A reminder that while I do arrange these best-of lists into numerical order and I do try to push my favorites to the top, you shouldn’t read too much into the placement of individual entries. If you handed me the titles from my 2015 list and told me to put them in order from worst to best, I have only slightly better odds at recreating my 2015 ordering than a random number generator.
Also, I’ve decided that once a game appears on this list, it can’t appear on a later one. I realize that games change significantly from Early Access to release to Major Updates Three Years Later and you could argue that the final form of the game differs from the original far more than any two subsequent Call of Duty sequels. You could make the case that it’s practically a different game now, so maybe it should be eligible to win again. But this would be boring. If games were allowed to win in multiple years, then Minecraft would have dominated from 2010 to 2014. If we go strictly by hours played, then Factorio ought to win again this year.
The No-Show List
Before I talk about the winners, here are some games I really wanted / intended to play this year but missed out because I procrastinated, forgot, was busy with other games, or didn’t discover them until the end of the year.
Nier: Automata – I saw this and dismissed it at first because it looked like a JRPG and I think I’ve lost interest in those. But everything I hear about this game makes it sound like something I’d like. It’s still at full price, but I plan to grab it in 2018 when it goes on sale. (Or if 2018 hits a dry spell. There’s no sense in buying it right now, since I’ve already got several titles I’m playing.)
Horizon: Zero Dawn – On one hand, it looks amazing and it’s gotten good reviews. On the other hand, I’ve really gone off collect-a-thon elements over the past couple of years. So I’m not sure. It’s not like we have an objective measuring system for how much collect-a-thonning a game asks you to do. “It’s not that bad”, says the guy who really enjoys item collection and has an incredibly high tolerance for it. “You don’t really need the upgrades”, says a chick who actually likes feeling under-powered because it makes combat more interesting for her. “You’ll barely notice it”, says a guy who isn’t tortured with anxiety over not running around the battlefield to harvest all the mook bones because he isn’t obsessed with optimizing his build.
Planet Coaster came out in 2016, and it’s still on my list of stuff to play. History repeats itself. In 2013 SimCity was a humiliating failure, and then Cities: Skylines swooped in and conquered the entire genre. This time Rollercoaster Tycoon was a disappointment, and Planet Coaster was there to capture the market. I don’t get the itch to play these kinds of sims very often, but the next time the bug bites I’ll be getting Planet Coaster.
Witcher III: Blood & Wine – I bought some Witcher 3 DLC last year, but then got sidetracked playing the main game content and never got around to the DLC. Oops. I hear it’s incredible.
Okay, let’s talk about the “winners”.
5. Wolfenstein II
All of my feelings regarding Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus can be summed up as: It’s a good game, but not as good as the Wolfenstein: The New Order. The bonkers gunplay is fun, but not as fun as Wolfenstein: The New Order. The story has a few good moments, but not as many and not as good as New Order. It’s got some interesting ideas, but not as interesting as New Order. And so on.
I probably don’t need to say much more right now. I’m going to spend about 9 or 10 weeks picking at this game and comparing it to its predecessors, so there’s no point in spoiling that series.
4. Night in the Woods
It’s interesting to compare Night in the Woods with Firewatch from last year. In my 2016 wrap-up I said:
In the real world, if you read a story about an axe murderer you don't instantly expect that you're going to meet the axe murderer in the next couple of days. But in the context of a story, the audience knows the ax-murderer backstory is there for a reason. As soon as Old Man Exposition begins jabbering about those ax-murders back in '79, we know our protagonists are going to meet one.
Both Gone Home and Firewatch employ a trick where they drop certain genre-specific cues into the story. This sets up a Chekov's Gun that is never fired. I liked this because it pulled me in and allowed me to experience the same emotional state as my character. I went through the story paranoid and wondering what sort of gruesome conclusion this was all leading up to.
This was the major complaint people had with Firewatch. (And to a lesser extent, Gone Home.) They felt the game created a build-up with no payoff. It made promises and then didn’t deliver. It fizzled out right when it should have been ramping up. I was fine with it, but some people weren’t. That’s how it goes.
So now we have Night in the Woods, a game that hints at supernatural elements and then clearly pays them off. And I didn’t like it.
I found the story of lead character Mae to be interesting enough to hold my attention. When we got to the third act and it sidelined her aimless journey towards adulthood to confront an elder god that’s been eating the town, I stopped caring. I get that the elder god is kinda a metaphor for the economic devastation the town is going through, but I didn’t care.
I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe I just like things that are boring, but I would’ve been happy to keep playing through the day-to-day nonsense until she hit some moment of clarity / growth / realization / revelation that enabled her to move on with her life, and for that transformation to happen against the backdrop of a mundane world.
I suppose part of the problem is that I’m probably a lot older than the main characters, the intended audience, and the developers themselves. When I was trying to break into adulthood it was 1993. It’s been awhile, and so I was experiencing her angst and uncertainty with a certain degree of nostalgia. When it came time to face off against the cult, I lost my connection to her story.
None of this should be taken as a criticism of the game. The developers made exactly the game they wanted to, and I think it worked for the intended audience. I’m giving the game a spot on my year-end list because I really appreciated the first two acts of this story and the chance to revisit the struggles of me-from-1993. That’s not something I expect to see in an artsy 2D game with this much platforming in it.
Next week I’ll be back with my favorites and we’ll give 2017 the shove. Happy New Year everyone.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
Resident Evil 4
Who is this imbecile and why is he wandering around Europe unsupervised?
Push the Button!
Scenes from Half-Life 2:Episode 2, showing Gordon Freeman being a jerk.
This is a massive step down in story, gameplay, and art design when compared to the 2014 soft reboot. Yet critics rated this one much higher. What's going on here?
The Brilliance of Mass Effect
What is "Domino Worldbuilding" and how did it help to make Mass Effect one of the most interesting settings in modern RPGs?