Since I last presented a year-end videogame wrap-up for Boing Boing readers, it's become an exponentially harder task. The number of games released per day has - even just since 2014! - risen a few times over, so narrowing a list down means leaving amazing and creative work behind. That's not even to mention the herculean task of staying on top of the pile of games still unplayed.
2016 gave us a generous amount of powerhouse titles hoisted by massive budgets and massive marketing efforts: hello Overwatch, Dark Souls III, Doom, No Man's Sky, Pokémon Sun & Moon, and especially Uncharted 4. But I did my best to wander the far corners of the internet, searching and sometimes blindly stumbling upon weird, beautiful, thoughtful videogames.
Below you'll find 20ish games (actually quite a good number more) that sang to me the most, and I think exemplify the best that 2016 had to offer. You'll find interesting places to explore, unique achievements and re-inventions of old standards, and brilliant ideas executed simply. I hope you find them as surprising and delightful as I did.
by A.P. Thomson & Jenny Jiao Hsia • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Beglitched is, on its face, a fairly simple match-3 type game, on the same family-tree branch as Bejeweled or Candy Crush or any other number of similar clones you may have spent all your idle moments thumbing around with on your phone over the past few years.
But here, its creators — then NYU Game Center students A.P. Thomson and Jenny Jiao Hsia — have added an honestly quite engaging & effective narrative layer about hacking layer-by-layer deeper into an intentionally-misplaced laptop, and battling against other hackers, each of whom are trying to keep you out of their various network nodes.
The game is rife with refreshingly on-point commentary about life & vulnerability on the internet in 2016, and stacks of secrets for you to pierce through, all of which lies on top of a great twist on match-3 mechanics. This is one of the best entry points into the world of indie games this year.
Capsule Silence XXIV
by Anamanaguchi & Ben Esposito • Get it: Windows/Mac
In one of the year's best low-key art stunts, New York City electronic pop band Anamanaguchi had a spectacular melt-down this past March, in which they deleted their entire Twitter archive, overnight. The move, according to all-caps tweetstorm before the mass deletion, was in protest of contractual disagreements over a 33 million-dollar videogame extravaganza (codenamed Project Homunculus, a 'Millenial Game & Culture VR Development'), which they'd secretly been developing & alpha-testing behind closed doors for years.
Just prior to their entire social media presence being taken over by their "manager", "Devin" (whom no one seems to have managed to photograph, let alone meet in person, in the months since), the band managed to "leak" an in-progress version of the game, which then spread almost exclusively via confused & bemused tweets and reddit posts.
Created with the help of developer Ben Esposito (part of the LA-based game collective Arcane Kids), the Capsule Silence XXIV demo begins with the promise of an epic (if overwrought) sci-fi/fantasy storyline starring the band members themselves, before suddenly crashing entirely. Only then are you presented with the hidden option to venture behind the curtain into its "developer sandbox", where the real game begins.
What happens from there on is best left discovered yourself (though you can watch a good portion of it in my playthrough above). Coming in blind to Capsule Silence now will almost certainly feel like you're in over your head on a joke you totally missed the setup for, but it quickly becomes one of the most intriguing experiences of the year, backed by some of the best people working in both music and games.
In a year packed back-to-back with massive AAA games, Dishonored 2 stood apart, managing to create something truly original that both spoke with its own confident & distinct voice, and was tremendously mechanically pleasing.
Though you'll have to go pretty far out of your way to find footage of the game that shows much beyond hyper-violent jump-cuts of soldiers being knifed in the neck (see: above, and which is, of course, an entirely legitimate way to play the game), that wasn’t quite the game I played. My version featured far more silent sneaking through some of the most beautifully & intricately crafted spaces I’ve seen in big-budget games in a while, trying to leave behind as little of a mess as possible. Others tried to find as many creative ways to dispose of some characters as possible. Everything is permitted.
Whichever way you might want to wend your way through, if you want to see what’s been happening in “big" games over the past few years, you won't find a much finer example.
Dragon Quest Builders
You'd be 100% forgiven for presuming what Dragon Quest Builders is at first glance. For as much as it builds on the lineage & narrative of the very first game in the series (known here as the mid-80s NES role-playing-game Dragon Warrior), it wears its Minecraft very plainly on its sleeve.
