Best Games Played 2016: Best Escapism

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Sometimes, you just want to break some rocks, till some soil, and grow some crops.

A spiritual successor to Harvest Moon infused with parts of Minecraft and Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley is hypnotic in the cyclical nature of its gameplay. The dopamine effect of getting rewarded for progressing every day makes you feel accomplished within the systems of the game.

Little by little, step by step; as the virtual days tick by, the physical hours slip away. When you wake up from the trance, you’ll have created a little farm to call your own and hopefully someone to take to the Flower Dance.

Best Games Played 2016: Best Direction

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Inside looks, plays, and feels like a game that took six years to make.

Every puzzle, every set piece, every situation feels like the product of careful and iterative design from six years of refinement. In a popular, possibly pejorative turn of phase, Playdead has made a better Limbo.

When we say direction, we mean it every meaning of the term. Inside has one of the most resolute visions of any video game. Its art direction is impeccable, using 3D models with stark, low poly lighting and desaturated color that portrays the dread of its broken world. The gameplay and interaction design is stunning, creating well thought-out puzzles mixed with environmental visual cues that ensure any puzzle solution is far enough out of reach to make you think, but never far enough to frustrate you.

The back third of the game may stretch your brain in its narrative choices, but overall, Inside is a tiny, neatly dressed package that’s worth your time.

Best Games Played 2016: Most Innovative

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

With Pokémon Go, Niantic has proven that Pokémon has the ability to stand the test of time. When the original Pokéfans were children, they’d play pretend Pokémon by going outside, turning their baseball caps backwards, and throwing plastic Pokéballs into tall grass to catch invisible animals. Now, Niantic has created a novel approach that combines location-based presence and alternate reality to rekindle the magic we had as children.

Pokémon Go allows you to explore parts of your city, town, or neighborhood that you otherwise would have overlooked. It was an opportunity to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t talk to. It encouraged people to be more active, and they started congregating in cities, parks, and piers.

For a few brief weeks it was beautiful, but nothing lasts forever. The game has unfortunately suffered from rote battle mechanics, severe stability issues, and removed or slow to rollout features that have somewhat doused this otherwise watershed moment for AR gaming and Pokémon. The game doesn’t have the same daily active user numbers that it did at its peak, but it still sits near the top of the top grossing list six months later.

The zeitgeist of everyone on the street trying to be a Pokémon Master may have already passed, but the narrative of Pokémon has always been a much more personal journey. It’s about you, your team, and the bonds you’ve created, and Niantic has captured the physicality of that narrative better than any other Pokémon game that has come before it.

Best Games Played 2016: Most Thought-Provoking

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Not enough games are concerned about the study of their characters. They’re much more interested as the character as artifice, a cipher to channel the player’s desires. Firewatch proves that, with subtlety in dialog and voice acting, it’s just as captivating to share in the agency and experience of another person. In its dedication to a real place and time, to something approachable to people on this earth, Firewatch allows people to connect to a grounded, flawed character. The protagonist, Henry, suffers from real-world, relatable grief, and like any one of us could do during a time of grief, he runs away from his problems.

Firewatch is the inheritor to Gone Home’s kingdom. The limited cast, no real actors on the screen, and top-notch voice performances creates a vignette by a small team of industry veterans as a cornerstone of greater things to come, whether it’s Fullbright’s next game, Tacoma, or Campo Santo’s motion picture plans and future projects.

What’s great about both of these games is that they make you question if there are more fantastical machinations at work. It makes you question your sanity of what’s real and what’s not – what are the laws of this world? But at the end of the day, Firewatch and its spiritual predecessor still make their homes within the realm of realistic fiction, a genre still left mostly untouched by video games. While Firewatch makes a few stumbles when it comes to its plot reveals, it is an amazing look at another person and his relationship to the world around him, showing how we’re all together, but in some ways, we’re all hopelessly alone.

Best Games Played 2016: Most Genuine

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Undertale is a story about misfits. It’s about an androgynous child getting lost in a world of monsters banished by humans, only to find that the seemingly evil monsters are mostly just misunderstood. It’s an amalgam of Alice in Wonderland and Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s also a progeny of the Internet, from being a Kickstarter project to employing webcartoonists to contribute boss designs for the game. These influences fuse together to create a madcap world that draws you in with its charm and keeps you there with its heart.

Undertale‘s Internet ancestry also plays out in its weird metaphysical, multifaceted humor. The game’s writing transitions seamlessly from slapstick to deadpan to self referentialism to surrealism. For instance, you’ll meet Papyrus – one of many fan favorites in the game – early on, where his comedic themes rely on some pretty simplistic premises: “This is Papyrus. His speech text is in the Papyrus font and he just talks about spaghetti and how smart he is.” It’s a blended brand of humor that wouldn’t work if it were less sincere, but Undertale knows what it is and runs with it.

The humor would also misfire if it relied too heavily on any one facet or joke. Fortunately, Undertale contains a cast of crazy but cherishable characters that catapult you through the story and ensure that the humor and the charm never lose steam. These characters include, but are not limited to: a narcissistic, murderous robot; two slapstick skeleton siblings; a social media-obsessed dinosaur scientist; and a fast food restaurant worker having an existential crisis.

The game is also an ode to the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of games. Its soundtrack, composed by Undertale’s creator Toby Fox, is wonderfully chiptuny. All of the sprite work has an 8-bit level of detail but a 16-bit level of animation fidelity, making it look like it was part of a cross-generational NES/SNES art movement that never existed but should have. It’s obvious when Undertale wears its influences on its sleeve, from Earthbound to SNES-era Final Fantasy titles and beyond.

Toby Fox’s creation has a lot to say about games too. The metacommentary comes out in multiple design choices. In the writing, characters comment on things that other games wave away with suspension of disbelief, like monsters having casual conversation about making puzzles and fighting cause that’s what they’ve always done and what else would you do? In its combat, the game can be played pacifistically once you figure out the trick to peacefully disarming each combatant. But the game doesn’t tell you that, instead waiting to see what assumptions and biases you bring to the game.

Should this be more explicit? That’s probably one of the questions underpinning people’s criticisms with the game. If you play Undertale solely as a turn-based combat RPG, then the gameplay part of this game gets much more repetitive and a lot less fun.

Being a member of iconoclastic Internet culture causes Undertale to be somewhat insular, but that’s the risk all art runs. In order for narratives to identify with people’s personalities and worldviews, there are people and opinions that a story will automatically exclude. Because we’re not all birthed from the same hive mind, all media is not going to resonate with all people. And if Undertale tried to identify with everyone, then it would lose what makes it so special.

This misfit manifesto is definitely not for everyone, but it’s worth trying out to see if it’s for you. Because if it is, it’ll be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have.

Best Games Played 2016: Most Polish

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

It’s the age-old adage about Blizzard: they pick a pre-existing genre or game and then take those influences to create a game that has so much polish the disc gleams in the sunlight. For World of Warcraft, it was about recreating Everquest and the feelings evoked by massively multiplayer online games. For Hearthstone, it was about finding what made collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering so perennial. For Overwatch, it’s about reimagining class-based multiplayer shooters, borne from the ashes of Blizzard’s failed Project Titan.

Team Fortress 2, turning ten years old this upcoming October, has proven that this type of shooter has staying power. But Valve’s flagship games, Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, are rooted in the history of PC games’ past, from incredibly steep learning curves to having to manually choose your server host. Blizzard, despite also being one of the titans of PC gaming, chose instead to take a console-like approach to its multiplatform opus. From the matchmaking to the tutorials, Overwatch makes you feel welcome whether you have a mouse and keyboard on your desk or a controller on your hand.

It first prompts you to try out its tutorials, where you explore and try to get the feel of the game. After those, you venture out to try your first player match. At first, you may start with a purely offensive character that’s easier to understand, like Phara or Solider: 76. Then, you may try out Reinhardt because he looks cool and you’re curious how to play defense, or you switch to Lúcio because you need a healer and no one ever picks a healer. Ever.

Then, you see someone use a character in a completely new way, and it makes you rethink your entire play style. Only a game with such care and forethought allows for the constant remixing of gameplay and strategy. Games like Starcraft and Diablo have proven that this is where Blizzard excels.

Make no mistake, a skill curve still exists in Overwatch, made more steep by people dedicating most if not all of their gaming time to it these past seven months, but you can still see the top of the summit. You can see the handholds that lead to you upwards to conquer the mountain. Just like Rocket League last year and every cornerstone of competitive, skill-based play before it: from Halo 3 to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to Goldeneye 007 to Quake, losing doesn’t make you worse, it makes you better. Every person who you’ve ever lost to has also lost their fare share of matches in order to become better, and they became better because the game’s developers created a clear path. Polish doesn’t just mean refined mechanics and systems, it’s an ethos that permeates the entire product. From the dedicated character videos to the burgeoning competitive scene, Blizzard is constructing Overwatch to be a fun and exciting experience from when you first pick it up to well after you’ve put it down.

Best Games Played 2016: Grandest Adventure

These games and awards were decided during the Ward Podcast’s Best Games Played 2016 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Ward Podcast in 2016, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

If one were to say that open world, free-roaming games are the best at creating a sense of adventure and the open road, then The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a contender for one of the greatest adventures ever embarked upon.

And adventure isn’t typified by any one quest or mission. It’s best represented by each and every encounter in the world’s villages and caves, battling monsters and protecting villagers. There’s a throughline that pulls you through the world, in this case, the hunt for your adopted daughter, but there are tendrils coming off of it that lead you down dozens of new paths. There are regional dramas that tinge the characters you meet and the quests you do with a greater sense of importance, from White Orchard to Novigrad to the Skellige Isles.

Geralt travels through grand vistas that shimmer and amaze with fidelity due to CD Projekt Red’s technical and artistic expertise, and it’s all set against a backdrop of war. It’s not a thunderous, modern-era war, but a medieval war that spans a lifetime, like the Hundred Years’ War or the War of the Roses. There are lulls between active combat where everyone tries to regain a semblance of everyday life while your country is occupied by an enemy nation while an insurgency attempts to break you free, and as you travel through these towns as Geralt, you see villagers harassed by the occupying force, evoking imagery of historical events like the quartering of troops before the American Revolution or contemporary events such as Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine.

The Witcher 3’s adventure is also supported by a cast of characters. Some motivations can be confusing or vague, such as the bosses of the criminal underworld that run the free city of Novigrad, and other character motivations can devolve into bland and unoriginal fantasy. But characters such as Bloody Baron are well thought-out and Geralt meets them during important turning points in their lives.

The game relies heavily on player’s knowledge of the story previous games, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because it shows that the game, and therefore the player, values the stories that have already been written. However, it can be difficult to catch players up to speed on events that they haven’t witnessed or characters they haven’t connected with. Characters like Dijkstra, Vernon Roach, Yennefer, and Triss or events like Geralt’s amnesia can remain inconveniently in the abstract if you haven’t played Assassins of Kings.

But the game does make sure that you’re aware of a witcher’s social status within the throngs of society. They’re an exterminator but also a mercenary. They’re someone you really don’t want to have to call upon, but you’re really glad that they’ve arrived when a monster is harassing your village. The witchers bare the burden of being outcasts; villagers portray them as mutants only interested in coin, but you come to know them as orphans and discarded children. The witcher Lambert became a recruit in his childhood because his father had nothing else of value to pay a previous witcher’s contract.

The game can fail itself at times, from its gratuitous sex scenes to character development sometimes appearing as two-dimensional, but The Witcher 3 wins the award for Grandest Adventure. It is second to none at simulating the open road and feeling as though you’re on a quest against a backdrop of tumultuous events in this world’s history. This game feels like an interactive epic on the scale of the Odyssey, and just as Odysseus’s journey was long and arduous, so too will it be for you and Geralt.

Hello World

We’d like to welcome everyone to the new home of Ward. This is where you’ll find all the creations by Dylan Ilvento and Mason Brown, whether it’s podcasts, games, or our development blog.

We’re just starting out, so we think it’s important to be nimble, be smart, and experiment with a multitude of projects before hunkering down on something for the long haul. While our first crop of game prototypes are being completed, we’ll be bringing you semimonthly blog posts. These posts will range in topic from programming, to art design, to business development, to marketing, to anything else that we feel is beneficial to the improvement of Ward. Whether you’re a player or an aspiring developer like us, we believe it’s important to record the game development process, for your edification and for ours.


To accompany that goal, we also have the weekly Ward Podcast, where we talk about games, business, and whatever else crosses our brains while the mics are on. You can get access to the podcast feed here, or you can subscribe to it on iTunes here.

We’re excited to build a place where we can experiment, learn, and grow as developers and as people, and we’re excited for you to join us.