Favorite 20 Video Games of 2016 From post-apocalyptic oceans & sulfurous hellscapes to robotic mammoths & fraction-loving frogs

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series



No Man’s Sky

Developer: Hello Games

[PlayStation 4, Windows]


A game with all the hype and none of the delivery. That’s the sad sandwich board Hello Games and No Man’s Sky wore for most of 2016. After an initial delay in its release and a much-needed Day 1 patch, the game was still missing many of the teased components hype people and Reddit users banged the tables about, further fueling such fiascos as GamerGate. There is much to loathe about the new marketing machine that No Man’s Sky represents, but at its core, the game was one of the most beautifully enticing and economically sound exploration sandboxes of our time. Much like Minecraft and Terraria before it, No Man’s Sky was a base to be built upon with subsequent updates. If all you wanted was a gloriously designed and tickling bit of hyperspace mystery coated in technicolor wuzzles and lush planets, No Man’s Sky delivered. But in a year’s time, when No Man’s Sky is a rich, expansive experience for all the senses, I’ll be hoarding all the shares callously tossed aside while I cruise around in my tricked-out cruisers to enjoy the scenery.


Overwatch

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

[PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows]


The transformation happened slowly and before our very eyes. When the first-person shooter went online, it cross-pollinated with the itchy, addictive skinner-box reward structures of the role-playing game — linear, level-based progression as the carrot, randomly-generated loot payouts the stick. You might think that the deepening of the relationship between character and player could only be positive, but you would be wrong. Online shooters became not only one of most ubiquitous formats of online multiplayer gaming, but also a mind-numbing grind of progression without end. This, in turn, generated inequality between the various strata of the gaming eco-system, pitting veterans against novices, those who could afford to pay for hastened advancement against those who couldn’t (or those who simply refused to participate in pay to play). The future was uncertain, if not grim, until a sea change occurred this past summer, when the modes and tropes of the multiplayer FPS were upended by Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s newest franchise. Overwatch boldly departed from convention, eschewing such stodgy design ideas, like progression trees and stats (or scripting!) in order to focus on the purest, most creative — not to mention democratic — communal gunplay since Rare stopped developing Nintendo exclusives. One of our long-enduring cultural myths is that you can’t go home again, and yet, miraculously, Overwatch proved that sometimes true progress requires the courage to risk going backwards, to admit that a lack of imagination is the only actual factor keeping us from finding better ways to play the same old games.


Pokémon Go

Developer: Niantic

[Android, iOS]


When Pokémon Go was released in July 2016, it seemed tailor-made for casual players. Here’s the truth: it wasn’t. Sure, the GPS-based augmented reality game was intended for the masses — it doubled the size of the mobile gaming market, was 50 times bigger than initial estimates, surpassed Twitter’s 20 million users within two weeks, and swiftly became the most downloaded app ever — but as time went on, the disparity between casual players and hardcore obsessives started looking as dramatic as global wealth distribution. While many players (dubbed “trainers” in the game) caught Pokémon casually and maybe battled a couple neighborhood gyms before quitting altogether (spurred in part by Niantic’s terribly misguided priorities), the dedicated freaks dove deeper into Pokémon Go’s complex, multi-faceted metagame, scouring maps for ever-changing habitats, calculating IVs, Pidgey grinding for XP bumps, “Bubblestratting” gyms, datamining APKs, debating scanner/botting politics, taking road trips for rares, and, most memorably, joining impromptu gatherings around Pokémon hot spots, most often in parks or busy downtown areas. The latter was a weird, explosive, boundary-pushing glimpse into the vibrant yet disruptive possibility of augmented reality gameplay. Here, a mishmash of trainers — hipsters, gamers, nerds, kindergarteners, grandparents, editor-in-chiefs, etc. — all huddled around clusters of PokéStops and gyms, waiting for a Dragonite to spawn so we could all run like idiots into and out of traffic, hundreds of people pouring into the streets rather than sitting on the couch. We lost a lot of weight, drove like assholes, and even inspired legislation. It was thrilling. Next up: Generation 2.


Pokémon Sun & Moon

Developer: Game Freak

[Nintendo 3DS]


Nobody imagined Nintendo’s iconic monster-hunting franchise (which, however commercially successful, more or less receded from the public consciousness post-Y2k) could produce a similar, meteoric impact upon broader cultural landscape 20 years after its 90s heyday in the form of the mobile gaming (and data plan-draining) phenomenon known as Pokémon Go — and yet, in 2016, the critters proved inescapable. Pokémon Sun and Moon, too, commemorated Pikachu and company’s anniversary in the best way possible: a tropical getaway doubling as a welcome break from the formula, as well as the series’ best entries in a decade. Instead of marching along on a predictable hunt for badges, we searched for soup ingredients and faced off against super-sized Raticates; we climbed from the seat of a bike onto the back of a Tauros; we cured our ailing teammates with the stroke of a stylus (“petting” them through the screen) rather than the purchase of an antidote. The ensuing adventure was nothing short of magical for Poké-veterans, 90s kids, and newbies alike.


Reigns

Developer: Devolver Digital

[Android, Windows, iOS, Linux, Macintosh OS]


Reigns managed to squeeze an immense, ambitious parable on the foibles and follies of power into a ridiculously simple Tinder-style phone app. As the leader of the kingdom, you must carefully tend to the balance between varying sectors of your society, represented as the economy, the church, the army, and, of course, the people. Each of your choices can bring prosperity or ruin to your dynasty, but it’s not just a matter of keeping all your elements in the green — let any one faction of your country flourish too much, and they’ll throw you to the dogs in a savage coup. There is plenty of silliness to balance out all the politicking, but Reigns will kill you over and over again, passing the crown from generation to generation, constantly testing you to see how long you can maintain power. Even in its swipe-right simplicity, the game carried a surprising depth, rewarding us for ruthlessness as often as it punished. It was an impossible attempt to manage chaos, a game of luck with the lives of thousands at our mercy. And at the heart of it all was a queasily honest assertion: being a leader isn’t about making your kingdom great — it’s about making it yours.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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