This was a great year for games. This is my top 10. The order might shift if you asked me tomorrow or next week, but all of them are terrific.
10. Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls, as a franchise, are games that I’ve always respected a lot, but have never really enjoyed playing. I’d get ten or fifteen hours in, and then give up in frustration, after getting tired of the purposeful grind and obfuscation. Dark Souls 3 changed that. It is accessible in simple, small ways that make it much more playable, and kept me going all the way through to the end. I enjoyed the simple storytelling and world building so much more in this installment, even as I died over and over again to some of the bosses. By streamlining the accessibility of the game, it allows the strong core mechanics to shine.
The old “walking simulator” title has been used as a pejorative for a while now, but Firewatch is the evolution of that genre which focuses on two things I love: exploration and story. It does what so few games can accurately portray, in truly making you feel alone and vulnerable. Your relationship in the game is only heard in conversations, as two flawed people try and make a connection. The acting, writing, and art are all top-notch, and the simple addition of an in-game disposable camera truly lends authenticity to it. You can even order prints after you finish the game.
8. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley is the most understated of the games on this list, and yet it is probably the one I had the hardest time putting down. As I working my way through it, it is the game that most dominated my thoughts away from it. An amalgam of Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and a slew of other farming and slice-of-life games, it managed to hook me in a way that so few other games of that ilk have. It has charm, something that many games try to capture but most don’t. You come to like all the characters in Stardew Valley, and the weird quirks, and the hidden depths at the edges of the game. That it is the work of precisely one man makes it all the more impressive. It feels like a game I’ll play all the way through once a year.
7. The Witness
The Witness landed early in the year with a lot of mystery and questions. The long awaited project from Jonathan Blow finally arrived, and it captured my obsession early in the year. The seemingly simple puzzle game did something that so many few games do, and that is make me look at the world differently. The simple tracing puzzles add complexity and depth as you explore the beautiful island the game takes place on, and you learn that the world itself is a part of the puzzle. After playing, I found myself looking for similar puzzles in real life, and in other games, just as an example of how it changes your perception. It is much less directed than Braid ever was, but feels to be saying so much more.
6. Hyper Light Drifter
I feel like this game didn’t receive proper credit through the year. It is everything I want in a 2D action adventure game. Amazingly beautiful pixel art, great soundtrack, and super tight mechanics. Combat is challenging but rewarding. The world feels lived in and exploration always feels rewarding. Everything about the game feels bespoke and purposeful. Progression is meaningful, and everything you unlock feels earned. A love letter to Zelda, but more intricate and subtle. The story is purposefully obscured, a mystery you unlock as you play, left up to the player to interpret. Absolutely worth a play.
In a year with so many excellent shooters, Overwatch might actually be the greatest achievement, in that it made me play a team-based shooter, and kept me coming back, over and over again. It seems like a simple structure, one laid out most popularly by Team Fortress 2, but then added layers of character, style, and complexity to it. With what is now a cast of 23 different characters, all of which have unique abilities and playstyles, along with a completely different feel, and most importantly, feel balanced. Each character is injected with attitude and style in very simple and easy ways that have inspired a rapid fandom. D-Va main, btw.
4. Titanfall 2
I have not played a military shooter since Modern Warfare. After hearing so many rave about it, I dove back into the genre and could not have been more pleased about choosing this game as the re-entry point. The single player campaign is fun and action packed, and the multiplayer is addictive. Both are built on the foundations of exciting fast gameplay predicated on wall-running, grappling, and moving quickly. Shoot, wallrun, jump, slide, shoot, call in a titan, and then roam the battlefield as a giant mech that changes the gameplay dynamics again. All of this is further varied by choice of loadout, titan, and play style. It is hard to go back to other games after, just because of the speed. Of all the games on this list, so very few others makes you feel so bad ass after you get a ridiculous kill or make an incredible play.
How do you successfully modernize Doom? You make a fast, tight shooter that embraces all the goofy horror of demons and hell. You make levels are that fun to explore and fight in, and take advantage of verticality that so many shooters don’t, and reward the player for doing so. You make the story take the right blend of cleverness and irony, and then dial it up. It is violent, it is over the top, it is fast. It is Doom.
When it was announced that Hitman would be released episodically, I almost dismissed it completely. I had never really been interested in the Hitman games, and episodic games almost never hold my interest, at least not until it’s released as a complete season. That was a mistake, because Hitman is perhaps the perfect example of how episodic releases can and probably should work. By giving the players the time to truly explore each level, unlocking new items as they go, they can really savor the depth and quirk that is lovingly crafted for each main location in the game. The game doesn’t take itself seriously, and it lets the truly absurd situations of mayhem develop organically. Ever wanted to walk the catwalk as a fashion model and then drop the stage itself on your target? Or kill a dictator by dropping a toilet on him? Or push a Yakuza lawyer off a cliff while disguised as a yoga instructor? Each level embraces the freedom of open world games and gives the players an amazing toy set to play with.
1. Enter the Gungeon
This has become my favorite twin-stick shooter of all time, and favorite roguelike (or roguelite) of all time. I bounce off a lot of both, but this has a perfect sense of challenge and skill, and I very rarely feel cheated when I die. With the wide array of weapons borrowed from other properties (there is one that shoots the shark from Jaws, another is straight up a proton pack) the combat is always fun and new, and every run truly does feel different. Even on failed runs there’s always a sense of discovery and freshness that kept me coming back. There’s even a semblance of a story, of which most roguelikes and schmups kind of forget about. The cute art style, tongue-in-cheek humor, and pun based gun villains are icing on the cake. So much fun.
A post script: I didn’t play everything. Here’s some games that could have cracked the list if I had played them. They’ll have to wait until next year.