Mince pies eaten, pressies unwrapped, and dangerous amounts of questionable booze consumed? It looks like Christmas is over for another year. Which must mean it is time for everybody’s favourite goat-themed Ready Up acronym based pun! Bring on the Ready Up 2016 GOTY: Game of the Year.
Gazing into the glowing embers of the fire and somewhat induced by the post-turkey coma, the Ready Up Team like to get retrospective. So let’s look back at the raging, planetary shit-storm that turned out to be the year of 2016 and indulge us as we try to forget the cavalcade of cherished celebrity deaths by waxing lyrical about our personal choices for the honoured GOTY title.
Dive straight in or jump to your favourites here:
- Firewatch by James Hamblin
- Oxenfree by Kitty Crawford
- Stardew Valley by Susan Marmito
- Pokémon Sun/Moon by Fran Shergold
- Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE by Adam Gulliver
- The Witness by Dean Bowman
- Inside by Cameron Bald
- Overwatch by Kieran Robertson
- Hitman by Verity Hartley
- Thumper by Stewart Griffin
- No Man’s Sky by Danny Russell
- DOOM 2016 by Scott Cameron
Firewatch by James Hamblin
Ever since its introduction into common usage, the term ‘walking simulator’ seems to have been one created purely for the purposes of contempt. A branding of inherent inadequacy often found on message boards surrounded by hostile comments accusing that, “These type of things aren’t even games.”
Calling Firewatch the best walking simulator, then, seems to be damning it with faint praise. Like handing out an award for smartest village idiot. But Firewatch isn’t just the best walking simulator of the year, it’s also the best game of the year because its developer Campo Santo understands perfectly the axiom that it’s the quality, not the quantity, of interaction that’s important.
Set in the Shoshone National Forest in 1989, Firewatch follows the trials of Henry. A schlubby, middle-aged man attempting to flee his personal problems by losing himself in the wilderness.
The point, of course, is that Henry was already lost before he agreed to take a job manning a fire lookout tower in the middle of nowhere, cut off entirely from civilisation save for the voice of Delilah, a seemingly friendly lady on the other end of a two-way radio.
It doesn’t take long for Henry to discover that something strange is going on out amongst the game’s glistening lakes and towering canopies, and what unfolds is a tale of isolation and companionship, paranoia and trust that’s both taut and tender in impeccable measures. A story sustained purely by the radio conversations between the two main characters and Henry’s explorations of his surroundings, captured with a breathtaking artistic appreciation for the intensity of the natural landscape.
Like many others, I was initially disappointed by the way my time with Henry finished. But the longer I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the decisions Campo Santo had taken and the ones it leaves you to make. Firewatch is a game about simple, relatable human emotions and at its conclusion it holds its nerve and delivers an ending that its characters and themes deserve rather than selling out with some spurious showstopper.
So to anyone who thinks that Firewatch can’t be a great game because it’s little more than a perambulatory parable, I have one simple piece of advice: Take a hike! Firewatch didn’t have the most interactions of any game this year, just the most affecting ones.
Oxenfree by Kitty Crawford
I originally played Oxenfree as research for a project I was working on earlier this year, and ended up spending the next two days lost in the world of Edwards Island. The story follows teens Alex, her step brother Jonas and friends as they head over to the Island for the annual beach party, only this time, no one turns up but them. They decide to investigate some of the local myths about the island and soon find themselves caught in a creepy ‘Stranger Things’-like other worldly adventure.
I initially worried if I was going to get bored by listening to a gang of teenagers whine about their problems (how very cynical you might say), but the characters are so well written and the story so engrossing, I had nothing to worry about. Each character has their own witty personalities and unique issues that between that and the amazingly intense overarching narrative and dialogue work by writer Adam Hines, it all flows together really well and it wasn’t long before I was invested in the characters and their lives. The game has plenty of twists and turns to enjoy, as well as outcomes being heavily dependent on your choices. I played it through 3 times before I was done completely, as there’s so much hidden content to discover in this game.
I have no idea how this game manages to be both creepy and scary despite the fact it’s not an action game.
