It feels weird to celebrate how good a year 2017 was for videogames when it was a disaster in just about every other respect imaginable. It all feels so frivolous, you know? But then, given how truly awful and exhausting 2017 was, a distraction of any sort is exactly what we all need.
I’ve tried to write my thoughts on 2017, but I feel like a lot of what I said in 2016 still applies. Things are bad, and they’re probably going to get worse before it gets better. For as difficult as 2016 was, 2017 was somehow worse. I expect 2018 will be the same. Much as I want to hope things will begin to turn — the constant tide of activism around the country has been a constant source of hope — I feel like we haven’t gotten far enough for it be a sure thing. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.
Anyway. Here’s to surviving another horrible year. Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Now, let’s talk videogames.
10. Graceful Explosion Machine
Every now and then you need a game that’s little more than a fun distraction and Graceful Explosion Machine was that game for me in 2017. It’s just a game where you blast aliens using an assortment of weapons, but it’s a very good one of those. Instead of pitting you against carefully authored waves of foes that require very deft moves to sift through, Graceful Explosion Machine throws you into the thick of it and gives you the arsenal to fight back.
It allows you play offense with ease. A lot of other shooters try to balance offense and defense by forcing you to play conservatively, to find a safe spot to fire from instead of charging forward and cutting a path forward. It’s fast and chaotic, but never intelligible. It’s essentially a game built around that exhilarating feeling when you’re just barely managing to survive against all odds, where every second only intensifies the action. Given how easy it is to screw up games like this by making them just slightly too hard, that Graceful Explosion Machine is able to effortlessly strike a perfect balance is impressive.
9. Bokida: Heartfelt Reunion
One of the benefits to writing about videogames is often being exposed to games you likely otherwise wouldn’t have heard about or played. Bokida: Heartfelt Reunion is one of those games I’m sure I would have missed out on had I not written about it. It’s an open world adventure wherein you seek to reunite two worlds — one light, one dark — by hopping between the two as you explore a large open world.
Its austere world was one of the more beautiful ones I’ve laid my eyes on. The vast canyons and ornate temples of the light world, the bamboo forests and abstract spaces of the dark world: everywhere I went I was struck by how mesmerizing Bokida is. For such a minimalist approach, it gets a lot of mileage out of its simple landscapes. Though the majority of the game is spent traversing black and white environments, the rare moments where it introduces color — fishes swimming around a newly restored ocean, trees blooming around a once empty hill — are by far its most memorable.
8. Monument Valley 2
Having played through the first Monument Valley a week before the sequel was announced, I was immediately on board for more. While the sequel is more of the same, it’s clever use of perspective and architecture is still a delight. I thought I saw most of the tricks developer Ustwo had up their sleeves in the first game, but Monument Valley 2 frequently inspired surprise and awe.
Every level had at least one “oh!” moment: not where the puzzle clicks, but where the structures you navigate connect in unexpected ways — or they are expected but still manage to wow all the same. Seeing the ways each level plays with perspective and how they use it to transform the space never ceases to entertain.
7. Arc Symphony and Localhost
I’m putting two games here because I couldn’t choose between them.
Interactive fiction has quickly become one of my favorite genres. While we’ve had games like Untold Stories and Subsurface Circular provide essentially bigger-budget takes on text adventures, the best works still lie in the realm of altgames. The altgames scene has been doing a lot of superb work in this genre, ranging from the most basic Twine projects to more visually complex works like Arc Symphony and Localhost.
These two games couldn’t be any more different in terms of premise — Arc Symphony sees you reading messages from an old e-mail group dedicated to the eponymous Arc Symphony, a fictional PlayStation One game; Localhost assigns you the task of convincing AIs to let you erase the hard drives they’re stored on — but they’re both extremely evocative stories and speak to the strengths of interactive fiction.
Both games are short (they each took me around 30 minutes to play-through), but they pack a lot of punch. Arc Symphony‘s snapshot of a fictional Internet community nails the dynamics of such tightly-knit groups and goes the extra mile to sell its premise with fake fansites and everything. Localhost deals with the ethics of essentially killing artificial lifeforms in a way that doesn’t feel cliche or tired, all the while giving each of the AIs their own fascinating stories to pursue. The team at Aether Interactive is a talented bunch. Excited to see what their future projects will bring.
One of the brighter trends to come out of 2017 was the surprising number of games with clear leftist views. Night in the Woods and it’s critique of capitalism, Subsurface Circular and it’s advocacy of a socialized economy, and Tacoma and it’s views on labor, to name a few. Given how conservative videogames often are, both as an industry and a medium, it’s refreshing to see games start to be more nakedly political, to be willing to make statements about the world around us — particularly given the tumultuous times in which we live.
