The Oberlin Review

Year in Review: Video Games Broaden Indie Scope in 2016

Avi Vogel, Columnist

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At the end of 2015, most game publications argued that it had been the best year ever for gamers. It was a year of incredible RPGs, indie darlings that came out of nowhere and big titles reclaiming their former glory. With 2016 now behind us, it seems like that pattern continues. On the whole, games in 2016 were even better.

I didn’t play every high-profile game of 2016 and most definitely wasn’t able to get around to every indie hit. But 2016 might be the year in which I played the most diverse assortment of games to date. There are some games I didn’t review this past year that are emblematic of what an incredible year it was for games.

First is VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action — pronounced Valhalla — an indie game that came out under the radar in June during the jam-packed summer season and didn’t get much buzz. Given the quality of writing and music, that’s an incredible shame.

The game takes place in a dystopian future city called Glitch City. The city is under corporate control and serves as an experimental test site for a variety of new technology, ranging from innocuous, design-changing wallpaper to fully sentient robots called Lilim. The story follows a bartender named Jill as she makes drinks for the patrons who pass through. Interestingly, almost all of the gameplay revolves around making drinks for customers and engaging them in dialogue. With the game’s impeccable characterizations that create vibrant characters from different walks of life without passing judgement, I never wanted to skip through conversations.

The player makes no decisions in dialogue; instead, they only observe the conversations that unfold. The only real choices in the game are based on how Jill’s money is spent on rent, apartment decorations and other items. There are no wrong choices; each decision simply leads you on a different path. Various small touches throughout the game, like the bar’s decorations, make the setting compelling, and despite being very limited in gameplay, the narrative in VA-11 HALL-A makes the game feel greater than the sum of its parts.

Along with narrative intensive games, 2016 brought games that did away with narrative entirely, focusing heavily on mechanics. One of those games is Thumper, a lane-based rhythm game. Thumper belongs to a genre that rarely sees wide popularity outside of diehard followers — one that I’m very unfamiliar with outside of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

You play as a silver bug barreling down a single lane. As glowing objects emerge from the lane in time with the rhythm of the game’s sound, players respond to these rhythmic cues with different actions. The game is split into nine levels, each culminating in a final boss fight you must win before you go on.

The game has a beautiful aesthetic and glorious sound. Even so, the game would fall flat if its rhythm mechanics didn’t work so well. The developer, Drool, set out to refine the rhythm genre with its “rhythmic violence game” and in doing so made it new. The game is hectic and stressful, evoking emotions that push you relentlessly forward to the game’s end.

Last is a game I had zero expectations for, one that surprised both me and the game industry as a whole: Doom. Beginning as one of the original first-person shooters on computer, the Doom series had a solid reputation that deteriorated after one of its sequels, Doom 3, failed to live up to expectations. When id Software, the makers of Doom, announced the new game, the first installment in the series since 2004, most people geared up for a disappointment. That fear only intensified when the developers announced that copies of the game for review would not arrive until the day before launch. Instead, Doom came out of the gates as one of the best games of last year.

If you don’t enjoy extreme violence and killing demons, this game is not for you. For people that enjoy this kind of gameplay, however, Doom represents a return to form for the series. Levels are large and intricate, with secrets hiding just off the beaten path. The campaign contains a sleek and simple story that leans into the ridiculous premise of demons invading Mars. Despite the absurdity, the game’s characters combine well with the premise and make for an interesting plot. These elements come together to frame the core mechanics of the game, which is one of the best shooters in the last 10 years.

You move through the Mars research station and eventually hell itself, finding guns and equipment as the game progresses. One feature that makes Doom interesting is how it forces you to juggle your resources. Health doesn’t regenerate automatically, instead spawning from pickup points throughout the world, and ammo is similarly limited. Alternatively, players can regenerate health with melee attacks and using the chainsaw can generate large amounts of ammo. This keeps the game moving at a breakneck pace, forcing you to take risks to stay alive. Being enthralled in this game as I fought demon after demon with an intense metal soundtrack playing in the background was certainly one of my fondest experiences this year.

With 2016 and its incredible roster of games behind us, I can’t help but be excited for the year ahead. A new Mass Effect title, Nintendo console and a bevy of interesting new franchises await, so even if the world seems dark, at least games can help keep us happy for a little while longer.

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