Jason Imms is a guest columnist for Giant Bomb, and a full-time freelancer for a bunch of other sites and mags. He stubbornly lives on that little island-state at the southern end of Australia, smoking meat, playing games, and being a dad to a whole bunch of daughters. Follow him on Twitter.
We’re nearly there, everyone. The end of 2016 is upon us, and 2017 will be a brand-new day! Well, I mean, a lot of the shitty things about 2016 will continue to be shitty in 2017. I guess that’s true. But it’s a whole new year! Anything could happen!
Hold on: anything could happen, couldn’t it? Literally anything. Beautiful and wondrous things, atrocious and horrifying things. The chaos of possibility extends in all directions, and we are little more than a leaf on the ocean, cosmically-speaking and--
Oh wait, someone left a window open and a cold existential draft got in. Let me close that up real quick. Okay great! Now let’s warm our hands by the blazing video game hearth, and remember some truly excellent games that came out this year. Games that distracted us from our worries and fears about the world. Games that grappled with those fears and taught us ways to cope. Games that allowed us to discuss shared experiences with others, giving us perspective on the real world around us, and even just a sliver of hope.
I’ve never considered myself a fan of racing games. I generally prefer more narrative-driven experience, and let’s face it, there isn’t much of story in Forza Horizon 3. The player takes on the role of festival organiser, which is mostly just a thin pretence to justify the ability to choose new locations to unlock, build new races, and gather a roster of other A.I. drivers to race alongside. And yet? I adored my time with Forza Horizon 3. I wasn’t in it for the story--what was there served its purpose. I wasn’t even in it to make the best times. The simple experience of driving in the game was a soothing balm, a respite from reality. The gorgeous, light-hearted presentation of Australia, the music, the ridiculous vehicles, and exceptional production values all added up to a game that felt like being on holiday with your phone switched off.
Homeworld is far and away my favourite RTS series. I’ve missed it sorely in the years since the closing credits of Homeworld 2 crossed my monitor. I was disappointed to read Deserts of Kharak would be planet-bound rather than set in space. But my fears dimmed as soon as I got a taste of that glorious soundtrack. Invoking the finely balanced feelings of hope and desperation of the original, Paul Ruskay followed in his own iconic footsteps, while crafting a sound that felt grounded (pun intended). The trudging Kapisi that acted in place of the Mothership from the original games was still both home and life for my nomadic army, as it made its way across the wastes in search of salvation against all odds.
Speaking of soundtracks, the jaunty, whimsical music produced by composer Daniel Golding for Push Me Pull You is pitch-perfectly aligned with the tone of my favourite local multiplayer game of 2016. This game is an utter delight. I’ve played PMPY (affectionately pronounced “pumpy” by the developers) with friends and strangers of all ages. My favourite thing is standing back and watching people playing their first match. Watching disgust and delight play over their faces as they learn how to share control of their sports-monsters, seeing them discover advanced strategies, and come up with their own lexicons of terms for the odd and unsettling behaviours of those writhing flesh tube creatures. Just wonderful.
The multi-award winning Killing Time at Lightspeed was re-released this year on Steam, giving a whole new audience a chance to experience it. KTaL:EE takes the player on a journey across the stars, at lightspeed. This means that a multi-year journey occurs passes in mere minutes, from the player’s perspective. The player can interact with friends and family back home via a Twitter-like fictional social media client, and watch as years of character and political development occur right in front of their eyes. The use of crowd-sourced character writing added an interesting and realistic flavour to the narrative, and resulted in characters that naturally invited you to love and hate them, much like people on real-world social media. It’s exploration of transhumanism, and the allegory to present-day issues of acceptance and representation are poignant and respectfully crafted.
It’s SO fast. Doom was pure nostalgia for me. I can take or leave the setting--I always found Doom’s heavy-handed AAH DEMONS ON MARS thing a little unsubtle, but nothing plays like this game. Some of my fondest gaming memories are of playing competitive Quake II at a massive LAN I used to attend once a month in my hometown. Every single minute of this modern incarnation of Doom makes me feel the way I felt in the fleeting and rare moments of my greatest competitive Quake II victories. Doom is the example all modern-retro games should aspire to, having achieved the impossible: To honour the past while incorporating design lessons from the present.
I adored the original Titanfall, and was scandalised to watch its player base dwindle well before its time. Respawn has taken that solid core of a game and refined it, shaving off the sharp edges, and polishing it until it shines brightly. The single-player campaign is a huge amount of fun (despite a dry first third) boasting some of the best level design of the year. The multiplayer is finely tuned to make the player feel powerful, whether they’re whipping around on foot, or plodding along in a giant robot they called down from space. Both are tense for different reasons. When you’re in your titan, you’re a massive target. Damage comes at you from all sides, and you desperately want to make your titanfall count. When you’re on foot, you’re squishy and vulnerable. But if you can master those traversal mechanics? You can become a whirlwind of death and destruction on the end of a grappling hook.
The crew over at Playdead are masters of their craft. Inside is mechanically very simple, but every single screen of the game is a masterclass in restraint. The story it tells is deeply unsettling, crafting a callous and twisted world, without a word of text or overt exposition. Its inhabitants are either monstrous, or simply accustomed to what life is in that place. I love the fact that you never feel like you have a real handle on why you’re being put through its trials, or what your malevolent captors get out of their twisted experiments. It’s a game that uses subtext to great effect, which is so rare in video games. I don’t need the developers to tell a story in excruciating detail, I want the mystery to persist. I want the space to interpret and postulate. Inside delivers on that in an exceptionally satisfying way.
Sure, there are some sections in there that have drawn some ire, and some of the extended combat sequences got a little tiresome. But for the most part? Uncharted 4 was a stunningly high-quality experience, and there just aren’t enough of those. The game’s cinematic presentation begs you to jump into photo mode and take some screenshots for either sharing or simply for posterity. Nathan Drake was also cast in an intriguingly negative light, barely able to contain his excitement at “unavoidably” being drawn back into a life he’d left in order to settle down and focus on family. While the gunplay isn’t the best in class, it was a huge improvement over previous games in the series, and the set pieces. Oh my, the set pieces. Simply stunning.
Blizzard’s hugely popular debut first-person-shooter drew me back into a nightly routine of online multiplayer like no game since Team Fortress 2. Its accessible nature, wonderful variety of heroes to choose from, and interesting and fresh-feeling character-specific abilities were, and continue to be a delight. Key to my enjoyment though was the effort Blizzard put into improving the overall demeanour of its community. Its text-replacements for common put-downs, and focus on positive reinforcement rather than comparative stats has made a noticeable difference to my desire to play yet another round. Add to that an amazingly diverse cast of likable heroes, and you’ve got recipe for a game that’s hard to beat.
…unless you’re Firewatch. Campo Santo’s modern-day adventure absolutely hooked me, from its opening homage, to its text-based roots, to the divisive closing scene. My reasons for liking Firewatch are many: It’s gorgeous, the perfect length, wonderfully written and acted; but the thing I keep coming back to is something that probably qualifies as a spoiler, so be forewarned.
It was the fact that I was totally and unequivocally caught-up in the intense paranoia Henry and Delilah built in one another. The pair are both running from their respective pasts. When simple forest life didn’t prove to be enough to satisfy their desire for escape, they twisted the events around them into a self-centred conspiracy that did all but block out the sun. Two moments early in the game shatter the previously established physical solitude of the forest, which completely put me on edge.
As the pair wound their fantastical mutual conspiracy ever-tighter, I started to see shadows leaping behind trees in my periphery, and could swear I could hear footsteps and twigs snapping in the forest right behind me. I was so sure of it, I couldn’t help but ask Campo Santo’s Sean Vanaman--on the record, when I was supposed to be focused on our Train Jam interview--whether they increased the volume and frequency of twig-snapping ambient noise, and shadow effects as the story progressed. “I can promise you we did not,” he said, with a hand over his heart. Firewatch was truly gripping, mature, and worthy of the accolades it’s received. And there’s nothing embarrassing about it! It’s an easy recommendation, the kind of game you could hand to someone to show just how far the medium has come.