Mention should be given to the amazing soundtrack that really adds to the suspense and thrill of the story, but there’s no shooting up zombies, running away from monsters or even any jump scares; this game manages to creep you out simply through intense suspense and the things you don’t see.
But what’s most impressive to me, is that Night School Studio have created something entirely unique with this game. They’ve somehow managed to find a place in between old school adventure games, and Telltale’s newer format to find a genre all their own; not something that can be said by many games in the last 10 years let alone 2016.
Stardew Valley by Susan Marmito
2016 has been a weird year, I think we can all agree on that. Not just in terms of the celebrity deaths or the news headlines, but how every game that came out in 2016 either seemed a surprise that came out of nowhere, or a massive disappointment after hype that had built up for ages. There seemed to be no middle ground anywhere in a year that has been full of ups and downs, highs and lows, things sitting on opposite ends of the scale.
While it’s not exactly ground-breaking or revelatory, Stardew Valley has just been a thoroughly pleasant escape from life in general, as well as a solid game that is simply… nice. It is an escape that is manifested in the game’s very storyline – tired of feeling like a cog in a machine at a faceless company, your character decides to make good on a grandfather’s promise and escape to the country to live a new life.
Hard but rewarding work in a pixel, rural setting is something infinitely familiar to anyone who has ever played Harvest Moon.
Stardew Valley took all of the best of Harvest Moon and other sim games of its kind and made it better, made it more interesting and upped the comfort and soothing factor by 1000.
I sunk hours into this game, shaping the land into something to call mine, exploring the valley and its surrounds, and getting to know the villagers who for once weren’t flat, one-dimensional characters but relatable people with lives. If I wanted to, I had the challenge of the mines to conquer. If I was so inclined, I could fish all day. If I had the mind to, I could craft items and cultivate crops so that Rabbiton Farm became a blissful haven of fruit, veg, hipster craft beers and the finest jams and chutneys. I could work towards the goals set by the mysterious creatures haunting the dilapidated town hall, and restore the heart of the village to its former glory.
Stardew Valley is my game of the year because everything about it is everything that was missing from 2016. It was a much-needed breath of fresh and sweet air, a lovely achievement, a simple joy.
Pokémon Sun/Moon by Fran Shergold
I loved the original Pokémon back when the sprites were that funny Game Boy green. Pokémon Red was an obsession. Because of that game (and the animation) I have a Pikachu plushie menagerie and enough Pokémon clothing to style the entire line up of a Pocket Monsters themed J-Pop group (which I am surprised and somewhat disappointed doesn’t exist). I have bought every Pokémon game since, and it has been a law of diminishing returns. They didn’t seem to keep up with existing technology, the Pokémon got weirder and weirder (how does an Ice Cream Cone even survive in the wild?) and they felt less and less like Pokémon games. That was until Pokémon Sun/Moon this year.
I played Pokémon Go like everyone else, but it got old quickly. Pokémon Sun/Moon gets old in the most awesome way.
Let’s take the best Pokémon we all know and love and give them fun Hawaii-inspired Alola variations. It sounds rubbish, but unlike the actual rubbish that Pokémon Go turned out to be after a couple of weeks, it’s indicative of why this is the game of the year for me. It takes one of my favourite franchises, revisits everything that was great about it and gives it a new twist. It takes what ain’t broke and somehow manages to fix it. OK, it’s a little like taking an existing product and putting a watch in it (see if you can remember which Simpsons episode that joke is borrowed from), but we haven’t had a Pokémon product like this since the Game Boy original.
The Pokémon are actually rendered in 3D, and so is the map (OK, you can’t play it in 3D, even if you have a 3DS – but who bothers with that anyway). You get to groom your Pokémon, and feed them beans. AND OMG, I loved battling with multiple trainers at the same time. Duel wielding two bird Pokémon is living the fricking dream! Moving around environments that look like beaches in Hawaii, then into little Japanese streets is just wonderful. You get the new Z moves, which aren’t a game changer, but who doesn’t want to see Pikachu go Super-Saiyan?
