Austin Walker is the editor-in-chief of Waypoint at VICE. You may also recall his work on another video game website--THIS video game website, in fact. You can reach Professa Killah, AKA Bars von Trier, AKA The Editor In Beef, AKA like 76 other aliases, via Twitter.
So, this has been a really weird year for me. Back in January, most of my time was spent in front of a camera, microphone, or keyboard--and that’s where you saw me. Then in July, I moved over to VICE to launch Waypoint, and now I spend most of my days doing behind the scenes work (and, honestly, playing fewer games than I wish I was). I went from being a Giant Bomb #content creator back into being a loyal fan.
And that’s why instead of giving you a top 10 list of my favorite games this year--which you can find over on Waypoint.VICE.com (aka waypoint.zone, aka bazinga.zone, aka digitalpyramids.com) this Saturday--I’m giving you a list of my ten favorite games I watched other people play this year. I’ve tried hard to include new releases. But also, uh… well… these first three, they’re maybe a little long in the tooth.
I’d heard so much cool shit about this game, but watching Vinny play Rondo was still a huge surprise for me this year. It’s often the case that classics don’t “hold up” to contemporary taste--which doesn’t mean that they’re bad games necessarily--but holy shit, Rondo pulls it off.
Rondo is purposefully paced, with levels that last just long enough to keep your attention before being punctuated by dynamic and cinematic boss fights. It’s stylish in a way that both apes the ascendent anime of its time while still holding up. And goddam, the music.
Remember when I said that classics don’t always hold up to contemporary taste? Yeah. Yup. Mmmmmmhm. But also: I watched two different full play-throughs of Shenmue this year (Giant Bomb’s and Run Button’s), and that has to count for something right?
Watching someone play Shenmue is like watching someone open up a time capsule buried by a stranger. The contents reflect what a person in the past thought the future might hold. Shenmue offered a future vision of games that was interested in the mundanity of everyday life, that evoked lived in spaces, and that eschewed traditional genre divides. It’s a game I don’t want to play at all ever, but fuck am I ever glad I got to see it again.
When I first set out to write this list, I thought it would be full of uncut let’s play style videos. And I mean, it mostly is. But with Overwatch, I never needed to watch a full game to enjoy it. Here is the hypest shit I saw all year:
Here’s what just happened. Roadhog got knocked into a pit, but just before he fell to his death, he chain-grabbed Mercy, at which point Pharah flew over, allowing Mercy to latch onto her to lift herself up to safety. Are you kidding me? And now, six months or so after that clip was first taken, this sort of play is nothing compared to the highlights that I see making the rounds.
I love watching Overwatch because I can understand complex plays, even when they’re built on strategies I could’ve never thought of myself. That really reflects the baseline accessibility of Overwatch’s design, which is easily one of the game’s greatest strengths.
Superhot VR is a long string of are you fucking kidding me moments. It’s also the first VR Exclusive that’s made me even consider investing in a platform I don’t have. Just please go watch Jeff play Superhot VR right now if you haven’t already.
But I also wanna shout out regular old Superhot. This is a game that first showed us it’s mechanical “punchline” over two years ago, and yet the main course managed to still surprise, challenge, and delight. That’s an achievement.
Strategy games, and especially grand strategy games like Stellaris and Crusader Kings II, can be incredibly overwhelming. There are a ton of valuable menus and charts, all of which you navigate through dozens of important buttons and shortcut keys. And then, once you understand how to play the game at the most basic level, you have to learn how to understand and prioritize what are often really abstract goals.
When I try to learn how to do all of that through in game tutorials straight-forward text or video lessons, I find my interest totally dying. I come to these games because they let me tell incredible, systems-driven stories at scales both galactically wide and intimately close. So is it any surprise that I want to learn about them in a similar way?
For Stellaris, that’s where let’s plays and streams (including Paradox’s own) came in. Players tackled this new, complex game at their own pace in ways that taught me its many systems, but while still engaging with the storytelling and world building antic that I love about grand strategy games to begin with.
