The best games of 2016 took us to the Shoshone National Forest, a magic-filled pseudo-Victorian society, a stark dystopia where children are hunted by faceless adults, countless barren planets with awesome music, a future Earth still dealing with fallout from the Omnic Crisis, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the throbbing depths of rhythm hell, and a multitude of other destinations both real and imagined. (And now I sound like an Oscar presenter.) Together they illustrate the breadth and scope of what game artists can accomplish today, both on our TV sets and in our VR faceboxes. 2016 reminded us once again that, even as technology lets games become increasingly cinematic in their storytelling and photorealistic in their visuals, that precision is still the key—that the most important facets of a successful game are the confidence and focus necessary to explore its mechanics, story and aesthetic as deeply yet succinctly as possible. Some of these 25 games come closer to that goal than others, but they’re all winners in their own ways.
Hey: here are some games.
Forza Horizon 3 has one of the most organic senses of progression I’ve ever seen in a racing game. You, as the player, constantly keep moving to explore and find the next cool thing to do. Much like discovering cars in old barns was an element in the original, this game is designed to provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity through exploration.—Jason D’Aprile
Male intimacy in games usually revolves around slapping each other on the back for how well you shot other dudes, or how you will learn to shoot them better as time goes on. The brotherhood of XV is a little different, as they tease each other, talk about girls, push to better themselves internally and discuss the photos taken at the end of each day. It’s a side of friendship you don’t get to see often in games, and that levity helps keep the thin story afloat through the first half of the game.—Eric Van Allen
Superhot’s shootouts make its case better than its narrative layers ever could. Its methodical take on shooter combat forces you to linger on the consequences of your actions without saying a word. And that’s all it needed to be.—Suriel Vazquez
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a boring game in the sense that to solve it means to operate it like the most undependable machine. XCOM 2 is the most extreme opposite from base management to isometric choice, requiring that you take risks, move quickly and generally understand that you’re always going to be between a rock and a hard place when it comes to making decisions that get the job done and minimize risk to your soldiers. That final factor is the core strength of XCOM 2, and it is what elevates it beyond yet another tactical game in an ever-growing genre. If the alien invasion genre is really all about humanity and how it gets tested, then this game mobilizes that genre in order to frame the individual player being put to the test at all times.—Cameron Kunzelman
Dark Souls III would be a fitting end to a videogame series, and we don’t get many of those. I enjoyed almost all of my time with it, but I’m not sure if I’d want another game like this to come by for a long time. As a comprehensive second draft of the best moments from the series, it left me with fond memories of everything I love about these games. And by sprucing up those moments, it gives new players a chance to finally understand why these games matter. It doesn’t make sweeping changes to the series’ structure or rhythms, but just this one time, it can get away with tugging at familiar heart strings. I came into this game hoping it wouldn’t be “just another Dark Souls game.” But I’m glad that’s what I got.—Suriel Vazquez
Imagine your only tool for decision-making was the dating app Tinder. Everything you did in a day would be left to a simple swipe left for no, swipe right for yes. Now imagine yourself as a medieval ruler in charge of the prosperity of thousands of other people. One simple swipe of your finger would decide who lives, who dies, what gets built, and when to go to war. This is the reality imagined in Reigns. As you might expect from that description, the basic interface is rather minimalist. This aesthetic matches its creative and quirky take on grand strategy gameplay, making it easily digestible and perfectly suited for mobile gamers.—AJ Moser
Psychedelic puzzler Small Radios, Big Televisions isn’t anti-technology, although its ultimate message touches on the dangers mankind poses to the environment, and it holds a certain skepticism towards virtual reality. The technology it fetishizes is at once archaic and unreal and yet in a way is thriving today; its retro take on a VR system that uses analogue cassette tapes evokes the current indie rock tape subculture, the minimal synth revival and the constantly hyped virtual reality escapism that the game eventually criticizes. The puzzle elements are light and easily sussed out, but the psychedelic dreamscapes and slurry synthesizer washes of the in-game cassettes are almost enchanting in their fuzzy unreality—especially after you take magnets to them and degrade them to increasingly abstract states. (At times it looks like what happens when you plug a VHS camera into a television and then point that camera directly at the screen.) This is a thoroughly imperfect game, but one with insight, courage and a clear-cut sense of self, and one where the imperfections are a vital part of its genius.—Garrett Martin