Pokémon Sun filled a hole in my life I had forgotten was there. It may not be the most original game or have the best graphics, but it is – by far – the game that has made me the happiest this year. If games are an escape, this is the game I want to escape into. Let’s put it this way: If all the games I bought this year were lined up and a robber told me I could only save one, I would try and kick his ass, but if he was some kind of Cyber Ninja robber, I would save Pokémon Sun. What better recommendation for game of the year can you want than that?
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE by Adam Gulliver
I heard about this Shin Megami Tensei/Fire Emblem crossover when it was first announced, but it was never something I was actively watching, that is until the reviews started coming in. The words “like Persona-lite” were uttered in quite a few of these and my interest was certainly piqued. Persona 4 being one of my favourite games of all time, I was looking for something to scratch that itch before Persona 5 finally arrived on these shores. It certainly did that.
The plot may not be as intricate and deep as the Persona series, the story revolving around a bunch of Japanese teen idols who battle monsters in their spare time, but then very few stories are (JRPGs or otherwise).
The game has a wonderful battle system that is so engaging that moments of grinding never felt like a chore. I often took time out to level up other characters, not because they were desperately needed, but because I wanted to see what new moves I could unlock. Also in this battle system, if you target an enemies weakness (lightning, fire, ice etc.) the attack carries on as each member of your party chains an attack together for increased damage. Of course the same can happen to you if the enemy does the same.
And despite being billed as a crossover with Fire Emblem, the Fire Emblem part of the story is kept to a bare minimum. Aside from the final chapter there’s very little here that is taken from the series as its gameplay is rooted firmly with SMT. Of course if you were coming into this game as a Fire Emblem fan you may be disappointed, but for me it’s another reason why I enjoyed it so damn much. The Persona series doesn’t really stick with JRPG traditions, and the same is here. While Japanese teen idols aren’t anything new, each character’s individual story feels unique and doesn’t fall into the traditional JRPG tropes. There’s Eleonora, the half white/Japanese actress who wants to make it big in Hollywood, best friend Touma who works on a Power Rangers-inspired TV show and many more who, once their side stories become unlocked, show different facets of their personality. All playing off our hero Itsuki perfectly, the straight man who everyone gravitates to, but who can be a slightly dense. Or at least my version was as I continually chose the dialogue option that made him seem a little bit thick.
So yeah, my game of the year is a niche Wii U exclusive JRPG. Strange that even when Nintendo’s console has not just one foot in the grave but its entire body barring its pinkie finger buried, it still provides the most enjoyment I had this year.
The Witness by Dean Bowman
Where to begin with The Witness? Who would have thought that indie pioneer Jonathan Blow’s difficult second album would have brought so much to the table, or flown so much in the face of established convention? Especially with so much corporate backing suddenly behind him? Whilst No Man’s Sky, another prominent indie game that shared Sony’s E3 stage, promised big and delivered small (well, if several trillion planets can be considered small), Blow’s follow up to the famous Braid was always a simple (one might say, elegant) proposition, but its compact island landmass and stubbornly streamlined puzzles held within them a universe of ideas.
In an industry that is becoming so unhealthily fixated on sprawling open worlds and the allure of procedural content generation (because that’s never bitten anyone on the arse, right?), The Witness is an unashamedly focused and intricately designed piece that perhaps reflects the inner workings of its developer’s mind like no other game. Indeed, this is the the area on which most criticism is levelled at it. The entire island is an intricately engineered puzzle box, and in it Blow has stowed eclectic and lengthy recordings of some of his favourite thinkers, which has led to accusations of indulgence or even pretentiousness (as though it were a crime to say anything intelligent in a game). More acceptable critiques focus on the content of those recordings, which merge philosophical, scientific and religious reflections on the nature of reality and individual responsibility, that some see as inspiring, others as elitist and still more as positivist naivety in their insistence in a world that is not only fully graspable but can be fixed through rational thought.
The Witness, like an onion, is a game of layers, the transition from one to another being accompanied by a uniquely profound sense of revelation.