But, for as much as you might be convinced (as I initially was) that the game was a simple grab for Minecraft dollars with a franchise-branded clone, the actual meat of the game here is really uniquely structured. Played out as a series of storybook chapters, each quest starts with you again dressed in rags, back at the drawing board, and tasked with venturing out into the unforgiving world to gather everything you need to plant and nourish your home base, both to the whims of your own design, and at the request of other wanderers who happen in and take residence.
Most interestingly, the game repeatedly drives home that you’re not the or even a great, conquering warrior in this game - you’re more or less just a humble servant with enough pluck to pull together resources and lay down bricks side-by-side. On top of that, the fact that each subsequent chapter continually subverts the way in which you solved the previous one made this way more compulsive than I'd expected — this ended up being the equivalent of my "bedtime-story game" for several weeks.
Earth Defense Force 4.1
Next up is actually a game that I brought up back in 2014, which was re-released this year for modern consoles and also for PCs for the first time. But, until every person I know is playing this, I’m going to bring it up forever.
Earth Defense Force 4.1, for the uninitiated, is a continuation of a series that’s been around for some 13 years now, since the PlayStation 2. There is nothing more to this game than basically exactly what you see above: over a series of about 100 levels, you get dropped into a quasi-futuristic Tokyo suburb, with nothing more than two weapons of your choice. Then, the game spawns something like a billion giant bugs or strange UFOs half a block away, leans back, shrugs its shoulders, and sees how you endure.
I usually describe it as the 21st-century super-literal B-movie answer to Space Invaders. It is unrepentantly so dumb, and so fun, and now supports playing with your friends online. If you’ve ever wanted to climb aboard a cumbersome giant mech and literally just punch Godzilla square in the face, Earth Defense Force has got you more than adequately covered.
A lock for strongest studio debut of 2016, Campo Santo's Firewatch is infamously a hard game to pin down, so here I'll simply say that it's a narrative adventure where you’re uncovering intriguing morsels of plot simply by moving forward through the world, and that it’s one of the best true "mystery" games we’ve had in ages.
Played from the vantage point of a park ranger who took the job of watching out for forest fires to get away from the world for the summer, you’re essentially alone in the woods the entire time, only communicating over walkie-talkie with a fellow fire-watcher in a tower across the park. Without the ability to actually meet your compatriot, let alone ever even really see her, over the course of the game you begin to wonder if you should be opening up to her as much as you are, or whether something more nefarious might be at play.
Many of the folks who crafted this story also worked on a number of chapters of the Walking Dead adventure games, so if you liked the way those stories were constructed, or just want to experience fantastic storytelling in a genuinely, jaw-droppingly beautiful simulacrum of the Wyoming wilderness, this is a perfect game for you.
Hidden My Game By Mom
By far the "smallest" game on this list, created by a one-man Japanese development team who drops three or four free games on mobile devices every year, this still manages to be one of the funniest.
The premise here is that Mom is continually upset that you spend so much time on your Nintendo DS, and so decides that every single day she'll hide it in a new place around the house. Your job is simply to tap around until you unearth it.
That might be as simple as the first level you can see above, where she’s just shoved it behind some books on the bookcase, but day-by-day she makes it more outlandishly hard to find. Even better, Mom herself begins to lurk in various places alongside the DS itself, ready to pounce on you if you slip up and root around too recklessly.
This game is entirely free and won’t take you more than an hour or two to finish. By the end of its 30-something levels, though, it becomes so self-aware and -referential, and so laugh out loud funny, and then caps itself off with such an oddly emotional ending, that you should not end the year without giving it your time.
First announced in 2014 and finally landing on consoles and PC this year, Inside is by the same team that previously created Limbo, an indie classic in its own right from many years back. If you're familiar with Limbo, you will know more or less what to expect here: it’s a game heavy on simply moving from left to right, pausing in areas to solve an environment puzzle or two before moving on to the next.
