a thing.
For years I said that the game I wanted more than any other was a sci-fi Crusader Kings 2. Stellaris didn't give me that, but it gave me something else in the Grand Strategy model that devoured dozens of hours from me this year—and promises to take even more in the future.
In fact… once the game's next patch hits, I think I might have to start a new game and enlist a few advisors to try to bring peace to the galaxy once and for all. That sound interesting to y'all?
4. No Man's Sky
The marketing team behind No Man's Sky, on the other hand, made more promises than the game could ever keep. In some ways, I think I noticed that early on, which is why I watched with curiosity as members of its pre-release fandom claimed that it would be the last game they'd ever need. But, that attention also meant that I was ready for what No Man's Sky inevitably was: A low impact, intergalactic travel simulator. A living postcard from the stars. A collection of systems that are happy to evoke instead of deliver. And (this year especially) I am more than okay with that.
That said, I also struggled with including it on this list. I know what public perception about NMS is, I know why people don't like it—and fully believe that they're being honest in not liking it, even when the degrees to which they shout that from the mountains can feel dramatic sometimes. And I even recognize the many faults and problems with the game that I hope are addressed sometime in the future.
But there is also this fact to contend with: I've put something like 70 or 80 hours into No Man's Sky—split between the PC and and PS4 versions. Actually, more if you count the pre-release PS4 version I managed to snag from a local mom-and-pop shop.
Another difficult fact: If you told me I could take a break from writing this to play any game on my list right this second, it would be No Man's Sky. I can't deny that, nor can I deny that again and again this year, I snuck in an hour or two of play after 12 hour work days, a little stress reliever that was perfectly suited to my schedule.
3. Quadrilateral Cowboy
Quadrilateral Cowboy was for me what I think The Witness was for others. Like The Witness, QC asked me to learn through experimentation. But unlike The Witness, QC didn't burden its playful lessons with lectures about the value of pure rationality.
Instead, QC mingles computer science with the humanities. This shows up most obviously in it's beautiful, Cyberpunk-by-way-of-Wong Kar-Wai aesthetic, and in its narrative about three women becoming the world's best cyber-burglars (and close, close friends.) But it also shows up in its puzzle design.
Solving a tablet in The Witness feels great. I felt smart again and again as I found the solution to those puzzles. But that's the thing: In The Witness, nearly every puzzle requires the solution, not a solution. (And it was inevitably the case that near every set of puzzles was a tape recorder espousing that this, fundamentally, is how the world works too.)
But in QC, you face challenges instead of puzzles, and challenges (as in real life) always have multiple solutions. Maybe you use your little robot buddy to crawl through a hole and press a button. Or, you can setup your automated sniper rifle to shoot a hole through the window from a nearby tower, pressing the button for you. You still feel smart, you still learn lessons, but you never leave thinking there is only one way to do things.
Of these two versions of the world, I really believe we live in the latter (and The Witness' fantastic post-game actually makes me believe that Jonathan Blow might too, but it's a shame all that humanity was so hidden away). I've said that Quadrilateral Cowboy is a little like this parody video of The Witness, and I stand by that. It's a heartfelt combination of reason and passion. That's the sort of message that is going to speak to me right now.
2. Hyper Light Drifter
Above: Our documentary that goes behind the scenes of the creation of Hyper Light Drifter to show how Alx Preston's chronic heart disease affected the game.
On April 11, 2016 I created a new document called "VG Ideas"—at the time, the site was still VICE Gaming—and among other brainstorming ideas, I wrote the following lines:
Which is all to say that Hyper Light Drifter is in Waypoint's blood. Or maybe it's more fair to say that we aspire to Hyper Light Status. Not only because of its distinct look and sound, but because of how it moves (with precision and range) too. We also hope to adopt its particular blend of critical nostalgia—HLD knows where it came from, but it doesn't settle for the past or exalt it as untouchable.
And lord, if we can tell stories with the same powerful, painterly brevity that HLD's NPCs do… then we'll be the best in the biz.
1. The Sprawl
Speaking of aspirations, here is a thing I've said into a microphone dozens and dozens of times in 2016:
Friends at the Table is an actual play podcast focused on critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends.
And for much of this year, I added on a little tag: "Today, we are continuing our game of Hamish Cameron's The Sprawl, a hack of D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World."
The Sprawl is a cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game that my friends and I used to tell an expansive, 82 hour long sci-fi, mecha, neo-noir story about class, love, heritage, culture, and lots and lots of robot-sized robots.
Like most games that are "Powered by the Apocalypse" (that is, based on the core 2d6 ruleset that Apocalypse World set up years ago—see Dungeon World, too), The Sprawl is a tabletop RPG that intends to produce drama through non-binary success states.
Corporations in the cyberpunk world of The Sprawl are too big to face head on.
Here's the classic example: In most tabletop games, you roll to unlock a door, and if you fail, the door stays locked. In PBtA games, maybe you succeed and get in, or… you roll somewhere in the middle range, and you still get in, but leave an obvious mark that you were the one who busted the door open. Or maybe you fail all together—but that doesn't mean that the door is locked forever, it means that the GM gets to make your life more complicated. Maybe you get in, but you make a lot of noise and draw the attention of a nearby guard.
What lifted The Sprawl up for me (besides the way I was able to add giant mechs to it really easily), is the expansion of a "clocks" system that started in Apocalypse World, and fuck, I like clocks a lot. (People who listen to Friends at the Table are laughing or shouting at this article right now. Huh.)
Here's how clocks work: As a GM, you give a lot of the elements of your world—that amoral mega corporation, this duo of assassins, an ancient mechanical embodiment of capitalism—"clocks" that count down as the players do things (or fail to do things) in the world. It makes everything feel responsive and a lot more dangerous.
For instance, when my players broke into a Liberty and Discovery Automaticorps' facility to rescue a friend of theirs, L&D's clock advanced, which meant that they began to spy on the group. Later, when my players failed a relevant roll, I advanced the L&D clock again, and the drone company deployed their ace pilot, Territory Jazz, to attack them when they were most vulnerable.
And here's the thing: Corporations in the cyberpunk world of The Sprawl are too big to face head on. If you max out a clock, well, they're coming for you. And no matter how ready you are, you will be hurt in a meaningful way.
The Sprawl made me think endlessly of this speech by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she says:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices who can see alternatives to how we live now. And who can see through our fear stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And can even imagine some real grounds of hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries. The realists of a larger realities. … We live in capitalism. It's power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
The Sprawl gave me a tool to attempt to live up to those words. It brought my friends and I closer together, it let us, imagine new worlds. It let us answer the question what sort of world we would like to live in. Again and again it let me pose difficult challenges to my players and ask the familiar, but hefty question: "What do you do?"
So? What do you do?