2016 was all about chaos and fragmentation — and I’m not even talking about the uber-polarized political arena. Gaming saw plenty of its own fear, loathing and upheaval: As Sony and Microsoft jostled to see which company could create the most interesting/effective/affordable mid-generation console replacement (unexpectedly, it’s Microsoft’s Xbox One S, not the PlayStation 4 Pro), Nintendo effectively put a bullet in the sadly neglected Wii U by finally unveiling its long-awaited mobile console concept, the Nintendo Switch (it’s due out next March). Those of us who’d adopted early in this console generation could be forgiven for feeling a little bait-and-switched, like Trump voters who expected that swamp to get drained, only to discover that our initial investments were actually part of a more insidious pay, pay-and-pay-again strategy.
Still, the year gave us plenty of unforgettable gaming experiences, both in the triple-A arena and the smaller, more obscure offerings. Here’s five games that spent a ton of time in my play queue:
Inside (Xbox One, rated M): When your pedigree includes the legendary Limbo, anything’s possible — especially when you take nearly five years to develop and polish your next offering. PlayDead Studios’ side-scrolling, dialogue-free story of a boy’s loping descent through an increasingly disturbing series of environments will test your perceptions as keenly as your puzzle-solving skills. Plus, it features one of the best head-bending endings of the last several years.
Dishonored 2 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, rated M ): For a game that actually incentivizes you to get through its convoluted campaign without killing a single soul, one of the best sequels of the year sure gives you a ton of creative and gut-busting ways to kill your enemies. Whether it’s simple — like using the utilitarian Far Reach ability to grab and fling guards off the balustrades of the Clockwork Mansion — or convoluted — like creating a clone of yourself, linking it to a group of goons with your Domino ability and letting them unwittingly kill themselves — the possibilities are endless.
Darkest Dungeon (PlayStation 4, PC, rated M): Plenty of games have you sending packs of powerful heroes deep underground to face endless waves of demonic and bestial hordes; very few of them take into account the psychological toll these encounters might exact. In Darkest Dungeon, a turn-based game that looks and plays like a hand-drawn painting come to life, ignoring that toll can be as deadly as the poison-clawed monsters. When your bounty hunter is weeping in the corner because he’s seen too many comrades die, and your vestal’s taking a prayer break to stave off a surge of drunken madness, you suddenly realize that this is a game where managing sword types, spells and potions is the least of your concerns.
Firewatch (Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4, Rated T): A walking simulator that turns you loose in the dry wilderness of Wyoming sounds like a novelty for the nature-inclined, not one of the year’s best storytelling exercises. But as the days of a dry hot summer pass, the relationship between emotionally damaged fire lookout Henry and his boss Delilah — a relationship that takes place entirely over a hand-held radio — is the basis of a narrative that’ll strike you to your core. Oh, and the Wyoming sunsets look pretty damn cool, too.
Overwatch (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Rated T): The first multiplayer game in forever to remind us — no, check that, to do everything short of bursting through our TV screens to bash us upside the head — that there’s no “I’ in team-based shooter. Still, even with copious prompts that going into battle on a team with four Bastions, three D.Vas and one healer was a recipe for infighting disaster, it still took some players way too long to figure out that the path to meaningful victory isn’t about the blind pursuit of Play of the Game. Baby steps, everyone. Baby steps.