What a great year, eh? OK, so 2016’s been fairly appalling, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great films, games, albums and a bunch of other stuff. Here are my top Things this year, from as many genres of Thing as I can be bothered.
If you, on the other hand, can’t be bothered, here are some quick links to the bits you (might) care about.
Peace, love and look after yourself out there.
I’ve limited this section specifically to games I played this year, which actually came out this year. For my favourite games I played this year, there’s a separate section. Lucky you.
5: Titanfall 2 (Respawn)
Titanfall 2 came as a complete surprise - I’d never even gone near the original, and I haven’t really taken much interest in shooters in general for a few years now.
Oh boy oh boy. Titanfall is excellent. The single-player campaign is short, but packed full of incredibly inventive level design. It’s almost at Nintendo levels - that classic loop of introduce a new concept, iterate on it, then repeat. It’s also got a curiously touching storyline, even if some of the bosses are a bit silly.
I’ve also been playing the multiplayer quite a bit, and have been surprised to find myself really enjoying it, despite the CoD-style levelling system. It’s sharp, it’s incredibly fast, and on a technical level it performs extremely well. I’m sad that the launch was botched - placing it right between new Battlefield and Call of Duty games feels almost like a calculated slight. There might be some weird internal publisher politics at play. Regardless, I’ll remember Titanfall 2 as a really standout FPS. Kudos, Respawn.
4: Firewatch (Campo Santo)
I saw Firewatch at E3 2015, and was intruiged - then promptly forgot all about it. After some encouragement from a friend, I spent a Saturday afternoon playing through it.
Firewatch is, technically, a “walking simulator”, but it lifts this art form to such an extent that you can almost forget about some of the bullshit that fills that particular genre. The writing is snappy, the storyline is intruiging and the game’s audio does a tremendous job of creating a sense of vague unease, despite the gorgeous and bright Wyoming scenery. My only gripe is the framerate, which could really be better, but that’s a small complaint in the face of what is a very finely crafted game.
3: Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix)
I got this game as a Christmas present and it’s pushed Starbound off the list - sorry, Starbound.
Final Fantasy XV is the first FF game I’ve played in earnest since VI, so I came in almost as a newcomer to the series. To be clear: I’m not really a big JRPG player, and outside of the Final Fantasy series I haven’t played very many, so I have no idea how this holds up to some of its peers.
The game opens with the main character pushing a fancy car through the desert, cracking jokes with his boys, while Florence + The Machine play a cover of Stand By Me. It’s gorgeous.
I had to do a lot of homework to understand what the hell was going on in this game’s world, including a two hour film (dreadful) and an hour-long series of anime shorts (actually pretty watchable). Was it worth it? I’m not really sure yet - but it doesn’t matter.
The story makes sense so far, the combat is fun and punchy, and the voice acting is generally pretty good (at least if you listen in Japanese). It’s also got all your usual Final Fantasy mechanics - potions, Phoenix Down, chocobos and some guy called Cid all make an appearance.
What really raises this game head and shoulders above some others I’ve played, though, is the relationship between the four main characters. Noctis is your typical Final Fantasy protagonist - slightly whiny Chosen One with great/awful hair. This would normally be a turn-off, were it not for his three pals making fun of him at any given opportunity. The four - Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto - chatter to each other throughout the game, and while I’ve heard a few repeated lines of dialogue, the writing never feels particularly lazy, and I’m yet to find them irritating.
The setting of Eos is also really immersive - by plopping players into a world which is similar to our own in terms of technology (Noctis has a smartphone, though thankfully not Candy Crush), but with the addition of magic and fantastic creatures and landscapes, exploration never gets boring.
There’s so much depth to this game that it’s actually quite hard to describe, and I’m not really going to try - but for giving me a road trip with my boys, complete with magic and oversized swords, Final Fantasy XV deserves a spot in this list. I feel inexplicably happy playing it, and you can’t put a numerical score on that.
2: Uncharted 4 (Naughty Dog)
I was very, very nervous about this one. Naughty Dog were coming off the back of the fantastic The Last Of Us, and making a return to Nathan Drake - the face of a franchise which, honestly, I’d always considered to be a bit overrated.
On one hand, the Uncharted games have always been great stories which lean far too heavily on a very mediocre combat system. On the other, I was invested in the characters, and wanted them to get the ending they deserved. Did the series’ finale deliver? Oh shit yes.
