Even making an unordered list of my five top games of 2016 feels really hard this year. I don’t have a thread to tie them all together or any point to make. Maybe it’s the Retro Effect, spending a lot of meaningful time playing, recording, sharing and investigating old stuff. Nevertheless, here are my Top Five most special games of 2016, meticulously ranked… in alphabetical order.
Dragon Quest Builders (PlayStation 4)
I played the Japanese demo early in 2016 but it was Katy who actually picked this one up. After she bounced off I got totally sucked in by the combination of Minecraft with a Quest Log. There are still some glaring oversights that will hopefully be smoothed out in a sequel but giving purpose to the block-placing and crafting was ingenious.
With the NPCs requesting new rooms and personal favors it almost felt like Animal Crossing. Suddenly it wasn’t just “build this room out of dirt”, it was all about building and decorating a room and the town to feel like a real place. Pushing the game’s limits and trying to outsmart the frequent monster invasions only kept me building for hours and hours on end.
Inside (Xbox One)
It’s not flashy or loud or even very long but if you stop for a moment while playing Inside you can tell why it took nearly six years to make. Almost every step of the way has a unique mechanic that makes you feel like you’ve mastered its nuances by the time you move on.
It may look simple and flat shaded (the characters don’t even have faces, I hear you say) but there are so many miniscule details in the environments, the physics and the animations that subtly sucked me in. The final stretch was also a huge, shocking surprise that had me playing with one hand while the other clasped my gaping mouth below a wide eyed stare. All this without diary entries to explain the story or even spoken dialog.
The Last Guardian (PlayStation 4)
Had this come out on the same schedule as its predecessors (which would put it around 2009) it would’ve been my Game of the Year without doubt. But so far removed from its original time and place it’s hard to fall totally in love with it. The Last Guardian is exactly the combination of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus and nothing more. In fact, it’s missing a few things. There’s no villain which made ICO’s finale so memorable and what is here is more confusing than emotionally resonant.
Still, I found myself in love with Trico for most of the game, talking to it in the same way I would a pet. Questioning where it’s going, chiding it for making perilous jumps and giggling at its antics were all reactions I never expected to feel from a game. Not even my beloved Preston from Petz Hamsterz elicited a real reaction like this. What dulls these amazing moments with Trico are the times when you can practically see the AI routines running. I tried to convince myself it was acting naturally and that this was a “real” creature but I couldn’t help being resigned at times to wait for it to finish its equations.
I may sound down on it but The Last Guardian is absolutely a Top Five for me. Its luster may diminished after all the years in mothballs but it’s still totally unique, memorable and special to me.
Similarly long in development was Starbound, a spiritual expansion of Terraria which I already loved to pieces. There had been plenty of alpha and beta builds over the years but I really wanted to wait for a 1.0 release to jump in. Like so many other games I’ve enjoyed in the last few years, it’s the mystery of how Starbound works and what sights there are to discover that satisfied me so much. Now that I think of it, it’s also a little like Dragon Quest Builders in that it adds a loose structure to the otherwise directionless crafting that’s typical of the genre.
It was made all the more special by playing it with Katy at my side. There are a few quirks to it but the way Starbound manages everyone’s unique, randomly generated universes across multiplayer is downright elegant. We were able to establish a shared planet where we built a home and farmed our crops while venturing out on quests, delving deep into dangerous otherworldly depths. Hilariously, we found ourselves robbing these quest locations blind, “shopping” for new decorations and materials while rescuing NPCs and fighting bosses.
Being a cute and colorful “2D Minecraft” made the soundtrack hit even harder. Curtis Schweitzer’s score makes even mundane farming feel meaningful and while it looped a lot for the 90 hours we were playing I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off. It was my Soundtrack of the Year for good reason and makes the game feel even more alive.
The Witness (PlayStation 4)
It’s hard for me to call this one as I’m writing this almost exactly a year after I last played it. Right at this moment I can’t recall playing The Witness very clearly but I remember the way it made me feel. Smart! Sure, I stumbled at understanding plenty of its mechanics and had to look up hints and ultimately some naked solutions. But there are hundreds of puzzles to unravel in the game and I sussed out the majority of them on my own, with my own brain. Just like Jonathan Blow’s previous game, Braid, The Witness has a way of making your head feel swimmy in the most empowering way. It’s like turning your head sideways and seeing something that wasn’t there before.
One of the defining moments — which I really hope you’ve had for yourself if you don’t know where this is going — is realizing that the puzzles aren’t contained to the little panels where you draw lines and shapes. Perspective is the key to the game and it is almost narcotically mind altering the first time you see it. Like everyone else I was seeing shapes in real life for weeks and spent hours reading theories and explanations on reddit when I wasn’t able to play.
Who knows, maybe it really did expand my mind as 2016 has been enlightening for me in so many ways, in and out of gaming. I may not be able to recall a lot of it right now but those feelings haven’t left me and for that it deserves to be a Top Five.