“I’m not a girl/ Not yet a woman/ All I need is time/ A moment that is mine/ While I’m in between/ I’m not a girl”
– Britney Spears
Reality, in 2016, existed largely as an extension of technology-borne relativism, as a playful liminal space in which anything was possible and nothing was true in the absolute. The world around us has become increasingly gamified, as if last century’s technology was finally reaching pubescence, albeit to predictably tumultuous ends. Social media itself proved to be a better real-time simulation than most video games, a grind of likes and reposts, a playable model of contagion and virality, populated by a cast of heroes, villains, and a few true neutrals, featuring dramatic twists and shocking revelations, of both scripted and emergent varieties. All formed through the convergence of seemingly disparate cultural currents — one part CIV-style geopolitical conflict, another part Decline of Western Civilization culture clash — the stream they formed together feeding into the literal end of American exceptionalism.
But as game design concepts seeped further into the decaying foundations of liberal democracy, games themselves began shedding generations of orthodoxy, with some developers establishing new modes of interactive expression, while others found ways to work within the traditional AAA framework to create works of personal, historical, and political relevance. At their best, last year’s games provided indelible moments of emotional depth and structural ingenuity. Meanwhile, advancements in VR and AI finally made it to market, transforming the terra firma of the present into a literal manifestation of a long-predicted future. It remains to be seen whether these advancements will prove to be a utopian boon or a dystopic boondoggle, but one thing is certain: we are in a period of profound transformation. The landscape has shifted. The future is finally now.
In 2016, games — or at least the best examples of the form — finally became competitive with more established artistic mediums, whether shortform (film) or long (novels, serialized television). In fact, in terms of breadth, depth, and variety of games available, 2016 was a watershed year. As with music, TV, movies, and books (to say nothing of the many unread piles of magazines strewn about our domestic realms), there were finally more good games to play than there was time availble to play them. And even a technically middling game like Pokémon Go was culturally prevalent enough to shape the way we experienced and interacted with the physical world.
But despite significant leaps in sophistication and monocultural penetration, gaming still faces daunting limitations. Unlike other narrative artforms, the range of criticism and discussion continues to be narrow and reductively market-focused. We here at Tiny Mix Tapes might be neophytes at this whole “gaming criticism” thing, but at the same time, we certainly aren’t strangers to unique, unconventional, diffuse, contrary, or otherwise digressive opinions. Furthermore, we’ve spent — or wasted — more than enough time gaming to know that tangents, side quests, and mini games are often more edifying than unifying narratives or universal critical theories could ever promise to be. With that in mind, it’s our honor to present this totally subjective, by-no-means exhaustive list of our favorite gaming experiences of 2016.
Developer: Giant Squid
[PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows]
Giant Squid, the development studio led by Matt Nava (art director for indie hits Journey and Flower), delivered its first game in 2016, and while ABZÛ’s broad stylistic strokes easily land it in “spiritual successor” territory, it’s also unique enough to warrant distinction. With ABZÛ, Nava made full use of the potential in transposing his bright, cartoonishly abstracted vision from the minimalist, post-apocalyptic desert landscape of Journey to a maximalist, post-apocalyptic ocean world populated by placid deep-sea creatures and a malevolent but deteriorating network of mechanized beings. As classically video game-y as that sounds, ABZÛ is far less goal-oriented than its more linear cousin Journey, as befits a game more about creation and the vibrancy of life than the routine of mortality. Instead, the result of the game’s lush, alien visuals and its equal-parts rapturous and elegiac orchestral score is a pure ambient world, an immersive meditating space that veils the typical mechanisms of progression-based gameplay behind the fullness of its atmospherics. In both its loose narrative and its design, ABZÛ confronted the game industry’s obsessive fixation on mechanical functionalism in a necessary way.
Destiny: Rise of Iron
[PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Well into Year 3 of its promised 10-year cycle, Bungie still hasn’t determined what type of game they want Destiny to be. And yet, with each eagerly-anticipated update, the fanbase rallies back to the looter shooter MMO chasing the newest exotics and god roll PvP weapons. Rise of Iron, the supposed last expansion until Destiny 2, was a great step forward in realizing what fans want most while Bungie figures out just how to frame the gameplay ahead of its sequel. The new raid was the best yet (yes, better than the eternal slog of Vault of Glass), the visuals were varied (the brightness of SIVA nodes to the dank underground of Archon’s Forge), and the weapons felt better than ever. Sure, the same PvP albatrosses and class imbalances are still ever-present (and it would be nice for Bungie to openly admit that they don’t care because Destiny 2 is more pressing), but there is a feeling — even as another content drought sets in — that Destiny 2 will be a fully realized and completely immersive experience because of the strengths of Rise of Iron. The game that has taken over my gaming schedule still has its kinks, but we all have kinks.
