I’ll leave the eulogizing to other writers. I’m fine with confining 2016 to the ash heap of history, saving only the things worth carrying on – each other, and the things we love. In that spirit, and in fairness to the remarkably wonderful year video games had, here are my picks for game of the year in 2016.
5. Here They Lie
Here They Lie is far and away the most obscure game on this list. You have most likely never heard of it, and I’m not going to try and explain what it is to you. Not out of fear of spoilers, not because I didn’t understand what’s happening, but because I’m not entirely confident I want to.
What I do know is that to call Here They Lie a VR horror game is to imply expectations of genre that don’t entirely apply. It isn’t appreciably scary in the terms of those games; it doesn’t seek to create moments you could easily contribute to a Let’s Play on Youtube. What I do know is it is from some of the developers of Spec Ops: The Line, one of the more deeply unsettling (and great) games of recent memory. What I do know is its influences are plain to see – Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, and David Lynch, and that Here They Lie has a better understanding of the “why” of those storytellers than most who namedrop them.
To explain Here They Lie is to explain the feeling you have after waking up from a particularly horrible nightmare – the events feel so intimate, so personally upsetting, so possibly on you that its uncomfortable. Nightmare is the correct term for Here They Lie, I think. The dread of not being able to pull yourself away from the events at hand. The of-course nature of the horrifying sights (this game has some of the absolute finest visual design of the year). The pattern of dreams, where nonsense happens next to nonsense and makes perfect sense, is replicated with aplomb.
Here They Lie doesn’t quite, in the end, manage to tie this fever dream together. Its emotional potential is left partially untapped. But that gut feeling developer Tangentlemen was able to produce, one that left me with actual nightmares where I attempted to remove the PlayStation VR headset only to find there wasn’t one? One of the most remarkable experiences of the year.
4. Battlefield 1
Post the Battlefield: Bad Company games, DICE has always been so close to figuring out how to tie their particular brand of mass-scale destruction to something larger than itself. Battlefield 3 got tripped up in too many shots across the bow at the Call of Duty series, ultimately emulating it too closely with its story and its multiplayer. Battlefield 4 moved closer to science fiction in the multiplayer over time and introduced set-piece destruction, but it ended up too limited, too focused – then applied the same approach to the single player but lacked the depth to pull it off.
Apparently, the answer to DICE’s chaos woes was to go a century back in time. Battlefield 1, despite taking place in The War to End All Wars without anything resembling modern technology, is perhaps the most chaotic AAA multiplayer has ever gotten. The all-out-war nature of the First World War setting lends perfectly to the hectic madness of Battlefield. There’s enough destructive power in the vehicles, ships, aircraft, and artillery to introduce chaos to any situation, and limits on firearms create focused, class oriented combat. What it most reminds of is Call of Duty 2 when it comes to person-versus-person, and Bad Company 2 in everything else. This potent, hyper-dramatic cocktail is exactly as fun as it sounds, and the little stories that drama tells in multiplayer, particularly over the course of matches in the massive scale Operations game mode, are addicting to experience.
That drama is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Battlefield 1. DICE walks a tonal tightrope between multiplayer entertainment and historical respect remarkably well. The multiplayer feels grimier and more brutal than most AAA shooters, without feeling exploitative (or the least exploitative a historical shooter can be). The single player vignettes, of varying perspectives from all over the world, also walk the line well – sensitive to the historical grays of the war, focusing instead on the soldiers in desperate situations (though it sorely lacks the perspective of the Central Powers). This is the strongest Battlefield narrative has been since Bad Company, and one segment following the badass Arab rebel Zara and her friend T.E. Lawrence is one of the year’s standout moments.
Doom. Freaking Doom.
Leave it to ID Software, pioneers of the power fantasy, to drop the mic in the most unexpected way on the style of shooter they invented. Though you enter and exit Hell multiple times in Doom, this is a one-way trip, a single minded straight-line adrenaline rush of gunfire and demon blood. This is the design equivalent of driving down the wrong lane of the highway at 90 miles an hour. It is brutal, simple, and ridiculously entertaining – so entertaining, so simple, and so brutal, in fact, that you could almost make the mistake of calling it dumb.
The correct word for Doom is eloquent. This is the John Wick of video games. This is ballet. A combat sequence in Doom is dance theatre gone death metal – each dash, each bullet, each glory kill a piece of a movement so smooth and precise that when it ends in a crescendo of blood you can’t help but look back at how remarkable what you just did was. So many moving pieces, from level design to demon placement to weapon choice, come together in perfect harmony, and as a work of blockbuster craftsmanship it is nigh unimpeachable. Doom’s lowest moments are still finely constructed funhouses of terror and demon killing. At its peaks, and there are far more of those, Doom manages the not insignificant task of specific level design that allows for endless invention. The ultimate power fantasy.
