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2016: The year in games

The big events that shaped an extraordinary 12 months

The as-yet unborn future is likely to have much to say about 2016, an annus rabidus if ever there was one. For many, it's been a year of dreadful political upheaval, loss and fear.

Video games are not immune from these forces. Gaming continues to be assaulted by organized reactionary forces whose pursuit of progressives, the media, feminists, people of color and LGBT people foreshadowed the re-emergence of aggressive nativism and fake news in the broader context of the U.S. election.

But games also have something vital to say about the challenging world we inhabit.

When our descendants (should we be blessed by such) look back at the specific cultural niche of video gaming in 2016, they will see a microcosm of a world struggling to cope with change and the rage it engenders. That change is a kaleidoscopic shattering of old monoliths into shards of diversity.

BIG GAMES

Most years produce one or two games that stand in the memory as emblematic of their times. Perhaps it's appropriate that the year's big game is about monsters fomenting delusions, a fake overlay of gaudy creatures pasted onto the world around us.

Pokemon Go's historical importance isn't in its content, so much as its technological achievement. Nintendo and Niantic spliced a storied universe of cute creatures, cellphones and digital positioning with explosive effect.

For a few weeks in the summer, it felt like the whole world was playing the same game, or talking about it. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act, making a characteristically cheesy joke. Her opponent also ran an attack ad referencing the phenomena.

Pokemon Go's enormous appeal partly lay in its ability to communize public spaces and to turn them into play areas. This isn't always a good thing. Visitors to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park do not want to share their space with people hunting for Kadabra.

But Pokemon Go is also the perfect game for our manic culture of social sharing, showing off and stupidity. There have been very few occasions in the last 50 years when one single video game has qualified as a bona fide craze.

The year's other big game was perhaps more prosaic, but still notable for trying new things. Blizzard's hero-centric multiplayer shooter Overwatch eclipsed the competition with its ferocious competence.

It's also a game that displays a disparate variety of characters. Post-launch, two new characters were introduced to much fanfare. Ana is an older woman with a Middle Eastern accent. Sombra is a dark-skinned Hispanic woman. It's not so long ago that such characters were restricted to the realm of villains and sidekicks.

Some extremely long-awaited games finally deigned to make an appearance. Final Fantasy 15 and The Last Guardian, a combined 19 years in the making, managed to mostly fulfill expectations.

As always, the big publishers relied on franchises. Battlefield 1 is arguably the best entry in EA's 14-year-old series. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare marked a strong return for Activision studio Infinity Ward, after the disappointment of 2013's Ghosts. Microsoft invested heavily and successfully in Gears of War 4.

Other notables included Civilization 6, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Uncharted 4, Mafia 3, FIFA 17, Dark Souls 3, Titanfall 2, Dead Rising 4, Watch Dogs 2, Forza Horizon 3 and the new Doom, the new Hitman ... The game industry is good at doing what it's good at, which is churning out incrementally improved versions of the things they already made.

But there were also great games from smaller teams including Firewatch, Inside, Owlboy, Obduction, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Push Me Pull You, Videoball, Severed and Hyper Light Drifter.

That Dragon Cancer Wins
That Dragon Cancer Wins

MEANINGFUL GAMES

One standout moment stays in the memory from this month's self-congratulatory marketing-fest The Game Awards. When Ryan Green took the stage to accept the award for "best impact game", the co-creator of That, Dragon Cancer wept as he gave a superb speech.

He made the point that most games are fantasies in which we play as idealized characters. His game was about the death of his five-year-old son, from cancer. He said that some games are about confronting ourselves, for who we are and who we might become.

"I hope that when we are all willing to see each other, not for just who we want to be, but who we are, and who we’re meant to be."

That Dragon, Cancer is an incredibly moving experience, offering difficult perspectives on what it means to be a human being, and what it means to love.

Other games did well in political commentary. Orwell stuck the knife into mass surveillance, offering us a terrifyingly realistic simulation of a government hell-bent on keeping us "safe." Virginia explored how a patriarchal society bullies women into fighting one another. Revolution 1979 was a Telltale-style story about ethics and compromise at the sharp end of ideological warfare.

Bound centered around dance in a thematic story about parenting and familial relationships. In Fragments of Him, a young man copes with coming out.

The biggest political events of the year prompted game-related events and releases. "Brexit" and "Trump" were the most popular names for diseases in global epidemic sim Plague Inc.

Football Manager 2017 seemingly did a better job of running the numbers and ramifications for Britain's exit from the EU, than the British Government.

