Best Games Played 2017: Best Synthesization

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2017 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2017, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

​Every year the gaming world has one multiplayer sensation that sweeps across the landscape, capturing the hearts and minds (and wallets) of players. In 2015, that game was Rocket League. Last year, it was Overwatch. This year, that honor belongs to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

PUBG is a refinement of the previous work by PlayerUnknown himself, Brendan Greene. Known for his battle royale mods for the popular zombie survival games DayZ and H1Z1, Greene and the developers at Bluehole have taken the survival aspects of the genre and boiled it down to a fast-paced yet methodical last man standing competition.

DayZ and H1Z1 trade in their drawn-out encounters between players over weapons, food, and basic medical supplies, where accumulating your strength takes multiple hours of play, and your character persists over time. However, the greatest moments of tension – as well as fun – occur between player encounters, since every person can decide to work with you or try to kill you.

PUBG, instead of waiting for these encounters to play out between hours of survival gameplay, has compressed the rooting, looting, and shooting down to a neat twenty to thirty minute fight for survival. The same adrenaline-fueled incursions that previously occurred between hour-long gaps of isolation now happen with hectic regularity. It’s fast; it’s rewarding; and it’s fun.

This synthesization of the survival sim mantra of run, loot, kill causes the best aspects of the genre to fuse with the more tried-and-true mechanics of traditional first person shooters. Accumulated FPS knowledge of player psychology and on-your-feet thinking graphs nicely to PUBG, but with an added layer of chaos and creativity on top. Now, players need to think about when to jump from the plane – basically picking your own spawn point – or how to engage with an enemy player in a multistory building – especially where either of you can jump out a window to try to disengage at the risk of killing yourself accidentally.

The player psychology runs deep too. You’ll find yourself in an apartment complex, worried about whether or not someone is lying and wait. You’ll run around and see that the place seems untouched: all the doors are closed and a highly-desired healing item lies on the floor. Everything looks clear, but who’s to say that that first aid kit hasn’t just been placed there as bait and someone is drawing a bead on you right now? That’s the risk you run in every room in every building in every city.

It’s immensely stressful, and if you’re not the best at first person shooters, or even if you’re just out of practice, that anxiety will press upon your heart for the first dozen hours or so. My early time with PUBG is the most realistic rendering of how I would actually perform in a Hunger Games-esque scenario: I would be running, terrified, from house to house, cowering in corners, jumping at the slightest sound, and I would die, early, because my aim would be terrible because I’ve never actually fired a live firearm. We’d all like to think that if the cards were on the table, our inner Rambo would emerge and help us prevail in a kill or be killed scenario, but PUBG proves that’s not the case.

Even my unpracticed real-world aim maps to my virtual avatar. Despite playing countless hours of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises, I had never played a mouse-and-keyboard shooter before, so I came into PUBG with practically no prior abilities, but despite all that – despite my outskilled aim, despite my countless unceremonious deaths, despite the oppressive death field and unforgiving loot tables – I still have played over one hundred hours of this game, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

It’s an amazing game, one that obviously could only be made with a huge amount of experience with battle royale game design, of which Brendan Greene has in spades. As PUBG continues to grow to almost 30 million players on the PC alone, I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

Hidden Gems Returns for PAX South!

We’re excited to announce that our panel series — Hidden Gems — returns for PAX South this upcoming January!

What is Hidden Gems? It’s where we bring to you all of the unique games and events on the show floor that you don’t want to miss out on. PAX is an amazing show, but it can overwhelm you. Hidden Gems is our way to help point attendees towards overlooked treasures.

Our panelists for our PAX South panel include Ward co-founder Dylan Ilvento as well as our friends and hosts of Instant Replay Live: Nick Nundahl and Joe Wetmore! We’re really excited to have these guys on the panel, and we can’t wait to hear what special and unique experiences they find at the con.

So if you want to find out what secrets PAX South has to offer, join us at the show January 13th, at 1:30 pm in the Armadillo Theatre.

And if you’d like to find out more about our Hidden Gems panel, check out our recording from PAX East 2017.

Best Games Played 2016: Best Personal Interactions

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.

Oxenfree wins the award for Best Personal Interactions, both creatively and mechanically. Creatively, it tells the tale of teens lost on an island, fighting an evil presence, and trying to use their pubescent communication skills to save and connect to one another. At the same time, Alex, the protagonist, tries to grapple with the past loss of her brother and to connect with her newly-minted half brother, Jonas.

Mechanically, the narrative system, of being able to move and talk as humans do, evokes the now-trademark Grand Theft Auto series’ use of dialog during driving sequences, as well as the use of walk and talk shots in television and film. It’s a story perpetually in motion, best exemplified by the fact that Alex is constantly moving.

The dialog options appear as speech balloons above Alex’s head, invoking the idea that these are all the things she wants to say, but what it’s up to the player to decide the best course of action. Alex – like Geralt of Rivia, Henry, and Maxine Caulfield – speaks for herself, you’re the angel (or devil) on their shoulder. Sometimes, she interjects when something important is on her mind. Other times, she waits for there to be a lull in the conversation. At all times, you and her are trying to help make the situation better. Rarely does it work out.

Night School Studio has created a ghost story as a way to deal with personal loss, and because you have the somewhat shy, teenage Alex as your vessel, you must work together to say what’s on your mind.

Best Games Played 2016: Most Empowering

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.

Life is Strange captures the feeling of being in high school again, of the start of a new school year with crisp fall days, imbued with the Lynchian tones of the Pacific Northwest, contrasted with overly sterile hallways and sanitized relationships with the high school staff.

Life is Strange is one of the most exquisite experiences out there, and it’s not because of its time rewinding mechanic. The supernatural elements are mostly a backdrop for the main character, Maxine, trying to rekindle a lost friendship after returning from an unceremonious move to another city.

The game captures what makes it so stressful and difficult and scary to be a teenager, and then the game adds real, physical threats to the existing pile of existential ones, from town-destroying storms and kidnappings to addressing issues of child abuse, mental illness, suicide, bullying, and personal growth. It’s a stunning blend of Twin Peaks, Juno, Superbad, with a touch of Donnie Darko.

There are some cracks in the veneer of the game, such as the somewhat stilted dialog caused by a French team trying to write about an American town in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a flawed, beautiful thing, much like the life of its characters that it’s trying to portray.

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 known 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.

The Internet influences play 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 trusts the audience to join in on the fun.

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 solo 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 you make about the combat based off your prior experience with games.

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.