Let’s just have it said and done: 2016 was a shit year in almost every conceivable way. Divisive political stances have never been at a higher slant, the right and left are more split than ever, every news link has lead to more and more bad news, and a laundry list of our favorite celebrities have bit the dust in a ridiculous procession of what amounts to some of our favorite humans being snatched away by a very sadistic reaper.
With that said, it’s no surprise that 2016 has been a banner year for gaming. I think we all needed to escape from the harsh truths of reality just a little bit more this year, and we were not wanting for options in that regard. So, without further (depressing) ado, here are the 10 games that most kept us distracted from the encroaching apocalypse in 2016. Click here for the top 20.
May 2017 offer brighter days. (Mike Worby)
10) Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter is the perfect example of style and substance working in perfect harmony. Developer Heart Machine’s action/RPG managed to merge the best aspects of beloved titles like The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls while still forming an identity uniquely its own. Beautiful 16 bit art and a vibrant array of colors helped to capture a dark yet luscious apocalyptic environment.
While the finer details of Hyper Light Drifter’s story tended to get lost in translation due to a lack of dialogue, the overarching themes of genocide, religious fanaticism, and the environmental costs of nuclear war are clearly painted throughout the game. The story of the Drifter itself is a flawed and broken one, highlighted by the character’s quest to find a cure for its fatal disease, no matter the cost. This creates a moody and intense atmosphere as the Drifter fights through hordes of mutated creatures and once-powerful mechanical beings of the past.
Hyper Light Drifter excels at offering an engaging and fluid gaming experience. Sporting a tight control scheme and strong but brutal combat system, the game offers players a challenging yet rewarding gameplay experience. For those looking for a classic take on the Dark Souls formula, Hyper Light Drifter fits right in your wheelhouse. (Carston Carasella)
9) Darkest Dungeon
Anyone that’s ever played pen and paper or tabletop gaming has probably had that DM. The kid that only wanted to be DM so they could screw over your entire group. They throw traps and monsters at your group in endless succession, and because of that winning against them feels so much sweeter, not only overcoming the challenge of the campaign itself, but beating this kid at their own game.
That’s what Darkest Dungeon is about, beating an angry, cynical, and downright mean DM at their own game and looking great doing it. The setup has you attempting to reclaim your familial grounds, guided by the writings of your ancestor, who also serves as a narrator to your adventures (and is voiced by the amazing Wayne June). To clear the lands of darkness you’ll need to hire adventurers from a variety of classes and create parties of up to four to run randomly generated campaigns into the heart of evil below your estate.
Where Darkest Dungeon really manages to deviate from other rogue-likes is the implementation of a stress system. As your heroes delve into the underground their morale will be tested, and when they hit a breaking point they can either power through and become beacons of hope or, more likely, become broken husks that slowly erode the rest of the party. This adds an extra layer of depth and tragedy as you’ll need to contend with your best fighters becoming shells of their former selves after particularly nasty fights.
Darkest Dungeon isn’t for everyone. It’s a game that has no problem beating you down and spitting on you, and the end-game grind gets downright insane. For those who get into it though, this is one of the best representations of proper tabletop RPGs yet, and a definite must for gamers that enjoy a challenge. (Andrew Vandersteen)
8) The Last Guardian
With the release of The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda has cemented his position as one of the greatest video game directors/designers of all time, putting him in league with the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, and Hidetaka Miyazaki.
The fact that The Last Guardian shares more with Ico than it does with Shadow of the Colossus will immediately turn away a significant chunk of people, and that’s a shame, because not only is it one of 2016’s best games, but it’s also one of the best action-adventure titles released in recent memory.
Yes, it’s true, the game’s controls can feel unintuitive and downright archaic at times, it does suffer from some technical issues, and its camera has the propensity to be infuriating, but despite its flaws The Last Guardian’s triumphs are monumental. Its setting is both grand and captivating; the sheer size of the environments in combination with how well the areas are crafted create a memorable and awe-inspiring journey. The game’s puzzles and platforming are fluid, at times even ingenious, and the narrative is presented cleverly through the world’s architecture, as lore-drenched hallways give insight into what seems to be the relics of an ancient civilization. And, of course, the game’s crowning achievement, the beast itself, Trico.
