2016: The Year that never was?

Chase Gamwell 2017-01-03

For nearly everyone, 2016 has been a universally terrible year. Between the loss of many beloved individuals (including Carrie Fisher), Brexit, the extremely divisive US Presidential Election, and a myriad of other happenings, not much has seemed positive.

The same seems to be true for the video game industry in 2016. From a casual glance, it would be easy to say that this year was the best yet for gaming: multiple AAA titles released, both Microsoft and Sony produced a new generation of consoles, and tech corporations pushed the envelope farther than they ever have before.

But what about when you take a closer look? When you really drill down and take a look at gaming in 2016? What happens then?

Excellently Average

Steam Winter Sale top image

Gaming in 2016 came firmly into focus for me during the Steam Holiday Sale (which ended on January 2). I thoroughly enjoy playing games and eagerly await Steam sales. There are always games that I want, and purchasing them at a deep discount makes the hours of fun derived from each title that much more satisfying.

But when Steam updated on December 22 and every game on my wishlist dropped in price, my wallet didn’t open like it usually did. This year, the thought of spending money on many of the fresh new AAA titles didn’t sit well. Why? Because many of the titles released this year weren’t really all that good.

Many AAA titles this year were sequels, and many of those were mediocre, at best. There were a few gems, like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, but most missed the mark.

Missed Opportunities

The truly standout titles of the year were either new IP (like Overwatch) or indie (like Inside). But the majority of titles adhered to a familiar formula, or extended already (for the most part) tired series. Less than inspiring.

While I don’t hesitate to applaud companies for trying something new and taking them to task when those ideas fall short, I can’t help but feel disappointed when the attempt is lackluster.

And that last point cuts deepest.

There’s something to be said for continuing a formula that has worked, but eventually it’s time to try something new. To refresh. To take a step back and really think about what has come before.

Indie Titles to the Rescue

While my Steam Wishlist remains unchanged this Holiday Season, my library did grow – by three titles. Each was a surprisingly solid addition in an otherwise mediocre year.

Hiding from a Leviathan on the sea floor in Subnautica

The first is Subnautica. It falls within the same vein as Space Engineers, only it takes the action underwater. Though the game is still in Early Access, a massive holiday update has added a wealth of new content (and a deeper narrative). So far, I’m really enjoying the game and can’t wait to see what else there is to discover beneath the waves.

About to dispatch an enemy CEO with a rocket launcher in Executive Assault

The second is a hybrid RTS title created by a single person – Executive Assault. It combines typical RTS gameplay with the ability to control individual units. While limited in its realization, the game is a fun diversion for how cheap it’s currently being offered via the Steam Holiday Sale.

The final game is a remastered version of Outcast. Released in 1999, Outcast is one of the adventure games that I missed. While I haven’t had the opportunity to dive into it yet, I’m excited to play the game that won Gamespot’s “Adventure Game of the Year” in 1999.

Compound these titles with the many other indie offerings I purchased this year (Oneshot, Inside, Oxenfree, Astroneer, etc.), and 2016 seems to belong firmly to the unsung heroes of gaming. The indie studios. With the exception of one major gaffe (No Man’s Sky), smaller studios have really pulled through with a myriad of interesting titles that have tried new formulas and improved upon existing ones.

All that Glitters

I didn’t have many doubts about 2016 until this fall, when many of the titles I was looking forward to didn’t perform as I had hoped: No Man’s Sky under delivered, Skyrim: SE fell flat, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had issues, Dishonored 2 did too, and Watch Dogs 2 seemed to change everything I loved about the first game. For months, I built up the games that I was excited to play and was guilty of constructing a pedestal beneath select titles that were most deserving of my time and money. And, unexpectedly, those pedestals were destroyed by poor writing, poor optimization, and generally poorly constructed sequels.

But all of this is subjective. All of it is personal preference. And all of it communicated one singular message – that, while we can have our favorites, nothing is automatically special and nothing is above reproach.

More than anything, 2016 was a wakeup call. I allowed myself to become complacent and  fell into a pattern of gaming with a laser focus, only purchasing titles that I felt were going to be good. I built up a golden bubble of opinion and heaped praise on any title that fell within that bubble. Within my sphere of interest.

A Whole New World

And so, we circle back to where we began – the Steam Holiday Sale.

I didn’t realize any of this until all of those games dropped in price. But when they did, everything seemed to click into place. My golden bubble popped and I realized that I couldn’t hold on to the AAA bias that dominated this year. And years past.

But part of the credit lies elsewhere. If it weren’t for TMC and IN, I wouldn’t have left my comfort zone in 2016. Because you all welcomed me in and allowed me to write for you, I was able to look at video games in a different light. I just didn’t grasp that new perspective until now.

For that, I thank each and every one of you.

In 2017, I hope to continue to play and write from this new perspective. To push the boundaries of my comfort zone. To approach gaming holistically. And to, above all else, have fun!

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  • Ryan

    I have to admit that a few of your picks weren’t on my radar, but after your brief write-up of Subnautica here – and all that you’ve been talking about it on Discord – I’m definitely interested in seeing more of 2016’s best indies, and looking forward to whatever gems come out this year.

    January 3, 2017 at 9:49 am
  • Daito Endashi

    I didn’t purchase anything in the Steam wintersale yet because I still wasn’t sure. Your article made me look at Steam again and see that the wintersale has ended already. On 1.1.2017 I looked up how long it was meant to last and the Steam website said until the fourth of January.
    **** you Steam!

    January 3, 2017 at 10:33 am
  • Terrible Goon Spy

    Stardew Valley was 2016 wasn’t it?

    January 3, 2017 at 11:34 am
  • PewPew

    I don’t want to get too political but if you think this year was bad the next 5 years are going to be much worse.

    None of the forces that caused Brexit and Trump (for example massive inequality, globalisation failing large swathes of the developed world, anxiety over technology and immigration etc) have died down or changed, they are just as intense as ever.

    So yeah if things boiled over in 2016 after another period of no change, no hope they are going to explode.

    January 3, 2017 at 7:44 pm
    • CantDisproveTheSloof PewPew

      No, it’s not but keep crying anyway. Also, anxiety over immigration? Take a look at Germany if you don’t think that’s justified.

      January 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm
  • Apostophe Noodle

    I’ve been playing Subnautica from very early on, and actively discussed ideas for the game on the dev’s Trello site. Several of the items myself, among others, suggested are in the game now- which is really cool to see. The devs there are amazing and it’s almost a game by committee with the players. I highly recommend giving the game a try and by all means share your thoughts with the devs, I promise they are listening.

    January 3, 2017 at 7:51 pm
  • CantDisproveTheSloof

    It’s sad to see the Imperium and the dreaded Goons: be a bunch of liberal crybabies that think their year was ruined because their preferred political candidate lost and celebrities that they don’t even know personally, died. Suck it up.

    January 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm