It’s been a year.
I’m struggling to find a way to even begin to pithily encapsulate 2016 in a sentence or two, and I’m not alone. America elected a president who campaigned on a platform of white supremacy, set against a backdrop of a world that’s increasingly turning to strongmen and parties embracing authoritarianism, hatred, and the far-right wing. We witnessed horrors across the globe and lost too many voices who’ve been pillars of our community. We’ve almost unanimously declared 2016 a terrible year, and are definitely ready to move on.
But before we do, I want to pause and reflect on 2016 for a second, specifically from the perspective of video games. This isn’t a top ten list (a la most outlets), or an opinions battle royale (a la Giant Bomb), or a video-game-high-school-superlative-and-fanfiction-yearbook (a la Waypoint), although maybe I can convince Graphic Policy to do something like the latter next year.
No, this is a list of games I played this past year. All of them are flawed (some of them deeply), like the year itself. They range in scale from the biggest-budget mainstream titles to small, quiet independent games. And hell, many of them didn’t even come out in 2016.
But all of them made me think about myself and this world in different ways. And for that I’m grateful. So here’s a set of games that had an impact on me this year.
The “Insidious Structural Oppression” Award: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Oh Dragon Age. You’re such a weird franchise. You splattered blood all over my face constantly in Dragon Age: Origins, gave me plenty of choices that all seemed wrong in Dragon Age II and suggested plenty of romantic options in both games that didn’t quite feel right.
And then along came Dragon Age: Inquisition.
There’s an entire article I’ll write at some point about this game, but let me for now just say that Dragon Age: Inquisition tells a captivating narrative that’s full of hard choices and political intrigue. Tensions between liberalism and authoritarianism, faith and freedom are commonplace; these conflicts aren’t new to the Dragon Age series. What is new is that the world feels more real and, well, heavier than ever before. The game is full of covert and overt prejudice (e.g. characters called my elven character “knife-ears” throughout the entire story), and forces the player to choose how they’re going to deal with it (or to simply ignore it). I certainly tend to see things through a lens of power and privilege, but I’m far from alone in seeing how unique Inquisition is in confronting these ugly realities compared to the first two games in the series. Inquisition made me interrogate my own beliefs and perspective in a way that games almost never do, especially games as popular and mainstream as the Dragon Age series.
Also, there’s a mission called “Oh, Shit,” so this game should be on everyone’s award list.
The “2016-est Game of 2016” Award: XCOM 2
The first XCOM was a gritty, difficult tactical game where you built a multinational military squad to fight off an alien invasion. You, as their trusted Commander, built up a base of operations, directed research and construction, and commanded your squad in the field. As you grew with your team, they became like family–they developed skills, they got nicknames, they suffered horrifying wounds and maybe, slowly got better. And every time a soldier fell in battle, it was jarring and upsetting, as one of XCOM’s defining features was permadeath: no coming back for any fallen member of the team. If one of your favorite squaddies perished, that was that.
The second XCOM utilizes a very similar set of gameplay mechanics, and it ups the oppressive feeling by starting from a surprising story premise: humanity lost. The alien invasion was successful, and we now live under the dominion of a seemingly invincible alien legion. From the very beginning to the very end, this is a game about a desperate, nearly hopeless resistance. Not only does each decision and sacrifice feel difficult, but the backdrop isn’t “be careful, there’s aliens out there!”, it’s “each time you mess up, we’re inching closer and closer to the end of humanity as we know it.” These kinds of absurd stakes are commonplace in video games, but the notion somehow feels real and earned in XCOM 2. In a country and world that feels increasingly on the brink, XCOM 2 feels downright portentous in its mood, if not the actual events of the story.
Yes, it has crushing technical problems and load times that are beyond absurd (for the record, repeatedly pressing CAPS LOCK may speed up your load time; it may also extremely crash your computer, so, great), but it also has a soulful darkness that makes it even more compelling than the first game.
The “Fond Memories of AIM” Award: Cibele
Cibele is a game that resists easy description and categorization. Cibele is Nina Freeman’s introspective, raw memory of growing up in the early days of the internet. Even articulating the gameplay gives away the discovery of the experience, so I’ll only draw a slight note: despite a few not-amazing control and interactive design choices, Cibele is an enrapturing game about emotion, sex, communication, and technology, and it achieves this goal even though you’re not really playing that much.
And kudos to Nina Freeman for not only showing the vulnerability to conceive of and develop this game but the courage to also star in the cinematic sequences that occur throughout the story.
The “If It Ain’t Broke, Change it Completely” Award: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
I never liked the music of Civilization V.
I know that’s weird to fixate on–the storied empire-building franchise that began 25 (!) years ago is about so much more than its soundtrack–but the music plays a big role in drawing me into the world and gameplay of Civilization. For me, the changes in Civilization V were sweeping and wonderful, but the music felt distant and aloof; it was like a constant feeling that someone I didn’t like very much was selecting the playlist and smirking at me all the while. That feeling, unfortunately, translated to how I felt as I played the game.
So when I launched Civilization VI for the first time and wanted to start humming along to the epic main menu music, I crossed my fingers. Maybe this was my year.
It was my year.
The new and different features are myriad: the introduction of the district system (in an almost Endless-Legend-like way), a totally revamped culture system, a substantially different art style, gameplay achievement-like boosts, and customized music for nearly every civilization–this is a game that takes bold risks, and nearly all of them succeed.
It has some kinks to iron out–the religious system and religious victory are annoying and extraneous, the barbarians are hilariously powerful (as they should be?), and the game mechanics lend themselves to overwhelming micromanagement on anything but the smallest maps–but make no mistake, Civilization VI is a triumph.
And yes, I have the soundtrack.
The “I Never Play Online Multiplayer Games, But I Played This Online Multiplayer Game” Award: Overwatch
Cheers, love! The cavalry’s here!
The “Evie is a Really Cool Name” Award: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
I’m almost an Assassin’s Creed apologist.
I know, I know. They’ve made 400 games in the space of a few years, the stories are often cookie-cutter and their self-seriousness is whimsical considering the absurdity of the overarching universe. I get it. But at their best, they tackle real issues about power, choice, the role of government, the responsibility we have to each other, and so much more.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a fun romp through a London going through the Industrial Revolution, following Evie and Jacob Frye, an Assassin sister-brother duo aiming to topple the choking vice-grip that Templars have on their city. You’ll free child laborers, apprehend criminals, and of course, assassinate all the time. Along the way, you befriend Dickens and Darwin, and an optional DLC takes you up against Jack the Ripper himself.
Ubisoft has made small changes that really improve the gameplay flow of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and the ability to play as Evie or Jacob at almost any point is fun and varied (although they play nearly identically). The game wants to focus on class and even lightly touches on issues like British colonialism, which is great to see in a game that could’ve just been enjoyable accents and carriages.
As with all games, there are problems here and there; one small annoyance is that the game’s internal logic feels twisted in more than a few occasions. Your adversaries (conveniently dressed in red), for example, fight you at every turn, are connected to the Templars, and you battle and kill them often. But as soon as you take over a territory, you watch a canned cutscene where Evie and Jacob look out amongst a crowd of red-dressed hooligans and say “You work for us now!” and then after the cheers subside…they work for you now. Seriously? It doesn’t break the game, but this to-and-fro of somewhat-adroit awareness and feckless dimwittedness is unfortunately, a regular occurrence throughout the main campaign.
But set aside the ramblings of a man that’s obsessed with internal logic, and grab your stovepipe hat and wrist blade and have a blast in not-quite-steampunk London.
The “Low Chaos, Low Fun” Award: Dishonored 2
Dishonored 2 wasn’t fun.
My hours and hours sneaking through the game as a supposed stealth and combat master were mostly spent dying in spectacularly embarrassing ways. Teleport next to this guard…oops, she saw me. Reload my quicksave. Okay, go around the other side, hit the button–wait, why isn’t the button wor… Reload my quicksave.
Dishonored 2 gives you a few more options to deal with your adversaries in nonlethal ways, but this is still a game that focuses on giving you creative ways to murder people. So when I tried to (both from a roleplaying and from a moral perspective) go about the game trying to kill absolutely no one, I didn’t get much help from the game’s user interface, controls, or (ugh) load times. There’s a lot more that the game could do to make this more accessible–provide more nonlethal open combat options, make more of the weapons stun instead of kill, provide an on-screen notification of when you’ve gone from sneaky protagonist to killer–but on the other hand, it’s probably not supposed to be easy. The “good” path in real life (to the extent such a thing even exists) isn’t easy either. So maybe being “good” should correlate to the difficult path, as you see (to a degree) in games like the Fable series.
But there’s the problem–Dishonored 2, like the first game, doesn’t have a morality system a la Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. The notion of morality in the Dishonored universe is referred to as Chaos, and Chaos is measured only by the number of human lives you take. While I like the idea of challenging silly binaries of morality (remember a decade or so ago, when “choice in games” meant selecting either “save the orphanage” or “burn down the orphanage”), the idea that the body count is the only important metric is a bizarre decision at best.
One example of this questionable approach to good and evil is with the main objective in each mission: your “assassination target.” In Dishonored 2 (and the first game), for every target, there’s a nonlethal option. But sometimes, the nonlethal option feels even more ruthless than killing the target outright–outcomes range from a lifetime working in the mines with one’s tongue cut out to forcing a target to live out the rest of her days with her stalker/attacker. These are horrifying fates to subject someone to, but the game is smart enough only for the equation that nonlethal equals good.
So when I’m praised at the end for the judicious and good-hearted way that I completed the story’s objectives (floweringly called the “Low Chaos” end), it doesn’t just feel weird, it feels wrong.
But the world of Dishonored 2 is a fascinating one, worthy of exploration, and although its morality may not line up with your own, it’s worth your time to dive in and take the game’s odd choices as a discussion starter, and not a final conclusion.
John Brougher is an actor and filmmaker out of the Los Angeles area, as well as the Chief Operating Officer of the progressive consulting firm ShareProgress. He likes narrative-driven games, dance movies, and people who self-identify as Hufflepuffs.