First, you come to realise how the game teaches you to solve its many variations on its rather unique maze puzzles, not through hint dropping or tutorialising, but through subtle guidance that always makes the player feel a sense of achievement. It’s the very epitome of the kind of iterative learning that only games as an interactive medium can achieve. Secondly, you realise that the screens that the puzzles are solved upon can interact with the environment in often fascinating ways; acting as answer pads, testing your observation of the world around you. Thirdly, who could forget the first profound moment that you notice one of the puzzles hidden in the environment? Followed by the sudden dawning realisation that there were hundreds of them hidden in plain sight, leading you to scour the island afresh, as though seeing things for the first time. Finally, after hours of staring at these ingenious puzzles you’ll start to see variations of them out in the real world, a phenomenon that has been well documented, thus continuing the game’s movement from the specific to the general, the banal to the profound.
Few works of art prompt you to see the world in a completely different light, fewer games still, which is why for me this isn’t just the best puzzle game ever made, nor just one of the greatest games of all time, but one of the most fascinating aesthetic works in any medium.
Inside by Cameron Bald
I don’t think I’ve ever discussed a game more than I have with Inside. I recommend it to everyone that I can; not because it’s necessarily a game for everyone but because I embrace any given opportunity to rave about the grotesquely enamouring joys of PlayDead’s finest.
If by some miracle you haven’t seen or heard anything about it by now then I don’t really want to say too much, other than it’s a fine 2D platformer that (to my mind) comes as close as possible to successfully balancing narrative and gameplay in a way where neither factor is necessarily stunted by the other. If you like your games to feel sufficiently ‘gamey’ then rest assured that the puzzles don’t kill the narrative pacing and the game feels like a game – this isn’t ‘Dear Esther’. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the ‘walking simulator’ genre).
On a base level it’s immaculate: from the quality of animations to the deliberate and oppressive aesthetic, there’s not a moment where it doesn’t feel like a high-quality experience, not once did it slip up for me.
Its set-pieces are wonderfully tense and you’ll doubtlessly come away with more memorable experiences from this one game than any ten others from 2016.
It may not push the genre forward in a way that would have it automatically remembered as a classic but I believe that, on its own merits, it’s one of the most refined and engrossing adventures I’ve had in a video game. For four hours I sat transfixed on the screen as one grotesquery led to another – my expectations continually shattered. I can heartily recommend it to fans of odd Sci-Fi, body horror or anyone who has even a passing interest in the unique narrative oddities that this glorious medium allows for.
Get it, or don’t. I can’t really force you.
But maybe ‘it’ can.
Overwatch by Kieran Robertson
For me Overwatch was the most surprising game of this year. Not because I thought it looked bad from previews (although in truth at first glance I wasn’t convinced it would be any different from Team Fortress 2 until I actually played the game) but because it made me love multiplayer games again. There are not that very many multiplayer games that I get excited about, for example the last multiplayer game I enjoyed as much as I enjoy Overwatch was Mass Effect 3, and that came out 4 years ago. Overwatch reminded me of the fun that can be had in working with a team, pushing against enemy forces or defending a capture point from them. I feel like a lot of multiplayer games, like Call of Duty and Battlefield, seem to miss this mark and while playing those types of games I often feel like I’m not even part of a team and that we’re all just doing our own thing instead of working together to win the game.
I think how Overwatch manages to achieve this sense of team work is largely due to its character design. Most characters will able to cause devastating affects to the enemy by using their abilities in conjunction with another character’s abilities.
For instance, when defending you’ll often see a Reinhardt shielding a Bastion in turret mode, similarly Zarya’s black hole–like ultimate ability paired with D. Va’s mech explosion ultimate can potentially wipe out an entire team. These combos and more really help to bring a team together and make the whole game better for it.
Overwatch also does an incredibly good job of making itself so accessible. With the four different classes presented, the player is given a large amount of choice on how they want to play while at the same time being beneficial to the team. If you’re not a great shot that’s ok, you can play as a support character and heal your teammates, or if you struggle with close quarters combat you can hang back and play as one of the three snipers. The range of choice you are given does not only make the game enjoyable for you but also your team as you will pretty much always be able to contribute to the battle in one way or another.
