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Samantha Kalman's Top 10 Games of 2016

Samantha Kalman is a game developer from Seattle, WA known for creating Sentris, and for her year-long reign as League of Heels world champion. You can find her on Twitter @SamanthaZero.

Somebody once told me there’s never been a better time to be playing video games. It’s probably true, but as I get older I find myself more and more confused about what exactly video games are. Researching them on the internet doesn’t help, since apparently nobody can agree on whether or not walking simulators are video games. But nobody can agree about anything ever, so I dunno who to believe or what to think in this post-truth world.

What I do know is that I found 10 amazing games this year. I consider them my “top” 10 games of the year, if you will. What’s more is that I had a hard time narrowing the list down to 10, which is kind of remarkable for me lately. Last year I was so busy finishing Sentris that I don’t think I played 10 games. It was just a smash cut from Sentris to the Phantom Pain (literally and figuratively). But I digress. Here are this queer gal’s 10 favorite games of twenty sixteen.

Disclaimer: I’m friends with Ian, the developer of Botolo. I was also a little involved with the development of the game, giving Ian feedback on several builds going back early in its development. I also play the part of the the scrappy underdog character in the release trailer for the game.

Despite my personal involvement with its development, Botolo is an objectively good game. I know this because I play fighting games and Botolo is a fighting game. It just looks nothing like a fighting game at first glance.

The typical skill curve when first learning to play fighting games is complex. First you have basic movement and normal attacks, then sequential inputs and context-sensitive attacks that require reflexes and consistent execution. Next you have learn character-specific attributes, and repeat that process for every character. When you have two people playing against each other who have both gone through the intense and time consuming training, you get into the metagame of reading your opponent. Predicting your opponent’s fighting style and reacting to them is my favorite part of fighting games. It just takes a long time to first get into. What I love about Botolo is that it simplifies the curve, and gets you into reading your opponent very quickly.

You try to capture zones by grabbing a ball and moving inside one. If your opponent has the ball, you can move up close to them and press a button to attempt a steal. Opponents can block the steal (which is satisfying like a 3rd Strike parry in every way), but are punished if they miss. The fundamentals of the game are about moving uncomfortably close to your opponent and trying to read and anticipate what they’ll do. And of course you choose from one of many characters that all have a special move. I’m personally excited for the fighting game community to discover Botolo and figure out which characters are top-tier.

I didn’t follow the hype machine surrounding FFXV. I remember when it was announced as FFVSXIII, but I was so over anything Final Fantasy at the time that I didn’t really pay attention or care. When I heard news that it was about four boys in a sweet car, I just kind of wondered WTF. Then, a week before release I saw a video of Conan O’Brien and Elijah Wood playing the game. Conan was getting so confused and frustrated it was hilarious. He was having a reaction to an absurdity of the game that I instantly found intriguing.

I’ve only played the game for two hours at this point but it’s definitely absurd. I love it for that. We get very little setup to the story and an opening sequence that seems to end as quickly as it begins. Before I knew it, I was already in the middle of a road trip pushing my broken-down car down the road. There’s an absurdity in the way the game dropped me in with almost zero context, playing in a way that caught me by surprise. It’s almost post-structuralist, if you’ll allow me to use a fancy term.

The absurdity continues--logically it doesn’t make sense that I could pay off a debt for fixing my car by killing some monsters that roam a few meters away from the road. But hey sure why not? I’m all in at this point so yes just take me on this ridiculous ride. I’m half expecting a giant foot to fall from the sky and squash me at some point.

There’s another layer to what makes this game so interesting in what little context I have so far. The characters are extremely interesting! They all have different personalities, interests, hobbies, and opinions that all come out in quips and gesticulations. They’re rich with subtle detail that kind of blows my mind. I wonder if that’s what this game is meant to be all about in the end--relating to each of the characters. Even the combat mechanics are simple, but my boys keep making comments about how I almost just slashed them that make me wonder if I’m missing something by focusing entirely on the enemies. Should I pay more attention to my positioning in the group instead of just rushing down enemies? I don’t know! It’s all adding up to something I don’t entirely understand but am fascinated by.

Apparently 2016 was the year I got back into first-person shooters. Overwatch snuck up on me. I tried it out because my friend Kate kept talking so much about it. Turns out, yeah, it’s pretty goddamn fun. Right away I recognized its similarities to Team Fortress 2, a game I didn’t enjoy very much. But something about this is better resonating with me. The characters are a big part of it--they’re all so well designed and different to play. I didn’t realize how much I’ve always wanted to spend one life as a super intelligent gorilla who goes apeshit, then be reborn as a tall butch woman with a giant laser, then be reborn again as a zen robot monk WHO FLOATS.

The combination of learning the maps and character strategies keeps me coming back. I like seeing how characters can use their powers together, and trying to figure out how to punch a hole in their teamwork. I like experimenting with all the characters so I remain bad at using all of them but happily so. I like how colorful the game is. I like how it focuses on the positive plays and stats, so I never feel publicly shamed about how poorly I played. And once in a while when I pull off a cool moment, I feel like a super badass.

Street Fighter V is a great game trapped inside an incompetent production. Its incomplete launch state, paid DLC for characters, and numerous early network problems are so much more frustrating than they should be because the core of the game is so great. The play is tight, the systems are interesting, the new characters are cool. I heard the story mode is really bad but they added it so late I never played it. I just want intense and challenging matches against other humans, and the game gives that to me.

This is my favorite Street Fighter since 3rd Strike. I like the pacing, and the balance of offensive and defensive options. I like the bread & butter combos and the tactical dynamics of matchups among different characters. I like playing Nash a lot and have kind of stuck with him. I loved Alex in 3rd Strike and was so excited they added him! But they changed him so much both visually and mechanically, whenever I play him I just end up wishing I were playing 3S. Alex what happened? I feel like I don’t even know you anymore! Capcom, you fucked up my boy. You can make it up to me by adding Q and making him top tier. Oh, and get rid of that terrible suit that Urien wears. I don’t recognize him in anything except that loincloth.

I didn’t have Doom or Doom 2 as a kid. I grew up with a Mac at home, so I had the slower and more philosophical Marathon instead of the hyper fast techno-demonic classic. So this is the first version of Doom I’ve played through to the finish. And holy shit, it is so ruthlessly testosteronic that I can’t help but smile. It’s kind of amazing how well the team at id managed to translate the old game into something modern. I like the gameplay loop it trained me on--keep moving, keep strafing, keep scanning the environment for open spaces. Standing still is death, the game taught me. And the flow of gameplay once you get into this headspace is super satisfying.

I knew going into it that this was going to be an incredibly gory game. That usually puts me off, but I was okay with it this time. I think the game has a self-awareness that works for the abundant violence and ridiculous plot and characters. There’s an absurdity there that strikes me as intentional, and I appreciate that. This game winks at you with the thinly defined plot, then throws you into increasingly difficult battles. The absurdity wouldn’t work as well if the game were a pushover. And I kept respawning after many deaths because I didn’t want to be defeated by the silliness of it.

There's just enough going on with the plot to be surprising and entertaining in way that builds interesting silliness on top of other interesting silliness. For example, the introduction of the character Samuel. We meet him when we hear his voice first and learn he’s the guy in charge. Hours of gameplay later, we what he looks like and turns out he’s a FUCKING ROBOT. WHAT. And it gets even sillier when we eventually meet him. So dumb, so ridiculous, such small details, but so good.

I have a feeling that my opinion of the Last Guardian will be an unpopular one. We waited for this game across two generations while holding much love in our hearts for its predecessors. I think most people’s expectations for this game approached No Man’s Sky magnitudes. Either that or their enthusiasm was traded in for skepticism. Undeniably, the stakes for Last Guardian upon release were super high. I personally loved Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, so I’ve been trusting Ueda to make the game he wanted to make here.