An entire gaming website emerged to poke fun at GOP positions, promising to do the same for leftist policies too. The New York Times released a game called The Voter Suppression Trail, based on The Oregon Trail. A text adventure called Paper Drumpf looked inside the twisted presidential campaign of an egomaniac.

Games that work to reveal ourselves and the world around us are no longer a mere novelty, but part and parcel of the form. It may soon become just as absurd to talk about games with meaning as it might be to talk about films, books or songs with meaning. Still, this didn't stop Apple from making the absurd decision to block a game about the Palestinian conflict on the basis that it "makes a political statement."

fragments of him

But games are a special case, insofar as they have been around for so long, and are only latterly grappling seriously with real issues. Those games that are made by large studios (aka "AAA games") tend to avoid proselytizing, or to handle it badly.

Dishonored 2 skirted around power structures and class warfare, but failed to fully address the issue. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided wanted to say something about race, but flubbed it badly. The entire Watch Dogs 2 campaign had less to say about surveillance culture than the first ten minutes of Orwell.

Big game companies are just not good at the important stuff. When confronted with Colin Kaepernick’s widely reported protest, an EA Sports representative initially said a live commentary update in Madden NFL 17 would mention the San Francisco 49er kneeling during the National Anthem. But the lines never made it into the game and the matter never was brought up again.

Battlefield 1 depicted the carnage of the First World War and touched on its human cost, but ultimately regressed to a glorification of violence.

Final Fantasy 15 did a decent job talking about friendship and loyalty among young men, but this is a well-worn subject for video games.

Arguably, the AAA game that managed to say the most about human relationships this year was FIFA 17, which created a narrative around young player Alex Hunter, and told the story of a long friendship and family ties placed under pressure by fame, money and ambition.

VR porn

HARDWARE AND VR

It's a strange world, isn't it? Magical machines Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Vive all wound their way to market, selling low numbers at high prices. Meanwhile, the NES Classic, a console playing 8-bit games from 1985 sold so fast it could hardly be found.

Nostalgia, particularly of the Nintendo variety, is a sure-thing. But futuristic entertainment devices delivering shallow wonders for big bucks, have a long way to go before they can lay claim to anything other than a bright future.

It doesn't help that VR has yet to deliver a must-have experience. For now, it's a curio for people with money.

Despite the current generation of consoles only arriving three years ago, it's been a surprisingly busy year for hardware news. Both Microsoft and Sony launched slimmed down versions of their mainstream machines in the form of the Xbox One S and the PlayStation Slim, bringing prices down on the older models.

Sony also launched PlayStation Pro, a 4K-enabled update on its hardware, hiking processing power from 1.84 teraflops to 4.2 teraflops. Microsoft's Scorpio was announced at E3, and is said to offer a bigger performance lift than the Pro, but it won't arrive until the end of next year.

Despite Microsoft's attempts to make a fist of things, Sony continues its general global dominance, with an installed base that's now more than 50 million units. Microsoft has not released figures for Xbox One, but it's still well behind, although it had some strong sales this year, beating out PS4 three months running.

Nintendo Switch hardware Image: Nintendo

Nintendo was a non-starter this generation, with its misfit Wii U. In 2016, production on the console was halted. But Nintendo announced a new machine to launch in March 2017. The Nintendo Switch is a hybrid gaming system with detachable controllers, which connects with the television and can be used as a portable. We'll find out more in announcements due to be made in mid-January. But the existence of the lovely-looking The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and a new Mario game is enough to raise expectations.

Nintendo is a weird mix of extreme innovation, like the Switch, and innate conservatism. In 2016, it finally succumbed to the mobile market with the launch of Super Mario Run on iOS (Android next year). The company says it's getting serious about mobile partnerships, something mirrored by Sony which formed a new studio, dedicated to making mobile games based on PlayStation franchises.

Esports

ESPORTS AND GAMBLING

This was an Olympic year, raising the almost serious question of whether or not video game competitions ought to be included in future events.

In February, the South Korean International Esports Federation requested information from the International Olympic Committee on how to apply for inclusion. But objections are likely to be fierce.

The emergence of esports as a mainstream force in entertainment can better be viewed through the prism of stats.

The 2016 DOTA 2 International Championships offered a prize pool valued at more than $20 million.

This year’s Evolution Championship Series fighting game tournament — more commonly known as Evo — attracted more than 14,000 registered fighters across nine games at Evo 2016, with more than 5,000 of those competing just in Street Fighter 5.

Activision spent $46 million buying Major League Gaming as it sought to establish an Overwatch league.