Overwatch is a game so refined and so polished that it converted me to appreciate multiplayer games in a completely different way when once I was terribly cynical about the whole genre. Through its smart character design and impressive accessibility as well as a large number of other facets I’ve not even talked about, Overwatch has somehow still got me hooked since its release in May. Because of this Overwatch is my game of the year.
Hitman by Verity Hartley
As the Christmas selection box of Quality Street can attest, I am not a great one for delayed gratification. So when Square Enix and IO interactive announced that the new Hitman game would be released in episodic form over a period of a year I for one was not convinced it would work. The traditional method of playing a game obsessively for several weeks before consigning it to the pile of the forgotten was a method that was tried and true. I didn’t see that changing. How wrong I was and now Hitman (2016) is my Game of the Year.
Hitman (2016) is a great addition to the franchise. Set as a prequel it reintroduces everyone to the infamous shiny pate of the mostly silent but incredibly deadly Agent 47 and his handler Diana. So, if like me, you have never actually played a Hitman game before this is the perfect entry point.
Season 1, as this first game is titled, is broken into six levels or episodes, each set in different exotic locations with a continuous overarching story thread running throughout. However each episode can still be played to its fullest as a stand-alone chapter.
So if you only wanted to visit Italy or Japan you could buy that episode and play just that mission. Within the level you will be tasked with assassinating any number of targets and sometimes completing another goal as well, such as destroying a dangerous virus.
So you play the level, dispatch the targets and make a suave exit in the chopper. Job done, right?
It is here where the episodic nature comes into its own. Now it becomes all about mastery. Replay the level but try it from multiple different approaches in a variety of different disguises. In each level there are numerous, challenging and often downright hilarious ways to bring on the murder.
- Antique cannon? Check.
- Drop a boat on them? Of course.
- Drowned in a toilet whilst dressed as a Vampire Magician? If that’s your kink.
- The perfect massage? Relaxed. To death!
- Disguised as a fortune teller? I see MURDER in your future.
- Completely silent, unseen, professionally suited assassin? Pfft, sure. I guess.
Replayability is the operative word when it comes to this version of Hitman. With the open sandbox world, main levels, challenges, special episode release and the heart-stoppingly stressful one-shot, timed Elusive Targets there is more than enough murder to keep you entertained for this year and beyond. Plus, Season 1 is all released now. So if you couldn’t wait and just wanted to gorge yourself silly, now’s your chance! Do it. It is enormous fun.
Thumper by Stewart Griffin
I live in Glasgow, Scotland. I have therefore heard the sound of bagpipes more times than I can conceive of. Yet I would miss these sounds if they were to leave my life, as they are most often accompanied by that most incredible of noises, the pounding drum. Usually, but not always, accompanying a piper, these drummers lay out enchanting, unending martial rhythms, surging forward on their own propulsive momentum.
It’s this holy power of the drum that underpins the appeal of thumper. The propulsive rhythms are what drives you forward down the track.
As the different challenges are thrown at you, it can feel as though they are flung from beyond your vision by some alien intelligence. None of them are you, they are things to be survived. You are a tiny space beetle, dragged into motion by an endless pounding drumline. Your enemy is a malevolent space head from the future. Occasionally you catch up with him. He appears to be mutating. This seems unlikely to end well.
Thumper is what happens when a group of Harmonix devs decide that they don’t want to convert the genre they played a huge role in popularizing into a means of selling progressively more expensive peripherals. It’s what happens when people who have spent years mastering the vagaries of the genre decide to make a singular, powerful, visceral experience.
Thumper is my game of the year, on the simple merit of the fact that I have been unable to put it down since getting it. It is deeply challenging, viscerally intense and faster than you will believe your eyes can move. It perfectly balances that sensation of mastering something intensely skillful and struggling to overcome the trials. It belongs in everyone’s collection. It’s an intensely refined, powerful version of a type of game that I genuinely had started to think had nowhere else to go. It’s new, and feels it. It’s a statement of purpose. It is, without a doubt, my game of the year.