The condition of the released game is curious. It’s plagued by technical issues; the framerate often dips dramatically, the boy is hard to control with any degree of grace, and the camera is terribly sluggish. The gameplay is slowly paced, especially in comparison to most other AAA productions. Part of me wonders why they chose to release the game instead of quietly cancel it. I’d bet Sony knew the game wouldn’t have a mass market appeal to it. I’m glad they released it though, because despite all its technical issues and odd design decisions, there’s something incredibly special about this game.

That specialness begins with Trico, the gigantic sphinx-like beast who accompanies you throughout the game. Or do you accompany him? I’ve never seen anything like Trico. As a creature character, they’re fascinating. They won’t talk to you but they communicate with you by vocalizing (like a cat or dog or sometimes a bird) and through their body language. They walk around the environment, looking at things, sniffing, squawking, and pawing. They’ll get curious about an object and go investigate it. They like certain smells. They don’t like water. All of this to say Trico has a strong personality of their own, and they show it strongly non-verbally. There was one moment in the game where Trico was under duress, and made a startling shriek at me. The cry, though loud and shocking, didn’t sound like an aggression, rather it was an expression of “climb on me now, we gotta go!” My ability to read into what Trico meant when they vocalized like that was surprising to me in a way I still think about. The subtlety and details of their behavior are just incredible AI, to the point they remind me of my cat, and how my cat’s personality is different. On top of all this, we get to go on an adventure with Trico and become friends. I want my own Trico. Seattle probably has pet ownership municipal codes that allow for twenty foot tall ferocious teddy bears.

The Last Guardian also has creative integrity. What do I mean by that? Making games is at some level always about trade-offs and compromise. The Last Guardian demonstrates certain values of quality that I think are rare. Trico's A.I. is just one of them. I see it in the detail of the geometry that simulates stone structures. I see it in the quality of rendered light, on surfaces and characters. The game is devoted to this kind of quality in a specific way. The game is making computationally expensive calculations that come out in subtle details which most players won’t notice (except a visibly lower framerate). This is what I mean by creative integrity, it holds and communicates values that probably result in frustrating players a little. Personally, I’m okay with being a little frustrated because at any time I can stop trying to progress and just observe and enjoy the details. That quality is incredibly fucking rare, and I appreciate it so much.

Titanfall 2 is the most fun I’ve had playing team-based first person shooter since the original Halo. I never got into any of the Call of Duty games, and sort of tapered off my online shooter playing before its influence spread far. Unlockable weapons & abilities, load-outs, and skins are all new to me. Those features of online shooters are cool by themselves, but they don’t mean much to me without the rest of Titanfall 2. I was hooked by the gameplay. The speed of running along walls, the precision required to navigate levels quickly by leaping from one wall to another. The dynamics of your grenade. Your options for defensive strategies against Titans. The build-up to earning a Titanfall and the additional dimension of Titan vs Titan encounters. The I’ve spent most of my time in Bounty Hunt mode, which has its own unique balance of rushing the mobs while remaining aware of much deadlier threats from other players. I really like it.

I regenerated in Titanfall 2, which was my first time going through a “reset” mechanic like it. I get why it’s so appealing, and I thought I’d done a pretty rad thing when I achieved Gen2. Then I played with someone who was Gen5 and momentarily contemplated a new career as a pro gamer before I realized I needed to take a break. The game is just addictive in the way that makes me want to play it a little every day. And it dangles a lot of carrots in front of you. So many carrots.

The campaign started off slow, but became incredibly interesting to me too. Two levels stand out, each of them featuring remarkable macro and micro design details. To get slightly spoilery, one of them features you running across an series of buildings and battlegrounds as they are being fabricated by a gigantic assembly line. The other features a time travel mechanic which gets into fourth dimensional shit. It feels like you’re inhabiting a place at two separate times, simultaneously. Narratively it’s stellar, and mechanically it uses the time swapping in rich and surprising ways. I think this game is a huge creative achievement and I’m really excited to see what the team does next.

VR is here, did you know that? We are officially in the future now! If you’re reading this you probably know that I’ve been a VR enthusiast for a couple of years now. It’s been interesting to watch VR emerge into the consumer market. It’s been a little surprising too--the number of people who own a VR rig is still pretty small, which makes it risky to develop for. I’m also nervous about early signs of desperation in a gold rush for the medium of VR, which has come out in the form of a price race to the bottom (did you see Viveport’s bundle of three great games for $5? wtf those should be $20 each) But let’s put all that aside for the moment so I can tell you about how awesome Tilt Brush is.