Overwatch
Overwatch
Blizzard Entertainment

Big players in the sports industry also started to make a play in esports. The Philadelphia 76ers acquired both Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming. Team Liquid was bought by a consortium of NBA star names, including Magic Johnson. German soccer club FC Schalke took a place in the European League of Legends Championship Series.

A FIFA-like trade group called WETA was launched, seeking to find common ground between leagues, owners, sponsors and players. Then another was launched, the Professional Esports Association.

As esports grows, so does friction between competing interests, with conflict breaking out between those who compete, and those who make the games.

Las Vegas bookies are considering adding esports gambling to their rosters. But gambling became a major problem in 2016 for Valve and its Counter-Strike: Global Offensive game.

Players were using digital items from the game, also known as "skins," to bet on esports events and on random online gambling sites. With a complete lack of oversight, unscrupulous operators moved in. Children became addicted to the game. Some of them lost significant amounts of money.

One of the most egregious examples of villainy was a YouTuber who released promotional videos about a gambling site, without mentioning his own stake in the company. Similarly, pro gaming team Faze Clan were called out for promoting a gambling site, without disclosing a financial interest.

Only after a wave of negative publicity did Valve move to take action, attempting to close down the gambling sites.

Meanwhile, game-makers struggled to take action against online gamers making use of cheats. These included bans against cheaters in dozens of games including Overwatch, League of Legends, Pokemon Go, Street Fighter 5, Eve Online and Destiny.

A close-up of a soldier's face, covered in dirt. You can see his pores. EA DICE

GAFFES AND BULLIES

If game publishers are sinned against, they also do their fair share of sinning. This was another year in which astonishing acts of tone-deaf, self-regarding stupidity were perpetrated with abandon.

The worst thing you can be, it seems, is a really big fan of a game who wants to share your fandom with the world. Take Bethesda-parent ZeniMax, a famously litigious organization, which insisted that popular (and free) fan-made take on Doom be expunged.

Nintendo, a company that survives on the passion of the devoted, took down a Metroid 2 remake as well as hundreds of other fan games, including one that had been downloaded by more than 1.5 million players. In an act of corporate barbarism, Nintendo also swooped on an internet archive of old magazine Nintendo Power.

Sony temporarily banned a Saudi player from the PlayStation Network for the grave offense of being called "Jihad,” his given name. Sony also attempted to trademark the phrase "Let's Play." Thankfully, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office saw sense and told the company to take a hike.

Warners Bros. Games was embroiled in a controversy regarding sponsored content on YouTube. The company paid YouTubers to promote Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but many YouTube stars were reticent about revealing that they were shilling the game. Pewdiepie was named in a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report on the scandal. He claimed that a note in the "About" text underneath his video was sufficiently transparent, also declaring that anyone who reported on the issue was using him "as clickbait."

YouTube network Machinima settled a Federal Trade Commission complaint that it did not disclose that its broadcasters were paid to make enthusiastic endorsements of the Xbox One during that console's 2013 launch.

Remember when plucky Iceland beat England in soccer's European Championship, giving romance to the world of soccer? Electronic Arts offered the Icelandic Football Association a paltry $15,000 to include them on FIFA's roster.

Titanfall 2 - BT-7274 wallruns behind Jack Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

When it comes to corporate idiocy, social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Marketing types at EA thought it would be a smart idea to launch a tasteless Twitter campaign about World War I, later pulled. EA also gaffed with a needlessly aggressive social media campaign for Titanfall 2, which sought to insult rival Activision.

Razer jumped into a pot of hot water with a crude social media dig at Apple, which offended some. Its attempt to apologize then offended a bunch more people.

Square Enix tried to market Deus Ex: Mankind Divided — a game about an oppressed minority of technologically augmented individuals — with the tagline "Aug Lives Matter." Ludicrously, the company then claimed that any similarity to "Black Lives Matter" was a coincidence.

Likewise, Nintendo tried to claim that a series of jokes in Paper Mario: Color Splash, including references to "Shufflegate," had nothing to do with GamerGate.

But the prize for crassness must go to Palmer Luckey who, in the midst of trying to launch a VR set to a skeptical public, decided to donate cash to conservative "shit-posting" organization Nimble America. He later said he was "deeply sorry" for "negatively impacting the perception of Oculus. In the months since, he’s been conspicuously quiet. A new role is expected to be announced for him soon, as part of a general managerial shake-up.

No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky

HARASSMENT AND SCUMBAGS

Twitter finally banned contemptible GamerGate opportunist Milo Yiannopoulos, but only after a hate campaign against a famous actor. The social media platform also instigated new anti-harassment tools. But for those who've faced the rage of the mob, it was all too little, too late.

