2016 is not a year that will be remembered fondly by many people for a plethora of reasons - but for video games, it was a truly vintage year.
It's unusual to see a 12-month period that feels quite so jam-packed. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps three years after release developers are finally comfortable with the PS4 and Xbox One. One way or the other, it was an exceptional year.
It was a slow 12 months for Nintendo ahead of next year's Switch, and yet the phenomenon of Pokemon Go (a terrible game in many respects, but an addictive and inspired one at the very same time) was the pop cultural event of the year. As of writing, it looks like Mario Run will be another mobile hit in the Japanese developers' increasingly ambitious steps into the mobile arena. Elsewhere, Final Fantasy XV, DOOM and The Last Guardian were finally released - three games that spent so long in development many doubted they would ever see the light of day. Independent developers were on fire, but even in the AAA space there were more major and accomplished releases than usual.
But on to the best of the best. There's a few blind spots here, perhaps inevitable given the volume of games released during the year. Games such as Dishonored 2, Forza Horizon 3, Civilisation VI, Darkest Dungeon, Battlefield 1, Final Fantasy XV etc... are absent not as a cheeky snub, but simply because I haven't had the time to play them yet. But there's more than enough other quality titles to pull together a top 10 - and still have plenty left over.
Honourable mentions: It’s always a good sign when 10 games feels like far, far too few to capture a year in gaming. Here's some excellent games that didn’t quite make the top ten only because it was an extraordinarily busy year:
Mini Metro (mobile), Hyper Light Drifter, Uncharted 4, Thumper, Islands: Non-Places, Firewatch, X-Com 2, Virginia, Pokemon Sun / Moon, Pokemon Go, Fire Emblem Fates, Superhot, Zero Time Dilemma.
10. No Man’s Sky (PC, PS4)
No Man's Sky, Hello Games
Ah, the ever-controversial No Man's Sky. Hello Games’ epic space exploration game was heralded by some before release as the last game we’d ever need. After release, a furious internet mob decided it was the interactive entertainment equivalent of a war crime. It was neither of these things.
What it was, for this writer anyway, was a flawed but fascinating experiment. For every undeniable mechanical frustration there was a moment where the game’s extraordinary art design and algorithms came together to create sights & sounds like no other game has ever offered. It is a game with impossible aspirations of infinity (literally), but ultimately excels in intimate moments of loneliness and discovery. It is a great hiking experience, where you can just wander to your heart’s content to see what’s over the horizon - and, if you get bored of said horizon, you can just zoom off in your spaceship to another galaxy. The screenshot button was made for this game. Its first major update in November suggests Hello Games are determined to build and improve on the base experience, so there’s plenty of reason to hope there’s a bright 2017 ahead for the English studio and its unique game.
9. Dark Souls 3 (PC, XB1, PS4)
Dark Souls 3, From Software / Bandai Namco
The third - or fifth, depending on how inclusive you're feeling - entry in From Software's acclaimed Dark Souls series suffers a little from overfamiliarity. But trust From to bake that very familiarity into the ever-elusive narrative of the game - revisiting locations and ideas from previous games in strange but haunting new guises.
It doesn't quite live up to the astonishing Bloodborne from 2015, but From remain in a league of their own in terms of art design, gameplay mechanics and general artistic confidence. If this is the kind of majestic experience that emerges when they play it relatively safe, there's only cause for excitement about what they'll do now that they seem prepared to leave the Souls series behind (for a while, at least).
8. Overwatch / DOOM (both PC, XB1, PS4)
In a less busy year, these two games would have enjoyed a top ten slot each. But I have to cheat a bit instead. The two games represent very different sides of the modern first-person shooter. Overwatch is a beautifully polished & balanced multiplayer, co-operative with more than a dozen unique, dynamic characters that ensure matches are always fresh and exciting. DOOM, on the other hand, is the sequel the original classic deserved after all these years: endearingly narrow-minded, extraordinarily fast-paced, and with smart & exhilarating central mechanics. To get one great, imaginative FPS a year is a nice surprise. To get two is a special occasion. To get three… Well, we’ll come back to that a bit further down the list.
7. Quadrilateral Cowboy (PC, Mac, Linux)
Quadrilateral Cowboy, Blendo Games
In 2012, Brendon Chung established himself as a major voice in interactive storytelling with his short experimental game Thirty Flights of Loving. Its follow-up is more of a 'game', but no less effective for it. On one hand, this is a great heist caper - a series of robust but accessible hacking mechanics allowing you to pull off ridiculous, daring, entertaining and beautifully orchestrated robberies. Accompanying this is more of that impressive dialogue free storytelling that equally draws on cinematic and gaming language. Whip-smart, funny and ambitious in equal measure, Chung cements his status as one of indie gaming's most confident voices.