Perhaps, though, a power fantasy isn’t the right term. There’s more happening in Doom, from artistic prowess by developers to difficulty to the intelligence required to do (for lack of a smarter way to phrase it) the coolest things Doom allows you to do, than simply “kill many things.” You have to put forth the effort, and Doom is better for it. For all you could say about its subject matter and deliberately simple, borderline satiric posturing, this may be the smartest game of 2016.
Plus there’s the soundtrack. Sweet Pulsating Spider Christ that soundtrack.
2. Titanfall 2
Listen, we all decided that Titanfall multiplayer was Good when the first one came out. It didn’t last long, and didn’t have much variety, but it was Good. This was the known quantity of Titanfall 2 – it would be Titanfall’s multiplayer, but the mechs could have swords and you could have a grappling hook. It was expected to be Good, and it is. Titanfall 2’s multiplayer is Good.
It is the unknown quantity of Titanfall 2 that places it this high on the list, and topples the other AAA shooters of the year – the single player story. You’ve heard this before from elsewhere, but it bears repeating – Titanfall 2’s campaign is an actual, legitimate masterpiece. It is descended from the same family tree of shooter campaigns as the holy duo of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Half-Life 2. The former makes sense (it is from the same creative leads, after all), and it shares Modern Warfare’s immaculate pacing and gunplay that perfectly balances impact and speed.
However, the Half-Life 2 lineage is more surprising, and ultimately what sends it over the top. Titanfall 2 and Half-Life 2 share the same fundamental design philosophies – a level is more fun if it doesn’t feel like a level. The places of Half-Life 2 and Titanfall 2 are designed to feel like they are independent of your existence, not like they were waiting for you to pass through them – as such, when utilizing Titanfall 2’s navigation, you feel like you are constantly breaking the rules. The mechanics are built to the environments, and successfully passing through them builds some of most potent, gratifying gameplay of the year. Within that design, Titanfall 2 manages to contribute to the pantheon of Greatest Levels of All Time. “Effect and Cause” sits right alongside Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm and the one-two of Modern Warfare’s “All Ghillied Up/One Shot, One Kill” as some of the most staggeringly fantastic shooter game design of the 21st century.
The Half-Life 2 style also feeds into the game’s story and characters. Titanfall 2 is a sublimely executed balancing act of silliness and sincerity, even if a slightly unfocused ending keeps it from quite reaching Half-Life 2’s throne. Between boss fights staffed with characters that pop with creativity like the name cards that accompany them are dozens of little moments between Pilot Jack Cooper and the Titan BT. Like Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance, Cooper and BT are made compelling through cooperation. One of Titanfall 2’s smartest and most unexpected decisions is to inject dialogue choices for Cooper into the game, allowing him a rapport with BT that fluctuates from hilarious to heartfelt – a rapport that is sold well by actors Matthew Mercer and Glenn Steinbaum. Titanfall 2’s ridiculous “boy meets mech” story shouldn’t end up being legitimately compelling, but here we are – one of the simplest, finest stories told in a shooter in a very, very long time.
Firewatch. My game of the year. Where to begin?
In my review, I referred to it as the first “Great American Video Game.” This has a specific meaning in the context of western art – the “Great American Whatever” is a story that, in its course, strives to reach a deeper truth about the United States as a concept. What it means. Many of these stories take place in major metropolises. Others, rural territory – small towns, small lives, blown up to the largest canvas. Pastoral fields. Flags in the wind, symbolizing many things.
Some, like Firewatch, take place in the middle of nowhere. Some, though less, are Great American stories whose worlds are untouched landscape, parts where habitation by Americans is carefully observed and controlled, where leaving evidence of your existence is considered a violation of hallowed ground. Fewer still are the Great American stories that use as their canvas the Great Outdoors, despite how much it is lionized in America. And perhaps none but Firewatch involve the conversation between two individuals who are never face to face
In Firewatch, the Great Outdoors, the canyons of Shoshone, they become the blank spaces filled in with the histories of Henry and Delilah. All of the things they attempt to leave at the door of their watchtowers inevitably spill, or spilled long ago, into the valley below. They warp, shape, and otherwise change the beautiful vistas into reflections of all the things they carry, both personal and national. Here, at the edge of the 1990s, where America first began to realize it stood alone with all its baggage plain for the world to see without the veil of Cold War, Henry and Delilah swiftly learn that nothing from the past goes away. As they slowly realize that their pasts have followed them to Shoshone, they panic, and find paranoia in the trees and fences of unknown installations. As they dig up a conspiracy, all they find are themselves, and for every inch of dirt used to bury their secrets, another inch of their past is revealed. Left alone, fear of the truth being revealed can only reveal the truth. In Shoshone, in America, there is only you – and the fire that means as many things as the flag.
In Firewatch, in America, the past is fuel, the present is in flames, and the uncertain future lies in the smoke that rises, obscuring the watchtowers that contain mementos Henry and Delilah left to burn, and leaving only you and what you chose to take away – whether that’s a turtle, a drawing, a camera, or only the truth of what happened below.