The wretched GamerGate hashtag is undoubtedly a diminished force, but its headwaters of racism, misogyny and hate still flow into the world of video games.

Online scumbags launched a vitriolic campaign against Nintendo employee Alison Rapp for daring to defend the company's policy of amending content for different markets. They pried into her personal life, leading her to lose her job.

Nintendo was criticized by the International Game Developers Association for its spinelessness. But it's not the only company to lack any coherent response to employee abuse.

Racists poured into Twitch chats rooms when an African-American Hearthstone competitor made the finals of a major tournament. They appeared again at a streamed meeting about racism on Twitch.

The writer of Baldur's Gate expansion Siege of Dragonspear was abused and harassed for her inclusion of a trans character, who made an in-game joke at GamerGate's expense. Famed speedrunner Narcissa Wright briefly closed her Twitch account, after sustained abuse.

Project Syria, a virtual reality experience about life in a warzone, was hit with vitriolic and racist reviews, when it appeared on Steam.

The makers of No Man's Sky suffered massive abuse, first for delaying the much-anticipated game, and then for it failing to live up to pre-release hype.

Jennifer Hepler, who suffered online abuse and bullying while working as a writer for BioWare, released a book detailing the experiences of women working in the game industry. Many of the stories spoke of exclusion and sexist transgressions by male bosses and co-workers.

But at least some harassers found that there are consequences for their actions. Capcom banned prominent Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom player Noel Brown from competitions after a sexual harassment incident that was caught on camera. A Super Smash Bros player was forced into retirement following sexual harassment allegations from another player.

A California man faces up to five years in jail for bombarding fellow Heroes of the Storm players with hateful messages and threats of violence.

Games companies and game-makers also contribute to gaming's sometimes gross culture of exclusion. Microsoft had to apologize for throwing a sexist GDC party featuring women dancing on platforms.

Tekken 7 producer and director Katsuhiro Harada claimed that scantily clad women in games was just a form of dress-up "like you do for Christmas, Halloween or whatever."

Meanwhile, the IGDA released a report showing wide discrepancies between the earnings of men and women in the game industry.

Bound screenshot

But there are signs that some game-makers are becoming more sensitive to issues of diversity. More games were released this year with women in playable roles, including Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, Dishonored 2, Recore, Virginia, Bound, I Am Setsuna and even Battlefield 1.

Garry Newman, creator of online multiplayer survival game Rust released an update assigning random genders to players. "We understand that you may now be a gender that you don’t identify with in real life," he said, adding that "half the population was already living with those feelings."

Upcoming shooting game LawBreakers features gender-neutral bathrooms. It's being developed in North Carolina, a state that passed controversial legislation allowing anti-LGBT discrimination. The Sims 4 loosened its gender restrictions.

Mafia 3 arrived this year, one of the few AAA games with an African-American lead character. It sold well.

rockstar

STRANGE DAYS INDEED

The world of gaming leans towards the bizarre. It was ever thus.

Some of the more unusual stories this year included the unfolding of a massive fall-out between the makers of Grand Theft Auto, revealing lurid details of life at the pinnacle of success.

GTA 5 also tangled with the actor Lindsay Lohan, who lost a legal claim seeking to prove that the game made use of her image.

Pope Francis met with YouTubers such as The Game Theorists to discuss how they might use their influence to promote diversity and world peace to a global audience.

Leland Yee, a Californian politician and erstwhile campaigner against video game violence was sentenced to five years imprisonment for racketeering.

A prank game in which players watch paint dry was launched on Steam, but later pulled. It was called Watch Paint Dry.

Pranksters also besieged Freddie's Restaurant and Pizzeria of Long Branch, N.J. with unserious phone calls inquiring about Five Nights at Freddy's, the horror-game series set in a children's-themed pizzeria.

As Twitch's popularity grows, so too does the pressure to deliver unusual and noteworthy streams. One streamer beat Dark Souls 3 using two dance pads as a controller.

There were also a few exits in 2016. Microsoft closed down its Lionhead studio. Majesco, a publisher best known for cooking and zumba games, exited the game industry. Disney closed down its marvellous but financially unviable Infinity line of games and toys. Buzz team Relentless closed down.

Uwe Boll, the maker of numerous video game-themed movies, announced his retirement.

So, that was just a few of the news events that marked 2016. Politics took an ever-more central role in the ways games address the world. Powerful companies continued to struggle against one another, sometimes creating marvels, and sometimes creating havoc. Gaming grows outwards, bringing in more players, more variety, more ways to play and more ways for conflict to arise.

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