Whether you’re a die-hard follower of big-budget blockbuster games, an e-sports enthusiast, or an indie game aficionado, 2016 had a tendency to widen the gaps that separate different play experiences, as game genres forged out on their own in an attempt to work out what they do best. It may be easy to subsist on Overwatch alone, but anyone can set aside a couple of hours to play through Firewatch.
That has made this an uncannily good year for video games across numerous genres. Titles that might have previously been ignored for their “indie” status were given the opportunity to shine in the mainstream, whether through viral appeal, or through production value driven by years of effort in newly accessible game-development platforms. On the other end of the spectrum, big-budget productions demonstrated a new willingness to experiment with modes of storytelling and interactivity. Here are the ten games that helped expand the limits of their respective genres in a year when so many were striving toward the same goal.
10. Overcooked (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
While the past decade of multiplayer games has looked like one long march toward online play, a steady stream of new gems have aimed to re-create the magic of local multiplayer. Joining classics such as Nidhogg, Monaco, Samurai Gunn, and Towerfall was the chaotic culinary high jinks of Overcooked. The idea is straightforward enough: Customers order dishes and all the cooks in the kitchen — that is, you and whomever you recruit to join — work together to make those dishes. The challenge comes in getting up to four people in the same room (there’s no online multiplayer) to coordinate their movements in a way that doesn’t end up looking like a complete train wreck.
It’s much easier said than done. Expect yelling, stress, surprises, and your virtual kitchen to catch fire when someone accidentally forgets to take a meat patty off the stove. Built by a development team of just two designers, Overcooked squeezes a lot of juice from its simple premise, and it’s one of the most delightful, most unabashedly fun games of 2016.
9. Thumper (PlayStation 4, Windows)
Rhythm is not strictly a phenomenon of sound. It tugs at your tendons, it throbs at the base of your cerebellum, it reddens your vision, it makes your blood run hot. Thumper, the “rhythm violence” game from programmer-designer Marc Flury and bassist Brian Gibson of the noise-rock band Lightning Bolt, is an needle-sharp homage to the primal force of a steady beat. On its surface, Thumper’s core gameplay loop doesn't look all that different from other rhythm games like Audiosurf or even Guitar Hero: You guide your avatar down a neon track and press a button when the cue hits. But what sets Thumper apart is its commitment to the unrelenting rhythmic onslaught. With its kaleidoscopic backdrops, complex syncopations, and ballistic sonics, Thumper wants to devour your subconscious whole. But when you finally reach that point, and you can tell what cue lies around the corner, and your thumb starts to sting from blunt-force mashing, that’s when Thumper is truly working as intended.
8. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PlayStation 4)
Big-budget action games have always had a penchant for flair, whether through painstaking production, extravagant set pieces, or tiny mechanical updates touted as genre revolutions. As developer Naughty Dog’s first full game since their critically hailed The Last of Us, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End boasted all those things, but was most notable for its aspirations to slow down rather than speed up — to bask in the momentary pleasures that fill the spaces between life-or-death firefights. While it suffers from its tendency to devolve into hacky Joss Whedon–esque quipping, Uncharted 4’s commitment to portraying characters as actual human beings with shortcomings and personal lives is a welcome, refreshing change of pace. Plus, the gun parkour hasn’t missed a beat.
7. Owlboy (Windows)
Owlboy has an old-school heart, but can you blame it? It’s been in development hell for ten years, was made by a studio called D-Pad, has a high-bit pixel-art aesthetic, and its main character is an anthropomorphic owl. But what’s great about Owlboy is that despite what you might expect it to do, the game stands on its own. Where some might worry about it coming off as twee or cloying, the game uses its surprisingly adept, economical writing to balance its optimism with a darkness that doesn’t feel contrived or unearned. The gameplay mechanics aren’t as rudimentary as the intentionally throwback pixel art, enabling players to fly around with gun-toting sidekicks in an epic side-scrolling world and providing a unique hybrid of shoot-em-up and Metroidvania adventure mechanics. All told, Owlboy isn’t just beautiful to look at, it’s a pleasure to play and an impressive feat of creativity — regardless of how long it took to make.
6. Kentucky Route Zero Act IV (Windows, Linux, Macintosh)
Cardboard Computer’s point-and-click adventure game Kentucky Route Zero has always worked best when viewed as a collection of moments: The silhouette of a horse-head-shaped gas station at twilight, a blue-haired woman singing in an empty roadhouse bar, a crowd of neon skeletons in an underground factory. Even after four installments, it’s difficult to find out what they might actually mean, but the beauty of KRZ has always been in the experimentation and unexpected beauty of those moments, and this year’s Act IV brought even more to the table — each as strange and transfixing as the last.
At one point in KRZ Act IV, you happen upon a phone booth in the middle of a river. As you pick up the earpiece and make calls, you have the option to sit there and listen to voice messages that each tell short, moody stories. You can walk away after listening to just one, or you can stay on the line. It’s difficult to know how many of these messages exist within the game — that answering-machine sequence, along with a collection of tapes that each contain experimental videos of their own, give the game a sense of depth that feels infinite. This, in a nutshell, is the beauty of Kentucky Route Zero: No matter how much time you spend floating around in its sea of ideas, the game will never shed its mystique.