That said, what makes Inside truly remarkable is the amount of cinematic fidelity and polish they’ve manage to wring out what seems at first glance like a fairly low-detail world. The subtlety and fluidity of its animation, and particularly its sound design (recorded, it turns out, by piping through the sound through a replica human skull) went largely unparalleled this year.
uh, so, the INSIDE soundtrack was recorded by piping the sound into a human skull with a contact mic on it... https://t.co/5j1DX7tSeT pic.twitter.com/7YqpMFzUPx— Brandon Boyer (@brandonnn) October 6, 2016
The developers pride themselves the most on its end-game twist, and with good reason. It's a twist which hopefully no one’s spoiled for you by now, and one which you should try super hard to leave unspoiled by before you hit its final hour.
Another "small" but fantastically beautiful game, Islands was released by a designer named Carl Burton, best known as the artist behind indescribably intriguing hyper-real spaces, which he releases primarily as animated gifs. He's got a Twitter and a Tumblr feed full of them, and each one is a place that you desperately want to reach your hand into and touch.
Perhaps most famously, when the podcast Serial returned for its second season, they commissioned Burton to illustrate each episode with one of these gifs, all similarly meticulously constructed but entirely devoid of human life.
And so it was super exciting to learn that he’d quietly also been creating an actual interactive version of those illustrations, that being Islands: a version of his worlds that you finally actually are able to touch and interact with. It's the year's best example of what happens when you bring artists who haven’t previously worked in games and let their imagination run wild.
Kentucky Route Zero
by Cardboard Computer • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Another game that got a mention in 2014 - but made a very strong return with the fourth of its five chapters in 2016 - is Kentucky Route Zero, consistently my first answer when someone asks where they should start exploring modern indie games.
Not only does KR0 have one of the most unique senses of art direction and scene design, all drawing inspiration from theater set design and arthouse film, it’s also one of the best games akin to The American Novel, maybe most easily described as a point and click version of a magical realist/Southern Gothic story.
This latest chapter takes place on a version of the Echo River that flows through the Mammoth Cave system in real-world Kentucky - which not coincidentally was the same network of caves that inspired Colossal Cave Adventure, the 1976 text adventure that created the genre. As much a lovesong to videogame adventures themselves as anything else, if you don’t play any other indie game on this list, I hope you're at least are inspired to go try this.
The Last Guardian
by gen DESIGN • Get it: PlayStation 4
Just released a few weeks back, and a game that probably has come closer than many others to not existing at all over the past decade, The Last Guardian likely has not escaped your 2016 radar, but is listed here to confirm that it was wholeheartedly worth the wait, and is arguably the actual best game to come out of the year.
Designed by Fumito Ueda, also behind Ico & Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 2, The Last Guardian caps off the trilogy and seemingly effortlessly establishes itself as another videogame version of the "arthouse classic".
As you can see above, its core conceit is the relationship you, as this young boy, have with the giant dog/cat/bird/griffin Trico, one of the most “alive” & independently-minded creatures you’ve ever interacted with in a game. Even though Trico is your primary “vehicle” through these massive labyrinthine spaces you’ve woken up into, it’s anything but at your actual beck and call. Instead, you have to slowly eke out a trusting relationship with it, and learn to read its signals as you would an actual animal.
Just as in real pet life, Trico can be maddeningly deaf to your commands, and enormously frustrating to work with, but that’s precisely what gives the game its emotional weight and makes it unlike anything you’ve ever played before. Anything more I can really say about this game will sound even more like over-earnest platitudes, but it truly is one of the best videogame experiences I’ve ever had, and an absolute essential 2016 game.
The Mystic Western Game Jam
by Various • Play them: Here
This one's may be cheating a bit, as it isn't actually a single game, but rather a collection of games that came out of the Mystic Western Game Jam, a jam organized by the videogame non-profit I co-founded, JUEGOS RANCHEROS, many of which which we toured out to the actual mystical West Texas desert, for this year's installment of the Marfa Film Festival.
I bring it up not to be entirely self-serving and say boy what a wonderful thing we did, but because more than a handful of the games that people ended up creating were truly remarkable, and introduced us to incredibly talented folks that we’d never really talked to or collaborated with before.
In particular, Black Gold, the game you see above, comes from Conor Mccann, who himself lives alone in a tiny house out in the middle of West Texas, and was able to perfect nail the spirit of the high desert that we were were hoping to evoke, and a number of the other games like Pippin Barr's modern rumination on the classic game Oregon Trail did the same.
