Now here we are a fair piece closer to my heart. I am a voracious infophile, chugging back media like hot eggnog most hours of the day, drowning out the dreadful noise of reality. All things unreal sing to me, and I always try to listen for the harmonies. But video-games are a different beast. I’d even go so far as to lump all of books, music, TV, and film into one category, with games as something separate altogether. Maybe I’m just a gambling addict, or a dyed-in-the-wool loner, but games draw in a uniquely personal bond with me through the interactive element. That each player’s experience is somewhat uniquely yours (that the outcome of your experience is collaborative, even in a single-player game) will always drive meaning deeper into my brain than anything else. That’s why we started Evade Gismo — we want to legitimize video-games as the art-form we know it to be, to elevate the discussion beyond graphical fidelity and consumer rights and exclusionary subcultures. Gaming can be a thing that reflects back the problems of the world in tangible and, sometimes, solvable ways, and in this way, they can improve our lives, give us perspective, often literally in the first-person (and perhaps too often down the barrel of a gun), that we’d never have had otherwise. Without further ado, here are the games that surprised me most in 2016.
2016 MOST SURPRISING GAMES I PLAYED THIS YEAR
Ludeon Studios - RimWorld
For me, RimWorld has been a constant process of discovery. Like a child learning to understand object mass, motor function, and social cues, I became awkwardly familiar with RimWorld’s most rudimentary systems of cultivation, cat breeding, and cannibalism. Underneath simplistic visuals and a menu-dense interface is an incredibly powerful simulation that answers the question, “How do you survive crashlanding on an Earthlike planet?” Designer Tynan Sylvester works hard to advance his design goals — he has stripped away every unnecessary distraction, including graphical fidelity and even animation, in order to maximize development focus on his primary goal: to create a game that generates genuine and emergent drama. I found myself filling in gaps in causation, putting words in the mouths of my little characters, very, very quickly, and it’s the same for many players. RimWorld is so rich with interdependent systems! Your geographical biome will determine temperature, which affects growing conditions, which will determine your food supply, which, if low, could result in cannibalism-by-necessity, which could drive a normal, healthy person into a psychotic killing spree. On the other hand, the handsome doctor may gun down and then rescue an enemy raider, and in the course of treating her injuries and tending to her needs in prison, may fall in love and wed her. Character life and death are equally valuable to RimWorld, because they both plant seeds for new, spontaneous fiction. Even if your whole colony dies, you can just wait, overlooking your abandoned encampment, until some poor straggler stumbles into the wreckage, fires up the generators, and begins society anew in the ruin. One can hardly sum up RimWorld in a few short words — though I like to think of it as The Sims with guns, bionic limbs, and killer aliens — but for its maximum customizability, its respect for the player’s intelligence and creativity, and its sprawling clockwork of real, interlocking game systems, RimWorld has come to surprise me again and again in the course of the year.
Hello Games - No Man's Sky
Not all surprises are good. No Man’s Sky surprised me in one, horrible way, but then delivered a snapback surprise that kind of evened out to “meh.” Sean Murray of Hello Games has become a toxic meme within the fan community for his own game, seemingly bewildered and flummoxed at the way his own false promises have come round to bite him in the ass — the difference between what was offered and what was sold is perhaps the most surprising thing on display here. In a fantastic demonstration of critical cowardice on my part, I allowed the hype and the ensuing popular disappointment to deflate my own interest in the game, and did not get around to playing it firsthand until a friend offered me access to their copy several months after release. And the game surprised me again upon contact — it wasn’t a horrendous game, by any means. I actually came back to it several times, eager to explore the next-furthest reaches of the galaxy. However, I found myself obsessed with what I did not find from No Man’s Sky, I don’t think because of some critical deficiency of my own as a consumer, but because the confident image presented by the game’s own chief developer: the lie was more beautiful than the truth, and I had been specifically convinced to spend much more time with the former than the latter
IO Interactive - HITMAN
What the hell was I thinking, preordering this? I’m not particularly a Hitman fan, though I enjoyed Absolution. I never preorder anything. AND, this game was set to be released one chapter at a time. This was literally a recipe for disappointment. I haven’t played all of it, but by nearly every single turn, Hitman tickled me. I was astonished at the systemic depth of the game’s level design — the crowds looked and moved like real crowds! — but also at the innovative ways in which IO Interactive turned what looked like a shysty, episodic business model into something that actually added to the experience. Each deep level of HITMAN’s release cycle actually gained value by focusing player attention on it. Time-locked challenges required you to become intimately familiar with the people and tools and systems of each individual stage, in order to execute the Black Swan-perfect kill. And so, an Italian seaside resort town, and the revolt-ravaged streets of Marrkesh, and a corporate-class private hospital in the Japanese mountainside are all staged to become homes to player, extravagant-yet-functional stomping grounds to the creative killer in all of us. In terms of business model and sheer quality, HITMAN astonished me.
Sorath - Devil Daggers
Like a puddle of ectoplasm sprung from the eldritch circuitry of a demonically possessed cabinet arcade machine, Devil Daggers invokes a haunted and vicious refinement of the gaming experience. With reductively simple controls, systems, and objectives, the game, as it hands you an unexplained, hovering dagger from an infinite black void, doesn’t invite you to finish, and not even to win. The question is simply how long will you last? How far will you go? Within this single square of terrain, within an endless void and a never-ending churn of floating skulls, mega-termites, slowly-spinning towers, and, yes, devil daggers flying from your fingertips, you’re invited to die… and die… and die again. Taunting you with wave upon wave of hideous, moaning, impersonal enemies, Devil Daggers forms a purgatory which could not be escaped since the moment you picked up that forsaken dagger. Pure trial and error shape your techniques and strategies; to defeat the infinite, you need to understand it, anticipate the patterns of its movement, and never miss a shot. For its rich style, its disciplined refinement, and the ease with which it can draw you into its unbeatable hellscape, Devil Daggers will not soon be forgotten.
Playdead - INSIDE
INSIDE, in spite of fairly low player numbers on Steam, is sending out waves in the indie development community, and as such, is beginning to draw some sneery flak among critics. It’s arty and pretentious, or it fetishizes child-death, or it is barely a game. Maybe this resistance comes from the friction between the game’s dense and highly-charged use of symbolism in conveying its world, plot, and message, and total refusal to explicitly explain itself: the only literal language in the game are the words in the starting menu. It seems every blade of grass and loose pebble has been carefully curated in INSIDE’s brief, four-hour run-time. But what many detractors claim are the game’s deficiencies — irrelevant puzzles, narrative ambiguity, shock value — were, I think, intentionally designed in order to say something unique. INSIDE has a great deal to convey, for all its silence, but most of all, it is about the conflict between personal freedom and social conformity. That you can take only a few actions running left-to-right, even though the camera pointedly shows you the freedom you could have to either side, works to suggest the lack of freedom of not just the character, but the player too, moreso than lazy design. As a player myself, I felt directly and cleverly scrutinized at certain moments in the game. For instance, INSIDE’s main character, a little boy, occasionally dons a technological device called a MindHat which allows him to remotely puppet idiotic zombies elsewhere on the level in order to advance. They’re relatable - they look human - but they’re also disposable to you the moment they’ve served their function. They can be used; but they cannot be saved. Seem familiar? INSIDE shocked me, because the closer I looked at it, the more I found it was trying to say. If you are enthusiastically literary, always looking to collate hints, clues, and sidelong glances into an overall theory of what a work of art means, INSIDE will pollute you for months and even years to come. I highly recommend it.