Plus, it’s nice just to listen to people talk sometimes, you know? (And hey, if you’re trying to figure out where to start with these, a lot of people will recommend Quill18, but I also recommend DasTastic. Good voice, bright personality, can’t lose.)
Tee K.O. is a game with a lot of guts.
Overall, the Jackbox Party Pack games have been hit or miss, but there has been a really strong commonality in the games that “work": The distance between setup and punchline is tight. You spend a minute scribbling a giraffe lawyer in Drawful, and then within the next minute minutes, you’re laughing at your friends’ shitty drawings, and your friends are all laughing at the fact that you forgot to give it a long neck. Whoops.
Tee K.O. completely throws that model away. It takes (and I’ve checked) over seven minutes to go from title to first punchline--and that’s just the moment you see the t-shirts you’re combining on your own device. It’s another minute or so until the whole room sees the joke you’ve cobbled together from their jokes.
But what a joke it is. Again and again and again Tee K.O. shows the power of random collaboration (and the brain’s ability to tactically fill in the gaps).
At this point, I feel like everyone knows that it’s fun to watch people fuck up in Overcooked. And it is. It’s really, really funny.
The surprising part is that it’s just as fun watching a team come together, figure out a plan, and execute effectively on it. Like a good kitchen crew, a good Overcooked team is a goddamned machine. It’s a sight to behold.
We learned this week that Frog Fractions 2 is real.
But in some ways, it’s been real for years, in the form of a series of alternate reality games. You can click the link above to read Patrick’s deep dive into FF2’s development and it’s attached ARG(s) and release, and as the editor-in-chief of Waypoint, obviously I recommend doing that. But you should also absolutely visit the Game Detectives wiki page for FF2, because holy shit.
Watching these ARG communities come together to solve the FF2 ARG (and its attached Sigil ARG, too) was rad as hell--even (maybe even especially) when members were reaching for connections that weren’t really there. In a world where “internet detectives” have really fucked things up for people in the last few years, it’s nice to see a version of that behavior given a playful space to exist.
How could it be anything else? I have like seven versions of this entry written in my head. One about how Hitman is my favorite game of the year even though I never played it. Another about the nature of comic timing and the arc of a gently tossed knife. A third about how much I appreciate games that can captivate even players who historically don’t love “fans of the genre.”
Instead, can we talk about Warren Spector’s dream game? It’s a thing he’s said a number of times, but here’s an example from an interview with MCV:
“My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly.”
It’s a very Warren Spector dream, right? An intensely detailed simulation driven by the surprising interaction of its systems and objects. Player agency and freedom and experimentation and… Frankly, it’s always sounded so self-serious--and this is me talking, y’all.
My big hang up has been this: Real city blocks are messy, but Warren Spector directed games (and many of the cousins of the game’s he’s helped to design) feel clean, hand-crafted, hand-placed. Physics and linear time insists that the components for a city block have a place, but they never feel placed, you know? I worried that the most I’d feel like in a game like this was a special gear in an intricate, clockwork world--a fear that seemed proved out after 2014’s Consortium failed to excite me.
But Hitman has made me reconsider this whole thing. Because Hitman is the “One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly,” except you play as the world’s deadliest hitman, and it’s messy, and it’s hilarious.
Hitman doesn’t try to build a world through email terminals or tell a story through hyper-detailed, yet mundane objects. It builds a world through the clever design of places like Sapienza, and through the mechanical operation the city’s inhabitants. Then, it tells a story through your interdiction into that operation. And that’s rad as hell.
The “one block RPG” stopped appealing to me when I realized that my presence would “mess it up” in the same what that my dissonant play in Watch Dogs 2 or Deus Ex: Mandkind Divided breaks the illusion of those worlds. But in Hitman, success comes from playing along with the simulation just long enough before finally pulling the rug out from everything. In Hitman, you’re that bad feeling in the air. You’re the glitch in the Matrix.
In Hitman, you’re not the one, special gear in an intricately designed clockwork world. You’re the wrench.