In general, nearly all of the 50ish games submitted to jam were great for one reason or another, and all are playable for free by visiting the jam site itself. More than anything, the jam was just a great way to feel connected to a bunch of independent artists and creators from all corners of the globe, all coming together under a single theme.
by Bennett Foddy & A.P. Thomson • Learn more: Here
Easily one of the most interesting experiments/developments in games that has happened in quite a long time, Multibowl is another entry from NYU Game Center's A.P. Thomson (in addition to Beglitched above), created along with Bennett Foddy, a Game Center professor known best for his web games like QWOP & GIRP.
Often described as a "videogame mixtape", Multibowl is a two-player game where players are dropped smack in the middle of a bunch of different games, with seven or so seconds to figure out what to do, and how to play. So far, so WarioWare, but what’s interesting about Multibowl is that all of the 300 games you can find yourself inserted into are actual PC, console or arcade games from throughout the past four decades.
You might one moment be playing 15 or so seconds of Street Fighter II, and then suddenly get dropped into the middle of a Super Nintendo Mario Kart race, followed by a jump into an obscure Intellivision game no one has even thought about for the last 35 years. In essence, it's a first-hand playable trip through all of videogame history, as much as it is a competitive game in and of itself.
Because it’s obviously entirely not legal to distribute 300 console and arcade games, currently the only way you can play Multibowl is at live events. In addition to this year's XOXO Festival, we brought it to our Fantastic Arcade indie games festival as an official tournament (see the video above), as well as various other Austin, TX meetups, and it's likely to pop up around other places around the globe throughout 2017. Your best bet is to follow Foddy's Twitter for upcoming news, and if it ends up somewhere close to you, jump at the chance to give it a go - it's a truly remarkable technological and historical achievement, and one of this year’s greats.
Orchids to Dusk
by Pol Clarissou • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Another "small"/easily digestible game, Orchids to Dusk is by French developer Pol Clarissou, and puts players into the role of an interstellar traveller who crash lands on an unfamiliar planet. After coming-to from the crash, you quickly discover that you've got about two minutes of oxygen left, and no hope of extending that or escaping your fate.
It’s therefore a foregone conclusion that at the end of this game you will die - and you do! - and so as you start over and replay again, the question becomes: what would you do with your last two minutes of life?
Re-playing each time allows you to strike out in different directions away from your crash site, with different vistas and landmarks to explore, or you can simply sit down in a nice patch of alien flora and spend your last 90 or so seconds drinking in the melancholic serenity.
It’s a really beautifully existential little game, and is networked to other players in interesting, somewhat opaque ways, and, as tiny games go, this is one of the best.
Picross 3D Round 2
by Nintendo • Get it: Nintendo 3DS
The sequel to one of the best original Nintendo DS games, Picross 3D Round 2 is a puzzle game in which you carve objects out of the mathy stone blocks you can see above.
Each of the numbers is code for how many of the blocks in each column or row you need to paint either blue or yellow, or break away entirely, with just enough information obscured that sculpting the result requires logical deductions on the player's part.
For as confusing as it might seem at first glance, once you get into the groove of these puzzles, they totally take over your brain. I played at least a few rounds of this every day for something on the order of six months, and the game continually fed me more and more - it's a sprawling & super rewarding game, and if you’ve got a 3DS, it should definitely be your next download.
by Blendo Games • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Quadrilateral Cowboy is the magnum opus of Blendo Games' Brendon Chung, one of the best voices we’ve got working in indie games, who is formerly best known for his tiny, ultra-cinematic, jump-cut-heavy narrative essentials like Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving.
Here, he's created a late-70s/early-80s type low-tech cyberpunk adventure, where you pull off a series of heists by jacking into security systems and literally reprogramming them to do your bidding.
As you can see flashes of above, at its lowest level, you actually have to telnet into and script laser tripwires and security doors to shut on and off on cue, in order to give yourself a clear, timed-out path to enter and egress buildings with, say, stolen blueprints in hand.
It does a masterful job at building off its own fundamentals, if you have zero scripting background, and is in general is one of the best hacking games ever created, where hacking isn’t as much a one-off puzzle-solving minigame, but is rather — like in real life! — an ugly, basic sequence of command-line fiddling and batch execution.
Rhythm Heaven Megamix
by Nintendo • Get it: Nintendo 3DS
Another essential Nintendo 3DS sequel, Rhythm Heaven Megamix is the latest in a series that’s been around since Game Boy Advance days, but never really got its due in the U.S. Thankfully, Nintendo’s choice to course correct that was to pile in nearly every minigame that its ever created for the series' GBA, DS and Wii installations into this one 3DS collection, giving you the best of all entry points, if you’ve never crossed paths with the franchise before.
And what’s great about the Rhythm Heaven minigames is that - unlike games like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero - you’re not just tapping buttons along to a staff of notes flying at you. Instead, nearly all the games are about performing in step/on time to other performers on screen. That means that most of the tension in the game comes not just from simply staying on beat, but the idea that slipping off-rhythm is actually letting down your stage-mates and ruining a minutes-long performance for everyone. Less "I missed this note", and more "I'm blowing this for everyone."
All of these games end up being super funny just from that slapstick, "god-don’t-screw-this-up" sensibility, and if you have even the slightest rhythmic inkling to you, this is super worth checking out.
Trienalle Game Collection
Another collection of games compiled into a single entry, Triennale Game Collection was put together by Italian game designers and art community organizers Santa Ragione for an exhibition in Milan this year.
The best of the bunch here is a game called Neighbor, created by the same folks that made Kentucky Route Zero above, and a super beautiful 'mystic western' game in and of itself. But all of the four companion games in the package are great as well - including work by generative-art creator Katie Rose Pipkin, and another by Orchids to Dusk designer Pol Clarissou - and all five are available on PCs and mobile devices for free.
If you're at all curious to discover what's been happening in the world of capital-A “Art Games”, this is the best, most concise resource around.
Zero Time Dilemma
Released this year on both Windows and both the 3DS and PlayStation Vita, Zero Time Dilemma is actually the third and final installment in a series of adventure games collectively known as the Zero Escape games, and this recommendation comes with the red-letter caveat that while you should definitely play this game, you should definitely not play this game without playing the other two first.
The first was a game released in the latter days of the Nintendo DS called 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, and all of the games in this series follow that game’s same basic plot: nine strangers wake up in what you’d probably now recognize as a “room escape” puzzle scenario, only, of course, a dramatically deadly version.
In each of these games, like the second one here, Virtue's Last Reward, those strangers have to figure out how to escape each sealed-off abandoned-warehouse location by playing a series of games that loosely based on "game theory", John Nash's (paraphrasing extremely loosely) thought-experiment, where players are incentivized to win by screwing over their opponents, but if all the opponents decide to screw over the others, everybody loses.
So, with those nine contestants split into smaller groups, at crucial points in each game, you are given the option to decide whether or not they screw over the others, and then view the fallout of each scenario with, as above, deadly consequences.
But what’s really interesting about these games, especially beginning with Virtue's Last Reward, is that you're also given a full flowchart of your decisions from the beginning, mapping out all of the branching points of consequences, and allowed to jump around at will. That is to say, if you didn’t like the way decision A fell out, you can rewind and see what would have happened if you’d gone the other way.
But that’s not even really the interesting part! The interesting part is that the characters themselves, over the course of the game, start to become dimly aware that there seems to be some really weird monkeying-around going on with branching timelines. For instance, how is it possible that a character knows a password to a computer they’ve never come across before, when the answer is that you, as the player, know that password because you saw it written on a scrap of paper, in another location, at the end of timeline A, before everyone died and you rewound to see what would happen if you’d chosen a different path.
And Zero Time Dilemma, the final chapter of the series, builds on that even further by not just letting you back up and see the alternate outcome of a decision, but by allowing you to jump around the entire storyline willy-nilly, like beginning a Choose Your Own Adventure on page 23, confident that you’ll eventually come to build the entirety of its story in your head by the time you chart out every path.
This introduces entire new layers of flowchart complexity, and makes wringing out every last corner of its narrative - and filling your head with who knew what when, and why - so much more rewarding.
And it should be said that while these games are narratively amazing as they might sound, they’re also completely ludicrous - occasionally hyper-violent, pulp-comic silly, and with (as you can hear at top) let's just call it not exactly top-tier voice acting (switching to the game's native, subtitled Japanese audio is highly recommended) - but if you can make the leap beyond that and just let it take you for a ride, all of the Zero Escapes taken together add up to an incredible overarching storyline, one which folds back in on itself to include the events and characters of all three games in surprising ways.
