I frequent three key pieces of media that people normally put in “Top X” Lists at year’s end / beginning. Those media are video games, music, and movies. These are three that I pay attention to, break down, and analyze obsessively with every opportunity I get. This does mean that I don’t get to actually reach a specific number for any of these media. There were maybe three or four movies this year I watched that I think were favorites and worth bringing up again for a brief breakdown of my perspective on it. But this does mean I get to talk about these things briefly, in no particular order, without having to get too ingrained in them. And for a guy who has gone by “The Typer” before, I think this might be a particularly advantageous scenario to sit down and talk about some of my favorite pieces of entertainment this year and why without getting too long winded. We did movies before, and games is normally my best forte. So, without further adieu: Video games!
Night in the Woods
I can’t write about Night in the Woods much. I’ve tried on three separate occasions to sit down and explore out this game and how profoundly interesting it is and how simultaneously introspective it caused me to be in dozens of facets. It’s not even the best game made this year or in other years, but so rarely have I picked up a game that reached to the core of my own personal ongoing experiences and explored questions and thoughts running around my mind simultaneous to playing the game. I might be able to stream about it or do a Let’s Play of it, but I feel like it’d be a bit self-defeating and, to be honest, a little boring as it mostly deals with me in conversation.
However Night in the Woods deserves recognition and your time for so many genuine reasons. It may be a little plain in gameplay and choice, it has been compared to a visual novel on more than one occasion. But the mini-games within it (especially the rock band sessions) and the earnestness with which the characters and their reality is written is something a bit rarer in video games. So often character stories are about finding oneself (coming of age) or about the big mystery of the world but so very rarely is it about someone in their early 20s struggling to accept life itself. Mae Borowski’s struggles and coming to terms with the terrifying inevitability and tragedy eating away within her is something few games have explored and nailed on the head so well. Night in the Woods starts off almost alienating the players to Mae before smartly making adjustments after a specific major faux pas and giving players the opportunity to perhaps appreciate her situation. The end story and the answer to the game’s mystery is a hard sell, but it’s the various characters and their ties to Mae that wins the hearts of most players over. Just a handful of scenes for each character in the game are expertly used to sell players an understanding of the world these characters live in and why they live the life they do. And while I never got to discuss it, the creators of this game seem to have splendidly tied each of the regular characters to a trait of Mae’s for exploration.
The game is easily worth hitting up twice to see the two specific paths you can take in the story with either Bea or Gregg and the game now has a Director’s Cut called “Weird Autumn” edition that has pulled me back in for a third playthrough. The updates are nice and makes the game feel more in line with what the developers may have wanted in place originally. I can’t recommend Night in the Woods enough.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
It has been years since I’ve picked up an open world game. Years. I’ve had a complicated and broken relationship with these games. Far Cry 3 was excellent but 80% of the way through the game I realized how I had wasted so much time doing extra crap for a very unfulfilling reason. Batman: Arkham City would’ve been the game to keep me playing open world games except I lost my save data with most of the world explored when Games for Windows Live shut down. And since then I’ve been broken. Sandboxes after that point were so much more about the filler that had little character to it and less about the character of the stories in it. 2016’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst was one of a recent smarter sandbox that had early signs of what the genre needed: Less filler, and if it is filler, it should be fun and not a skinner box. It still had shortcomings in that “character” realm I was talking about as well as replayability but fast forward to 2017 and you get Horizon: Zero Dawn. Ho boy did it take the cake with open world games. I realize Breath of the Wild wins in the world of discussing “pure sandboxes”, but Zero Dawn more directly addressed every gripe in the book I had about this type of specific game that we see from Ubisoft and Warner Brothers these days. And it did so in just a few landmark steps.
