Normally at the end of the year I write a blog post reflecting on the year. For months now the common consensus among many is that 2016 was a trash fire of a year. The combination of dismal international news, terrorism and tragedies, a stagnant economy, the deaths of many prominent and beloved public figures/entertainers, and the concerning outcome of the American elections is enough to make it a dark chapter in the twenty-first century for many. With no disrespect to the recent deaths, including Carrie Fisher today, if you're measuring this year by that alone, you need to give your head a shake and consider the recent massacres and tragedies in places like Syria, Istanbul, Orlando, Berlin, Nice, Nigeria, Iraq and on, and on. But I digress.
And now for a sharp, and graceless turn. Various media were important for mental relaxation and de-stressing during 2016. I would like to share these with you and perhaps it will encourage you to explore them yourself. I hope you can get as much pleasure from them as I did.
#3 - Cities: Skylines (Plus After Dark and Snowfall DLC)
Cities: Skylines to many, myself included, is the city-building video game that you've wanted since you tinkered with SimCity, or sketched maps in the margin or doodled skylines from your fantasies. Released in 2015 I purchased the game this year and it was greatly enhanced by the release of two pieces of DLC, one of which came out in 2016. The game allows an incredible degree of specialization and detail work. It is incredibly open to mods. Artists (there is hardly a better word for them) have meticulously reconstructed real cities or designed environments the feel very real. In some ways it's more of a sophisticated model-maker for some.
I play the game as a city manager and simulation game. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the game is remarkable. There aren't just roads, there are roads of different widths and intents. You can have roads with bus lanes or bike lanes, country roads, or arterials. The freeway system is essentially freeform and allows an incredible degree of individuality. It permits a degree of experimentation to figure out what configuration of roads and transit work. Transit options include taxis, buses, trams/streetcars, heavy rail, and subways. Properties and land grow and develop based on many factors and are redeveloped to more sophisticated and denser buildings.
Perhaps on the best additions to the genre is the district system. You can cater laws, incentives, and regulations to give each neighbourhood a unique feel, just as in real cities. Unlike SimCity the game feels grounded and far less cartoony. When one of my cities are successful and well-designed I feel like I've created a realistic place that could find a home in our world. The progress system and intrinsic rewards make it a great way to invest leisure time.
#2 - Stellaris
I am a science fiction nerd. I love the genre. When Paradox Interactive announced their plan to make their own space strategy game I was incredibly excited. Crusader Kings II , Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II are among my favourite games so I was interested to see how Paradox would tackle this subgenre in their unique style. They did not disappoint.
Stellaris breathes in all the major science fiction influences. Events, anomalies and story elements are torn from Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Clarke, Star Trek, Star Wars, and many more. It comes across as loving homage. Players are given a wide set of tools to create a unique species. As with Cities: Skylines mod support is broad so already Mass Effect, Star Trek and other mods are in place to introduce beloved species.
The randomness in each galaxy I have played on creates exciting new options. The tech tree means that there is not a "correct" way to play. Like the Civilization series there are any number of ways to win. However, I would say that playing a game of geopolitics in space (astropolitics?) there is no clear end. Victory doesn't seem like owning the galaxy from one end to the other, in my opinion. The answer this problem the game designers introduced late game crises. Intergalactic invasion or artificial intelligence uprising can be the final challenge for your space empire, star republic, or democratic galactic federation.
If you love science fiction and strategy I think this game offers a great deal. Earlier this week I was playing my space empire of retile-like imperialists. I encountered a signal from a gas giant. A group of non-corporeal beings begged for help to migrate to a new home. I transported them to a new gas giant... but then later they asked to move into a gas giant in my territory. I do not know if this will go anywhere, but I love playing it out. First contact, space battles, xenophobia, uplifting, it has it all.
#1 - The Witness
Released early in the year I may have dedicated the most mental processing power to this game during 2016. On the surface The Witness is a simple puzzle game but as you play you uncover more and more meaning. There are multiple layers of puzzles in the game and meaning. The game contains thoughts on truth and reality. According to the designer Jonathan Blow The Witness is about truth. The world is built to be consistent and coherent. An underlying logic holds the game together.
Puzzles and mysteries are at the core. Unraveling the game became somewhat an obsession for me. At times I have considered meticulously documenting the entire game, including things like the statues to see if there is any meaning I could extract. Bringing up the statues I should take a moment to talk about the art. I love the visual aesthetic of the game. I love the bright colours, the diverse environments and the... magic for lack of a better word. There is a serenity in The Witness.
There is an immense sense of satisfaction in peeling back the layers of the island and in solving individual puzzles. Portal 2 is perhaps my favourite game of all time and The Witness is the first time I felt the same way in a long time. I have a feeling it will stick with me for a long time.
Paris 1919, reviewed on this blog, offers incredible insight in how World War I shaped the world we live in today. For all the attention given to World War II, the First World War has done a great deal to determine the world we live in today. Diplomatic history is fascinating in how the petty relationships of a handful of men determine the fate of states and nations. There is a great value in better understanding this period.
Honourable Mentions: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, Origins of the European Economy by Michael McCormick, Irresponsible Government by Brent Rathgeber.
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was a unique take on the future. In a world decimated by climate change and resources are scarce the human and political drama in Thailand is enthralling. The world is alive and horrifying, yet it feels like a possible glimpse into our dark future. The story follows a western business man trying to operate a factory in the corrupt Kingdom of Thailand but through his actions, the actions of others, and random circumstances gets caught in web of rivalries, treachery and violence.
Honourable Mentions: The Return Man by V. M. Zito, The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kuntsler, Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry,
Artificial intelligence is a topic that captures my imagination. A series that is built upon mystery, AI, incredible visual and social commentary is going to appeal a great deal to me. I was not into LOST at the time, but I imagine the excitement I felt discussing the show and theories with friends was what drove the popularity and affection for that series. The incredible performances of actors like Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Sidse Babett Knudson made sometimes flat writing gripping. Westworld raises questions that demand reflection in regards to AI. The season was by no means perfect but it was perhaps the most enthralling television I watched in 2016.
Honourable Mentions: Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Pitch, The Circus.