5. Firewatch (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh)
When his wife is stricken with early-onset dementia, the protagonist of Campo Santo’s first-person adventure game Firewatch seeks solace not in the company of others, but in the isolation of his new job as a fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest. But he gets a bit more than he bargained for in the form of his supervisor, Delilah, who is always just a walkie-talkie press away, and who serves as his constant companion in the open wilderness.
The setup is a brilliant one, especially when you take into consideration the young studio’s track record when it comes to creating the two things that Firewatch meditates on most: beefy dialogue and breathtaking landscapes that sprawl out like panoramic paintings. By reconciling the stately pacing and ambitious writing that typically define “walking simulators” with snappy puzzles and interactive dialogue trees, Firewatch carves out a new space for itself — one that ambitiously toes the narrative line without losing sight of the interactive hooks that differentiate games from other media.
4. Hyper Light Drifter (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, Macintosh, Ouya)
Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is what you’d get if you took a top-down 2-D Zelda game and molded it into a cyberpunk hack-and-slash. That might sound like a condemnation, but the depth of vision behind HLD is so fully realized that it makes tried-and-true mechanics feel like little revelation.
The game’s knack for reframing old ideas can mainly be attributed to its artistic influences, which run the gamut from the dystopian cyberpunk palettes of Akira and Blade Runner to the creature-heavy fantasy worlds of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Its dash-oriented combat system rewards deft, careful weaving movements over brute-force hacking, and feels as close as you can get to cyberninja combat in a 2-D space. Tying it all together is a stunning soundtrack from Disasterpeace (It Follows, Fez), and a poetic story constructed almost entirely of scattered vignette cut scenes and environmental clues. It might not do much to upend the action RPG format, but it stands on its own as a compelling argument for the value of sheer artistic inspiration.
3. DOOM (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
This year, video games gave us no shortage of ways to shoot at living beings. Titanfall 2 let us jump and slide around them. Battlefield 1 let us aim down the sights at them and blow them out of the trenches. But no game was as obsessed with the meaty viscera of them quite like DOOM. Where other shooters asked the player to flank and snipe, DOOM asked them to climb up fleshy ledges and batter enemies with their own dismembered limbs.
At first blush, this is all just a hulking homage to the original 1993 DOOM, with the added benefits of new movement options and vastly improved graphics. But spend a few hours with DOOM 2016, and it’s clear that Bethesda has tapped into more than an aesthetic with the new installment — they’ve translated the glorious mix of heavy movement, intense gore, and tongue-in-cheek humor to make sense in a modern context. No other game — not even the original — gives hell the sense of weight and texture managed by DOOM 2016.
2. Overwatch (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
For the average person who plays video games, it’s become nearly impossible to ignore the encroaching presence of e-sports. Former Laker Rick Fox owns a professional League of Legends team. Your little brother doesn’t play anything but Vainglory. In a sense, the shift was inevitable: If it’s the gameplay people are interested in, AI opponents could never be more entertaining to play against than other flesh-and-blood people. So why do so many online games feel like such a drag?
When Blizzard Entertainment’s class-based multiplayer shooter Overwatch launched in May, it seemed to function — at least at some subtle level — as a work of defiance. From the inclusive character roster, to the globally inspired map settings, to the emphasis on team synergy and voice chat, to the way the development team factored audience input into the game’s artistic direction, Overwatch demonstrated a profound disinterest in rehashing stylistic genre tropes, effectively bucking the machismo that had set the tone for its militarized, male-centered peers like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. And good riddance: Not only does Overwatch boast more aesthetic charisma than any other shooter released this year, it’s also showed the most promise as a legitimate e-sport.
1. Inside (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
It’s tough to talk about Inside without spoiling anything, since everything that happens in the game feels essential. As the second game from the Denmark-based studio Playdead, it’s easy to fall into the trap of calling Inside the “spiritual successor” to the studio’s previous moody platformer Limbo. But Inside isn’t the spiritual successor to anything: In fact, the game seems to relish the act of setting up and then subverting expectations. One area will introduce a new puzzle mechanic — presumably to launch a mechanical motif — and then ditch the idea in the next scene. Core gameplay elements will seem to point toward a definitive message like “control is an illusion,” only to give you the sensation of breaking out of an illusion a few minutes later.
In Inside, manipulation is a vicious cycle of influence that alternates between the player, the systems within the game, the story as it’s presented, and the story as Playdead intends for it to be experienced. There’s much to be said about the game's astonishing final act: It’s life-affirming, it’s horrifying, it’s terrible. Like many other great works, it’s open to any number of interpretations. But no matter: Inside stands as one of the few video games that doesn’t work in spite of itself, that says something different without smacking you in the head with it, and that can be defended as art without reservation.