In Tacoma‘s case, it’s vision of a future where corporations have more or less taken over feels especially prescient given how much power they wield, how willing the US government is to grant them more power and wealth. With labor laws and protections ever in danger, the future Tacoma proposes — where one’s “loyalty” to their employer dictates their future — doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
But that’s only a small part of what makes Tacoma noteworthy. It’s the characters and their stories and the way they’re told that ties it all together. Fullbright has a knack for creating characters and scenarios that feel explicitly human. Gone Home relished in the mundane and was able to craft a story that felt real and believable. Tacoma, despite the sci-fi setting and the extraordinary circumstances that act as the main conflict, still feels mundane and real. Wandering the Tacoma watching the crew’s lives be played back makes the act of learning what happened more engaging than simply listening to audio logs or reading notes. If anything, it emphasizes the sense of isolation the crew has from their lives back home.
You don’t learn a whole lot about the crew from watching the hologram recordings. Their lives are dominated by work, such that they don’t get much time to think about things back home. That’s partially a fact of life when you’re job is in space while your friends and family are back on Earth, but it also speaks to the ways we’re forced to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our jobs to scrape by. It’s a game with a lot to say, a game that feels very relevant to our times.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is hardly a groundbreaking game, but it is a refreshing one. It’s take on open world design isn’t too different from its peers on a grand scale — there’s still viewpoints that uncover parts of the map and side-quests aplenty — but it uses these elements intelligently. Hyrule isn’t just a series of predetermined points of interest to check, but a land rife for exploration and discovery. Every time I set off to some part of the map I hadn’t check out, it always proved to be worth my time. Sometimes I found treasure or shrines, other times I found quests or fellow travelers; but mostly, it was just striking scenery.
Few games cherish those small rewards. It always has to be something big or special. They always have to provide some sort of tangible reward. But in Breath of the Wild, the reward is often just seeing what’s there. Climbing mountains and delving into valleys never got old because I never got tired of just seeing everything the world had to offer. Outside of wander games, there are few games that really embody the joy of exploration. Breath of the Wild gets it in ways that open world games have been poised to do for years.
4. Nier: Automata
Warning: Spoilers ahead
The moment that still continues to stick out most from Nier: Automata is the final ending. I’d been very slowly making my through Nier over the course of a couple months, enjoying my time with it and being endlessly fascinated with the ideas it tackled, the ways it went about doing so, and what it was ultimately saying. It’s less a story of “what if robots were human?”, so much as “what even are humans, anyway?”.
But the thing I keep thinking back to are the names of the players who aided me during ending E. The people who left messages of encouragement, the people who fought beside me, the people who perished to ensure I was able to survive.
For context, Automata‘s final ending has you fight against the game’s credits in what amounts to an unwinnable battle. While it starts off easy enough, eventually the sheer number of bullets being thrown at you ensures you can’t possibly win. The game asks if you want to give up every time you die, messaging encouraging you to keep going scrolling by in the background. Say no enough times and eventually you’ll receive help from other players. Suddenly what seemed impossible becomes trivial as the remainder of the credits fall with ease, the players who come to your aid sacrificing themselves in your stead to ensure you survive.
It’s a powerful moment. After all the sadness and despair that Nier: Automata espouses, finally, right at the end, it offers a bit of hope. And in return, all it asks is that you sacrifice your save data to give someone else that same experience.
3. Hollow Knight
Most of the talk I see around Hollow Knight focuses on its soulslike elements — its world and the way it slowly and lightly doles out lore; it’s bloodstain analog; its difficulty. (As an aside, Bruno Dias wrote a marvelous piece about its soulslike nature for Waypoint that is definitely worth reading.) But for me, what made Hollow Knight special was in how it used space. As I wrote earlier this year, too often games in the “metroidvania” (there has to be a better term for this, right?) mold create vast, intricate worlds only to railroad your path through them. And while Hollow Knight certainly does that to some extent as well, it also gives you the freedom to explore most of its world whenever you want.
Wandering through its crumbling, decrepit world was equal parts harrowing and awe-inspiring. That’s in large part due to the lovely artistry on display and effective atmosphere it’s music creates, but it’s the lack of direction that really drives it. Every time I stumbled into a new area, I was lost. Until I could buy a map for the area, I was basically moving in complete darkness, never able to truly discern where I was in relation to where I began. It wasn’t until I had a map and could find a bench to sit down and fill it in that I had a proper sense of where I was and where I was going. Until that moment, every second moving deeper into the unknown was terrifying.
