It’s hard to imagine now but once upon a time, people used to ask if the PC gaming scene was dying. Taking a look at the best of what the platform had to offer this year, not only is it alive and well, it’s also facilitating and pushing the very edge of the medium’s artistic limits, visually or otherwise. Taking us everywhere from the dusty dry cliffs of the Wyoming wilderness to the cold strategic emptiness of space and beyond, here are the ten games on PC that really rocked us in 2016.
[The] best horror stories do more than just scare us with gore or violence, they make manifest a deeper anxiety. Something cultural or social. If there is an anxiety being reflected by Darkest Dungeon, it’s this: We live in a world that is willing to ruin people for a little net gain.
The last decade has taught us this again and again. Soldiers, many recruited from low-income families, return home only to find medical support lacking. Victims of exploitative loans watch as big business is bailed out, and they’re left to tread water. “Content producers” beg platform holders for better protection from harassment, but receive little to none. Marginalized communities struggle through systemic oppression only to receive lectures from outsiders on how they are to be blamed for all of their problems. It can feel like (and it may be the case that) this is a world that doesn’t have the infrastructure to help these people, nor the desire to build it.
And there is a second, deeper anxiety, too. A more personal one. Darkest Dungeon makes us confront the idea that we are complicit in these systems, or that we’re even willing to contribute to them ourselves. —-Austin Walker
When we were told to leave the game, all I wanted to do was steal the computer in front of me and go and start Stellaris all over again. In two days this game managed to transform me from someone who didn’t care about strategy games, to someone who wants to play them all, starting with this one. To some, this might just be another fish in the genre’s ocean, but to me, Stellaris has opened my eyes to a whole new world of videogames. One day I will have a PC that runs it, and when I do, I’ll create the biggest and best empire in the galaxy, no matter how many hours it takes me to do it. —-Emma Quinlan
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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