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2016 was all about the little details

2015 for me was dominated by a single game – The Witcher 3. Nothing came remotely close to CD Projekt’s dark fantasy masterpiece. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. This year, it’s been far harder for me to pick a favourite. I agonised over my best games list for a silly amount of time, and even now I’m not entirely happy with it.

Part of the problem is, when I look back upon 2016, I don’t really think about specific games at all. Instead, my mind conjures little moments and individual scenes from about half a dozen titles. I think about the mesmerising gears of Dishonored 2’s clockwork mansion. I think about wandering the detritus-strewn streets of Mankind Divided’s Golem City. I think about the little puff of confetti that accompanies the opening of any ride on Planet Coaster. I think about how I killed a man in Hitman by moving some pencils around on his desk. I think about Trico’s feathers.

2016 for me, was all about the little details. And I don’t think this is accidental. This year has seen a marked shift in the priorities of developers.

For many years that priority has been size, certainly in the mainstream. The dominant genre in the last five years has been the open-world game, with each new title offering a larger playground and ever more stuff to do in them. This reached particularly absurd levels in the icon-crammed maps of games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Recently, even worlds haven’t been enough, with games like Elite Dangerous and No Man’s Sky offering entire galaxies at player’s fingertips.

The problem with producing ever-larger games is that you can only go so big before the notion of size starts to lose its meaning. In those galaxy-spanning space games, their playgrounds are so mind-bogglingly massive that it can often feel like you’re not really getting anywhere. Meanwhile, hoovering up the burgeoning number of activities in open-world games like Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto starts to feel less like an adventure and more like busywork.

So what do you do when you can’t feasibly use size as the main selling point of your game?