Some videogames I liked in 2016

Gosh, it's been a long year. I hope I'm not missing anything great from January, but I probably am.

Kentucky Route Zero continued to be made, and I continued to play it. It's so good it feels unfair to compare other games to it, so I won't.

Ladykiller In A Bind. Here is a list of it's virtues:

Toca Boca Hair Salon 3. It's like Toca Boca Hair Salon 2, but with a bit more stuff. I've only just started playing it, so I can't give an Authoritative Judgement, but Toca Boca Hair Salon 2 was one of my favourite games, and this is a nice update to it. It's a game about learning how to use tools that are a bit wonky, that have their own quirks and give to them, to achieve something open ended. And it's intimate and responsive - it feels like you're touching someone's hair, and they're responding to what you're doing, not just a blank canvas for you to scribble on. And it's cute.

Ableton Live. I've not got a chance to play with this as much as I'd like, so I'm only just getting to grips with it, but it's a great toy to play with. So many sounds, so many intricacies to master. And there's a nice interplay between being in tweaking-mode and being in a jamming improvization mode.

Imbroglio. Is this pronounced like the word, or Im-brog-lio? Anyway - this is a Michael Brough game, and by this point I know what a Michael Brough game feels like. As deep as you want to go into the intricacies of the system, Michael will have been deeper. It's also funny and charming and surprising. And death could always have been avoided if you'd just paid a touch more attention a few turns ago.

Dishonoured 2. I think I am putting this on this list just because I've played a bunch of it? I don't know if I love it. Dishonoured I liked because it felt like a return to the immersive sim, and because it's art dared to be non-realistic - I think the high point of it for me was seeing a wall. It had a really good texture! it was done in gigantic brushstrokes, picked out by the specular map. And the character's faces were wonky cut-up lumps of clay. Oh, yeah, and the heart was great - a way to have story and texture to the world, without just playing cinematics at you. I've played more Dishonoured 2, if only because it's on the PS4 downstairs and it's been nice to play in parallel with my housemate Kat - but all the things that it was exciting that Dishonoured was doing, it's less exciting that Dishonoured 2 is still doing them. And I've fallen out of the world a bit, which means I see the levels as levels, all with a set format and a couple of neat twists to make you mix up your strategy from the previous ones. Ah well. It's still nice to play some expensive games every once in a while - have a long soak in a budget that could have paid for everything else on this list combined.

Viridi I have been interested in games that you check in on regularly - things that become a small part of your life, a small oasis of optionality when other things are stressful. For a good while this year, this game was this for me.

Hidden my game by mom (and others by hap Inc) This game is funny and surprising! It makes virtues of all it's weaknesses.

Ice-Bound. This is a game that's like our game, in that it's kinda complicated to explain. There's a book (no, not a digital book, a physical one), and the book has AR markers hidden in the pages, and you show the book to an AI (it's more of a fictional AI than a real AI) in the game, and the AI is editing a novel, and the novel is set in a polar research base... It's a lot of stuff to explain. And by the time you're done explaining, you then kinda say "and it's good", and that completely fails to kinda capture why it's good. But within the context of the game, all these interactions feel natural, and the layers of narrative all build on themselves in a really effective way. It's good.

Get Lost! This one is maybe kind of cheating, because we commissioned it for Now Play This. But I love S Woodson's work so much. Like all of their pieces, it delivers on a formal constraint (being quick to play at an exhibition) and layers on a light, charming, fantasy world that has the edge of real human interaction.

It's Spring Again. I can't remember if I first played this in 2015 or 2016. But anyway: it is a game that made me cry at the inevitability of winter. It's aimed at small children and adapted from a puppet show.

Devil Daggers. Seemingly every time I sit down to play this game, I discover that some part of my computer setup isn't good enough for this game. My mouse is too unreliable, or my headphones have secretly become mono, or some weird jank with display resolutions that they've now fixed. It's so... PC? So hard-edged and low latency, chunky aliased graphics and the perfect death metal monster roars. The experience of this game is plugging myself into about 90 seconds of hell and coming up gasping.

Digital Bird Playground - you're a duck and you can mess about with your friends. When you get on the bike the bell goes "ring ring!".

Push Me Pull You Oh yeah! This came out this year. I have been playing this for so long (with the Wild Rumpus crew), it feels kinda of weird that it's out and a final thing. When it was not finished, it was great, and they definitely stuck the landing. Dog mode! The free roaming bit where you can play football! Adorable menus! Australian bird noises!

Oik OS When people first start messing with a tool, there's a kind of freedom in the way they do things. They don't know what should and shouldn't be done, they layer things up messily, they show the limits and the grain of the material in a way you later learn to hide. Somehow David Kanaga is making a game like that, but with the benefit of years of incredibly deep thinking about what games are and can be. This game is Too Much.

TIS-1000 Last winter break, I holed up in bed and spent an obsessive 24 hours burning through the first half of this. I love the Zachtronics games so much because they're problems, not puzzles - like programming (which I like enough to do for a living), but without any obligation to do things "right". It's addictive in the same way a puzzlebox Netflix show is, and I hope I never play it again.

I just realized I missed a bunch out.... here's a sneaky extra 4 entries

Firewatch This was a good human story, well told by a studio who knew exactly what they were doing. Like Gone Home, this is demonstrated most effectively by their mastery of scope - it's just big enough to be delivered on time, with enough innovation to make it real and interesting, but familiar enough to be made reliably. I definitely cared about Henry & Delilah's story, and I yearned for a summer wasted out in a cabin in the woods. Also, special shoutout to the Campo Santo quarterly - if this game had no reason to be but to give them an excuse to give Duncan Fyfe money, it would have been worth it.

Stephen's Sausage Roll "A simple puzzle game". This is a masterwork - every puzzle asks something new of you, and yet the entire game operates on the same logic. Over time, you start to see things through the eyes of a sausage-pusher - every element starts reading in terms of its affordances, and everything starts chunking as a higher level plan. It's a noticeable shift in perception - similar to how Super Hexagon bent the flow of time.

Quadrilateral Cowboy This maybe shouldn't be on this list, because while I played a reasonable amount of it, I don't know I fully got the measure of it. It sketches a world, it exudes a particular style, it layers virtual space on top of virtual space, it gives you satisfying things to chew against - but it keeps switching stuff up, never establishing a formula and letting you just exist within it for a space of time. Which is definitely how I'd prefer things to be, but (like Cargo! The Quest For Gravity) means you need to actually finish the damn thing to feel like you can properly pass judgement.

Wheels of Aurelia This came out after Firewatch, but I'm still glad it was on public display early enough it was clear that they didn't rip the conversation picking mechanic from it. Like Firewatch, it's about doing a task while conversing, but where Firewatch goes the literary fiction route of being about a dude's internal feelings, Wheels of Aurelia is outward facing, and is about making strong choices and dealing with creeps and abortion and political action. It's very Italian.

Aaaaaand, cheekily, Beasts of Balance I have spent a lot of time playing this game, and longer watching others play it, and longer than that making it. I am incapable of viewing it with any distance - but I think we did well, and it is a good game.

And that was this year! I guess I played more videogames than I thought. Are there any lessons to be learned, taking the list as a whole? I guess it's that there are a lot of games out there, and many of them are good, and many of them make money. Isn't that nice? See you next year!

18 December 2016