Within just the first few hours of gameplay Trico establishes itself as the best animal companion in gaming history, bar none. Animated to the point of near perfection, the giant bird-cat-dog moves so realistically, and behaves so naturally, that it’ll remind you of your real life furry friends. But the way Trico moves isn’t even its most impressive trait; the way it thinks, the way it reacts and emotes, the way it analyzes and understands, to sum up the creature’s artificial intelligence in just a couple of words: it’s simply astounding. The bond between boy and beast is forged through a realistic series of events and interactions, creating a heartfelt and emotional experience. There will be times where Trico ignores your commands, instances where you’ll spend minutes trying to convince him to perform a certain action, and you’ll get frustrated, but that feeling of frustration is an essential part of the experience. Unlike the vast majority of animal companions from other games, Trico isn’t simply a tool, it’s a living creature, and like any relationship you form with another independent being, there will be hardships, but it’s through those hardships and frustrations that a special friendship is born. Trico’s authenticity alone is reason enough to play this game. (Matt De Azevedo)
7) Pokémon Sun and Moon
Every iteration within Pokémon’s 20 year long history has brought small, subtle changes to prevent the franchise from getting stale. No generation of games has done quite so upstanding a job as Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon and, from the outset, Pokémon Sun and Moon celebrates that twenty-year history while distinguishing themselves as something different. For starters, the experience is far more cinematic, allowing for moments of quality, subtle character building while frequently raising tension and excitement with brief action sequences. Likewise, the setting of the game, the Alola Region, is far more realized than previous regions. Based on Hawaii, Alola is comprised of four unique islands each exuding their own atmosphere. Despite taking place on islands, the game is fairly landlocked; so don’t worry about too much water. In game, Alola is described as being a far stretch away from the original Pokémon region of Kanto, and that’s exceptionally demonstrated. Unlike other regions, Alola doesn’t have gyms. Instead, players embark on an Island Challenge in which they go on a series of trials. While similar to gyms in that they culminate in a fierce Pokémon battle, each trial sets the player on a completely different task that teaches and celebrates the history of Alola. Gone also is the linear, X-axis, Y-axis, top down, grid style map. Alola is a free flowing, 3D world where the variety of Pokémon changes for each section of tall grass, even on the same route.
Pokémon Sun and Moon are as notable for their quality of life improvements. Quick access to Poké Balls amidst wild Pokémon encounters, move effectiveness listed for Pokémon previously battled, and fully customizable menus are just a few. That’s not to say the games don’t have outstanding new additions. Poke Pelago and Festival Plaza are welcome distractions from the main game, but represent the typical, expected additions to a new Pokémon generation. Unprecedented are what fans are calling SOS battle encounters where wild Pokémon can call for aid resulting in two on one battles. On top of stacking the odds against the player in exciting ways, these SOS encounters can result in rare Pokémon encounters including evolutions, Pokémon with hidden abilities, and shiny Pokémon. In fact, some Pokémon can only be encountered this way, resulting in some thrilling, unexpected discoveries. Sun and Moon also include Z-moves, powerful moves that can only be used once per battle between all Pokémon in the party. While often overpowering the player, when battling enemies capable of Z-moves, these powerful moves can actually shift the tides of battle in interesting ways. For all that is new, Pokémon Sun and Moon are also a celebration of twenty years of Pokémon. Some of this takes the obvious shape of Alolan Forms of original Pokémon, some of which are cool as ice while others are intentionally laughable. At other times it’s as subtle as a Cubone calling on a Kangaskhan for help in battle, a call back to Pokémon lore and a legend of the original games. Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon represent the best Pokémon has to offer: some brilliant new Pokémon, celebratory riffs on the originals, countless quality of life improvements, and an abundance of character and charm from the cast within, both villains and heroes alike, and even the region itself. Do yourself a favor and take a vacation to Alola and the wonderful world of Pokemon Sun and Moon. (Tim Maison)
6) Final Fantasy XV
After a long and tumultuous design cycle, one so long that it actually became a running joke for fans and industry pundits alike, Final Fantasy XV emerged this year to a surprising chorus of almost universal acclaim, though that acclaim did come with a laundry list of certain caveats.
Despite FFXV‘s echoes of praise, the game does have some troubling elements, including parts of the game that seem to either underperform or fail entirely (I’m looking at you Costlemark Tower). However, the many problems with Final Fantasy XV are actually badges of pride when you look at the scores it’s garnered from publications big and small.
How, you ask? Well, only a truly exceptional effort could overcome the sometimes game-breaking flaws of Square-Enix’s latest to become one of the best games of the year. Whether through the bonds of the characters, the unconventional approach of the narrative, the mix-and-match of a dozen ideas from a dozen games, or the simple splendor of it’s jaw dropping environs, Final Fantasy XV clears the gates as what would be the surprise success story of any other gaming year, but in 2016, of course, must share that honor with DOOM and The Last Guardian.
Still, as the best Final Fantasy in years, despite its flaws, credit must be given where credit is due. (Mike Worby)
While it wasn’t in the oven for as long as Owlboy, and certainly not scrutinized as much as Final Fantasy XV, 2016’s DOOM is another title that spent the better half of a decade in development, yet rose to not only meet, but exceed expectations.
Similar to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, id Software’s rebirth of DOOM succeeds not through innovation or excess, but via refinement and respect for the series’ roots.
From the legendary Chainsaw to the fabled Super Shotgun, DOOM’s classic weapons feel as long time fans would expect. The game is bloody, visceral, and intense. Levels are filled to the brim with Hell spawn, but the DOOM Marine has never been known to back down from a challenge. The constant feeling of being overwhelmed is counterbalanced by the sense of power instilled in the player by their arsenal of weapons and their ability to rip and tear through demons at a breakneck pace. Gameplay is fast and frenetic; kills can be stringed together seamlessly either with bullets or via gruesomely animated melee finishers known as “glory kills”. The game’s level design further emphasizes its focus on kinetic and fast-paced encounters, as airlifts and double jumps quickly propel the player around each zone, keeping the pace at a near constant 100 miles per hour.
After spending just a few minutes with DOOM’s multiplayer you may think to yourself “this feels like it was developed by a completely different studio”, and that’s because it was. Unfortunately, Certain Affinity’s work fails to make the grade, as the game’s multiplayer is both shallow and easily forgettable, but don’t let this blemish turn you away from the game entirely. DOOM is a fantastic single player FPS, with engaging environments, solid shooting mechanics, and a surprisingly entertaining narrative. It’s hard to believe that Doom 3 came out well over a decade ago, but the gates to Hell have finally been re-opened, so suit up and jump in. (Matt De Azevedo)
2016 might have been an appalling year in terms of celebrity deaths and political facepalms, but for gamers it’s been a stellar year packed with quality titles. You’ll find fantastic games from back to front throughout our Best Of 2016 list, but there’s likely no other game released this year that was as impeccably designed as Playdead’s Inside.
The true beauty of Inside lies not in the spectacular attention to detail in the environments, or the engrossing narrative it manages to convey without uttering a single word, but in the finely crafted puzzles that are difficult enough to make you think for a minute but never hard enough to disrupt the flow of the game for any longer than that. You’re always moving, whether you’re being chased by ruthless guards or just trying to get to the next area hoping to find out what the hell is going on here, and that sense of urgency coupled with the disconcerting feeling that something is very wrong in the world Playdead has created, results in a palpable sense of tension.
It’s got top notch animation, an unnerving, minimalist soundtrack, a dystopian future setting that oozes atmosphere, and a constant sense of impending doom that should keep you glued to the edge of your seat for the three or four hours it’ll take to see the game through to the end. And the end? If there’s a more surreal, horrific, jaw-dropping finale to any game other than Inside in 2016, then we’ll eat our collective hats. (John McCormick)
3) Dark Souls III
The community of From Software’s now infamous Souls series is known to be home to some of the most die-hard, dedicated and sadomasochistic fans in the realm of gaming, and as such the purported “final entry” in the Souls franchise had a pretty high bar to clear in order to impress them.
Lucky for us all, it was mission accomplished from the aces over at From. Dark Souls III was well received by critics and fans alike, providing an excellent send-off for the series, loaded with a metric ton of fan service, while offering enough new twists and turns to the scheme of things to keep things fresh for even the most stalwart of Souls fans.
The level design is gorgeous, with From Software clearly taking a page from the eerie, haunting locales of their previous effort, Bloodborne, and incorporating them into their already varied satchel of tricks. In addition, there are enough layers of the other three preceding titles interspersed in the final product to make this the ultimate Souls game in a lot of ways. No matter which of the previous games is your favorite, Dark Souls III has something to offer, and if you’re a virgin to the series then, well, you’ve got a lot to learn, but the loose narrative of the game will leave you right at home with the rest of us, having no idea what the hell is going on until you’ve done a bit of research.
