Monday, 2 January 2017

Great things about 2016 - part three


2016 is the past now. Even typing the numbers seems weirdly old and peculiar. The past! Who'd live there?

Well, I did. And some nice things happened. And here are some of them. I've talked about music here, and films here. This time - video games!

It's been a good year for games. If you don't play games, or haven't for many years, then you may well be unaware of the massive diversity and brilliance at work in video games today.

Games are really coming of age at the moment. There are still plenty that focus on shooting and killing stuff, yes. But there is an increasing number that explore weird, beautiful and worthwhile concepts.

There are six games here. Two out of the six have female protagonists. Three are male. One is made of string. They deal with love, loss, memory, freedom and transformation. They are all great and they all made my year better.



A bunch of teenagers go to a haunted island to drink beer, fall in love and get possessed by weird alien ghost entities. You are Alex, a teenage girl, trying hard to deal with your own emotional baggage and the politics of friendship as well as all the weird supernatural spooky stuff on the island.

I love the mood and tone of the game. It is supremely creepy. You have a radio which you can tune into ghostly radio stations, picking up music from the past, or mysterious voices phasing in and out of existence. And sometimes reality itself warps and shifts, the entire screen distorting like a 1980s video cassette.

An engaging and scary experience with innovative gameplay and cool, believable dialogue.


You're a dancer, in a dreamlike world of Escher-like palaces and walkways. You flip and leap and twist around demonic entities that might represent past memories or something. Dancing frees you from the past, and the charge towards this freedom is exhilarating and wonderful.

You're also, sometimes, a pregnant woman on a beach, looking wistfully at childlike doodles in a notebook. Is this who is dreaming the dance? Are they her memories? Her hopes? The game keeps its secrets, right up until the end.

A game which inspires deep emotions while at the same time providing real kinetic joy. Beautiful.


You are a nameless boy, running though a bleak, monochrome city, pursued by masked men and carnivorous dogs. It's a David Lynch-like dream world, surreal and darkly enchanting.

Gameplay is mostly about solving puzzles thrown up by the environment. How do you get past these obstacles? How can you use these tiny, tweeping chickens to get you up onto that ledge? What do you have to do to get past this strange, murderous, underwater death child?

Inside is at once charmingly simple - the controls are basic and the solutions elegant - and fascinatingly deep. There is a complexity and strangeness to this world, and these events stayed with me long after the game was over.


You are a little man made of string. You go on a journey through gardens, fields and beaches - ordinary places to a human but huge, magical cathedrals of wonder to someone your size. As the title suggests, you unravel yourself slowly to make bridges and swings to help you navigate your environment.

A charming, gorgeous game that's partly an ingenious puzzle game and party a moving exploration of memory and loss.


You are Henry. Personal tragedy has driven you into a National Park, where you now live and work alone, high up in a tower, keeping a lookout for fires.

It's a beautiful world to be in, and the focus is less on plot than it is on experiencing the solitude and wonder of the surroundings. There is story here, though, and that unfolds through conversations - via walkie-talkie - with your boss, Delilah. She works on another tower, way over on the horizon. And she knows things about these woods that no-one else knows.

Finishing this game felt like coming back from a holiday romance. Warm, wonderful and slightly sad.

That Dragon, Cancer

Bleakest and saddest of all the games I played this year, That Dragon, Cancer puts you in the shoes of the game's creators,  Ryan and Amy Green. And what shoes. Ryan and Amy's son Joel is the one facing the dragon, cancer, just as he did in real life. And for the most part, all you can do is watch.

It's a game which pushes at the boundaries of what 'playing a game' means. It seems glib to even consider it in game play terms - to engage with this game is to experience real parents' grief. But the fact that it is a game is important, and indeed crucial.

To play a game is to do something. To effect change upon the game world. To win, most of the time. This is a game where you live in a world without very much choice in how things turn out. As a way of sharing the experience of grief and loss, that's pretty powerful.

Despite this, That Dragon, Cancer is not an unremittingly bleak experience. There are moments of joy, and a playfulness in the way the world of the game is created, as if the laws of reality are governed by Joel's childlike perspective. There are surreal and inventive sequences which helped me consider that life, even a life this brief, can contain moments of joy and love and meaning.

A really good year for games. There were also some games where I just shot at mutants with space rifles, and I enjoyed them too. But these are the ones that really engaged with my emotions. I recommend them all, without reservation.