2016 was the first year ever that I’ve had a full-time job. I completely underestimated what sort of effect the rigidity of such employment would have on the activities that constitute a major part of my public identity even as they were not a major source of income for me; namely: both my academic and critical writing. I wrote less in part because I no longer needed the little bit of money it offered, but primarily because I simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so around my job. This extended to the games that I played. I haven’t played the new Kentucky Route Zero episode, nor have I played Virginia. I’ve only beaten one or two stages of Stephen’s Sausage Roll. I excitedly bought Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor the day it came out and have hardly had a chance to touch it since. After a day at work, I’m more likely to slouch in front of a console or flick my phone in front of a television show than I am to go sit at my desk and play small indie titles.
Suffice to say, my videogame playing this year was rarely up-to-date with the current big releases and in vogue conversations. I missed so many titles and caught up on so many others from previous years. So, like usual, this isn’t a list of ‘the best games of 2016’ because, even if I had been up-to-date on all the year’s releases, arbitrarily compartmentalising games into units of time like that seems weird and unnecessary to me. The true beauty of end-of-year lists is the reflections they afford. As such, this is a list of the best games I played in 2016, regardless of their release date.
The bright side of me not doing much writing this year is that I’ve not had much chance to actually express my thoughts on a lot of these titles before now, so I’m excited to finally do so.
I remember in the past how I felt the only correct response to “Are videogames ‘games’ or ‘stories’?” was “Yes”. That is, rejecting the false dichotomy of the question that implies videogames can only be one or the other. More recently, however, I feel like my answer to this question (if anyone still asked it) would be “No”. That is, still rejecting the false dichotomy of the question that implies videogames can only be one of the other, but also expressing my feeling that neither existing category of ‘game’ or ‘story’ is really capable of encompassing just what the videogame form is capable of. Each has come to feel like convenient ‘close enough’ categories in lieu of actually understanding the particular (but not necessarily unique) engagements we have with videogames.
This felt particularly vivid while playing through Final Fantasy XIII these past few months. On multiple occasions I went to write a tweet about just why I was enjoying this much-derided game so much (and enjoying it I certainly was). I wanted to say that it wasn’t because of the story that I was finding it so satisfying, but I knew that if I said that then people would instantly assume that I am enjoying it for mechanical and systemic reasons. But these weren’t necessarily the reason I was enjoying it either. Neither category of ‘game’ (in the traditional sense) or ‘story’ (in the strictest sense) could adequately function as a shorthand for what I was finding so satisfying about this game. Words that would more adequately fit would be rhythm, style, pace, audacity, flamboyance. None of these really stand on their own as shorthands in casual game discourse, though. For that we have game (gameplay/mechanics/systems/rules/etc) or story (narrative/character/themes/lore/etc) and that’s about it. Box one or box two.