2016 was a year that felt entirely out of control. At times, it was a blur; at others it was dreadfully long, challenging moments personal and collective stretching into little eternities.
This year’s videogames weren’t explicit responses to anything that happened this year–games rarely work like that, especially where multi-million dollar development cycles are concerned–but entertainment and reality often intersect in disconcerting ways. In a year outside of my control, with unexpected personal realizations, collective tragedies, and a fraught (and, personally, frightening) election, my favorite games did exactly what this year did: they took away control. They moved at a pace all their own.
Most of the biggest commercial games are designed to let you play at a tempo of your choosing. You set your own level of engagement. Take, say, an Assassin’s Creed game, which sets you in a broad open world with tasks from end to end. You can do some of them, or all; you can explore slowly or plow from objective to objective, never looking up long enough to notice the scenery. Find all the collectibles or pretend they don’t exist. It’s up to you. You’re in charge.
My favorite games of the past year, though, did the opposite. In 2016, Doom asked me to dance–only the dance floor was covered in plastic wrap and baby oil. And there were demons. Oh, and a shotgun. It was videogame violence distilled down to its most basic elements of running, shooting, and trying to find time to catch your breath. Likewise with the brilliant Titanfall 2, which forced me to move like a superhuman acrobat to get anywhere, navigating over bottomless gaps and through cavernous factories as gunfire spat at my feet.
Hyper Light Drifter, Dark Souls 3, and the devious adrenaline injection that was rhythm game Thumper: all games that push the player to work and think fast, in the process delivering a simple message that co-opts any agency with an insistence on struggling toward perfection. Move, or die.
Others slowed me to a crawl. Firewatch was a slow-burning tragedy of a style we don’t see often in games. It was mature and deliberately unsatisfying, an emotive short story with characters whose stories felt honest and painful. Stubbornly slow, Firewatch demanded a deliberate pace to be enjoyed. The player character, Henry, is a man in his forties who drinks too much, and he moves like it. His walk has an awkward lope to it, an agonizing obstacle between you and where you need to go. Everywhere, you wait on Henry’s flesh to catch up with you as you survey the Wyoming wilderness, absolutely alone save for a voice on the radio.
Similarly, Obduction, as a successor to Myst, brings the player to a world of dimension-hopping and unfamiliar technology, forcing her to stop, to look, to listen and unearth every hidden detail in her surroundings. Playing Obduction was like pacing back and forth down a hallway, pensively marking every wrinkle in the beautiful wallpaper until understanding struck the recesses of my brain. Even the singularly strange Final Fantasy XV spends half its run time throttling its pace to a crawl in favor of the realistic beats of a road trip, complete with hotel stops and meal times.
What all these games have in common is their urgency: they grab the player by the throat and tell them how to move. Whether fast or slow, many of 2016’s best games insist on a tempo, and punish deviation. All games teach a player how to play them, but these were stubborn masters that resisted attempts to change the experience. These are not titles that offer the player the freedom to play it your own way. Instead, they invite you to participate in an experience as they have designed it. You can’t choose how to play these games–not if you want to enjoy them, at least. You can only decide to enter or exit. Pay the toll or move on.
A lot of ink has been spilled about how games can be overly linear, constraining player freedom, how maybe games don’t exist to provide freedom at all. This can and has been critiqued as a bad thing, an illusion of free will stapled over experiences that can’t possibly provide them. In many games–perhaps because of the games themselves, perhaps by their very structure as designed experiences–critics have seen prisons.
But not all lack of control is dangerous, and not all guidance is slavery. In a well-designed game, the holding hand of the designer, teaching you how to think the world into life, is not the touch of a slaveholder. It’s the hand of a partner. The lack of agency in my favorite games of 2016 is a comfort, an indicator of a space that’s safe enough that I don’t have to struggle to assert my agency at every opportunity. I can go along with what the game is saying because I trust it, and because I know that if I ever stop trusting it I can turn it off and move on with my life.
I’ve had a long and challenging year, one where I rarely could trust the world around me to offer good guidance. In a time like that, escapism might not look like a fantasy of power and control. The best escape might be the one where you let down your guard and let someone else lead.