Developer: id Software
[PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows]
There comes a time to admit the obvious, that most games are juvenile power fantasies, written and programmed by timid indoor-types, for timid indoor-types, as a means to reward the human tendency toward violence and aggression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; acceptance of our animal nature is often followed by a certain pearl-clutching censoriousness, but it can just as easily lead to a loving kind of self-awareness, an embrace of certain ignominious truths, the most fundamental being that violence is physically-invigorating, no matter how much we’re enculturated to deny that about our species. DOOM (the original) was perhaps the first game to apply modernist techniques to simulated violence as interactive entertainment. Gone was the euphemized violence of the platformer or arcade game, replaced with a visceral, unsettling simulacrum of combat, which played out somewhere between the screen, where the violence was explicated, and the body, which relayed and translated the message, manifesting it in physical form. DOOM (2016) followed the same radical philosophy, one that drew upon the immutable and inherent. For all the killing I’ve done in my virtual lives, none has been so gratifying, joyful, or kinetic as this new DOOM. It didn’t ply us with disingenuous moralizing, with frivolities such as scripting and characterization. Instead, DOOM was perhaps the most rarefied variation on one of gaming’s crudest forms. Its intelligence was exhibited not through anything so trite as narrative, but rather through balletic economy of movement, hellacious environmental storytelling and design, a thrashing of guitar strings, and, yes, the giddy thrill of bones crunching and skulls caving in.
Final Fantasy XV
Developer: Square Enix
[PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Final Fantasy XV was a three-word dream that lingered for years on the tips of the outstretched tongues of fans waiting to catch the smallest snowflakes of information about its release and plot. And then it finally arrived. The game, as its opening screen reported, was for both new and old gamers, and the self-assessment was accurate: the game was as welcoming as could be to those unfamiliar with the franchise. Beyond being a visually beautiful and immersive game, one that boasted an impressive open-world approach for a good portion of its narrative, Final Fantasy XV reached for something far deeper and more meaningful than the average RPG. The nucleus of the game was the relationship between Noctis and his three childhood friends/protectors, and their bond was what made every quest and mission worthwhile, from catching fish to feeding a stray cat to stalking an enormous mutant wolf to its cave, destroying it under cover of darkness. The real-time fighting system was one of the most fun and difficult to master in recent memory, relying on one’s ability to, within a split second, synthesize information about character HP/MP, spell potency and availability, potions, enemy weaknesses, and, most importantly, your friends’ battle skills and recovery techniques. FFXV was a ratatouille of goodness, combining everything that was historically fun about Final Fantasy with everything that was relevant about being alive in 2016.
Glittermitten Grove / Frog Fractions 2
[Windows, OS X, Linux]
Glittermitten Grove was not what it seemed. The veil of building yourself a fairy village complete with waterfalls, berry picking, and fireworks was actually part of an elaborate plan to release a sequel to Frog Fractions, one of the most bizarre gaming experiences since Seaman. The original Frog Fractions was released in 2012 as an innocuous browser game about frogs learning fractions. Playing for more than a few seconds, it was obvious nobody was being taught anything and that the game was intentionally off. After thinking below the box, the game opened up into a complete deconstruction of genre, gaming, and the surrounding culture. A cult following quickly established to deconstruct every aspect of the game. It would take four years for a follow-up, but half of that was the community attempting to uncover an unbelievable series of clues that spanned 19 other game titles by independent developers and also included physical objects, downloading data from a Nintendo Amiibo, and shipping items across the country (read more about it here). But in an era when secrets are often revealed before a game launches, that it took two years of constant effort by fans to even play the game, let alone start to uncover all the secrets within, is nothing short of a revelation. Context aside, how was the actual game? Every bit as deconstructive and brilliant as the original, with more content, more abstraction, and even more absurdity. There were elements from every corner of the gaming universe, with just enough cohesion and substance to make it all hang together. If you ever played Undertale, Papers Please, or Stanley’s Parable and wondered if anyone else was playing with the very idea of a “game,” then check out Glittermitten Grove. Get the fireworks. Go down.