All jokes aside, as sad as this writer is to see Dark Souls taking a break, it’s better than the alternative of it being run into the ground (see Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, et al) and fans could do a lot worse than this absolutely stellar, and exceedingly memorable tribute to what might be the best new franchise of the decade. (Mike Worby)
Games like Overwatch only come around once in a blue moon. Blizzard has created a masterpiece that takes the team-based shooter formula and transforms it into so much more. The gameplay is perfect across the board, but what makes Overwatch a truly incredible title is the amazing and diverse cast of characters. Every single character offers up a unique and engaging gameplay experience that requires hours of playtime to master. Spending so much time with these characters is made more enjoyable through Blizzard’s treatment of their respective stories. It’s hard not to get attached to these characters, with each of them having their own backstories and personality traits to discover.
Overwatch is the perfect multiplayer experience. While the game can certainly be played in a highly competitive fashion (just look at its growing esports league), there are plenty of casual modes for gamers looking to just have fun. The icing on the cake comes in the form of free updates for years to come. No season passes, no dlc, just new maps and characters all at no cost to the player. It really doesn’t get much better than this. (Zack Rezak)
1) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Naughty Dog has once again crafted a breathtaking adventure that can stand alone as the best game on PlayStation 4, yet. A Thief’s End may not have that big, iconic set piece moment found in previous Uncharted games but it succeeds as a collection of smaller sequences that help set a new benchmark for the way video games can communicate a narrative.
A Thief’s End is a fitting send-off for Nathan Drake and one that perfectly balances the action-packed extravaganza we’ve come to expect with the slow and heavy emotional toll of Naughty Dog’s other hit title, The Last of Us. Uncharted 4 might just be the best title developed by Naughty Dog, and not just because of the stunning graphics, but because of how the sum of all it’s parts come together in a brilliantly cohesive whole. Everything from the dialogue, character actions, visual motifs, audio cues, art direction, sound effects, artistic presentation, tone and setting help create a breathtakingly efficient, immaculately constructed game that is a sheer joy to play. (Ricky D)
What Are Some of the Switch’s Best Indie Devs Making?
The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the preferred platform for some of the most talented indie studios in the industry. Its pick-up-and-play form factor and Nintendo’s concerted effort to court smaller developers this generation (complete with indie-specific Directs) has resulted in a library that’s positively flourished.
Despite the eShop falling victim to some of the discoverability and shovelware issues that long plagued Steam, there have been some real standouts over the years. Since video games take quite a while to produce, there’s often speculation as to what some of the premier developers have been working on. Let’s take a look at four of the most recognized indie studios on the platform and have some fun trying to figure out what they might be up to.
It’s hard to believe that 2017’s Golf Story was Sidebar Games’ first project as a studio. The two-man team from down under balanced a delightful dose of Australian-tinged humor with clear callbacks to the Mario sports games of old to deliver one of the best Switch exclusives in 2017, bar none.
Unlike the other studios on this list, Sidebar has been extremely silent on development progress; we can only glean bits and pieces from the few interviews they’ve done. We know the game has been in development for roughly two years and that Sidebar was still in active development as of March 2019 when they put out the call for a pixel artist for their next project. There’s also a fair chance that the new game will either be Switch-exclusive or target Switch first, seeing as how Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date as of Spring 2019. If exclusivity worked so well the first time, why not try it again?
What Can We Expect?
Whatever Sidebar is working on, it’s almost guaranteed to be single-player and story-focused. One half of the dev team, Andrew, has gone on record multiple times saying that he’s “very partial to story modes.” This also players into one of their strengths; though there was a great time to be had with Golf Story’s golf, it was all elevated by the game’s ridiculous-yet-lovable characters and wacky situational humor.
Since the team has already deconfirmed a sequel as their next project, there’s really not much to go on. While I’d personally love them to tackle something Mario Tennis-inspired next, there’s a good chance they’ll avoid sports altogether. As long as the wit found in Golf Story is alive and well, though, their core audience is sure to be interested.
Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is still one of the best platformers to come out in recent memory. The game’s striking three-color art style isn’t just unique, but it’s also ingrained into the platforming mechanics in inventive ways. Beyond having a look all its own and a stiff challenge for players who wanted it, however, Fabraz went the extra mile to build a fun cast of characters and even a hub world to explore outside of the main game. It was a pleasant surprise from a relatively unknown developer at the time.
Fabraz has been anything but complacent since Slime-san’s launch. The studio released two free content expansions, ported the game to other consoles, and even got into the publishing business. No matter their other ventures, however, the team has made sure to tease their next project every so often since the start of 2019.
What Can We Expect?