It’s rare that I feel well and truly lost in games. They always have a bunch of safeguards in place to ensure you always have some form of guidance: maps, waypoints, breadcrumb trails — it’s always something. Hollow Knight has some of these as well, of course, but you have to work for them. It forces you to learn the space and how to navigate it, to plunge into the unknown and face it head on. Where Breath of the Wild embodied the joy of exploration, Hollow Knight embodies the joy of discovery.
2. Night in the Woods
One of things that’s stuck with me about Night in the Woods ever since I first played it at E3 in 2016 was how accurately it captured the strange feeling of coming back to your hometown. I’ve lived in the same city for most of my life, with only a handful of years spent elsewhere. But every time we moved away to a different city, even if it wasn’t that far, when we eventually made our way back, it felt weird: weird for how much had changed in such a short time, and how much things had remained the same. It’s a very specific feeling, one I don’t recall ever seeing captured in media before.
The other thing that’s stuck with me was the characters. Mae and her group of friends, as well as the general townsfolk, are delightful. Hanging out with Gregg or Bea are obvious highlights, their stories highly personal and relatable, but just wandering around town checking in on everyone — from hearing Selmers’ latest poetry or hanging out with Mae’s former teacher to stargaze, to chatting with Mae’s parents at the start and end of each day — was just as great. Night in the Woods puts a lot of care and attention into every one of its characters, never treating them as lesser or unimportant just because they aren’t part of the central cast.
The thing that really sticks out in my mind most, however (look — there’s a lot of great things about Night in the Woods, okay?), is a moment toward the end of the game. (Spoilers ahead.) At the end of Bea’s arc, she and Mae head out to a nearby city to attend a college party. The outing goes as well as you’d expect: things start off well, but quickly fall apart once Mae starts making an ass of herself (as usual). Bea runs off. When Mae finds her, Bea explains why she comes to these parties: to escape from her life back home, to pretend to be someone else for a while, to get a taste of a life she can’t have.
It’s a feeling I know all too well. Traveling down to LA every year for E3 is the one chance I get to escape the doldrums of life at home. Down there, I’m not an unemployed, fledgling freelance writer. Down there, I’m just another journalist doing their job. It’s one of the few moments of the year I feel content, the only time I feel like I’m actually able to do what I want to do.
I feel like I can see bits of myself in each of the main characters, but that particular scene with Bea really struck a chord with me. I rarely ever feel like I truly see bits of myself in games. To see it happen is… intense.
2017 more than any other year was one where I desperately needed hopeful stories. With the current turmoil the world’s in, where every passing day brings worse news than the last, it’s hard to feel like we have any hope of turning things around. Even with the constant rising tide of activism around the country — one of the few bright spots from this past year — considering what we’re up against, it often feels like we’re all fighting for naught.
Pyre became an unexpected source of hope and inspiration. Throughout the Summer, and a couple times in the months beyond, I kept returning to the game when I needed something uplifting, a dose of hope during a year of constant, unrelenting despair.
Supergiant Games’ works have always had a hopeful slant to them. Each of their games follows characters who find themselves in dire situations — the Calamity in Bastion that literally tears the world apart; the Process overrunning the city of Cloudbank in Transistor, slowly erasing the city and its citizens — that somehow find hope amid disaster. They’re always stories about people and how they react, adapt to their new reality, and how they plan to move forward.
Pyre is no different. It follows a group of exiles in their quest to reform society. Even having been shunned from society, they hold onto hope that they may yet return and make things better. Even in the face of failure, they keep pushing on, knowing their time will come, never losing hope that they will yet prevail.
It’s an outlook that we need more of. It’s so easy to lose hope and feel helpless given the state of the world around us. I’ve struggled constantly to maintain any sense of hope. Even with all the signs that the tide is turning, that things may yet change for the better, it’s tough to stay positive.
Pyre, however, even in its darkest moments, never loses that hopeful outlook. It always maintains that everything will work out, that the plan will succeed, with or without them. The characters have every reason to question whether the work they do is worth it, whether they’ll actually succeed. But they don’t. Everyone has unwavering faith in each other. No matter what hardships they face, they meet every challenge head on, confident they’ll prevail.
In these times, with the challenges that lie ahead, that’s precisely the kind of energy we need. Though Pyre is hardly the only game to have come out last year positing hope, it’s the one that resonated most with me.
Honorable Mentions: Yakuza 0, Super Mario Odyssey, Dominique Pamplemousse and Dominique Pamplemousse in: “Combinatorial Explosion!”, Subsurface Circular, A Road to Awe, Secret Spaces, Dead Cells, SteamWorld Dig 2, Post/Capitalism, and Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus.