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The 11 best video games of 2016

We struggle to recall 12 months so crowded with great video games. Indie developers, blockbuster studios, virtual reality tinkerers, and creators who defy labels: all corners of the industry contributed to one of the strangest, most varied, and best years in the medium’s short history.

Controversial games like No Man’s Sky and Pokémon Go let us explore both infinite solar systems and our neighborhood park. Dishonored 2 and Firewatch showed the range of first-person storytelling, a form that no longer requires guns to justify its existence. Final Fantasy XV’s evening camps, Stardew Valley’s days on the farm, and Forza Horizon 3’s aimless drives let players find their own fun.

Struggling to narrow down favorites is, of course, a nice problem to have. But we recognize this list, a smidgen bigger than the traditional top 10, still has some notable absences. So, we invite you to share your year-end lists in the comments; each of our writers will be doing the same.

Now, without further kvetching about our good fortune, we present The Verge’s 11 best games of 2016.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

The unseasonably early arrival of the pumpkin spice latte, the wrong film winning the Oscar for Best Picture, the Kansas City Chiefs collapsing in their first game in the playoffs: I can think of few other things in life as reliable as the monthly drip of video game remasters, remakes, and reboots. At times, the industry seems hobbled by nostalgia, overwhelmed with creators so doggedly focused on re-creating objects we loved, they lose track of why we loved them. Take for example one of my favorite games of 1997, the farm life role-playing game Harvest Moon. Over two decades, its publisher has spread the series like a thin, tasteless paste across more than 25 entries.

Stardew Valley, released in February, wasn’t created by the makers of Harvest Moon, but more so than the two dozen official sequels, it recaptures the original’s essence. Its single developer, Eric Barone, approached the Harvest Moon formula with the eye of a talented editor: trimming, adding, and revising where necessary, and constantly supporting, celebrating, and elevating the original’s voice. But more than its reverence to Harvest Moon, I will remember Stardew Valley for its original touches: the quirky small-town characters, the flirtations with magical realism, and the sincere appreciation of a simple life well lived. I played Harvest Moon as a kid to imagine life as an adult.

When I play Stardew Valley, I’m nostalgic not for Harvest Moon, but that precious and carefree idea of adulthood. Months later, I still take occasional trips to the virtual farm as a short break from grown-up life that’s rewarding in its own ways, but is never so simple. –Chris Plante

Forza Horizon 3

Forza Horizon 3

2016 was a nice year for those of us who like aimlessly zipping through open worlds, ignoring missions and leaderboards as the wind whips our hair. Forza Horizon 3 is, at its core, an opportunity to drive exotic cars, lemons, and everything in between through a gobsmackingly beautiful re-creation of Australia. Or at least I’m told this looks like Australia by the game’s voice-over, as I speed a buggy out of tight city alleys, across sand dunes, over craggy mountainsides, into destructible crop lands, and through lush tropical forests. There’s a lot of game here for people who need direction, particularly rich asynchronous multiplayer that fills the world with artificially intelligent cars doing their best impersonations of your friends driving habits. But given my dream car and the open road, directions are the last thing on my mind. –Chris Plante

Superhot

Can we nominate a game twice? In February, I praised Superhot as the rarest of things: a truly original first-person shooter. Its time-bending hook, in which time only progress when you move, calls to mind The Matrix, but the result is so much more than “a chance to play as Neo.” The design is minimalistic: an ivory-white world infested with ruby-red henchman. The simplicity isn’t merely visually pleasurable; it makes a fast-paced game easy to read, like how the coming and going of mortal danger is communicated with vibrant glass lines stretching behind every bullet. Superhot alone deserves a place on this list.

This month, though a spin on Superhot was released for the Oculus Rift and its Touch motion controllers. In short: it’s the best VR game to date, nailing the moment-to-moment thrill of the original game, while still being its own thing. Punching an enemy in the face, grabbing his pistol in the air, dodging a machine gun’s payload, then blasting an assailant at the last possible moment is so thrilling, you forget how silly you must look performing the act while wearing a VR headset in your living room. –Chris Plante

No Man's Sky

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky wasn’t exactly what was promised when the game was announced three years ago, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t something special. It gave me something no game has ever given me before: a sense that I’m just a tiny speck in a massive universe, one that I could explore at my own pace. Of course, the actual act of exploring could be tedious at times. I spent countless hours mining rocks for fuel, searching for rare minerals to upgrade my gear, and fighting annoying pirates in the wilds of space.

The lows could be very low — being stuck in a cave for hours, spending days following a path to nowhere — but for me, the highs made it worth it. There’s a certain thrill in discovering a beautiful new alien species, or stumbling across an ancient ruin at the bottom of a vast ocean, or even just watching the sunset on a colorful new world. And the sheer scale of No Man’s Sky, the fact that in almost every instant I was the first person to see these fantastical things, made it all the more thrilling. You may have to put in a lot of time and effort, but the sense of discovery in No Man’s Sky is unlike anything else. –Andrew Webster

Pokemon Go Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is the confluence of two things I didn't think I would ever get into: smartphone augmented reality gaming and Pokémon. But it won me over by being such a brilliant — albeit flawed — pairing of subject and form. There was the central conceit that adorable supernatural creatures are hiding all over your neighborhood, and the rare-object-collecting mechanic that kept exploration feeling fresh. There was the egg-hatching system that gave long walks purpose, and the fun of seeing how other people were obsessively optimizing their own pokémon hunts. Niantic eventually killed some of the things that made the app fun for me — including, for a long time, any way of tracking down nearby pokémon — and I dropped off playing after one incredibly grueling stretch of Pidgey-grinding. But it was one of the most interesting gaming experiments of the year, and I don't regret a minute of it. –Adi Roberston

Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2 wasn't a long-awaited cult game or an indie darling or a hot new e-sport. But it was a solid, mature, often delightful sequel to one of my favorite blockbuster games of the past several years. It took the original Dishonored's sneaking-and-magic formula, its unique fantasy setting, and its meticulous level design, then added new powers, a new location, and some intriguing gameplay experiments that are (mostly) pulled off incredibly well. It calls back to the classic '90s immersive sim formula without being derivative or burdened by nostalgia, while creating puzzle-box worlds that are fun to come back to again and again. –Adi Robertson

Firewatch

Firewatch

Firewatch was released in 2016 by a small team of talented creators. It tells the story of Henry, a man lost in this history of his own life, who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. But there’s something strange happening in the woods, and he treks directly into a deeper mystery.

Let’s make one thing clear: there is nothing especially remarkable about Henry. He is an everyman with a tragic past: a beloved wife suffering from early-onset dementia. His poorest choices are the decisions of the player, who dictates his interactions with his coworker Delilah, the nuances of his conversation, and the paths that decide his future. But Henry, like Delilah, is relatable for his averageness. He didn’t come to the forest seeking adventure. He doesn’t have a grandstanding purpose; it’s actually the opposite. He can be cold, he can be foolish, he can be dishonest, but mostly he can just be human. We see the same in Delilah, a character who hides truths and perhaps drinks too much to cope with the hardships of her own life.

Firewatch is about messy people. It’s imperfect with intent. The questions of its story stumble by the end, but it has more to offer: a rare, thoughtful dive into dysfunctional relationships. –Megan Farokhmanesh

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is one of the strangest, messiest, and most confusing blockbuster games ever made — and that’s part of what makes it so great. Like all Final Fantasy titles, it’s an epic role-playing game about saving the world, but at its core FFXV is a game about four buddies going on an adventure. They drive around in a big, black luxury car listening to music together. They fight together, and share meals, and go camping. Over the dozens of hours the game lasts, you’ll form a deep, personal connection with each member of the group. FFXV makes a lot of changes to the Final Fantasy formula — there’s a large open world to explore, and fast, action-oriented battles — but its greatest achievement lies in those friendships, and making a grandiose story about a doomed planet into something intimate and personal. –Andrew Webster

Inside

Inside

Inside does more in just a few short hours than most games can manage in considerably longer. The spiritual successor to cult hit Limbo, Inside tells the story of a young boy who delves deeper and deeper into an ever-evolving mystery involving a strange factory and disturbing experiments. It plays like a simple side-scrolling adventure game, where you can run, solve puzzles, and are constantly moving to the right. There also isn’t a single word of dialogue in the entire game, either spoken or written. Yet its sense of mood is unparalleled, creating an ever-shifting sense of dread and curiosity. It’s a game where you want to keep pushing forward even though you know you won’t like what you’ll find in the end. –Andrew Webster

hitman

Hitman

Before Dishonored 2 enthralled my stealth-loving and puzzle-solving obsessions, I was playing the new episodic Hitman. I got into the classic assassination franchise late, having started back in 2012 with Hitman: Absolution, and I was enamored by the intricate level design and the borderline absurd level of replay value and variation. This year’s Hitman took those traditional elements and blew them up to an almost inconceivable scale. Instead of a series of well-designed sandboxes in a start-to-finish storyline, the new Hitman gave us monstrous playgrounds each with hours of exploration and only a thin connective tissue strung between them. One of six levels dropped every month from March to April, and then again from August to October. In total, the game delivered six locales as wide-ranging as a hotel resort in Bangkok to a Paris art museum to a state-of-the-art medical facility in Hokkaido, Japan.

Instead of being turned off or discouraged by the game’s unorthodox release strategy, the episodic format actually shined. It gave each level a full month of breathing room players could use to fully immerse in each locale’s intricate causal systems and narrative layers. That’s not to mention the elaborate assassination strategies, from exposing a scientist to their own biological weapon in a lab underneath the streets of an Italian village to electrocuting a famous rock star with a faulty vintage microphone in his personal Thailand studio. Each level is filled with these secrets to find and, if you can excuse the flat and accent-free voice acting, rich storylines that make this perhaps the most modern, politically-aware Hitman game to date. –Nicholas Statt

Overwatch Photo: Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch

Deep enough to reward hours of study but intuitive enough to be approachable for novices, Blizzard’s first new property in nearly 20 years was a deserved hit. Overwatch took the staid, old multiplayer first-person shooter genre and reimagined it as a neon cartoon battlefield, and the result was a competition that felt more like a fast-paced sport than the grim deathmatches we’re used to. I thought I had sworn off shooters for good, but Overwatch lured me back in for hours of exhilarating combat.

That’s in large part due to the strength of Overwatch’s uncommonly good characters. Playing as each of the game’s 23 combatants offers you a chance to see the game from a new perspective. As Reinhardt, you’re a giant shield moving through the world; as Bastion, you’re a powerful (but stationary) machine gun. Overwatch is most impressive in the way it makes even support characters fun to play: the first time I was awarded a coveted “play of the game” award for successfully healing my team (and then picking off a couple enemies) as Mercy, it occurred to me what a strange and lovely game this really is. –Casey Newton

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