Fabraz speculated that their new game was already roughly 60% complete at the start of October. Since it only began production in December of 2018, it’s safe to assume that the next game will be relatively small in scope. It’s also likely that Fabraz’s next outing won’t be “Slime-san 2,” since the original game received such heavy content additions months after release (including an expansion literally titled “Sheeple’s Sequel.” The team certainly knows how to make magic from very limited resources, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with a bit more of a budget, a new art style, and tons more experience.
Game Atelier/FDG Entertainment
It feels like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom came out of nowhere. The team at FDG Entertainment had published indie darling Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King just the year prior and the console port of Oceanhorn before that, but there wasn’t much talk about FDG’s capabilities as a developer. As it turns out, however, Game Atelier’s choice to bring them on as a co-developer was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to Monster Boy. Five long years of development later and fans were treated to one of the best platformers in recent memory.
Though it launched on all consoles, Monster Boy famously sold eight times more on Switch than PS4 and Xbox One combined, reminiscent of the sales of Blossom Tales on Switch. Needless to say, FDG’s next title will be targeted squarely as the Nintendo community. But what could that next project be?
What Can We Expect?
A Monster Boy sequel. FDG recently celebrated their collaboration with Game Atelier on Twitter and announced that they’re collaborating once more. The commercial and critical success of Monster Boy can only lead one to believe they’re hard at work on a follow-up together. Thankfully, with such a solid base to work off of now, this one shouldn’t take nearly as long to release.
Chucklefish has garnered a great deal of respect in the indie community as both a developer (Starbound, WarGroove) and frequent publisher (Stardew Valley, Timespinner, the upcoming Eastward, and others). Their eagerness to bring so many of their top-notch titles to Switch has made them one of–if not the–most lauded indie studios on the platform. If it’s coming from Chucklefish, there’s a good chance it’ll be of the highest quality.
What Can We Expect?
Witchbrook! Chucklefish announced the game way back in 2017 and instantly had both Harry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans foaming at the mouth. It’s a magical school simulation/RPG where players will attend class, learn spells, make friends, date, and work towards graduation. The company’s CEO and lead designer, Finn, has been incredibly open about the game’s development from the beginning. In fact, he made the ever-changing Witchbrook design document public in August of 2019 to give some insight into the game design and planning process.
Since there’s already so much we know about where the game’s going, this is going to be used as more of a “Hopes for Witchbrook” section. To keep it short, let’s focus on two of the game’s most make-or-break elements: dating and world-building.
One of the things many RPGs struggle with is making dating feel meaningful after the relationship starts. People love romancing in Stardew Valley, but the experience itself is really rather shallow; bring characters their favorite items, talk to them daily, experience a few touching cutscenes and voila! All that’s left is to put a ring on it and have a baby.
My hope is that in Witchbrook, the real fun starts after the relationship begins. Being able to have lunch together, go to festivals, celebrate anniversaries, plan outings, and even introduce them to the player’s in-game friends would go a long way in making the relationship feel more than a ribbon to be crossed.
When someone asks the seminal question “What fictional world would you love to live in?” the world of Harry Potter almost always tops to list (right next to Pokémon, that is). It isn’t just because of magic itself or the emotional ties people have to the cast, but more so because of the immense amounts of personality and lore J.K. Rowling infused into the world. From the dark history of Hogwarts to the vast array of magical beasts to the establishment of Quidditch, there is a whole movie and video game series that has been created based on mere slices of the Harry Potter universe.
Naturally, it’d be silly to expect Chucklefish to achieve as much depth in an indie project as one of the most successful authors of all time did over the course of seven books, but there’s still plenty of potential. Since the game will primarily take place at the school, exploring why the school was created and how it’s changed over the years could be quite interesting. Then there’s how different populations of the world at large feel about magic, how various magical species play a part, the favorite magic-imbued pastimes of students in the world of Witchbrook, and so on. The key will be to infuse magic into every element of the world (and gameplay) as naturally as possible. And after reading through the extensive design doc, I’ve no doubt Chucklefish will be able to pull it off.
The indie scene on the Switch is thriving more than ever. New talented developers are making the platform their home every day, and those who’ve already proved themselves are hard at work on their next premium experience. The next wave of releases from these studios can’t come soon enough.
‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different
Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found?
About Death Stranding…
It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity.
Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer.
Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another.
On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.
Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.
Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right?
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy.
Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes.
In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves.
This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.
As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together.
Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity.
AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time.
The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity.
From Escape to Inspiration: How Video Games Promote Creativity
The stresses of everyday life are often enough to put heavy strain on even the sharpest and most durable of minds. No one is immune to the pressures of work, school, or even the personal struggles that weigh down on everyone. Now more than ever, with advancements in technology and the increased prominence of fantastical immersion, video games have become more of an escape for people of all ages.
No longer are video games considered the medium for children looking to “waste time.” Rather, these virtual worlds have transformed into an integral part of how a grand portion of the globe’s population interacts with each other. Moreover, video games offer a much-needed respite from one’s struggles, drawing people into a fictitious realm in which they journey with a hero on their adventures in a compelling fable, or compete with other players worldwide.
Whatever one’s reasons for playing, video games are an outlet through which gamers alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and a myriad of other emotions, giving rise to joy and relaxation alongside a sense of accomplishment. This escape provides users with an opportunity to not only temporarily get away from whatever troubles them, but also inspires them and promotes creativity.
The old ways of acquiring inspiration (books, role models, school, friends and colleagues, etc.) are still tried and true. However, just as humans have evolved over millennia, so, too, have the means of stimulus and influence. Alongside these traditional sources of encouragement comes video games—visual, interactive stories and competitions that stimulate one’s mind and get hearts pumping and adrenaline rushing.
From betrayal to romance, the most traditional storytelling tropes have been plucked from novels and cinema to create these immersive, interactive worlds. Video games offer lessons in commitment, dedication, persistence, and so much more. Repeatedly, fans see their favorite heroes get knocked down, and then those same fans take control of those heroes and take them through the journey of picking themselves back up.
Assassin’s Creed II has players take control of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, even after they witness half the character’s family murdered before their very eyes. They join Ezio on his journey to avenge his family and develop into someone who refuses to give up, who uses ingenuity to learn and expand his own horizons to accomplish his goals—a tale of hope for anyone struggling to bounce back after trauma and tragedy.
Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, the advancement of video games in terms of how much they have evolved over the years is enough to inspire any aspiring video game developer. Taking one look at the beautiful worlds companies like Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix, 343 Industries, and so many more create does wonders to convincing a plethora of gamers to learn how to code or write a compelling story.
Despite previous misconceptions that video games only give people a space in which to waste time, this hobby (or often profession, if one considers the earnings of the top eSports competitors) has shifted opinions to a more curious perspective. It’s difficult to ignore something so popular that promotes so much creativity.
Initially, video games were a mere medium of entertainment. Simple games like Pong did little to foster the mental acuity of their users. However, since the 1980s, video games have surpassed their meager, albeit fun, precursors. Solving puzzles, exploring vast geographies, and overcoming challenging obstacles are just some of the facets of modern video games that force players to think a little deeper about the game’s objectives.
Sometimes, the direct path isn’t the answer, and video games teach players how to come up with alternative solutions to their problems. For example, titles like 2018’s Kingdom Come: Deliverance or 2001’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic give gamers the ability to choose how to complete certain missions, forcing them to deal with different consequences depending on the choices they make. Not all problems are easy, and video games can help equip players with the tools they will need to think about multiple possible solutions to a challenge.
Beyond ruminating about alternative solutions, the creativity avid gamers develop through video games will help them in other ways, such as their ability to think critically about certain concepts and form their own perspectives on complicated situations. Is the Dragonborn character gamers control in Skyrim defined only as the Dragonborn, or does that character bring more to the table than being a slayer who can communicate with mighty, scaly, winged lizards?
Video games keep fans’ minds churning with ideas for their own stories, whether those tales are reflections of their own lives or the inspiration for elements of their own literary or cinematic endeavors. Fans often draw courage from the heroes in their favorite titles, looking to them to help them out of a rut or learn how to deal with their own troubles.
Whether learning how to use a little more diplomacy to negotiate through a bad situation or finding the gumption to learn martial arts to stay in shape or for self-defense, much of gamers’ motivation can be traced back to the inspiration they garnered from the heroes they see in all forms of media, and video games are no exception.
Just as humans have to crawl before they walk, video games had to start small and gain traction before the world was ready to advance them to their current state. No longer are these virtual, interactive worlds a backdrop that people use to merely pass the time. Rather, they are the catalyst for courage, inspiration, creativity, and entertainment.
While video games have come a long way since the early days of Pong, they have still only progressed to a state of adolescence. Technology is advancing at a more rapid rate than ever before, and companies are no longer limiting themselves in terms of what they can achieve with one of the fastest-growing, financially prosperous, emotionally charged industries the world has ever seen.
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