GOTY 2016: Guest List - Dan Phipps's Top 10 Games of 2016
This year we invited some game-developer friends of ours to submit their own top 10 lists for our Game of the Year feature. First up is a killer selection from Dan Phipps, a tabletop game developer and longtime friend of the site.
#10 | Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
Bombservice | March 4, 2016 | Windows
I love me a Metroidvania, and while the exploration and item acquisition lights up the ol’ dopamine receptors it’s really the mood that gets me. Momodora is strangely beautiful, occasionally light-hearted, and appropriately short. The bosses are challenging without being unfair, the adorable animations pair nicely with the chilling sound design. The overall experience is charming and weird, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
#9 | Ladykiller In a Bind
Love Conquers All Games | Late 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux
The question of whether or not video games can be art is easily put to bed: anything that can invoke a feeling in the participant can be art. And if “horny” is a feeling, then Ladykiller in a Bind is one of the most successful art projects you can engage with. If there was any justice in the world, this would be Oregon Trail for your sex ed class. Ladykiller in a Bind is a surprisingly mechanically rich visual novel with a solid premise supporting rather a lot of well written, thoughtful sex. If this reviewer had given himself more time to play it, it’d almost certainly rank higher on this list but after a few hours alone I know it’s one of the outstanding titles of the year. Fun fact: I’m pretty sure if you took Metal Gear Solid V and let Christine Love write the stuff that happens back at base, it’d be the single greatest video game of all time.
#8 | Hyper Light Drifter
Heart Machine | March 31, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Brace yourselves for Vaporwave Zelda, ladies and gentlemen. Hyper Light Drifter is a confluence of aesthetic appeal for me: dying-earth post-apocalypse, music by Disasterpeace, beautiful pixel animations and neon colors everywhere. Hyper Light Drifter plays on classic design themes: sending you after 4 macguffins before unlocking the final dungeon. Beyond merely being a beautiful game with tight controls, the way information is conveyed and withheld really sets this game apart for me. There are mysteries in Hyper Light Drifter that I surely lack the patience to uncover, but for the 100% completion set out there, it's a worthy extension to the game.
#7 | Firewatch
Campo Santo | February 9, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Gosh this game is sad and pretty. A powerhouse performance of voice acting and point-of-view animation, Firewatch is small in scope and heartfelt. The script runs the gamut from comedy to tragedy to horror, and it does so effortlessly. And the script is really where Firewatch lives. You see very little beyond the beautiful landscapes, walking directly into vintage posters with a compass and a walkie-talkie. Firewatch is a perfect little co-op game: print out the map and make flash-decisions on how to respond to probing questions on why you’ve walked away from your life. While it occasionally brushes up against its limited minimalist scope, especially near its too-soon climax, it really is a powerhouse of an experience.
#6 | The Witness
Thekla Inc. | January 26, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4
Return to Puzzle Island with Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, heir apparent to the Myst dynasty. The defining attribute of The Witness, and the thing I loved most about it, was how immersive it was. The puzzles are brain-boilingly difficult but everything you need to solve them is on the island. You learn everything you need fairly quickly, but realizing which lessons to apply when, and applying those lessons in different contexts, is no mean feat.
The videos and audio clips you find scattered around the island are a very different sort of puzzle, giving the game a sort of autobiography-by-proxy and philosophical feel. Some of these recordings were fascinating and some of them bounced off me like a rubber ball, but it invites a very deep and close read.
My one grievance with the game, and what has kept me from returning to this mysterious island, was the ending I encountered. Intentionally unsatisfying endings don’t work, and the reason they don’t work is because so many otherwise excellent titles really drop the ball in the third act. I’m not going to assume hidden genius when presented with obvious fuck-withery. I’m looking at you, Persona 4. Save me some time and just include a link to the real ending on YouTube.
#5 | Dark Souls III
FromSoftware | April 12, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Dark Souls, as a series, has rather a lot in common with '80s band The Cure. I actually rather like The Cure, but man the fans are insufferable. Dark Souls has invited a culture of masochistic perfection and nihilism from a game that always lets you try again on a journey of redemption. Dark Souls III is the final entry in the story of cursed undead daisy-chaining the flame of the world as best they are able, summoning friends to help you overcome impossible odds. Or just goofing off in the haunted forest.
For me, nothing can top act 1 of Dark Souls 1, but it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that that’s more to do with going in blind than anything else. However, Dark Souls III updates a fair amount under the hood to give weapons a bit of utility, cut back on the commitment required to your weapon of choice, balance magic and miracles a bit better, and so on.
Simply providing more Dark Souls would be enough to get on this list, and there are certainly tropes from the earlier entries that return in wholly expected ways. However, I’d argue that this game improves on the original formula, invites interesting questions with its ending, and overall is a lovely send-off to a franchise that has left a deep impact on how we think about games.
#4 | Doom
id Software | May 13, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Hey, remember when Doom 3 wanted to be System Shock 2? Well buckle up, buttercup, because Doom wants to be Doom. Armed with a brain-searing heavy-metal dubstep soundtrack, surprisingly engaging lore, and an array of satisfying to use weapons, Doom is a towering example of pornographic violence. On the surface it’s yet another twitch shooter, but where Doom really recalls its predecessors is its invitation to tactical thinking. The limited range of demons, slowly released alongside new weapons, requires you to assess the situation and choose the right weapon for the right time.
How are we doing on health and armor, we might ask ourselves? How are our ammo supplies? Does this situation require the cold distance of a sniper rifle, the slow-but-powerful array of rockets, or the up-close-and-personal touch of a shotgun? Is now the time to rip into an enemy with the chainsaw, or use one of my rarely-acquired shots from the BFG? The mind positively crackles while you desperately try to gain control of the situation.
