2016 has been quite the year. It was my first full year in NYC, which I’ve taken to quite well. I’ve been spreading out from video game culture and investigating the different ways play manifests in the world through multiple disciplines. It’s been pretty rough considering politics, and so maybe it’s apt to talk about the top 10 games that have left an impression on me this past year. Many of these weren’t released in 2016 but I only got around to them now. I now site many of these games in my conversations with students and people outside of games, and in general, I’m interested to see where games go in 2017. But without further ado, in alphabetical order, the games:
2016 was definitely the year of getting more into otome games, or let say, games targeted at women in general. I’m fascinated by what game development companies think women want and what design values come out of not designing for men or the general gamer audience entails. Whereas Hatoful Boyfriend is a more direct satire on the genre of otome dating sims, Amnesia is probably an unintentional but interesting critique. The game is set up pretty conventionally, where you’re an empty lady protagonist courted by men with boundary issues and you live out a supernatural slice of life tale and eventually fall in love. But the twists are plenty, for instance, True Ending routes being clear depictions of unhealthy romantic life choices while the Good Endings are realistic and promotes only what I can call sane ideas of how men should be treating women. It’s definitely subtle and could easily be the problematic fav of the bunch, but it’s worth looking into if you’re interested in some reflexivity in the genre.
I still have a strong interest in performance and how it can be applied to games, so I was happy there were quite a few games with performance elements in them this past IndieCade. One of the ones I really liked was Bad News, a game where you come upon a dead body and need to find a next of kin in order to break the news. The characters and locale are generated and the performer is assisted by AI to act out the characters and have the relevant information to give to the player if they asked about it. You know how in text adventures, the computer will often reject the commands you put in because it doesn’t understand what you’re saying? This felt like a neat answer to that problem by having a performer be the main thing you interact with. It allowed the experience be supported by rules-based design but not limited. Interested to see more performance and AI stuff in the future!
The Danganronpa series
Danganronpa was one of those games I saw the title of floating around social media but never really got around to playing it. I’ve been getting really into the mystery genre in VNs, so throwing in the death game element just made it perfect for me. I think it presents an interesting new way to do narrative in a mainstream context, and really pushed the idea of mystery game design for me. While the concept of narrative in games is contested, Danganronpa connected some thoughts on narrative design I’ve had and discussions about literary mystery genre in academic contexts. It was during my time playing these games I was convinced of a new video game form or at least genre of mystery VNs, which take the basic form and some conventions of visual novels but uses mystery to complicate the usual slice of life elements you get from them. One could say the Phoenix Wright series started this new genre which eventually evolved into the Danganronpa series.
Moving to NYC means a lot more interactive theater is available to me, probably moreso than video games. They are kind of pricey so I haven’t been to much, but now that I’ve experienced Hamlet-Mobile and am getting some extra pocket change, I really need to start seeing some more. Hamlet-Mobile actually won best game design at IndieCade this year, a controversial but ultimately satisfying decision to help reconsider what design means for games. I was initially resistant to the piece when it was going through the jurying process because I’m familiar with interactive/immersive/whatever theater but little has yet really made me feel it was stretching the boundaries of what I saw as play. But when I experienced it for myself, I got it. My mind made an unexpected connection between the way Hamlet-Mobile was structured and material rules/design of video games. In short, there are many ‘rules’ or affordances that are not directly communicated to players but still shape their experience, like for instance, your character model will not pass through walls or whatnot. I realized that the kind of theater that Hamlet-Mobile was doing constructed a tight tunnel of experience through material rules much like video games, but at the same time, made me forget that I was ‘interacting.’ Very early on in the piece I stopped thinking ‘this is an experience’ and just experienced. And to do that without being gamey or using conventional attention loops really is worth noticing and thinking about.
I am relatively new to public transportation systems, and they used to really intimidate me. The first subway I ever took was in NYC when I was a child and it was an awful experience, I didn’t remember it until recently and wondering why I kept a certain level of anxiety each time I rode the train (besides the fact that everyone on the subway are anxious about the subway). With that, I’ve come to understand I now have a ‘subway brain,’ or a part of me that is calculating my route and factoring in strategies for need to get where I’m going, which does give me more anxiety. Then I remembered seeing Mini Metro somewhere and for some reason decided it would be a great game to play while on the subway, since it doesn’t need an internet connection. Playing it occupied that subway brain of mine as it toiled on how to make fictional subway systems work. Though I’m trying to do a more Abramovic-like boredom exercise now whenever I’m riding the train, I would recommend it to anyone living in a big city that gets stressed out over the subway.
There’s always that one game a year that I’m referring to everyone as an interesting experiment, and this year it’s Mystic Messenger. Whenever I make a reference to it in talks and lectures, half of the audience immediately goes to their phones to download it. I am super fascinated by the evolving presence of UI in the play experience, and this game struck me at where I’m weakest: texting with boys. I’ve played a lot of otome this year, and this stuck out to me the most because it used my natural habits of texting, email, and chatting to involve me emotionally into the story of the characters. The setting is very unconventional, a Line-like chatroom, and you learn about the others through this periphery method. But isn’t that true for how society works now anyway? How many people do you feel like you know well enough through Twitter, but the moment you meet them you realize you know nothing about their life? Also, the spontaneous calls from Korean boys always gave me a moment, especially when I had to answer in front of other people and explain the situation. I really hope this is iterated on and other artists take note on how we can use familiar interfaces to include more than just gamers into play.
You know, I was very close to not picking up Pokemon this year. I’ve been fed up with the saminess and the PR around this generation seemed to be full of nostalgia. What began to tip me off that something was different were the leaks of very dark Pokedex entries. It was the first time I feel like a Pokemon game actively tried to court anyone above 12 years old, with more mature themes, while still at the edge, present. Finally, Pokemon mixes things up and tries new things, which points to a more interesting future for this legacy series. I played through it with Nuzlocke rules in place and it felt like a really challenging game that kept surprising me. I’m curious to see if the series takes more jumps in the future.
I believe the nostalgia wheel is turning to the kinds of video games I was playing when I was young and had too much time on my hands, evidenced by the strong impression made by Stardew Valley. Harvest Moon 64 was one of my early favorite games, and one of the only games my mother would watch me play. At the time I didn’t know anything of visual novels or dating games, genres I would come to love later in life; I dated farm girls before real life boys. The series ended up losing itself by just trying to produce a bunch of sequels and not really getting to the heart of why Harvest Moon was so good. In a way, Stardew Valley is a proper successor to Harvest Moon, in that there are some new things, and really affective flourishes, but it takes what I loved about those games and represented them in a 2016 context. I took a break from it and I’m itching to play it again, and I hope it inspires more like it. There aren’t enough games like this, which is a huge shame.
The Style Savvy series
2016 was definitely a year of me catching up on games I should have known about a long time ago but missed by chance. Style Savvy was such a case, a very cathartic and creative outlet for a time when I was more deeply exploring fashion. I have a lot of feelings surrounding ‘girl games’ and the contexts in which games aimed towards girls and women are forever pushed aside despite the fact that ‘boys games’ were used as a barometer to decide whether or not something was appropriate for gamers of all genders to play. There was something neat about many people publicly playing Style Savvy and related games like Happy Home Designer. The series made me think a lot about what style and taste mean in games, and how few games address the topic. Overall, the subjective experience is rarely played with, only preconstructed and handed to the player to consume. Can we as designers craft more experiences that revolve around personal expression or something so deeply ingrained like taste? Would be fun to see some progress on that front in 2017.
Zero Time Dilemma
Along with its prequel Virtue’s Last Stand, Zero Time Dilemma is one of the more interesting narrative experiences I’ve had in games in a while. It confirmed how much of a sucker I am for time travel and alternate dimension conceits, which I feel are particularly suited to video games but are hardly explored on a form level rather than just story flavoring. In these games you traverse the story through what looks like a narrative map which you might see while storyboarding or in the backend of Twine, story nodes connected so you can visualize the branching paths of the game. Parts of the path are blocked off until you do things in other paths and begin to piece the mystery together. I love the idea of exploring a situation from multiple angles by repeating time or changing some things but not others to see what happens. I’ve always wanted more Rashomon– or Memento-like games that really challenge players on a perspective level and play with time some more.
And there you have it! I’m excited to see weirder and more different games in 2017. Persona 5 and maybe the new Mass Effect are on my list. I’m interested in Death Stranding and I hope it is as weird as its trailers make it out to be. Having just gone through a Steam sale, maybe a new favorite will come out of games I’ve missed this year. Make sure to recommend new games to me!
This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support