If you don't have either handheld to get your hands on the original two games, the creators have recently announced that those two will be released on Windows in just a few short months as The Nonary Games collection, so even though they're making the list now, you may want to hold tight and get in on the ground floor with the new version of both early next year. But I genuinely hope you do — I can count on one hand the number of people I know that have come along on this ride with me, and we’ve all come away superfans, and I’d love to make a superfan out of at least a few more of you.
by Sega • Get it: PlayStation 3
And finally, we break alphabetical rank to end on Yakuza 5, the latest game of the franchise that I played more of than anything else throughout 2016, starting with the PlayStation 2 entry Yakuza 2, and ending on this most recent installment.
Best described as a modern day role-playing adventure, the Yakuza series is unique in that, first: its "overworld" is modeled hyper-realistically on real-world locations so accurate that when I took my first trip to Japan this year, I was able to blindly navigate a swath of Tokyo solely because of my experience in this virtual, semi-fictionalized counterpart.
Second: like traditional RPGs, Yakuza's enemy encounters are somewhat random & scattered around that "overworld", but aren't played out via menu-based battles. Instead, a group of low-rank, swaggering, sleazeball street punks will suddenly appear, who - for various reasons - are not clued into the fact that you are in actuality a former high-ranking mob officer. This ignorance is then punished via cartoonishly brutal arcade-y beat-em-up gameplay, where you proceed to grind them mercilessly into the pavement.
That said: these knock-down/drag-out streetfights really only make up maybe a third of the game. In addition to the main storyline - which is honestly as gripping a crime-family drama as any you’ve seen in film - Sega has fleshed out the rest of the world with a hundred daily-life diversions, like batting cages, or billiards, or karaoke, or fully-equipped Sega arcades, or hostess clubs where you flash around your hard-won earnings on top-shelf booze and snacks.
But where Yakuza 5 in particular shines is in one of the game's five chapters, which has nothing to do with roughing up punks at all, and instead centers on...
...this girl, Haruka, who has featured throughout the entire run of games, starting from around the age of 7 in the first Yakuza installments, to the 15- or 16-ish year old girl you see here. Haruka’s nascent dream, beginning in Yakuza 3, has been to sign with an agency and train to become one of Japan’s top pop idols, and so instead of beating up thugs on street corners,
Haruka finds other street-wise teenage girls and who challenge her to curb-side dance-offs, suddenly morphing the game into a rhythm-battle version of maybe say like You Got Served.
Even better, though, all of the other minigames surrounding Haruka’s rise to fame mirror those in the real entertainment-world: going on TV talk shows and crossing-fingers that you won't say the wrong thing and embarrass yourself in front of an audience of thousands, conducting interviews with lecherous journalists hoping to trip you up into saying something scandalous, and, my absolute favorite, doing meet and greets with weirdo 20-something geeks, who get ten seconds to shake hands with you and stutter out inane niceties, and who - should they linger too long - get tossed out on their ear by your bouncer.
Already a mainstay franchise in its native Japan, it's only within the past few years that the series has started to gain cult traction in the West, its legacy here still eclipsed by Shenmue, Sega's decade-plus-old epic adventure that would serve as the framework for what the Yakuza has become.
It might seem like a daunting task to jump feet-first into the fifth game of a franchise, but with three more entries due out in the West over the next 2 years (the 80s-era prequel Yakuza Zero, a modern-generation remake of the original Yakuza game, and the series' first true next-gen installment, Yakuza 6), there's never been a better time to take the plunge and discover why the games have become a global - if still massively under-appreciated - phenomenon.
If you'd like to find more even games like the ones above, subscribe to the Venus Patrol Steam Curator page, where you'll find an up-to-date list of all the latest beautiful games added to their store.
To find more mobile, console, and freely downloadable games like these from 2014 and years prior, flip back through a long-running archive of A Fistful of Indies, a monthly top-ten-ish feature I present live here in Austin, Texas, at meetups of our local independent game collective, JUEGOS RANCHEROS.
And if you've discovered or created a game you think would make an ace addition to the collection presented here, don't hesitate to get in touch on Twitter!