There I was, tucked inside a bush somewhere in the Carpathian highlands. It was night, which Far Cry Primal does a very good job of impressing upon the player as the most perilous time of day in a land lit only by the sun, the moon or fire. I was here because a large wolf was patrolling along this escarpment, blocking my exit, and would not leave.
I had one spear. I worked my ass off to keep it, too. Weapon retrieval is one of the many light touches Far Cry Primal made to impress a survival mentality upon the player. If I missed my shot at this wolf, it was game over. If I speared the wolf but he ran off with it, or went over the cliff, I had no weapon. I had to kill it on the spot, somehow.
So, I lit the spear on fire. It's a streamlined option that mildly pierces Far Cry Primal's uncompromising survivalist veil for the sake of combat variety and visual appeal. Rising from the bush, I plunged the flaming spear into the wolf's ribcage. Direct hit!
The mortally wounded mongrel ran into my bush, lighting it and me on fire. I reloaded the save.
Overwatch blended excellence and emergent narrative appeal like no other game in 2016. No Man's Sky was a a fascinating meta-tale of the ongoing idealism and naiveté of gamers and developers alike. NBA 2K17 was again a benchmark work in the genre that confronts the greatest commercial expectations of any in video gaming. Any of these would merit the title of "game of the year" in what they meant to the subject in 2016.
But, personally, I save the title for the game I had the most fun playing, and by far that was Far Cry Primal, an out-of-the-blue surprise launching in February 2016. It has not made Polygon’s top 10 of games of the year for 2016, but I voted it number one on my ballot.
It is the pre-est of prequels for a big name franchise, and Ubisoft Montréal really deserves applause for approaching this mission — the open-world action adventure that is now Ubi's stock-in-trade — with so much creativity and risk. There would seem to be no addressable video games market for a caveman simulator, and yet this one, nightly, made that lifestyle as entertaining as anything in Grand Theft Auto or Fallout 4. It was a beautifully hallucinated change of pace from so many post-apocalyptic tales that implement the same necessity of resourcefulness and nonstop threats to survival. Plus, it has its own believable fictitious language, which even the narrator uses in those marvelous "Previously ... on Far Cry Primal" cutscenes that precede the reload of a game save.
There still is a story, and an overall goal, and all of the markers of the Far Cry series’ quasi-RPG structure. Factions are infiltrated and defeated and Takkar, the main character, does have some mystical abilities to help him tip the scales. Yet there is one mission in this game that delivers such a brutally funny headslap of a punchline that to name it would be to give away the joke. As I was completing the mission, I was thinking, "Great, here's where this becomes a typical Far Cry, just one skinned in prehistoric times." The finale, and the title card showing its completion, put me on the floor. Far Cry Primal, in the moments where it winked at Ubisoft's tendencies and shoved a pie in their own faces, delivered the biggest belly laughs of 2016, no question.
Still, it is a very serious game, full of ultimate themes. The best stories, the ones that really animate me and linger long after I put the controller down, are where I feel like I am fighting for something more than my own glory or my character's. When I am busting my ass to validate a teammate (like the splendid Danny Williams in FIFA 17's story mode) or to save my planet, as in XCOM 2, I am fully invested. Other games I will restart because I feel like I'm supposed to act out a story in an idealized way. Far Cry Primal is one of those games where I made my choices and lived with them, feeling connected to my species, not a concept or a social order.
The story of Takkar in Oros is a wonderful fable, idealizing a pivotal time in pre-recorded history. But even the most random moonlight kill of a bear on the way back to Wenja land shone as an expression of my pure will, which sets humans apart from all other animals. My descendants would never face the fear of hiding in a bush as a wolf prowls nearby. They would live, united, in places where fires lit the night and kept the wild things at bay.
In video games, I usually reach solidarity with others through a team uniform or a brand of a car or a shared understanding of a story. Far Cry Primal offered none of that. Still, it left me proud of being homo sapiens, not a citizen of some nation or a fan of a team, but of participating in our struggle to survive at a time when the expectation we would had no basis in history, because there was no history.