It’s a time for reflection, lists, and awards.
The nominees and winners here are chosen by myself, reflect my personal experience, and obviously can only be games that I’ve played enough to comfortably nominate. If you care to list your choices with a blurb (or more) supporting why, I’d love to read it.
To spread the love, I’ll be limiting each game to one award (excluding GOTY)
Best Music – DOOM
DOOM’s reboot shocked the industry in the best kind of way. Since Halo, we’ve been hiding behind cover waiting for our health to recharge. It makes for an easier experience that a wide audience can eventually grind through, but compared to DOOM, it’s downright boring.
DOOM doesn’t hide and wait for health. DOOM demands that you go out and rip that health out of your opponent’s skull!
But this isn’t the category for best game, this is about music.
The music in DOOM matches the gameplay note for glory kill.
While the rest of the shooters ripoff Hans Zimmer and overuse taiko drums, DOOM glitches to the beat of its evil core. Heavy metal riffs trade with electro screams while discordant synths ratchet the tension sky high.
Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is a hell of a lot of fun on its own, but when paired with demon-murder, it elevates the experience to a dizzying level.
Best Sound Design – Overwatch
A shift has occurred online. Headsets no longer feel mandatory and Overwatch is the best example of this new philosophy. Obviously, the most competitive teams wouldn’t be caught dead without their mic, but for casual play, it’s great to mute a teammate’s breathing, eating, music, and bossy commands.
Overwatch achieves this by effectively calling out vital information using personality-filled character shouts. You’ll hear when ultimates are ready, the status of payloads, and which characters are just around the corner. The most impressive aspect is that Blizzard managed this without irritating the hell out of the player.
Beyond “shit Overwatch heroes say” the rest of the sound is balanced impressively to sound distinct yet pleasing. Little details like the sound of a successful hit were agonized over. The sound designer eventually hit on the idea of using the satisfying sound of a beer bottle opening. A bit of reversal and other tweaks and we’re left with a unique, yet familiar sound. If Blizzard starts selling beer then we’ll have to claim a conflict of interest.
Best Art – INSIDE
INSIDE drips with creativity and perfection. ‘Drip’ is actually a terrible metaphor as it implies something might be out of place. Playdead has painstakingly crafted a masterpiece. A feast for the eyes. A game with this standard of production could only exist as a short experience and it’s obviously unfair to larger games that have to worry about generating huge open worlds and 40 hour experiences. But in 2016, no game looked better.
Although played in 2D, INSIDE is layered with ridiculous amounts of visual depth and ambience. Angled walls and far off buildings tower ominously, bubbles erupt in the water, light fights an eternal battle with shadow, and silhouettes reveal only half the story.
Any screenshot from this game could compete with the best of any other game.
Honorable Mentions – Uncharted 4, DOOM, Overwatch, Firewatch, Battlefield 1, Owlboy
Best Indie – Firewatch
This is easily the most competitive category so I’ll make a case for each.
My first special experience of 2016 hit me hard. The lush visual design enthralled me with its transitions from hot afternoon yellows, passionate red sunsets, and cold blue nights. The story gripped me from its surprising beginning of tough choices that anchored my character with a backstory I felt a part of. The main narrative took me on a ride of humor, reflection, and surprising paranoia. In a game where I couldn’t be killed, I feared death to the point where I didn’t want to move an inch. I’m getting chills as I type this. Cheesy but true.
The ending has been criticized heavily but after almost a year away from the game I feel the anti-climactic hit of reality fits the theme. Firewatch is a tale of real life and the places we never plan to end up.
Any one of these (and more) deserve the top slot, but Firewatch left the biggest mark.
An incredible experience every gamer should give a few hours to. Beyond the obvious detail, ambience, narrative, and mind-bending qualities, I was surprised with how well INSIDE played. The platforming and puzzle solving were the perfect level of challenge and felt very intuitive. There were several spectacular moments that demanded timing and rewarded me with nail-biting physical feats that felt like 2D Uncharted (or Prince of Persia).
Would have won if not for my self-imposed limit of one Award per game.
A monumental feat of one man handling the coding, visuals, writing, and even the music. If only there was an award for work/person ratio. I guess the nearly two million Steam sales will have to do. Stardew Valley also loses marks for borrowing so heavily from Harvest Moon. The game industry is incredibly derivative of course, but this was an obvious tribute. The tribute we needed and impeccably done, but it loses originality points nonetheless.
Now that I’ve started off so negatively, let’s talk about what I loved.
Stardew is a masterclass in interlocking systems. It feels like almost every action is linked to a mechanic that goes as deep as you wish. Relationships, unreachable areas, and dangerous mines all beg to be explored, yet so much of it doesn’t hit you over the head with necessity. Tools to upgrade, facilities to build, and a side to choose can provide a dozens of hours of addictive fun.
Stardew Valley’s creator Eric Barone simply took his favorite bits from the Harvest Moon franchise, saw each element to its natural conclusion, and smothered everything with four years of passionate work.
The best Alien game we never got. Duskers’ primitive graphical and command interface can be off-putting, but once engaged, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those gritty graphics evoke the loneliness of a deep-space scavenger searching floating caskets of ships through the mechanical eyes of his drones.
That archaic command line allows efficient and flexible control of your drone force while demanding careful input during tense situations.
Duskers sucked me into it’s sci-fi and deserves a spot among the best.
Honorable Mentions: Thumper, House of the Dying Sun, too many to list
Best Multiplayer – Overwatch
Modern Warfare II was a huge multiplayer moment for me, but since then, the death arcade of most online FPS combat has left me cold. Last year’s Rainbow Six Siege reignited my competitive fire with it’s deliberate pace and focus on teamwork but my low-tier skill means I spend a lot of time watching better players finish the round.
Overwatch (and Lucio in particular) allows me to feel useful in every match. Filling the role of healing while mixing in agility, wall-running, and the ability to crank up the speed to extremely enjoyable levels offers a wonderfully well-balanced experience.
There are multiple heroes perfectly balanced for any player. If you want to go headshot hunting, tank up, or harass the flanks, you can easily find a hero to fit your fancy. The controls and concepts are easy enough to pick up but offer a huge ceiling for the uber skilled.
Overwatch joins Rocket League as a multiplayer game I can recommend to almost anyone, and that’s why it easily takes this spot.
Honorable mentions – Overcooked, Titanfall 2, PvZ Garden Warfare 2
This is the best era to game as we are spoiled for choice. These are simply my personal choices and I expect your list could be vastly different. I’d love to read your arguments for best of the year in the comments so I know which games to add to my backlog.