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.
On the first day of Firewatch, you are walking back to your tower after chasing down some irresponsible teens when a shadowy figure shines a torch in your eyes. You are in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness and no one is meant to be around, but now this man is looking right at you. Henry, your character, is startled by it, but Delilah, his workmate-cum-friend in another tower is nonplussed: it’s the wilderness, of course there are going to be some other people around. Sure, okay. But at the same time, the reason there might always be someone around is because, for the overwhelming majority of the time, there is definitely nobody around. That is why my reaction to the man was the same as Henry’s: I was startled. I was expecting, moment-to-moment, to be alone, to be that one human who happened to be in this particular bit of wilderness. Then suddenly there was movement. That was terrifying.
For most of Firewatch, you don’t see anyone. But the fact you did see someone that one time kept me constantly on edge as the game progressed. What if someone else just jumped out from behind a tree or walked down a distant path? “We can animate humans in this game,” that first reveal seemed to say to me. “We can do it again whenever we want.” That would be terrifying to see that movement. The absence of animals in this national park only amplifies that terror not of being alone but of potentially suddenly not being alone without any warning.
This is where I think Firewatch is most enticingly like Gone Home. There are easy comparisons to make between the two games: each is a walking game set in a semi-open world where you walk around and inspect objects and a story progresses. Each is a game about difficult personal relationships set in the late 20th Century. But these are easy comparisons to make. More interesting for me is how each game is about making you feel very, very alone, and then playing on your imagination to make that loneliness feel oppressive and terrifying, and then, finally, making you feel like an idiot for letting your imagination get so carried away. Continue reading →