I stopped gaming for a while in 2015 because life had taken me to a strange place where it didn’t feel right to sit at my computer or my Xbox and live in some kind of world that didn’t exist in any way that felt meaningful right then. I stopped reading for pretty much the same reason or maybe because I didn’t have the attention span to sustain the concentrated suspension of disbelief that even a short story would demand. Maybe I was having a spurt of depression, that state where you suddenly find that you can’t take joy in anything. I’d been there before, but that was long ago.
So when the gaming urge reawakened in 2016, it did so with a vengeance. I’d been away on a personal voyage and the games must have been happy to see me back, because all at once they were so good. Sure, I played some mediocre games this year, but I didn’t play them for long. I also discovered games that touched me in ways that games hadn’t touched me before, reaching me at an emotional level I hadn’t experienced in the past. I don’t know if this was something new about games or something new about me that impelled me to seek out games with deeper, subtler levels beneath the surface.
It’s a bit of a lie to say that I hadn’t experienced this emotional connection with games before, but I only remember feeling it once, when I played Dishonored in 2012. I finished the game with chills running down my spine, realizing that what had seemed while I played it like nothing more (or less) than a brilliantly constructed mission-based stealth game had become something more. It was a game that not only allowed my moral choices to affect the game’s progress — games have been doing this since Ultima IV in the 1980s — but it was a game where I actually cared in the end about the wrong choices I had made and felt almost like crying at the realization I had made so many of those choices in a way I regretted. I’ve tried to play it again and make those choices correctly, but I’ve never been able to. The game makes it difficult and that’s probably how it should be. Why should it be easier to make the correct moral choices in a game than it is in real life?
This year I realized that my experience with Dishonored hadn’t been a one-off. There were other games that could offer me an emotional experience deeper than the exhilaration that I had usually considered the tipping point that pushed a game over the dividing line between being good and being great. I’m going to talk here about those games, the ones that affected me deeply — and perhaps a few that simply made me feel exhilarated.
These are my favorites among the games I played in 2016. Not all of them are from 2016; this just happens to be when I played them. But it was my year of gaming emotionally and that’s going to be the theme.
I don’t remember where I first heard about Firewatch. Maybe Steam was trying to push it on me in its running slideshow. Maybe I read about it at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Maybe I saw it mentioned on Electron Dance. For whatever reason I bought it and immediately started playing. It’s a short game and I finished it over the course of two or three evenings. I never looked back on the purchase with regret.
Firewatch both establishes and partially resolves its sublime confusion from the first moment, with a running text-adventure-style opening designed in the authoring tool Twine, where you make choices that essentially lead to a single conclusion: You met a wonderful woman, you fell in love, you got married and then, after a period of happiness, the end of your marriage and of your joy had entered your life as your wife began to display the first signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
That was when the game had me. I’d also lost a woman I loved to an unexpected illness that came on slowly and then took over our lives. There have been times since when I thought that she was the lucky one. She took death so well, while I had to figure out what do after it and I didn’t handle that nearly as well as she had handled death itself. In the game, your dying wife has gone off to live with her family in Australia and the game starts flashing between the text story and the three-dimensional life (designed in the Unity engine) you’ve chosen in your wife’s absence, working alone at a remote firewatch tower in a Wyoming national park. The juxtaposition makes it clear that you’ve chosen to handle the situation by running as far away from it as you can.
This doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a game; it sounds like the premise for a novel. But when I entered the firewatch tower and looked out at the beautiful, neo-impressionistic scenery I knew I was in good hands. I examined my new surroundings and began talking on a small radio with the director of the firewatch, a woman in a similar tower that I could just glimpse in the distance.
Firewatch combines that thing I love so much in games, exploration of an open environment, with something else: the slow growth of a relationship with someone who you only know by her voice. It’s that relationship that leads you to a gradual understanding of yourself and the choices you’ve made. There are also job-related missions to accomplish and a mystery to solve in the park, but they seem almost incidental to the emotional thread that runs through the game’s day-to-day routine. The voice acting, by Cissy Jones as the woman on the radio and Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer as your own character, is superb and you feel that you know both of them, even while, if you’re like me, you’re coming to know yourself a little better too.
Some people have complained about the ambiguity of the game’s ending, but that ambiguity is essential to the game: You’ve made a decision by then and whether you actually carry out that decision is irrelevant. What matters is that you’ve made it.
I’m not going to bury the lede. I’m giving this my Game of the Year award. I’ll try not to make it all downhill from here.
Gone Home, released in 2013 and set in 1995, isn’t as overt in its emotional themes as Firewatch, but they grow throughout what at first seems a simple exercise in exploration and mystery solving. Your character is an 18-year-old woman returning from a trip to Europe to her family’s new home, an old house somewhere in Oregon, and the mystery to be solved is why your family isn’t there to greet you. You solve it by examining objects in the house and solving a few simple puzzles, gradually piecing together what’s happened while you were away.
The game takes an interesting bait-and-switch approach that I won’t describe further so that it won’t be ruined for anyone and it cheats occasionally by rewarding you with brief voice narrations by your younger sister as you make certain discoveries, but your exploration leads to an unexpected emotional connection with people you, as the player, have never met. Like Firewatch it’s a short game and I played it in about the same amount of time, but once caught up in its mysteries I couldn’t quit.
