Maybe you had a great year somehow living on a private island, chatting with the pod of talking dolphins that live in the lagoon by your beachfront house. But I gotta say, a whole lot of folks did not have a great time in 2016.
There’s a song off Sleater-Kinney’s most recent record that contains probably the most perfect description of right now:
This year we lived on dread. Try as you might to block it out, it was like anxious music buzzing through your skull. It seems everyone I know is scared, angry, worried, poor, and tired. You just want a nap and a moment of peace but the world rolls on, with you hanging onto it. And like all art, video games can speak to that. This year some games did. And for that I’m thankful. In the loudness and the confusion and the one-thing-after-another, there were some perfect moments with games in 2016. And they often involved skeletons.
Spoilers ahead for all of these games, especially #1, which should not be spoiled if you haven’t played it yet. This list is in no particular order aside from the top 4.
I don’t actually play a lot of big blockbuster games like this, so my first thought was GEEZ THIS LOOKS EXPENSIVE. I’ve never been big into the shooting part of Uncharted games, and I like the traversal stuff fine, but it’s not the main draw for me. SECRET: There’s a gosh-dang walking simulator hidden in Uncharted 4. It’s been there in previous games, but in U4 it’s given almost as much space as the shooting and the swinging. There’s this chill exploration/relationship game at the heart of Uncharted 4, and I am a sucker for that kind of thing. It’s a game that gives you plenty of time to just be somewhere, with someone. I was like the reverse of the gamer cliche--I was hammering through the combat to get to the next bit where Nathan and Elena could wander around and work through their weird superhero adventurer relationship. All the times Nathan and Sam could just sit down and hang out, chat about life or whatever else was on their minds at the time. I wanted to wander in that world with these characters. The epilogue and double epilogue of that game I think show where its heart is. And there’s a really mind-blowing motorcycle chase midway through the game too. That was cool.
Hyper Light Drifter is cool. It just is. It looks cool. It sounds cool. Even that title--what even is a Hyper Light Drifter? I think that’s the main character? Either way it sounds super cool. Once I got a feel for it I was zipping around the screen dispatching all manner of mutants and robots, slashing and shooting and dashing all over the place. It’s clearly a labor of love, which comes through in the small details--the idles of NPCS, their little stories, the pains the game takes to impress upon you the frailty of your character. That whole world feels so fragile. It’s already seen its great catastrophe, but it isn’t dead--rather, things feel tenuous. When you do see massive, unconquerable, earth-shattering things, they’re lying dead on the ground, or on the side of a mountain. You’re climbing over their corpses. The giants are dead in Hyper Light Drifter, but little you goes on.
First off--god this game was gorgeous, right? There are a few bits where you’re out during the gloaming, and it’s just a red and orange haze drifting into blues as night falls. Lovely.
Firewatch is part of my favorite genre, the modern post-point and click adventure game. It’s a huge umbrella and for my money it’s the most exciting place to be for games right now. A lot has been said about Firewatch’s story and characters and dialogue, but what I remember most about it was actually how it captured a certain sort of creepiness. The creepiness that someone is standing near you. The creepiness that you are alone, in the middle of nowhere, and someone is there too. And you have no idea what they’re doing or where they are, or if you’re just being paranoid. I used to feel this when I was hiking around the woodsy north Jersey town I grew up in. At some point you stop and realize it’s very quiet, and it’s just you. Alone. Out here. Back then I had my headphones. Here you have a radio and the voice of someone in the distance. Firewatch captures that uncanniness of solitude precisely because it’s so mundane. For how many games hang their hat on solitude and isolation, it’s remarkable how Firewatch does it so much better than almost any other.
I was an idiot and started playing The Witcher 3 this fall. I have no time to play the Witcher 3. I got through the first two areas of the game and am now in some northern place, and that’s where I had to leave off. The Witcher has maybe the most living open world I’ve ever hung out in. The landscapes are complicated and beautiful. The villages seem like villages. I spent so much time just walking around being like, “Hey, that person’s doing laundry,” and, “Hey, there are stockpiles of food,” and, “Look! Geese!" There are several large towns as well, and they just feel alive. There are gutters, and different widths of streets, and the markets sell a range of things you’d find in a market. There are cats.
There’s a focus on the effects of war in this one--not the actual fighting of wars per se, but the effects on people and land. There are refugees and card checks. There are borders separating families. And it’s all there in front of you on the same roads you’re riding on. Not some mythical hardship far away, but there occupying the same space with you. Human-sized. The twisting Bloody Baron storyline lived up to the hype I’d absorbed in the year or so since the game came out. It is a truly stunning, rambling yarn that goes much farther into weirdness than it first appears. But even when the story isn’t riding at that very impressive high, the world more than makes up for it. And I grew to love Geralt, who is a grumpy detective dad. Video games are packed with grizzled dads, but Geralt has a lightness to him, a no-nonsense humanism. He’s there to help, to solve problems, to be of some comfort if he can. That’s some decent dad stuff.
My friends and I talk about The Fear. The Fear is the awareness of living in precarity, that state of instability caused by not having security of finances, job, healthcare, etc. You get The Fear through contact--you were evicted, you lost your job, you went a long time with nothing, you lost everything, you barely scraped by. If you’ve never had The Fear, it can be difficult to convey how deep and abiding this thing is. But once you have it you will probably never lose it. Over time it becomes a part of you, and you might even have some fondness for it.