Doom also sees the return of achievement-based progression, one of my favorite elements to the Wolfenstein reboot, as well as challenge based rune powers to give you a little bit of satanic oomph and customization to your own Doomguy. This is a game that knows what it’s about, and what it’s about is shotgunning a hell monster until you can run up and punch it to death.
Generally, this is where I’d say the masturbatory first-person cutscenes that have plagued the genre since Half-Life ruin the flow of the game, but I can’t because they don’t. The only thing I would say is they, for some reason, keep releasing free updates to Doom’s multiplayer which is a silly misuse of resources because there’s no version of reality where that gets better than the #1 game on this list. If you want story-driven, thoughtful games, I’d encourage you to give Doom eight hours of your time. Even though the story and thought is primarily about demon-exploding.
#3 | Civilization VI
Firaxis Games | October 21, 2016 | Windows, Mac
The civilization games will always have a place in my heart. Expansive in scope but fairly straightforward to learn, they are games that will consume hours of your life but will not ask you to read a goddamn book before you start. Thematically it is a game of alternate histories, and mechanically it is a game of abstractions.
Civ VI improves on past entries in many ways but the most interesting one is what it chooses to abstract. It encourages you to follow in the paths of previous civilizations, building farmland in great clumps and then paving over them with neighborhoods. The new system of districts encourages you to view your own city in the long view — we build our industrial zones where there used to be coal, and now it’s there forever even though we don’t use coal for much anymore. Los Angeles has a truly bizarre silhouette because we wanted a harbor and, by god, we were going to have one. Similarly, the way barbarians work forces you to recon with the reality that people live on every tile of the game, not just the ones within your competitor’s borders. Spending dozens of gold per turn to maintain a military presence in lands not worthy of a city to defend trade routes are a simplified version of what a military is actually useful for.
Winning at Civilization VI, in turn, requires you to behave as a monster. There is no victory without a military to back you up, and quickly the game becomes one of manufacturing sufficient grievance to declare war on your competitors. One could, in theory, peacefully extoll your faith or quietly develop scientific miracles. In practice, it is much easier to convert a civilization roughly half the size it is now. It is much easier to outpace a people whose centers of learning have been burned to the ground. Even the cultural victory conditions invite you to steal the cultural heritage of others out from under their noses. Seeing the world as one where only you can win invites terrible, terrible behaviors which the game reflects uncannily well.
Like all Civilization games, there are gaps that will be filled with coming expansions. Most notably is the inability of spies to do much more than steal science or culture, which feels like a fairly thin view of the real applications of espionage. This is, however, the best and smartest entry in the series and one which invites a long, hard look at what the powerful must do to stay in power.
#2 | Pokémon Sun and Moon
Game Freak | November 18, 2016 | 3DS
Let’s not kid ourselves: 2016 was rough. My idols are dead, my enemies are in power, and all of the sudden I’m the guy who writes letters to his representatives. On top of that, the best media out there is just straight up Sexual Violence, The Show or the British Tragedy Hour. And man, at the end of a long day staring unblinking into a maelstrom of hatred, sometimes you wanna swan-dive into the only good thing that came out of middle school. And so, it is with tremendous relief that I inform you that Pokémon Sun and Moon are, like, actually good.
But Dan, when you say Actually Good you mean The Same Goddamn Game We’ve Been Playing For 20 Years, Right? No, gentle reader, I do not.
Remember having to keep some lame-o dude around to cut down trees? Now you don’t have to. Remember how NPCs keep telling you that friendship is super important even though your team is just a charnel house of Poké-murder? I’m runnin’ a goddamn spa over here, these nerds get massages after every fight. The original 151 are kind of boring? Now they all look weird and even Rattata is like, dang dude, you are kinda tough. Starting the game with your starter, three bugs, and a dumb bird? Water/psychic and metal/electric types out the damn gate. Too many Pokémon? That was never a problem, you tepid fool.
The story is charming, the new additions to the game make it easier and more engaging, it’s just real good you guys and from what I hear the post-game is solid also. So, here’s the deal. Buy a copy of Between the World and Me, a copy of Strangers in Their Own Land, and a copy of Pokémon Sun or Moon. It’s a bitter drink, so you’ll need a chaser.
#1 | Overwatch
Blizzard Entertainment | May 24, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
When I heard Blizzard was doing Team Fortress 2, I hit snooze on that so fast my alarm clock broke. Those nerds hadn’t had a new IP I cared about since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and the only thing they’d done for me recently was thoroughly un-fuck Diablo 3 as much as that can be done.
And then I saw this video and I’d preordered it.
The thoughtfulness of the sound mixing displayed in that video highlighted, for me, the quality and care distilled into every element of the game. Aesthetically it’s bright and vibrant, a vague, anachronistic sci-fi setting like if Quake 1 went to therapy and calmed down. The characters are charming enough to fill Tumblr with fan art ranging from adorable to lewd. The game modes all fulfill a distinct gameplay function, from Competitive (Tryhard Major-League Gamer No-Fun-Zone) to Quick Play (A reasonable person having a reasonable time) to Arcade (Overwatch? More like OverSCOTCH!).
Overwatch changed how I design games and how I view combat in games. Like Doom, it doesn’t invite questions about where all your ammo is stored or why you need to deal X damage before you can use your Limit Break. What it does is give everyone a job to do, and give them not quite enough of the tools to do it alone. There is niche protection, but almost everyone is varying degrees of hybrid class, and packing some level of utility. And best of all: It only asks about 10 minutes of your time per game. It’s not an indie darling, it doesn’t have a heartbreaking story, but Overwatch taught me more about good game design this year than any title I played, analog or digital. Videogames are art but they are also a craft, and Overwatch is truly excellent craftsmanship.