Best Games Played 2017: Purest Design


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.


Imagine roaming around an arcade – a rare but reemerging experience – and something catches your eye. A black monolith of an arcade cabinet. Intrigued, you approach it.

Images and color flash across the screen. A lone rider on their motorcycle screech across a barren landscape. Your blood rushes. Excited, you play.

Expecting to find the familiar joystick, you’re instead met with an alien interface. Your hand touches the curved, rubbery surface of what looks like a large skateboard wheel protruding from the surface of the cabinet. You turn the puck with the flattened palm of your hand and feel the rider skate along the narrow road, barely within your control.

A lone arcade button sits beside the wheel. You press it, and it ignites the engine of the bike. propelling the rider forward, barely contained within the confines of the screen, beyond which ensures certain death.

You feel one with the rider as you thunder across the featureless desert, but any simple mistake – slowing down to catch your breath, riding too close to the rail, skirting off the road and into the sand – and your life disappears in a flash of fire and a plume of smoke.

Black Emperor is a game that perfectly encapsulates the sensation of speed, and everything – from the hypnotic parallaxed background to the instantaneous respawn upon death to the uniquely tailored control surface – is in service to help your virtual avatar barrel across the landscape.

It is one of the most codified, pristine experiences you’ll ever have.

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 Open World


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.


In what might be our most traditional game award, Fallout 4 excels at making you want to explore every nook and cranny in post-apocalyptic Boston.

Moreso than any other other Bethesda game that came before, everything in the game, from the addition of voice acting to the player character to the settlement building, is made to feel as if this is your world. Sometimes that comes with a price, such as the sacrifice of previous Bethesda games’ amazingly creative dialog options. In Fallout 4, dialog options are more of a leap of faith, that you’re able to interpret what the abbreviated options on the screen are what you meant to say.

But with that in mind, the possibilities of the world are amazingly impressive. Maybe you want to save your son from the hands of the Institute, maybe you don’t, but what’s important is that it offers you the choice to do so. And maybe it breaks down after a while, after you become the king of everything and you’re one-shotting deathclaws, but most contemporary Bethesda games do.

Fallout 4 still gives you meaningful choices concerning the main forces in the Commonwealth, similar to those found in its predecessor, Fallout: New Vegas. Even after you’ve finished the main quest and completed all the side stories and downloadable content, there’s always another rock to turn over, another corner of the world to explore, another little story told through environmental clues and terminal entries. Even after playing for scores of hours, you may find another companion to join you on your journey, making your story in this place all the more real.

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.