This week, Vulture is looking back at the best entertainment releases so far in 2016. Yesterday, we took stock of what has been an especially strong six months for music. Today we review video games and comics.
The first half of a given year is typically barren when it comes to video games, as publishers prefer to drop their best, buzziest games in the fall, just as the holidays start to extract dollars from pockets. Not so in 2016 (or maybe ever again) — this year has already been terrific for games. While the jury’s out on what’s to come, the bar has been set pretty high: Midway through 2016, the best games of the year are a diverse set, spanning a wide array of genres and aesthetics, presenting a comprehensive picture of the myriad experiences video games have to offer.
Stardew Valley (PC, Consoles later this year)
No one saw Stardew Valley coming. The work of a single man, young developer Eric Barone, Stardew Valley is an homage to old-school games like Harvest Moon, casting players as a character who left the big city to work in the titular farm town and turn your grandfather’s neglected farm into a bountiful plot of land. It’s not a thrilling game to describe, yet it quickly shot up sales charts to become a veritable sleeper hit, hooking players with the romance of its tedium and simplicity. Expect the game to get a second wind this fall when it comes to consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — and good luck resisting its charms.
The Witness (PC, PlayStation 4)
Playing The Witness is a lot like learning a language. It’s a game that strands you on an island with no explicit goal or narrative, just hundreds of puzzles that must all be solved the same way: by drawing lines on grids. These puzzles, like your first words, start extremely simply, and link together in a way that encourages you to explore. Then they get much harder, tucked away in even more fascinating parts of the island, too complex to solve without a notebook. Spend a few more hours with the game and you’ll be interpreting and articulating complex ideas in this weird, line-drawing language, its puzzles and mysteries lingering in your brain. That’s what makes The Witness so good: As difficult and obscure as it may be, its zenlike, razor-sharp focus on distilling its world to this seemingly simple yet astoundingly complex form of expression is fascinating, and stays with you long after you’ve left it behind.
Inside (Xbox One, PC next month)
It would be a disservice to say much more than that the game is stunning, and we encourage you to go in cold and avoid looking up so much as a synopsis. It’s a moody, unsettling game where you play a boy on the run from something, jumping and solving simple puzzles like a brainy Super Mario, but far more macabre. A big part of Inside’s appeal is in its art direction, which weaves depth and melancholy onto a nigh-monochromatic two-dimensional plane, and hints at the disturbing and utterly shocking things you will find by the time the game is over.
Overwatch (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
It’s hard to separate Overwatch the game from Overwatch the phenomenon — and why bother, both are fascinating. As a game, Overwatch is almost minimal in its approach: It’s a first-person shooter in which players choose from a cast of 21 wildly diverse characters that fall under four general combat roles, from support to assault, and then work with teammates to capture or defend points of interest on a map. Players can change characters on the fly, which encourages experimentation, collaboration, and general chaos as you struggle to adapt to whatever your opponents are up to. But Overwatch is also a game for which there already exists an elaborate fiction and history for its characters and world. None of it appears in the game itself; instead, it has steadily dripped out in the form of animated shorts and comics. It’s a mythology that has inspired fans to embrace favorite characters outside of the game, to create everything from Overwatch themed art to cosplay to pornography. It’s only been a month, but both Overwatch the game and Overwatch the phenomenon seem like they’re here to stay.
Doom (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
The gaming public tends to be much more accepting of reboots and revivals than fans of movies and television, eagerly welcoming updated versions of franchises they grew up with, now with better graphics and modern sensibilities. But even with that in mind, a rebooted Doom was a suspicious prospect: Who wanted a ‘90s throwback shooter in 2016, a violent, demon-killing heavy metal gorefest with little concern for story and a lot of concern for how good it feels to shoot giant fucking guns? Games are smarter than that now, yeah? Well, yes. They are. But so is Doom: It now offers meticulous, intelligently crafted mayhem and violence, a dick-swinging-yet-self-aware adrenaline rush that takes what it needs from the past and explodes into the present.
XCOM 2 (PC, Consoles later this year)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a miracle of a game, an old-school strategy revival that didn’t just completely revamp a '90s strategy classic, it served as a gateway drug into the world of turn-based tactical games. XCOM 2 ratchets up the tension, raises the stakes, and delivers the same kind of skin-of-your-teeth victories that made Enemy Unknown so compelling and addictive.
The Banner Saga 2 (PC, Consoles later this year)
There aren’t many tender stories about Vikings in modern pop culture — our stories tend to focus on the hearty Thor-ness of the Norse pirates, depicting them as swarthy warriors. The Banner Saga is … not that. It's a bleak strategy game about a caravan’s efforts to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle against a powerful race known as the Dredge, rendered in an arresting art style that brings a classic Ralph Bakshi/Don Bluth vibe to its Game of Thrones–esque moral dilemmas. The Banner Saga 2 is the middle chapter of a trilogy, bringing your major decisions from the first game forward and presenting you with a whole mess of other impossible choices that will ostensibly pay off in the grand finale. While you’ll spend most of your time in The Banner Saga 2 engaging in chesslike skirmishes on a grid, the narrative stitching those battles together goes a long way to making you feel responsible for the fate of your people. Failing to keep some of them alive will break your heart, but go on you must.
Oxenfree (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
You don’t see a whole lot of teens in video games. At least, not true-to-life, fully realized teens, with crushes and grudges and designs on spending a night on the beach drinking and kicking it far from the reach of their parents. Oxenfree casts you as the teenaged Alex, who, following recent personal tragedy, joins some friends and frenemies for an overnight party/camping trip on an abandoned island. As Alex, you’ll spend most of your time talking to your peers and exploring the island. Then something supernatural happens, escalating the whole affair to Twin Peaks levels of weird, forcing Alex to work with everyone to get to safety — provided they all get along well enough to make it.
Firewatch (PC, MacOS, PlayStation 4)
Video games are often lonely experiences, but rarely do they make effective use of that loneliness. Firewatch is a game about Hank, a man who, following marital challenges, retreats to the Wyoming wilderness to be a fire-lookout following the Yellowstone fires of the late 1980s. It’s a gorgeous, solitary game where, as Hank, players explore the woods and investigate disturbances with no human connection other than the voice of Hank's dispatcher, Delilah, to anchor them. There is, technically, a mystery to solve in Firewatch, but the heart of the game is in the conversations between Hank and Delilah — conversations in which the player’s choices determine the tenor of their relationship, and the kind of man Hank is when his time in the woods comes to an end.
Dark Souls III (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
At this point, the Dark Souls series of games is known primarily for one thing: difficulty. They are games that are hard to learn, hard to play well, with stories that are hard to understand. But talking about them that way does them a disservice: Really, they’re puzzles; their primary joy lies in seeing the many unexpected ways their perilous worlds fit together. Although Dark Souls III is the conclusion to the series, it’s also the most accessible, benefiting from the years of refinement the medieval-horror action game franchise has gone through. It is, like its predecessors, a game that envelops you, and pushes you to take on challenges you didn’t know you could beat. Few games are as demanding as the Dark Souls games, but even fewer are as rewarding.
That Dragon, Cancer (PC, MacOS)
Possibly the most personal game released so far this year, That Dragon, Cancer is Ryan and Amy Green’s autobiographical exploration of the time they spent raising their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 1. (Thank You for Playing, a documentary about the family and their development of the game, was released earlier this year.) It’s a spare, poetic exploration of grief, faith, and acceptance that uses the language of games to make a terribly abstract experience tangible and cathartic. That Dragon, Cancer isn’t fun or easy to play, but it's possibly the most moving game of 2016.