GOTY 2016: Guest List — Nathan Harrison'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. Today, we're thrilled to share storytelling game designer Nathan Harrison's favorite games of 2016.

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#10 | Abzû (video game)

Giant Squid | August 2nd, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Coming from a team that includes the art director and the composer who drove a lot of what made Journey so memorable, it’s inevitable to compare the two. Both games invite the player to delight in gameplay basics, like the essential act of traversing the environment, or the satisfaction of poking your nose into nooks & crannies for its own sake. Both games start from a point of almost barren tranquility, then paint a richer canvas with each new stage. Both whisk the players along at times in slipstreams of motion between distant places. Both hold real danger in reserve until the nearing of the game’s end — and both games might be said to end in heaven, after a fashion.

For all the familiar notes between them, I still desperately wish there were more games like this. Even so, it wasn’t until the final sequence of Abzû that it felt like something that slips free of the long shadow of its forebear. Launching myself to impossible heights out of the water, with teeming throngs of sea life arcing to trace the same path in my wake, was as pure a joyous sensation as I felt in any game this year. This year being what it was… well, I needed that. 

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#9 | Virginia (video game)

Variable State | September 22nd, 2016 | Windows, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Overtures to Twin Peaks and The X-Files are worn on this game’s sleeve, though it doesn’t just ape the qualities of those media superficially. It’s also no mistake that the menu option to start the game is labelled as “Begin Feature,” since the play experience is highly linear and not dependent on any in-game detective skills. Forgoing dialogue of any sort, Virginia is instead a game of the player’s interpretation, of trying to divine the lines between possibility, dreams, metaphor, intuition, and reality. The game intentionally lacks a clear explanation or single reading — indeed, in the words of one of the creators, “a lot of the decisions we made were just a chance to be contrary to the norms of video games as possible.”

With something like this, it’s a worthy question to ask if a video game is the right fit, or if film might serve the purpose better. In playing it, I’d say they shouldn’t change a thing. Filling the shoes of Agent Tarver, the game’s protagonist, enlivens each surreal passage in a way that might be impossible as a passive movie viewer. As one example, the game frequently uses jump-cuts in mid-stride as you traverse each scene; a familiar tool in TV and movies, but unsettling and novel to experience first-hand, and in first-person. Likewise, exploring a level that moves from hard-edged reality into clear impossibility is much more disorienting than watching the same from the outside looking in. Apart from oddball entries like Hardcore Henry, it’s rare for a movie to be something that really feels like happens to you. To sum it up a different way: you may have watched a Lynch film, but have you ever lived one?

#8 | Superhot (video game)

Superhot Team | February 25, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One

There’s a version of this list where I only say, “You have to check out this game! It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years!” and then give a sly nod & tap of a finger to my nose. But as much as I love Superhot for writing its own review copy (via a deliciously creepy meta framing device), I’ll say a bit more. It makes honing the perfect bullet-time run a joy, and deaths running into the dozens on a single stage reinforce the feeling of being godlike, not feeble. Even after you’ve died for the 20th time, hurling an ashtray at a goon to knock free their pistol & snag it out of the air to shatter them to pieces with it, all in slow motion, never stops being cool.

My single favorite thing about it might be the aesthetic it adopts from time to time that suggests being trapped in an MS-DOS command line that’s been transmuted into a dimly-lit 3D nightmare. The main campaign is lean, in the sense of having nothing excess, and makes the prospect of returning for the trickier modes & endless waves of new game+ an energizing offer instead of a wearying one. And apparently there’s entirely new/different “overworld” content in VR, where I’d wager the game’s strengths shine even brighter.

#7 | Captain Sonar (tabletop board game)

Matagot

If you’ve watched The Hunt for Red October more than once, you need to check this out. This game pits two teams against one another as rival submarine crews, engaged in a mutual game of cat-and-mouse beneath the waves. So far, nothing earth-shattering... what makes Captain Sonar novel is in how it transports what would seem like a digital game’s sensibilities and strengths into the analog realm. While you can choose to play turn-by-turn, the juice is to play in real time. Much like Artemis Bridge Simulator, how quickly and effectively your submarine can operate depends entirely on how well your team can work together in giving & taking orders and mastering individual duties.

The icing on this already-delicious cake is that all of a Captain’s orders & the crew’s replies must be given aloud, with the opposite team free to listen in. More than free, in fact. One player’s entire job is to listen, recording each and every move of the enemy in order to discover their location. So, layered on top of the strategy of movement, powering systems, using abilities, etc., the crew that works smoothest and fastest can often overwhelm the other team’s Radio Operator through the sheer volume of information flowing in. Captain Sonar is yet another datapoint in boardgames exploring different levels of gameplay immersion, and almost LARP-like levels of 1:1 match between some game actions and the actions being simulated. This is the kind of game to make me excited about the possibilities of a medium all over again.