Wander…long enough and you’ll also find interesting sub-plots that key you into new avenues of approach. The best one I found had to do with one woman asking another to infiltrate the same group of people you were trying to in order to save a magazine one of the targets owned. Dangling the prospect of over 200 people losing their jobs over her, the woman convinces her friend to risk her life. She then heads to a nearby bathroom to call her friend as she agonizes over what’s she’s been asked to do. These stories build that sense of place Hitman’s always been great at creating, and they make you want to continue exploring.—Suriel Vazquez
Like Limbo before it, Inside is a dark puzzle game set in a deadly and oppressive world. The boy you control will die suddenly and frequently in violently graphic ways, and the world he explores is almost entirely cast in shadow. Inside is a bit more defined than Limbo, though, replacing that game’s more nature-based fears with Orwellian overtones and a dystopia run by man, and then making your own character complicit in the same kind of mind control that’s ruined his town.—Garrett Martin
Tragedy falls on both sides of this war no matter what you or your hero do. Friends and family die or permanently retreat with regularity. Fire Emblem is both an adorable game about cute anime kids becoming friends and lovers, and also one of the cruelest and most unforgiving virtual death marches you’ll ever play. Don’t hold all that death against Fates: it’s the game’s birthright.—Garrett Martin
Uncharted 4’s best quieter moments are as memorable as any of its action set-pieces, which can be as elaborate and disorienting as anything in the superlative Uncharted 2. True, the quieter moments stand out because there are less of them—the parts where you jump, climb and shoot drag on far too long, as usual—but also because they’re done as well as games like this have ever done them. From Sam and Nathan Drake reestablishing trust after 15 years apart, to Nathan and Elena’s increasing boredom with domestic life, Uncharted 4 spends enough time fleshing out the human stakes to make you care about the shoot-outs and explosions.—Garrett Martin
Act IV is a preparation for the end. A little on the nose, I guess. And it’s by far the least spectacular of the bunch. It feels permeated with more realism than the previous three acts. While surreal moments and sardonic, fantastical conversations take place, there are no awe-inspiring or heartstopping moments that inspire reverence. Unlike the previous three acts, the narrative is characterized by a foreboding sense of inevitability followed by the mundane, dull ache of loss.
As we get older, we forget more than we expect, including what will come to feel like the most tangible details of those we most love. We will forget the ones we swore we would keep close to our hearts.
But we will remind others of them through our memorials, whether built, written, or lived.—Richard Clark
Civilization VI is a game of tiny enormous changes. It’s a study in how to update existing systems without completely overhauling them, and it works as well as could ever be expected. Long-time fans will find plenty to recognize and appreciate, despite some of the surface-level changes. It’s only once you dig into the game’s guts that you see just how different, at its core, Civilization VI is from its predecessors.
Everything about this game is pushing players to be deliberate, to plan ahead, and to strategize. But short of that making the game less accessible to those who have never tried to lead their own digital civilization to cyber glory, it actually creates a beautiful transparency. When Civilization VI is at its finest, it’s like a grandfather clock clicking and whirring rhythmically as all its gears and dials click into place.—Patrick Lindsey
Oxenfree captures the vicissitudes of friendship, especially the heightened passions of teenage friendship. No matter how believable these characters and their relationships can be, though, you might find yourself wanting to get away from them altogether, especially early in the game. Even Alex, the character you control, can occasionally rankle with her petty reactions and annoying humor. In that way, Oxenfree recreates that sense of self-mortification that should be most acute during your teenaged years, and how we’re not always capable of saying what we want to say.—Garrett Martin
The world of Hyper Light Drifter is a rotting corpse, and the lizard people or bear people or bird people of that world continue to dwell in the ruins of some kind of technologically advanced civilization. You, embodying the player character, are haunted by your own death, and you’re haunted by some kind of force that keeps this world in its state of decay. It is unclear whether progress in the game means finally killing the world or setting it free, and that ambivalence sticks with me even now.—Cameron Kunzelman
The player, a gun, and things to kill. That has always has been DOOM, and id’s legacy has been rekindled with DOOM (2016). You may argue that a good sequel’s job is to iterate on past successes, to further develop mechanics, or to evolve a title to the next step in its life cycle. But DOOM (2016) isn’t a departure or a reimagining. It’s something much better, much more pure. DOOM (2016) is a homecoming. And boy, does it feel good to be home.—Patrick Lindsey
I have a healthy respect for aimless, open-ended games that let us play and explore at our own pace. They often don’t feel wasteful, no matter how many hours one can pour into them. What does feel wasteful are tightly scripted and guided games that drag on for hours and hours, pumping out new battlefields and bad guys to plow through between cutscenes well past the ten hour mark. Titanfall 2 cuts out all the extraneous business that can plague modern day action games, resulting in one of the tightest, tautest, tensest first-person shooters in recent memory, with a solid helping of mind-bending mechanical tomfoolery on the side. Like The Last Guardian, a game that otherwise could not be any more different than this one, at the core is a touching, heartfelt relationship between man and (techno)beast that trounces most of the human relationships found in games. Titanfall 2 is a laser beam with a heart.—Garrett Martin
