GOTY 2016: Aaron's Honorable Mentions

While our list of the top ten games of the year is a collaborative effort, there are always some casualties. Our Honorable Mentions offer each staff member a chance to highlight some of their other personal favorite games of 2016 that simply didn't make the cut.

We're wrapping up GOTY 2016 this week, so stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter to make sure you don't miss a thing!

Mafia III

Hangar 13, 2K Czech | October 7, 2016 | OS X, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

Unlike the other triple-A game with a black protagonist in 2016 (see my thoughts on Watch Dogs 2 below), Mafia III leans so hard into the anger and violence perpetrated by a black man that it often becomes offensive. And that’s before you hear the n-word in the first minutes of the opening.

Throughout the 70-plus hours I played, I lost count of the racial epithets and bigoted speech spat at Lincoln Clay, a special forces Vietnam veteran who’s returned home to sort out his life in the south of 1968. Naturally, as the adopted son of a crime boss, things get messy real fast.

Mafia III is more akin to the other games in the series than its faux-New Orleans setting and non-Italian protagonist let on. Lincoln’s traversal through New Bordeaux and his subsequent assassination of major Italian and Dixie Mafia crime groups retreads themes from the first two titles. However, the writing in Mafia III, which cribs from the best crime fiction, makes it the strongest entry in the franchise.

The majority of the game I played a Lincoln dressed as a Black Panther while I mowed down waves of bigoted white gangsters.

Not to mention that the third Mafia is beautiful: misty bayou morning drives give way to rain-slicked nighttime city cruises rendered with extremely sharp shadows and lighting effects. The soft-edged art direction gives characters a fleshy realism and their clothes an appearance like actual cloth. Anyone who’s played Assassin’s Creed Unity will recognize the style. But, being a Mafia game (though developed by a new studio, Hangar 13), there are odd clipping issues, physics bugs and slouchy PC performance when the action gets hot.

Race and identity for Lincoln mean confronting prejudice everyday and in almost every interaction. His closest comrade (friend?) in the game is John Donovan, an ex-CIA operative who served with Lincoln in Vietnam. Donovan is the quintessential fictional government spook: paranoid, violent and a consummate meddler. Despite Donovan's comic relief (the post-credits sequence, one of our categorical runner-ups, was among the most ‘WTF’ moments last year), and his empathy for the hate Lincoln is subjected to, the game is self-serious and overburdened by its racist characters. However, that’s the point.

The developers open Mafia III with a statement that the racism makes for “an authentic and immersive experience.” It’s immersive insofar as it made me feel good about killing dozens of Klan members and racist mafiosos. The majority of the game I played a Lincoln dressed as a Black Panther while I mowed down waves of bigoted white gangsters.

My takeaway from Mafia III is telling the story of marginalized people doesn’t have to ignore violence. Ubisoft did something similar with Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, wherein you played a former slave that kills plantation masters to free slaves.

Letting Lincoln Clay’s rage breathe and be given life by his mission of revenge against the (white) mob who wronged him is a way to embrace the image of the angry, violent black man that America continues to perpetuate. The game does its best to turn the stereotype around by empathizing with Lincoln’s mission, and reminding players that if they were a specially trained veteran whose family was murdered by the mob, they’d also wage a bloody war of revenge, regardless of the color of their skin.

Stardew Valley

ConcernedApe | February 26, 2016 (initial release) | Linux, OS X, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

I felt connected to Stardew Valley the minute I launched it. After nearly 60 hours, I’m still thinking of its success: it made me, a former hater of farm-life sims, eagerly tend my crops and sell my artisanal jams with a constant smile on my face.

I didn’t try Stardew until this summer, in the middle of the annual lull in big-name releases. On a whim, and considering the positive Steam reviews, I gave the game a shot. My history with Harvest Moon is as follows: I hated those games. Try as I might, the original Harvest Moon on Gameboy was frustratingly obtuse I gave up almost as quickly as I started. That poor first experience seared itself into my brain, and up until Stardew Valley I avoided farming sims of all kinds.

So what stuck? How did Stardew rope me in and keep me engaged?

After I put the game down for good last fall (by the 60th hour, I’d practically conquered all of the game I wanted to experience), I reflected on those questions for a long time. To be honest, I’m really unsure of my answers even now.

Reddit and Google Sheets were my digital Farmer’s Almanac. I was rolling in gold in just a few short seasons.

One answer could be that Stardew Valley is an amazing work of devotion. Developed by one person, Eric Barone aka “ConcernedApe,” its polish and lush pixel art are eye-catching and endearing. Its art style unearths memories of the 16-bit SNES and Genesis era, but displayed at modern resolutions and refresh rates. Stardew simultaneously respects its farm-sim heritage while going its own way with a signature look. Crops jump and jostle with animated life, and the dungeons are full of menacingly cute enemies (bats, skeletons, slimes, etc.)  all of which are callbacks to a simpler era of pixel aesthetics.