#6 | Inside (video game)

Playdead | June 29th, 2016 | Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

I’ll confess upfront that I never beat Limbo, the previous game from the devs at Playdead. Time was, I had much less of a stomach for spook-em-ups of any sort in videogames, and I while I endured the trial by spider I never made it much farther. That might mean I’m underqualified to theorize what Inside is all about, but I have my ideas just the same. The atmosphere is pitch perfect, thanks to a limited color palette used better than most games could dream of, the genuinely harrowing displays of hostility and violence from your enemies, and perhaps the best art design for levels in a 2.5D platformer that I’ve ever played. Being chased by dogs, gun-toting thugs in featureless white masks, parasite-ridden hogs, and a truly awful long-haired sea-child is thrilling and tense, with each encounter paced such that your escape always feels one second away from doom. The game is also replete with mindless human drudges who march in lockstep, enthralled to some mysterious force (and sometimes enthralled by you, the protagonist).

In one stretch that’s both admirably nasty and darkly funny, the young boy you play as stumbles into a line of drudges and must march, stop, jump and even pirouette in time with them, all under the cameras and many watchful eyes of a hostile audience. I’d tell you what happens next, but it’s really something you should find out for yourself. Come to think of it, that could be the refrain of everything I might say next — it’s really something you should find out for yourself. Because holy hell does this game take a hard turn at its climax, in maybe the best way that such a thing has ever happened. To quote myself, when such Thing happened: “Good god. Wow. Okay... oh my god. Amazing. Holy shit.”

There’s a part of me that wishes the whole game had the vibe of the “above ground” portions, when you’re fleeing through a rainswept and ruined countryside from the mask-clad thugs in pickups. Those portions are all vulnerability and fear with scarcely a chance to catch your breath or even think, and immediately put me uncomfortably in mind of war-torn spots around the globe where a child refugee might find themselves similarly hunted for senseless reasons. That game-that-could-have-been is one that someone else might someday make, though. And I am 100% certain that no one else would have ever made Inside the way it is. For that much alone, I am so, so happy it exists.

#5 | Apocalypse World 2nd Edition (tabletop RPG)

Lumpley Games

If you play indie RPGs, Apocalypse World appearing on a “best of” list of any sort is likely no surprise. Indeed the only surprise might be seeing it on a list of 2016 titles, since the original edition debuted six years ago. When the game first released, the sort of diesel-fueled roadpunk apocalypse it described, typified by the Mad Max movies, was at best a niche or cult genre. Not a flavor folks were always hungry for. But then Fury Road happened, and suddenly even those of us who had already played the game for ages remembered how achingly cool it is to be a road warrior, and thanks to that & a host of other factors here was a revision of Apocalypse World on its way.

The core game alone deserves a place at the table in any conversation about game design. It kicked off a minor revolution in the tabletop RPG scene, and inspired a wave of later designs that still shows no sign of stopping. The conversation embodied by a typical RPG — the loop between the “game master” and other players — is an affair often codified more by ritual and tradition that by the dictates of a rulebook. Apocalypse World instead literally codifies the behavior of the person running the show, appropriately referred to as the MC. It structures its rules so that any dice roll means the story takes a meaningful step forward, for good or ill. When the players roll poorly and fail, the MC leans in, acting on the credos to “Make the player characters’ lives not boring” and “Play to find out what happens.” It shapes the game by giving the MC a host of specific actions to take when the opportunity arises: “Take away their stuff,” “Capture someone,” “Tell them the possible consequences and ask.” And always always always, asking “What do you do?” to shift the spotlight back to the players. (The basics of all this are freely online for your perusal.)

If you’ve played D&D and its ilk, these are familiar actions and scenarios. The real innovation is that by defining the range of inputs and outputs for all players (MC included) in more detail, and tailoring them to the needs of the genre at hand, the story produced by the conversation between the MC & players hits harder, imperils the status quo, and better balances the agency of everyone involved. As for the Second Edition, it refines rough patches that years of play brought to light, expands & polishes the available character classes, pushes harder on characters’ survival needs to generate drama, and most excitingly, adds a robust collection of gameplay options to make road war a more varied, dangerous, and thrilling endeavor. (As fair warning, this one is sneaking in under the wire for 2016 via a PDF release, with physical copies due to become available in a matter of weeks.)

#4 | Hyper Light Drifter (video game)

Heart Machine | March 31, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

I’d forgotten how satisfying it is to play hard games. Hyper Light Drifter isn’t the toughest of the lot, but I’ve grown impatient in my advancing years, and frankly a little anxious to dip my toes into a digital game I don’t think I have the dedication or twitch reflexes to beat. Part of the lesson might be that with the right aesthetic, music, and minimalist principles, I’ll barge my way through just about anything. This isn’t the type of confoundedness as in some games later in this list, though they share some DNA. Those sorts of boulders in the road sit quietly, zen and Buddha-like. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t have one boulder, it has six, except after you dodge them a dozen more appear and they’re bigger & made of knives. This isn’t a revelation in the medium, but the intrigue of this particular world, this style of presentation, and tightness of these controls (assuming you’re using a gamepad; anything else is madness) all combine into a variation of the formula that’s worth whatever level of frustration is encountered on the path. 

The choice to abandon all text & dialogue is an aesthetic deployed admirably yet again. Without in-game names for bosses, enemy types, gear & NPCs, just to converse about HLD requires a game-like dance of words & world-building. How many tries did it take you to beat the Bird-Witch in the North? Did you die as many times as me in that room with all the waves of melonpigs and guncats? Is there a golden ticket hidden in this cave? It’s a decision that puts a lot of trust in the player, which I admire. (Though maybe that’s obvious, given that three — arguably four — of my top ten all share this quality.) And it lets the game’s impressionistic interludes and illustrated “conversations” have room for interpretation, just as for the nature of the black sickness we fight, and what our hero’s struggles are all really for, anyway.

#3 | Overwatch (video game)

Blizzard Entertainment | May 24, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

I can’t quite believe that in the 7 months since this game’s release, I’ve racked up almost 200 hours of play. That’s just under an hour a day, every day. In a multiplayer shooter. In 2016. All played by me. And I’m nowhere near done with it! That I’ve loved and continue to love playing Overwatch this much is probably higher praise than anything else I could say. Team Fortress 2 was the last shooter to grab me like this, nearly a decade ago. And taking a several-year-long break from TF2 resulted in me returning to a game I barely recognized anymore. But Overwatch towers over even my rosiest memories of TF2’s heyday, with a deeper roster, more attentive devs, and wider-ranging scope of abilities to manipulate the battlefield.

I revel in putting together the right tools and synergies to beat a challenge; it’s the same underlying reason I love deckbuilding in Magic: the Gathering or assembling a squad of fighters in the X-Wing Miniatures Game. Playing that metagame on the fly with a handful of other humans covering multiple roles scratches the same itch as running a dungeon in World of Warcraft, too (maybe the only thing I ever really miss from that game). There are hundreds of games that aim for this, but none hit the bullseye as dead-center as this game does. With an incredible “just one more” allure and the commendable ability to make me love playing even when I’m hating what’s just been done to me by the other team so very very much, Overwatch will continue to be the bane of my best intentions for an orderly sleep schedule for months yet to come at the least.

Unless they nerf Mei. Then I’m out.

#2 | Fall of Magic: Scroll Edition (tabletop RPG/story game)

Heart of the Deernicorn

This game is sublime. The arc of the story it unfolds is familiar — a motley crew undertaking an arduous journey, in the company of a legendary figure — but each trek from the grounds of Ravenhall to the shores of Umbra across the sea is certain to be unique. I can attest to this personally: I’ve played Fall of Magic several times, sometimes with new players unknowingly making the exact same starting choices as past groups, but with narratives that wildly diverge almost immediately. The best version of it uses a physical scroll, with a lovingly illustrated screen-printed map that functions like a combination of choose-your-own-adventure book and improv game, using suggestive prompts to generate new scenes and chapters of the tale. The tactile qualities of the scroll, tokens, and so on give it the trappings of a board game, but serve the sense of place and groundedness for the story instead of mechanical concerns.

Through a combination of restraint, suggestion, and thoughtfulness, Fall of Magic pulls off nuances of its genre that surpass any other game I can think of. I’ve described it to friends before as the “hey, check out this cool rock” element; if you’ve ever spent time in wilderness, you might know what that phrase tries to get at. Expressed another way, it’s about the weight and meaning that can be ascribed to even the most trivial or ordinary things and moment in real life. The game also does all this with the most minimal of mechanics: no conflict system, skill checks, stat scores, etc. The dice rolls that still are part of it verge on the vestigial, and their very rarity infuses them with an unexpected sense of freshness and excitement. If you’ve never dabbled in the indie RPG/story game arena before and have even a whiff of the storyteller about you, you will find real wonder and yes, even magic in how this game plays out between you and those who travel at your side

#1 | The Witness (video game)

Thekla, Inc. | January 26, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Picking this for my #1 is such an effortless and right choice in my mind that it borders on self indulgence. I don’t know if it’s possible that a game could be pitched more directly at what I want out of video games. I also can’t think of another video game that succeeds in its goals with as much polish as this one, and that so perfectly sums up itself as itself.

That sounds pretentious as all hell — which, in fairness, was my impression of The Witness too, when I stumbled upon the first of many philosophical quotes scattered about its island. But much like the island itself… it goes deeper than that. If you want to reduce the game to mechanics, it’s a walking simulator with line puzzles, true. But, in a very real sense, reducing The Witness that way would be the same nearsighted understatement as describing “life” or “the universe” as “a physics simulator with atoms.” 

The Witness would like very dearly to teach you some things; it would like you to think about why you think or learn or pursue anything at all. Think on words like order, coincidence, intent, and meaning. It wants you to ponder mysteries, debate if pondering them is folly, delight you when intuition and experimentation are rewarded, and then confound you with glimpses of mysteries anew. It would like to ask you why you ask questions, and wonder when a discovered answer is a question’s actual end. It would like even the most jaded part of you to consider why 15th-century mystics and the 20th century’s greatest titans of science can sometimes sound so very much alike.

My memories of The Witness are a combination of all those fragments, and a notebook scribbled with theories & clues, and the invisible ink of grand unifying theories left unwritten — all too bombastic and embarrassing to put down with certainty in pen. When the last puzzle was solved, and it all ended, it felt like a death. And I think the ghost of it will be with me for a very long time.