It’s tough to come up with a good visual metaphor for The Fear. Diaries Of A Spaceport Janitor has a floating, barking skull. And your quest is to rid yourself of it, to survive, and maybe get off the planet. Not unlike the crucial Cart Life, Diaries has a fixation on the ritual of low wage work. Get up, check your bank balance, pray for a good day, go to work all day, budget your cash, come home at night, hope for better days. It’s the most common story as far as our lived experiences, and yet so few games are based on it. I loved Diaries of A Spaceport Janitor for telling that story, but with rad aliens and music.
OK I’m not gonna try to make anything of this. There is no deeper meaning. Sometime you just need to annihilate a horde of skeletons. Grim Dawn will give you that and more, in unending waves. It’s extremely good and fun. It’s ridiculous nonsense and it’s rad as hell.
Thumper is the feeling of a panic attack, and I know from regular experience. The knowledge that everything is tenuous and unstable, and that if you fuck up, your life will come crashing down. Thumper is having little control of the systems that control your life. Thumper is about having no ability to escape the unknown blows that come out of nowhere, at great speed. Thumper’s beetle’s situation is so unfair, but that doesn’t stop that situation from happening. Fast. Thumper is doom. Thumper is about learning how to glide, how to dance, how to learn the tells, and learning how to fight back--in glorious, glorious style. I will never beat Thumper. It’s also probably the best rhythm game I’ve ever played. Go play Thumper. It’s pure.
Dark Souls III sees yet another reframing of the central identity split that goes all the way back to Demon’s Souls. Alive vs Soul form. Human vs Hollowed. Kindled and Unkindled. Dark Souls III burns bright and goes dark. It doesn’t fade. It flames out. I loved the hell out of it.
I’m a big Souls games enjoyer, having discovered Demon’s Souls right as it came to the US in 2009. Who knows how final it will actually be, but Dark Souls III is kind of a victory lap for the whole mess of games that came before it, containing references to, and subversions of elements from all of them. There’s the obvious Dark Souls formula, there's some Bloodborne in there, along with plenty of Demon’s Souls (and thankfully little of Dark Souls). I don’t know if I can rightly say how it stands up in the series, because my love of it was informed in part by my love of what came before.
I don’t know how much the sheer love in this game comes though if you’re not hip to everything it’s waving farewell to. I shouted “OH MY GOD I’M BACK IN LATRIA” at one point and laughed out loud. The catacombs feature some of the best skeleton content (this is important to me if this list is any indication) in any game ever. And it’s really funny. The Souls games have a really underrated sense of dry, absurd humor. Dark Souls III is about endings. It can talk about doomed cycles it wants, but this feels like the one last glance. The period on the sentence. The specific ending I got saw me sitting next to someone, watching the light go out together. It was beautiful. And then it was over.
KR0 Act 4 takes place on a river. You can make decisions about where to stop and what to do there, but you can’t change the direction the river flows. The river is unpredictable--things appear and disappear, only to show up again in new places. A ship full of cats. A beach resort deep in the darkness of the cave. A memorial set up for a mine long gone, with a message left by the miners spitting one last insult at the company that sold them out. Bats. And as always with this series, people using or repurposing the old. Rebuilding themselves. Working obsolete equipment. Making homes where you wouldn’t expect there to be.
By this point in the game the cast has grown to include all kinds of interesting folks, and you play as all of them at one point or another. But the sad, slow descent of original protagonist Conway in this episode is what hit me hardest. At some point he just drifts away. Debt and alcohol. KR0 tells these stories. It humanizes and dignifies these places and struggles so many of us are familiar with. Working people. Flyover country. Our lives, our dreams, the magic of the world we live in, and the hardships we experience. KR0 is special. There’s one final episode to come at some point in the future. I hope we see Conway again. I want to know he’s ok. I want to know he got out alive.
Inside is untouchable. It is horrific. It is beautiful. A game where the music was actually created by buzzing it through a human skull (no seriously look it up) is the only game that can sum up this year. It’s a masterpiece of the small genre of narrative platformers. The art direction and animations are impeccable and subtle. The game is understatedly brutal and interested in body horror, which makes sense given that it’s from the makers of Limbo.
In the world Inside sets up you’re a small boy and it’s immediately apparent that you are unwanted in whatever this comfortably fascistic ruined world is. Every single human, nonhuman, or random dog that spots you wants to kill you and can, easily. You see other people, maybe like you, lined up, being loaded onto busses and trains. They’re mindless but not without voices, and you soon discover how they’re being controlled. These shambling people become your compatriots. They wear laborer clothes. No one else in the game does. Are they beings grown to order for labor and entertainment? It doesn’t really matter--you’re all up against the same people. These cops, these tie-wearing professionals, these people at their desks. Presumably some of them were responsible for the bizarre state the world is in. You’ll never know because if even you tried to ask they’d kill you on sight for the crime of… what? Being what you are? The game never answers this question. It doesn’t need to.
You are fragile, and scared, and it can feel hopeless. But you’ll make it through. You’ll join up with us, and together we’ll be something massive. We’ll crash through walls and run right over the people who ruined the world, who put us in lines, who killed us, who experimented on us, who caged us, who made us work, who treated us as less than human.
We’ll be a monster together, because we had no other choice. And this way we get to be together. And we’ll get free. You were small. Now we’re massive.
We’ll be horrific. We’ll be beautiful. Here’s to a better 2017.