Gone Home is a small game in its technical ambitions — it uses the ubiquitous Unity engine to create a fully realized, interactive, three-dimensional house and not much else — but within its limited confines it creates what feels like a genuine experience. And the resolution of that experience is an unexpected one, both in its solution to the mystery and the emotional impact that its resolution carries.
This is a small game. It’s a great game. You can find it cheap. Buy it.
I’d heard Dear Esther, from 2012, described in advance by the sometimes derogatory term “walking simulator,” meaning a game where all you do is walk through an environment and admire it. It’s that, but it’s more, ultimately a great deal more.
You have, for unknown reasons, arrived on the shores of a barren island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. As you begin to explore it, and it’s a startlingly beautiful place to explore, you begin to hear snatches of a narrative from an unknown narrator speaking to someone named Esther, in the form of what seem to be notes addressed to a loved one and that turn out to be…well, let’s not go there.
Dear Esther turns out not to be a walk but a journey, one that the landscape and narration guide you gently through until the end, when it forces you through the culmination of your odyssey and you realize why you’re there, who you are, and what those spoken messages have been.
The heart of the game are the spoken messages themselves, read wonderfully by narrator Nigel Carrington, with a tone that implies both gravity and tragedy plus a paradoxical touch of joy. Like Firewatch, Dear Esther is about a tragic relationship that I found I could also relate to, but the ambiguity of its narrative make it nicely replayable as you try to parse out the deeper meaning of the poetic prose that early on seems metaphorical but gradually becomes more concrete.
Dear Esther is the shortest game in this list and it isn’t for everyone. But for me it was a powerful emotional experience, one that lingered on after it was done. I found myself staring at the closing screen for a long time — and there was nothing on it.
Life Is Strange
I played the first installment of Square Enix’s Life Is Strange, an episodic adventure game in the TellTale Walking Dead mode, when it came out in early 2015. I was ambivalent about it. I was impressed by its lovely, largely realistic 3D graphics (run on Unreal Engine 3) and the characterization of the viewpoint character, a high-school senior named Maxine “Max” Caulfield (a rather heavy-handed nod to The Catcher in the Rye). But its depiction of high school was uncomfortably realistic for someone, like me, who couldn’t have gotten out of high school fast enough, and its central gimmick — that Max discovers she can rewind time and remake choices that don’t seem to turn out right initially — struck me as a laborious mechanic, though at least it removed any need to save the game so you could go back and correct anything you felt you’d done wrong.
When I came back to it a few months ago and played through all five episodes, it had somehow become a different game. I found that I identified intensely with Max, who has returned from Seattle to a private school in her small Oregon hometown, to attend a class in photography taught by a once-famous photographer who she yearns to learn more about her photographic hobby from. The second time I played through the first episode I lingered more on the character moments, especially Max’s interactions with the other students and with her childhood friend Chloe, who feels that Maxine abandoned her after Chloe’s father’s tragic death in an automobile accident. Chloe has turned from a sweet young girl into a surly, rebellious late adolescent and Max’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are some of the most powerful parts of the story. I discovered that when the game offered you the opportunity to simply sit on a chair and think that you should always take it, because Max’s thoughts opened a window into a seemingly immutable past that she felt she could never regain. I also discovered that the game is deeply felt and deeply moving.
And the time-rewinding mechanism turned out to be much more than a gimmick. It was a tool for exploring player agency in the context of a game genre — adventure games — that typically offers very little or at best, as in the TellTale games, the illusion of it. Photography also plays an important role in the game, much of which is about capturing the present and rediscovering the past. At times photography becomes almost a deus ex machina, but one used intelligently enough that it ultimately doesn’t feel like a cheat.
In the end, Max’s agency within the game pivots on a single, unrewindable decision, one that’s foreshadowed from the beginning, a decision that I wouldn’t dream of giving away but that sums up the emotional impact of the story in a single act. In its finale Life Is Strange turns out to be less about recapturing and possibly changing the past than it’s about determining a future and in a way its ending is as ambiguous as Firewatch‘s, if only because you’ve come to know Max so well that you want to know where she’ll go from there. But I’m not sure I really want to know. I feel I know her well enough now that I can imagine a better future for her than she’ll possibly have.
To be honest, Life Is Strange would tie Firewatch as my game of the year except that it wasn’t released in 2016. It was serialized entirely in 2015. But I give it a belated Game of the Year award for the year when I wasn’t really playing games.
I also wanted to talk here about The Witness, Tyranny, The Stanley Parable, Rise of the Tomb Raider (which I’ve already written about at some length), The Long Dark and Tales from the Borderlands (the most charmingly delightful of TellTale’s episodic adventures). But those aren’t as deeply emotional as the games listed above (though some come close) and I have to get back to writing things that will actually earn me money.
But I reserve the right to talk about all these games again, even the ones I’ve described in some detail. My head (and my unfinished drafts folder) are full of blog posts where they’d fit perfectly. I hope you stick around for them.