Stardew’s loops are time-honored and tight, too: planting crops, nourishing them and then turning them into wine, jam or other artisanal goods are satisfying pursuits. Fake farming feels like an accomplishment. Stardew Valley recalls Zelda with gated progression mechanics through the buying or upgrading of tools to access previously blocked functions. This idea isn’t new to Harvest Moon fans, but it was new to me and easier to accomplish than I expected.

Or, maybe I loved Stardew so much because of its active community. Unlike the 90s and the Gameboy era, I could look up crop profitability tables and land-management grids to help me figure out my most-efficient seasonal crop placement. While that could be construed as cheating, if anything I felt like a “real” farmer who put hours of planning into his work. Reddit and Google Sheets were my digital Farmer’s Almanac. I was rolling in gold in just a few short seasons. (Pro tip: plant blueberries and cranberries, harvest them and then turn them into wine or jam. Your farmer will fall asleep to the sounds of Pierre’s cash register ringing up your bountiful crops for in-game years to come.)

Actually, maybe I liked Stardew Valley for a very personal reason: age. More specifically, age as a result of maturity vis-à-vis becoming a homeowner and getting married. These are topics I simply won’t shut up about lately (We hadn't noticed - Ed.), so I’m clearly cognizant of how my tastes and priorities have changed and are changing.

I didn’t quit my city job and move to the country, but for the last three years, my wife and I have grown vegetables in our backyard. I’m not bottling blueberry wine in my spare time, but I’ve made an effort to cook more and try homebrewing to strengthen my domestic skills ahead of any future children. In a way, Stardew Valley reinforced the changes I’ve made in my real life. And in the summer, in between work and wedding planning and housekeeping and chores and so on, it was nice to just get some crops ready for market.

Watch Dogs 2

Ubisoft Montreal | November 15, 2016 (initial release) | PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

Ubisoft took the first Watch Dogs’ myriad criticisms to heart. The sequel is, in the first several hours at least, so tonally humorous that I almost wonder if Ubisoft Montreal was personally hurt by the cool reception of the original. At the risk of emboldening the gamers who complained about Watch Dog’s every flaw, the company made a conscious effort to scrap what didn’t work for its open-world hactivist franchise.

Thankfully, Watch Dogs 2 isn’t disjointed or confusing despite its radical alterations. Rather, its likable cast, self-awareness and lampoon of Silicon Valley makes for one of the most-polished games of 2016, and a successful about-face for the brand. If anything, Watch Dogs 2 is a better game for the failures of its predecessor.

Gone is the milquetoast protagonist Aiden Pearce (good riddance); gone, the cliched revenge tale of killing the men who murdered Aiden’s sister. In their place is the wonderfully charming Marcus Holloway who starts the game with a contemporary crusade: to destroy Blume, the company that created the nefarious CTOS software, because predictive, racially biased algorithms tagged him as the suspect in a tech robbery.

Casting and creating a black man as the lead in a universe of super-powered hackers taking down an invasive, evil corporation’s technology is the perfect playground to tackle real-news issues of the day like police brutality, government spying and the gentrification of major cities. Marcus was the right choice of player character, and I applaud Ubisoft for doing its part to add its big-budget game to the national conversation about race and identity. Being Marcus allows players to fleetingly experience a modicum, a scrap, of the black man’s struggle in a world where he is always suspected, or a suspect; however, Watch Dogs 2 provides a safe roleplay where killing and hacking are means to an end and tools for Marcus to evade prosecution or jail time Marcus can’t ever really “lose,” which isn’t the case for real black men.

That one of Marcus’ co-conspirators in DedSec, the “white hat” hacker collective, is also a black man allows for vignettes between the two that touch on the intricacies of being normal, black dudes talking about everyday stuff. They reflect each other’s experiences, not because they are the same people, but because society can see them as copies of each other. Marcus and Horatio aren’t supposed to represent all black men, just as Lara Croft isn’t all white women, and Ubisoft treats that as truth in the first dozen hours. It’s easy for me to overstate, as a white man, the impact Marcus has on an industry generally devoid of well-rounded characters of color.

Austin Walker and Cameron Kunzelman of Waypoint said the following in their excellent recap of Watch Dogs 2’s handling of identity and race (spoiler warning):

Protagonist Marcus Holloway is a black man who doesn’t have to stand in for all black people; by virtue of two central characters being black, we get to see a wider range of black life. Horatio Carlin, or Ratio, is another critical DedSec character, and his and Marcus’s interactions are some of the most interesting and crucial scenes in contemporary gaming.

And, despite all of that, I think Watch Dogs 2 really fucks it up.
— Cameron Kunzelman, Waypoint

It’s a critical failure of the game then, that the writers gut the relationship between Marcus and Horatio and, even further, the progressive conversations happening by spotlighting marginalized people and their friendship through a mid-game twist. Austin Walker adds:

And then, cynically and brutally, the game unravels all of the brilliant setup that it’s done around race in order to make the stakes that much more real or serious.
— Austin Walker, Waypoint

The focus of Watch Dogs 2, and the reason it deserves mention, is the complexity of identity politics and the larger conversation it necessitates on narrative and characterization in games. It wasn’t perfect, and it undercuts its progressive handling of these issues with its unfortunate twist, but Watch Dogs 2 was a step forward and an important one all the same.