2016 was a great year for video games. It seems like everyone got something, regardless of whatever genres were their preference (except horror fans, but 2017 is already fixing that). First-person shooters, strategy games, stealth games, action games, RPG’s, survival games, racing games, farming simulators, virtual reality games…there was something great for just about everyone.
Blizzard released their first new IP in 17 years to massive critical acclaim, fans of games with incredibly long development cycles were finally rewarded for their patience with games like Final Fantasy XV, The Last Guardian and Owlboy all launching last year. EA delivered two fantastic shooters in Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1, with Doom making a resurgent comeback. IO Interactive released a game with more depth and freedom than I can recall.
Heck, one guy called Eric Barone released a game so addictive I almost quit the games writing business to concentrate on my farming.
There were a lot of success stories to come from 2016. For me, one of the greatest triumphs of the year was these various games’ abilities to portray relationships.
I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, though they definitely played a part in this. Uncharted 4 absolutely nailed the marriage dynamic with their excellent portrayal of Nate and Elena’s stressed relationship. While this wasn’t the main focus of Nathan Drake’s last adventure it was a core part of the experience.
Nate’s relationships with Elena and his estranged brother Sam were major factors in elevating Uncharted 4. These very Human elements of drama immersed me in the game far more than if it had just been a jump-and-shoot simulator. The gameplay is on point, for sure, but it’s the characters and their relationships with one another that make the game memorable.
This is something I noticed as I was putting together my game of the year list. We had a lot of excellent games in 2016 that put their primary focus on the relationships between their characters.
In a year where any number of games could have topped my game of the year list, I eventually gave the spot to Final Fantasy XV. While there wasn’t much to choose between it and the games immediately below it, its characters and their enduring friendship through some incredibly hard times spoke to me on a personal level and made FFXV the most memorable game of the year. And ultimately my favourite one too.
While it certainly wasn’t all the game had going for it, the journey players were invited to take alongside Noct, Prompto, Gladio and Ignis was something special. It captured something different than what I’m otherwise used to in video games.
As the weeks tick by from my time playing Final Fantasy XV there are inevitably details of the game that slip away. The moments that remain firmly at the forefront of my memories of FFXV all revolve around the central relationship between these four friends.
The camping. The road trips. The quiet conversations. The aftermath of a terrible series of events that leave their mark on the game’s protagonists. The aftermath of a train attack. The final camp. The end credits. The photographs. The laughter, arguments, pain and heartbreak. The good times and the bad times.
As I talk about the game in the months and years to come, it’ll be these moments that I recall with the greatest clarity. I always say that each year in video games can be defined by something. The thing that will define the games of 2016 are the incredible relationships I saw unfold, or was fortunate enough to directly participate in.
This isn’t exactly a new thing that only started in 2016 of course. But it was something that certainly seemed to happen more last year. Great relationships ran through a great many of the year’s best games. Building a very real relationship with an impossibly real Trico in The Last Guardian. Titanfall 2 getting a surprising amount of mileage out of the relationship between a Pilot and a Titan.
Getting to know the inhabitants of Stardew Valley, coming to know the plight of the downtrodden citizens of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, seeing a group of friends put through supernatural events they’re ill-equipped for in Oxenfree, the camaraderie of the Watch Dogs 2 cast, the stressed father-son relationship at the core of Gears of War 4. And so many more.
I’m not saying that 2016 will exclusively be remembered for these relationships (did you notice that first-person shooters kind of made a huge comeback?), or that all of the best games of the year ran with this theme. Plenty didn’t. The only time you ever got close to someone in Hitman was to kill them or steal their clothes.
But 2016 taught me that video games can and should explore all kinds of different relationships. Sure, not every game can pull it off. Some simply falter in this regard, others aren’t really designed for that kind of story (I mean, there really wasn’t the space for an epic bromance in Doom, was there?).
But for those that do, when they get it right, it can elevate a great game to a fantastic one.