6. Kentucky Route Zero Act IV (PC, Mac, Linux)
Kentucky Route Zero Act IV, Cardboard Computer
Most episodic games release a new 'episode' every month or so for the duration of their season. With Kentucky Route Zero, there was a two year wait between Acts III and IV (a few mini episodes aside). When the results are this impressive, the gap seems insignificant. The magical realist saga arrived back as good as (if not better than) it has ever been. The surreal landscapes, beautifully eerie soundtrack, dreamlike writing, ghostly characters and general atmosphere are potent and bewitching.
Who knows when the final act will arrive, but for now this game is a good an argument as any for waiting patiently.
5. Titanfall 2 (PC, XB1, PS4)
Titanfall never needed a single-player campaign. The original game’s best-in-class multiplayer was more than enough. And yet, against the odds, Titanfall 2’s thrilling solo campaign entirely justifies its existence and then some. It is rich with ideas, with almost every level throwing a new concept or setting to legitimately mix up the formula (and that core movement feels as satisfying as ever). It is almost Nintendo-like in its confidence and willingness to leap from idea to idea.
The campaign is short, for sure, but that is an asset in a world where single player games are often loaded with hours upon hours of filler. And sure, once you’re done, that ever glorious multiplayer offering is just a menu button or two away.
4. Stephen's Sausage Roll (PC, Mac, Linux)
Stephen's Sausage Roll, Increpare
'Use an awkwardly angled fork to try and roll giant sausages towards grills on a mysterious island' is almost definitely among the strangest concepts in video game history. But the result is a fiendishly clever and robustly designed puzzle game that can easily consume dozens of hours.
There's no hand-holding here: the game starts difficult and piles on nuances that the player is tasked with figuring out for themselves. The beauty of all this is that the basics remain extremely simple throughout - the complexity instead emerging from the little twists and mechanical quirks introduced by designer Stephen Lavelle. You have full permission to punch the air when you finally cook a particularly troublesome sausage to perfection.
3. Inside (PC, XB1, PS4)
Way back in 2010, Playdead's Limbo proved one of the key titles in ushering indie gaming into the mainstream. Inside, its follow-up, is an improvement in every way. It retains the dark, oppressive atmosphere of its predecessor, but adds a fresh visual style and even more polish.
Inside is a short game, but all the better for it. Ambiguity is something games don't always manage very well, but Inside is different. As your nameless young avatar ventures deeper into a bizarre dystopian factory complex, definitive answers are in short supply. And yet that only adds to its odd power, offering a series of increasingly evocative situations. The animation is glorious, creating a real sense of weight and presence. Everything builds towards a 'go-for-broke' ending that is quite unlike anything else you've ever played. Misery has never been quite so delightful.
2. The Witness (PC, XB1, PS4)
The Witness, Thekla Inc
What to say about The Witness, Jonathan Blow's follow-up to the hugely influential Braid? Thekla Inc's long-in-the-making opus takes a simple premise - solving a tonne of 2D 'line puzzles' on a mysterious island - and works miracles with it. The puzzles themselves are brilliant: the simplest possible mechanic expanded and complicated to a thrilling degree. It is free from filler, with almost every single puzzle offering a new take or perspective on the mechanics.
The island itself is one of gaming's great aesthetic achievements - realised in bold primary colours, it is a joy to explore. The game only grows more interesting as you progress, and the moments of realisation as you discover some of its deeper secrets are a wonderful rush. Even the narrative - easy to miss entirely - is deeply considered, exploring themes that beautifully integrate and contextualise the puzzles themselves.
The Witness was released in January, and its status as this writer's 'game of the year' was assured over the subsequent 11 months. Until...
1. The Last Guardian (PS4)
The Last Guardian, Sony Interactive Entertainment
After almost a decade in development, and a mid-development change from the Playstation 3 to the Playstation 4, the third masterpiece from Fumito Ueda and 'Team Ico' just barely made a 2016 release date (released in Ireland on December 9th).
To say the wait was worth it is a profound understatement. The game follows an unnamed boy and a giant cat-bird creature named 'Trico' as they attempt to escape from a strange ruined city. In the process, a bond develops between the child and the beast. What makes this work so well is that The Last Guardian is peerlessly fluent in design - the way the narrative, themes, gameplay, world, characters and aesthetics come together is never less than magnificent to behold. It is the rare game that feels truly complete, where every element is purposely designed towards one single artistic purpose. It's capable of being as thrilling as any blockbuster one minute, before seamlessly switching gears to more intimate, subtle moments. I cannot count the amount of times I broke into a giddy grin playing this.
Forget the slightly wonky camera and the occasional frame-rate stutters. These minor technical irritants do little to undermine what is a truly remarkable game. As good as gaming gets - and that's particularly notable in a year as extraordinary as this one.