Uncharted 4 represents the globe-trotting, cinematic adventure that I’d always wanted, coupled with some small gameplay changes which, when taken as a whole, remove pretty much every complaint I had about the rest of the series. Gone are the waves of identical enemies, to be mostly replaced with some simple but fun stealth sections.
As ever, the game is stunningly pretty, with facial animation and voice/motion capture which no other game studio ever really comes close to. As I write this I’m watching my brother play through the game, and it’s just as enjoyable when not holding the controller. The epilogue is also one of the most elegant ways I’ve seen a game series end. Please, Naughty Dog - let this be the end.
1: The Witness (Thekla)
I’ve written about The Witness before, and will probably continue talking about it for years to come. On a simple level, this is one of the sharpest, most finely-crafted games in recent memory, but it’s so much more.
I always appreciate it when a game changes the way I see the world around me - as art should! Games are art! You wanna take this outside? - but The Witness took this to a new level. I was seeing maze puzzles everywhere. Traffic lights, lines of code, the clouds, just everywhere. The Witness. Read my review. Then just bloody play it. It’s sensational.
Honourable mention: Pokemon Go (Niantic)
Pokemon Go gets a mention. As a game, it was, er, pretty bad. As a cultural and social phenomenon? Unparalleled in the history of gaming, maybe. 2016 has been a big dark period, but there was a two-week gap where we all lived in a sort of beautiful dream. That dream was Pokemon Go.
I wrote a thing about it, give it a read if you like.
Games I played
Two sections for video games? Er, what did you expect?
For this section, I want to talk about the five games that most impacted me this year, despite this not being their launch year. In most cases it’s because I played them for the first time in 2016, but that’s not so for all of them. Have a read.
5: The Stanley Parable (Davey Wreden)
My brother wanted to get me a game on Steam for my birthday, and since I’d been meaning to look at it for a long time, I asked for The Stanley Parable.
I spent around three hours with this game, and I think I managed to discover pretty much everything; a single playthrough takes just twenty minutes. The Stanley Parable is easily one of the funniest games in recent memory, but also has a lot of interesting points to make about the state of modern game design. The narration is absolutely spot-on, too.
There’s not a huge amount I can say about this one without giving away some of the surprises, but it’s pretty cheap on Steam and I strongly recommend you give it a go. It even ran on my Macbook. Nice.
4: The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog)
I finally got around to playing TLOU in January (thanks, little brother), and spent the majority of a few days playing through it.
I’m not going to say that this game is some kind of paragon of video game storytelling. To me, the greatest storytelling in video games is going to be something that could not be done in any other medium - The Last Of Us, like the Uncharted series, tells its story as a collection of cutscenes and scattered dialogue pieces, and as such it’s something a little closer to traditional film-style exposition.
That said - the story told in The Last Of Us blew me away. Touching, weighty and lastingly grim, it left me a little bit shaken in a way that I hadn’t got from a game for some time. The main character’s called Joel, too, which helps. Here, truly, is a game that absolutely does not need a sequel. What? Oh.
3: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED)
2016 has been a bit shit for me, especially in the latter half. In a winter where I was once again hounded by mental health bullshit, a heavy dose of escapism was just what I needed. The Witcher 3 delivers, and then some.
This game will henceforth be what I look to as the gold standard for an open world RPG - the combat is interesting, the writing is superb, the voice acting is so comprehensive and, of course, the world itself is beautifully crafted. I’ve sunk about 30 hours into Geralt’s latest adventure and I am nowhere near the end of the main game, let alone the (apparently fantastic) DLC.
I’ve noticed, through my own observations and conversations with friends, that when I’m not feeling great the games I turn to - The Witcher, Bloodborne, The Last Of Us - are universally pretty grim settings. Doesn’t this make me feel worse?
There’s a whole article to be written about this, and I’ll get around to it at some point, but I think the central point is this: Geralt is far better equipped to deal with his world than I am with mine. It’s a power fantasy? Maybe. Is that inherently a bad thing? We’ll talk.
2: Dark Souls (FromSoftware)
I’d played Dark Souls before, but this year was the one where I really committed to it. Over the course of the month of April, I alternated between working on my Master’s project and slowly uncovering Lordran’s many secrets.
There have been many, many pieces written about the elegance of Dark Souls’ overlapping systems, the genius of its core gameplay loop and its unique approach to delivering storytelling in games. They’re pretty much all true.
The meme that’s grown up around Dark Souls is the chatter about how hard it is. It’s certainly not an easy game, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Dark Souls may just be the finest video game ever created, and it’s likely FromSoftware’s crowning achievement. It’s not my favourite From game, though.
1: Bloodborne (FromSoftware)
Bloodborne. Oh, Bloodborne.
There’s a real temptation to compare Bloodborne to the Dark Souls games. I have a lot of friends who’ve done just that, and found it wanting.
Fundamentally, though, they are not the same. While Dark Souls’ lore is sprawling and esoteric, Bloodborne’s is incredibly focused, if no less difficult to piece together. When I play Dark Souls, I play it as a very patient, rhythmical game. Bloodborne, on the other hand, is an elegant, terrifying dervish. It’s ballet with a chainsaw. It’s utterly glorious, and revels in its own fundamental ridiculousness.
Bloodborne was my game of 2015, but by the end of the year I still hadn’t finished it. The first couple of months of 2016 turned into a sort of holding pattern. I’d go to uni during the day (this includes weekends…Imperial). When I got home, I’d carry on working on coursework - up until 11pm. The hours between 11pm and 1am were sacred.
During these two hours, I was a hunter of the dream. I was unravelling the story of how Yarnham came to be the way it is, and hunting ever bigger and badder beasts, until the sky unfolded itself and I grew eyes on the inside.
…I got pretty into it, is what I’m saying. The fact is, this game became a really important part of my life for a little while. I was pretty unhappy last winter for no apparent reason, and this game provided an escape.
Bloodborne isn’t my game of the year, because it didn’t come out this year. It might just be my game of the decade, though.
My favourite genre of music is and probably always will be hip hop. This year saw a large number of big-name hip hop releases - we had new Drake, new Kanye, new Kano, new(ish) Skepta, new J Cole and loads more.
It’s odd, then, that few of these really grabbed me enough to land a top five spot. Here are my favourite albums from this year.
5: Cashmere (Swet Shop Boys)
I found this album by accident and I’m very glad I did. Swet Shop Boys are a team-up of Heems (of Das Racist fame) and Riz MC, AKA Riz Ahmed, AKA Britain’s answer to Donald Glover? Maybe?
As you’d expect of an album Heems is involved in, Cashmere is hilarious, but it’s more than that. Here is an open and frank discussion of what it’s like being a person of colour in a post-9/11 society, and how that impacts in places from personal lives to the music industry.
Standout track: Zayn Malik, because Heems’ verse:
I am a radiator, I am a toaster
I am a college dorm room poster
I am an idiot, I’m good at rapping,
Get on the beat, murk it, then ask what happened
4: The Impossible Kid (Aesop Rock)
I love Aesop Rock, so it’s no surprise this album ended up on the list given I’ve been waiting for it for four years. What surprised me was just how good The Impossible Kid is.
Skelethon was a brutally honest look at the way Aes sees himself. This album is more of the same, but rather than a faintly heartbreaking essay on his lowest moments, this presents a more upbeat, optimistic outlook.
The prevailing theme of The Impossible Kid is growing older. Tracks like Rings deal with Aesop’s regrets at not fulfilling his potential (I used to paint / hard to admit that I used to paint), while Lotta Years is a really funny “these damn kids” with, as ever, a heart of gold.
This album came out in April and it’s still on my rotation. Highly recommended.
Standout track: Shrunk
3: The Wild Swan (Foy Vance)
Foy Vance released Joy of Nothing in 2013, after six years without an album. It was a great comeback, and combined with a tour with Ed Sheeran, helped promote him to the kind of global attention that he so richly deserves - but I wasn’t hugely taken with it, especially given how much I adored Hope.
While the first album was characterised by an endearing, almost wide-eyed optimism, Joy of Nothing left a bitter taste. The Wild Swan, while not a return to the tone of Hope, seems to represent a much more settled Foy. Or maybe I’m reading far too much into it because I love the man so much. Who knows.
I got to see this album performed in its entirety at Shepherd’s Bush in November and it was a really special one.
Standout track: Bangor Town. It’s just gorgeous.
2: 22, A Million (Bon Iver)
When Vernon’s first album as Bon Iver was released, it turned the music industry on its head, and the number of jumper-wearing, falsetto-forcing folk singers multiplied exponentially. For Emma, Forever Ago was a gorgeous album, and its successor, the self-titled Bon Iver, continued in the same vein, albeit with much less that felt new or innovative.
22, A Million, then, represents another shift in style, and I think the influences of Vernon’s time spent working with the likes of Kanye are much more apparent. This album is extraordinarily inventive, and like nothing else I’ve ever heard.
I spent the whole week after this album launched listening to it pretty much on a loop. This was a week during which I knew I was about to get dumped. There’s a track on it called 22 (OVER S∞∞N). You work it out.
In actual fact, that’s not what this track is about at all, and indeed Vernon has been pretty open about the overarching theme of this record - his career, fame and its consequences, et cetera.
I’ve always thought that the mark of a great piece of art is that the viewer/listener/player can attach their own meaning to it without the original meaning being lost. With that in mind, 22, A Million is a breakup album, and nobody is going to tell me otherwise.
In all seriousness - I believe this album is the start of another shift for the folk genre, and we’ll see a lot of imitation soon enough. For that, 22, A Million is my album of the year.
Standout track: 715 - CR∑∑KS
What? They released what?
1: Run The Jewels 3 (Run The Jewels)
This album ruined my list! I had to go and rewrite my whole list! Thank you so much, Run The Jewels.
Scheduled for release in the first couple of weeks of January, RTJ3 was dropped as a surprise release on Christmas Eve, and it was possibly the best Christmas present I could have received, as well as a half-decent ending to this awful year.
Run The Jewels 2 was a very focused record, coming in at less than 40 minutes in length. The sequel is longer, but somehow manages not to feel bloated.
El-P’s production has somehow managed to improve again, meshing RTJ2’s heavy beats with a subtle layering that puts me in mind of Cancer 4 Cure, El’s last solo record. The vocals are, as ever, outstanding, with Killer Mike flowing effortlessly over the top of rhythms that would give almost any other rapper pause for thought.
The Run The Jewels style has always been “fun, but with serious undertones”, and the new album continues this. Tracks like Panther Like A Panther are over the top, bombastic and faintly ridiculous, while Thursday In The Danger room relates two stories about the deaths of friends.
The album is relatively light on features, though longtime collaborators Boots and Zach de la Rocha make appearances. There’s also some stunning saxophone from Kamasi Washington, perhaps best known for his work on Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
I still haven’t decided if this is my favourite Run The Jewels record, but it’s certainly my favourite record of 2016. Thanks, boys.
Standout track: Talk To Me
Honestly, I thought this was a pretty thin year for cinema - with the provisio, of course, that I’m hardly a film buff. Anyway, here are my top five for this year.
5: The Boy and the Beast
This is technically a 2015 film, but as its western release was in 2016 I’m going to cheat and put it on here.
The Boy and the Beast is about a young boy who stumbles into another world, and spends years there being trained in martial arts by a grumpy bear-thing. It’s exactly as daft as it sounds, but yet manages to be a really touching story about growing up, parenthood and being a little bit different.
The ending is, of course, complete nonsense, but it all somehow holds together, and stuck with me a lot longer than I thought it would have. That’s why it’s on this list.
4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I went through quite a long phase of not liking Star Wars because of how hammed-up and silly it was. Now I adore it for exactly those reasons.
Rogue One is a very good film. I really enjoyed it.
…and yet I can’t find much else to say about it. It feels like a Star Wars film, and yet somehow it isn’t really one. The Force Awakens was essentially just a reboot of A New Hope, and yet I went to see it twice; I’m not in any great rush to see this one again, and I can’t really explain why.
I point-blank refuse to refer to this film as Zootropolis. Go away.
Zootopia is one of the best Pixar flicks in years, despite not actually being made by Pixar. I loved it.
2: Your Name. (Kimi no Na wa)
While not the sort of film I ever really thought I’d enjoy, Your Name turned out to be stupendously good. This is another film that’s very, very hard to describe, mainly because so much happens in it and there’s so much to talk about.
I went to see it with two friends, and when the film ended Eddie said “well, that film had at least two more explosions than I thought it would”.
Go and see it, even if only for the animation, which is excellent.
I heard tell that a few people were annoyed at Arrival for being “boring”. These are exactly the sort of people who deserve to be annoyed.
Arrival is probably the best representation of what science fiction can be that I’ve seen in cinemas for a very long time. It’s smart, it’s a little bit scary, it tells a fundamentally very human story and it leaves you thinking - and a little bit numb.
Oh and the actors are, like, really good and stuff.
This is the end of my list of lists. Play more games, listen to more music, watch more films, and don’t take no shit. Have a great 2017.