TILT BRUSH IS FUCKING AWESOME. It’s immersive painting and drawing in the air. I’m not sure if it’s a video game, so much as it is a 3D paper simulator. It’s a creative app that works as well as it does because it’s in VR. You won’t find any achievements here or power fantasies here. Instead you’ll find a lot of awe from stepping inside other people’s creativity. And it gives back what you put into it. If you spend time with it, practicing making objects and worlds, you will inspire that awe in yourself and the friends you share your works with. Presence is the word that describes the experience of drawing a smiley face six inches in front of your face, and trying to grab it with your fingers. When you’re drawing an object in front of you, or a world around you, the magic of being transported to a universe of your own creativity is convincing and ridiculously powerful.

I’m a person who believes in the personal power of creativity. We don’t all get the encouragement or opportunities to draw, paint, sing, write, or otherwise play with our creative abilities. Tilt Brush gets right into that. It makes drawing fun and a little more interesting because you’re drawing in 3D. If you have the luxury of access to VR technology, I humbly believe Tilt Brush is one of the best ways to spend your time.

I was a big fan of the original Picross 3D. I played it a lot when I was dealing with some chronic pain a few years ago. The logical puzzles exercise a part of my brain that’s profoundly satisfying, in a way that I imagine Brain Age does for elderly folk. Maybe because I like the relationships inherent to spacial logic puzzles. The nature of it brings out my inner perfectionist, and it’s satisfying to ponder through all the information on the screen to make a choice based on knowledge and understanding. There’s another layer to this game, which is that the more time you spend with it, the more you are able to intuit the shapes. It’s always risky to destroy a block without the game’s visual confirmation that the block is safe to remove. But with time I found myself reading the shape mid-carving. It’s a phenomenon that works on a more subconscious level, where I’m identifying the blocks that don’t make sense before I actually confirm them in the puzzles. It’s an intuitive space and it’s rather profound.

I love the additions and changes Nintendo made to this sequel. The addition of a second color/class of block adds a satisfying range of complexity. And the sketching capabilities give you a better ability to identify blocks that logically should be removed. If you use the tools it gives you, it helps you parse through the logic puzzles in a super satisfying way. The finished carvings are also beautiful. They’re a reason to turn up the 3D of your 3DS just to look at them, for a moment or two.

Rez Infinite is Rez. Fifteen year-old Rez in 2016. And you know what? It still holds up as a brilliant piece of work for it’s audiovisual design. Rez was the game that made me want to make music games. I play Rez, and I feel like I’m making a song. After lots of time playing and studying the game I understand the limits of my influence on the music. But the feeling of making the music is still there and still powerful to experience. I love the layers of design to Rez. The computer-simulated world as justification for violence. The levels that all individually tell a story of the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. The existential philosophy of the finale. The frequent swells and flourishes of the synchronized music and level progressions. The timeless appeal of the wireframe rendering. The minimal but slightly disturbing narrative.

Rez is my game of the year because it didn’t need to change anything to remain a great game but it still added a lot. The new VR design is impressively executed with layers of subtlety that are really interesting to me. They enhance the core of the game experience without making the technology distracting or otherwise detracting anything from the game’s design. The new area, Area X is short but vibrant. It’s fan service to those of us who wanted more Rez. Something new that feels both old and inventive at the same time. Particular in its re-imagining of the ways Rez invokes synaesthesia. I was grinning like an idiot the entire time I played it. That play-through probably released the most dopamine into my brain all year. Area X runs on Unreal and uses many new assets and rendering techniques, so I’m secretly hoping it’s a vertical slice of what a brand new Rez game could be.

I love Rez because it made me want to make Sentris fifteen years ago, and still inspires me today. If you’ve never played Rez, you owe it to yourself. There’s never been a better time to take a hit of digital psychedelics.

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