Video game characters and stories held VR at bay in 2016

 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” takes the series on a more personal path.
(Naughty Dog / Sony Computer Entertainment)

This was supposed to be the year that virtual reality went mainstream, and a little game called “Pokemon Go” crashed the party. The mobile title became a sensation — albeit briefly — and brought augmented reality to the populace. That is, it used digital trickery to insert little Pokemon critters into the real world, no goggles required. 

Of all the popular mediums, games are where technology continues to be a primary driving factor. And for all the flashiness of PlayStation VR or the Oculus Rift, mobile continues to dominate. In addition to “Pokemon Go,” another title associated with Nintendo, “Super Mario Run,” is poised to own December, with some estimating the game to secure more than 50 million downloads after its mid-month launch. 

The virtual reality revolution will have to wait.

For now, the best games are still those that don’t require a headset. Today, three years into the current console generation of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, developers, as evident by titles such as “Mafia III” and “Dishonored 2,” are pushing just as heavily on character and social commentary as they are tech. Race, class and even cancer are now topics games have touched, if not yet fully conquered. 


So yes, games with guns may still rule, but at least they’re becoming more nuanced. What follows are the 10 interactive worlds I most enjoyed visiting in 2016.

1. “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.” (Naughty Dog). An international “Indiana Jones”-inspired game of high-stakes thievery, but now with more marriage problems and sibling rivalry. This PlayStation 4 exclusive still puts a premium on adventure and gunplay, but Naughty Dog (“The Last of Us”) continues to show that human relationships matter just as much having good aim and boatloads of weaponry. It’s perhaps the first blockbuster game where a player’s reflexes are put through as much of a test as a couple’s marriage.  

2,. “Reigns.” (Nerial). Like “Game of Thrones,” but with a sense of humor and more werewolves than dragons. This mobile-focused game uses a simple mechanic — swipe left or right on virtual cards. If you’ve used (or played?) Tinder, you’re good to go. Balance the church, the poor, invading armies and bewitching suitors, all in the hopes of staying alive more than two years. 


“Oxenfree” aims to marry mystery and horror with the awkwardness of being a teenager.
“Oxenfree” aims to marry mystery and horror with the awkwardness of being a teenager.
(Night School Studio )

3. “Oxenfree.” (Night School). What “Stranger Things” was to Netflix, “Oxenfree” was to the video game world. It’s heavy on the ’80s, Spielberg-inspired nostalgia, but this gorgeous, clever ghost story also captures the horrors of teenage life.

4. “Firewatch.” (Campo Santo). Who knew loneliness could be so fun? Set in the Wyoming wilderness, “Firewatch” is a game of self-discovery, juggling the mysteries of the wild with those of human relationships. 

A young FBI agent gets caught in a strange and traumatic story in “Virginia.”
A young FBI agent gets caught in a strange and traumatic story in “Virginia.”
(Variable State )

5. “Virginia.” (Variable State). Dialogue-free, this trippy tale of a young FBI agent toys with narrative in a way that would make David Lynch proud. There’s a case of a missing boy at the game’s heart, as well as some “The X-Files”-like weirdness, but it’s the everyday pressures of the workplace that haunt after the credits roll.

6. “The Last Guardian.” (Sony Interactive Entertainment). A world of mystical, misunderstood creatures that looks hand-drawn, this PlayStation 4-only title is all about connecting, in this case between a boy and a somewhat adorable bird-like, cat-like animal. It’s patient, loving and invites players to slow down. 

“Superhot” upends the idea of the first-person shooter, bringing a level of artistic elegance to the genre.
“Superhot” upends the idea of the first-person shooter, bringing a level of artistic elegance to the genre.
(Superhot Team )

7. “Superhot.”(Superhot Team). “Superhot” may not like you. The game may not even like first-person shooters, as it completely upends the idea of what they’re supposed to do. Instead of quick reflexes and fast action, “Superhot” places a premium on stillness. Time, in the game, only moves when the player moves, allowing bullets to linger in mid-air.


8. “1979 Revolution: Black Friday.” (iNK Stories). Play as a photojournalist during the Iranian Revolution. This narrative-focused title, featuring some lovely acting and available for mobile phones, spins a gripping narrative that manages to be equally educational and entertaining, focusing on family, loyalty and the divisions within. 

9. “Inside.” (Playdead). Creepy and mysterious, “Inside” puts you in the role of a kid on the run. From what? That would be ruining the game, as this largely black-and-white world is littered with conspiracies, zombies and even a giant blob — all without saying a word. 

10. “That Dragon, Cancer.” (Numinous Games). It may make you cry, as this deeply personal narrative is a love letter to a lost child. Largely impressionistic, the game deals with all the mixed-up, muddled thoughts of living through a tragedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens



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