No Man’s Sky by Danny Russell
Before you raise an eyebrow or two at me, allow me to explain that I was largely out of the loop with regards to the expectations Hello Games set before I played No Man’s Sky. The week of its release, I heard there was a stylised open universe game coming out featuring a 65daysofstatic score. Sold.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one for space sci-fi. I find exterior shots of spaceships, and space in general, dull. Despite this, No Man’s Sky’s premise was still alluring: discover new planets, mine your way to success, name some interesting beasties and plant species, uncover the mysteries of Atlas, and find the centre of the universe.
I spent hours on my first planet collecting resources and upgrading as much as I could. Leaving terra firma was a bold venture that took me a tad too long to get ready for. In the end I found out space battles and their discombobulating nature were largely avoidable by boosting as soon as you leave a planet’s atmosphere, or retreating back to the planet below.
No Man’s Sky was all about exploration of the unknown for me; the sense of wonder and fear inside me when I’d land on a new planet.
How will the life here react with me? Will the mining spots be as plentiful as the last world? Is that a giant penis monster coming towards me?
As an experience, No Man’s Sky is captivating. It’s beautiful, scary, and addictive all at once. As a game… maybe there isn’t enough going on to keep you playing after a certain point. By the time I’d learnt fluent Gek, fully upgraded my exosuit, multi-tool, and ship I’d had enough. I wasn’t bored; I just felt like I could see the game’s inner workings.
No Man’s Sky shines bright, but fizzles out once you start putting the hours in. I got everything I wanted out of it in the 30-odd hours I played. I have yet to revisit it since the big update, but I hope it bodes well for restoring faith in Hello Games’ plucky production.
DOOM 2016 by Scott Cameron
Following a troubled development history and a lacklustre reception to its multiplayer beta, many had concerns about DOOM (2016), especially given developer id Software’s secrecy surrounding its single-player. We needn’t have worried: like all the best reboots, DOOM expertly recreates not only how we remember the seminal 1993 original playing, but selectively retains its most essential elements and revisits them in a modern FPS setting.
But don’t think that DOOM has ignored 23 years of evolution from its contemporaries, either. Though the (surprisingly-charismatic) “DOOM Slayer” would rather spend his time tunneling through a horde of undead with his bare fists while listening to AC/DC, the player is still free to engage in the lore as much as they wish; a massive codex is available, covering enemies and locations with the kind of extreme detail that would make John Romero smile with glee. And while DOOM (thankfully) ditches the tired FPS staple of regenerating health, the ingenious new “glory kills” mechanic combines QTE and melee combat into one singular, ridiculous action – it rewards players with not only an unapologetically gratuitous kill animation, but also essential bonus health, ultimately encouraging dangerous play even as things get desperate.
The bloodthirsty chainsaw – one of the series’ most iconic weapons – is even integrated directly into this system by literally spewing waves of ammo at the player in exchange for mutilating increasingly large demon carcasses.
By the time that glory kills start to wear out their welcome, DOOM is already trickling out new weapons, rune challenges and equipment upgrades at a pace that will keep players engrossed for the entirety of its highly-replayable, 10-14 hour single-player campaign. Add to that level design which aptly darts between claustrophobic and labyrinthine; some killer series callbacks and level secrets (keep an eye out for those toy marines!); as well as a superb, thumping nu death-metal soundtrack (itself littered with musical nods to the DOOM games of old); and you’ve got one hell of a package.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect; even with an optional focus on lore and upgrades, some will find the single-player experience too shallow, and it’s hard not to levy criticism at its multiplayer offering, a likely victim of marketing which is easily overshadowed as the genre shifts its focus to team-based experiences like Overwatch. But really, none of that matters. With the FPS market still saturated by Call of Duty sequels, DOOM is exactly what it needed to be. In a year that could charitably be considered “lousy” in the real world outside of video games, DOOM took us on a rip-tearing, adrenaline-fueled trip back to the holidays of 1993*.
* Unless you were me, in which case you’d be using an Amiga until 1998 and have to catch up with DOOM and its sequel through WAD level compilations discs. Listen, Worms was pretty fantastic, okay?
So, there you have our team choices for Games of the Year 2016. Agree? Disagree? Leave your comments below with what you think of our choices or even make one of your own.
See you in 2017! …Hopefully.