For all the nostalgia-driven indie gaming experiences we’ve had over the past decade, the long-running and much-loved world of Harvest Moon had gone curiously neglected until more recently. Stardew Valley is easily the best of these virtual farming love-letters, making vast improvements on core mechanics while adding its own unique flavor. It’s faithful enough that devoted Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons fans fell in love with it, but approachable enough that it introduced an entirely new group of gamers to the joys of a pixellated country life.—Janine Hawkins
Has there ever been a better game to get lost in? No Man’s Sky is aesthetically impeccable, from its psychedelic landscapes pulled straight from Yes album covers, to its krautrock-by-way-of-Friday Night Lights score. It’s easily the best screenshot machine of the year (sorry, Firewatch’s Kodak gimmick). It doesn’t reward the player’s patience and diligence as much as depend on them, which makes it as brave as it is respectful. A game that’s fundamentally hopeless, that’s fixated on the vast emptiness of the universe around us, somehow instills hope in us solely through its undeniable beauty.—Garrett Martin
Firewatch is a game, but it’s not useful to write about it as a game. Who cares what your fingers do while you’re playing this? Yes: it has graphics. The stuff that matters is what Henry and Delilah talk about on their radios. It’s what Henry reads throughout the few campsites and outposts he comes across. It’s what you feel as the story unfolds like a short story on your television screen, visiting the private grief of others who can struggle to communicate just as torturously as all of us in the real world can. And although this dual character study can feel a little slight, and has a few improbable notes that are struck seemingly just to enhance a sense of mystery, that central friendship between Henry and Delilah is powerful. It feels real, and important for both of them.—Garrett Martin
One of the year’s most beautiful games comes with a hefty emotional price tag. That Dragon, Cancer is the autobiographical story of a family’s struggle with pediatric cancer, documenting the many highs and lows they experience over the short course of their son’s life. Gut wrenching and thought provoking, the developer’s choice to use an interactive medium to convey their story is nothing short of bravery. It also illustrates the power of videogames to evoke empathy, a vital characteristic in light of the growing ubiquity of virtual reality. For that alone That Dragon, Cancer is among the best games of the year.—Holly Green
The most striking thing about Dishonored 2 is its confidence. It creates massive, sprawling levels, with lots of details to discern and small-scale stories to discover, and hardly ever forces you to explore even half of them. You can spend dozens of hours uncovering every secret and trying hard not to kill anybody, or just blitz through, crossbows a-blazin’, in a sprint to the finish line. New scenarios regularly introduce new twists on core mechanics or standard game geometry, and they always feel of a piece with the game’s world and characters. Even when you take the longest path and embrace everything the game has to offer, it never feels repetitive or self-indulgent, and that extra attention to detail fills out what is already one of the more fully realized worlds in games. Add in a strong focus on characters, both new and old, and a multitude of gameplay approaches, and you have one of the best action games of the year.—Garrett Martin
The rumors are true: The Last Guardian is a poignant reminder of our dependence upon nature and other species. Yes, Trico feels like a real animal. He can be stubborn and unruly and I could barely play this game at first due to how much he reminded me of my departed dog. The connection I felt to him barely an hour in was about as powerful as games get, though. Like other games on this list The Last Guardian depends on patience and a natural inquisitiveness, on a player who doesn’t mind cracking puzzles with minimal guidance and a partner who isn’t always perfectly attentive, and it’s all the stronger for it.—Garrett Martin
I feel like a hero when I play my favorite characters and I get choked up at the idea of helping my team. Inclusivity and positivity hide behind some intelligent, pared-down game choices and in doing so, Blizzard has spun an engaging fantasy around this idea that if we all just try, then that’s good enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I’m the best player, as long as I try to be better. In a world full of games where being the best is the only space to occupy, Overwatch at least tries to create a new and better future for the rest of us.—Nico Deyo
Thumper’s difficulty is suffocating. Along with the oppressive music and the stark graphics, it turns the game into a claustrophobic, stressful, frightening experience. It rattles around inside my brain when I’m not playing it, its velocity and brutality careening throughout as I try to unwind after playing. Thumper taps into art’s ability to alter our consciousness, introducing a new reality for us to get lost in, and it’s not afraid to let this dream world look and feel like a nightmare. Most rhythm games want to replicate the best time you could possibly have at a rave; Thumper wants you to feel like you’re shaking on the floor of a bathroom stall, praying for those weird shapes and sounds that surround you to go away. It is an essentially perfect realization of its own unique goals and concerns, and a game we’ll be playing and celebrating for decades.—Garrett Martin