For starters Horizon: Zero Dawn has a really fascinating world and story to tell. And unlike so many other sandboxes that offer so much but fail to deliver, Horizon: Zero Dawn took inspiration from the world of RPGs and crafted interesting stories to tell around just about every corner. Every village, every cultural tribe has something to show you that’s more than just a “fetch this, do that” scenario. Guerilla Games made sure there was motivation and different payoffs for each quest that’s not just a monetary reward and another achievement marker checked off. A skinner box, this one isn’t. And the main story was expertly designed in what Yahtzee so perfectly clarified as “ludo-narrative synchronicity”. Your perception and interest in the story and its world increase as you leave an area you could spend an entire game playing to journey into a continent you could spend months getting to explore.
Then H:ZD learned from other sandbox games by ensuring that the filler was 1. Not overly redundant and 2. Interesting to do. and 3. Not something that spams your face. There’s an emphasis on smaller text and smaller icons for the filler things in this game to keep you interested in the bigger picture quests and tasks. But if you do want to enjoy the collectible quest of this particular open world, there isn’t too much to do for any one particular collect-a-thon in this game. Maybe 30 items for each collectible with a few different collectibles to choose from. The greatest example is the towers. In other games you climb a tower and activate something at the top to see more of the in-game map. And there’s normally 10 or 20 towers. H:ZD has maybe…6 towers? And each one is a unique and different obstacle to climb in a much more memorable fashion. The towers are this splendid and excellent example of how so many sandbox games fail to make the standard affair interesting, where Horizon: Zero Dawn breathes new life into those affairs and also manages to be a new IP. Batman “Detective Vision”? Screw that, H:ZD uses an AR tool that doesn’t change the color palette and actually involves a bit more area searching. Don’t like stuff cluttering your map? Filter out all the stuff you never care to do in this game.
I could go on about H:ZD’s accomplishments as a landmark example of the common “AAA sandbox action game” in which just about every decision in its development process went right. But there’s also the other semi-sandbox game to talk about this year later.
Nothing more needs to be said about this one besides that it’s about freaking time. And Sega should outsource to well-suited developers for Sonic games more in the future. Sonic Mania is really really good.
Gone Home wasn’t revolutionary so much as it set some sort of a predictive precedent for the type of games that the world was missing that we all secretly wanted. It wasn’t too far fetched from what The Walking Dead offered but instead flipped the interactivity of a narrative happening to you on its head to let you piece together a narrative explored in a singular, but complex, space. Sure, Gone Home didn’t have you choosing dialog, but last year’s Firewatch did, which many will argue is a stone’s throw from Gone Home. Tacoma is perhaps an even greater realization of how Fullbright’s method of painting a world and letting players explore it with one primary building can offer so much depth and nuance and tell a story. And the story is something fascinatingly realistic of what a sci-fi version of our future may look like. The playback mechanic is the biggest takeaway from this game, but I fell in love with nearly everything about Tacoma except for the fact that it felt like it could be something bigger and less linear. It’s not bad for what it is and I’d recommend it, but I’d also love to see Fullbright be given the chance to make an 8–10 hour game out of their approaches to narrative interactivity. Few are greasing the wheels this well.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Shooters feel different after 2016’s reboot of DOOM. But Wolfenstein II feels better as a story and a game even when there’s a hurdle of “this isn’t last year’s DOOM” to overcome in your brain. The New Colossus gets a lot of things right in a time where you’d be expecting the game about killing Nazis to be taken off the release slate. But instead Bethesda and MachineGames swung into the current trend of horrible things happening in our world because…well it’s about killing Nazis as a primary entertainment mechanic. It’s also a game about a lot of other things like the possible roots of America’s religious culture and how this country is and maybe always has been a razor’s edge away from accepting Nazi-ism as a predominant “norm” as if it’s something many in the country have always deep down wanted but simply stopped pushing for because those ideologies were heavily squashed in our world about 80 years ago in a time where good stood up and said “No”. That’s a scary thing to explore to be honest and could risk forcing players to look inwards and not like what they see. It’s also about toxic and abusive parenthood and the lasting impact it has on individuals. It’s about the strength of specifically mothers and female leader figures (which are sometimes both in this game). And one part of the game in particular feels like it’s some sort of a hilarious joke and question to the player of how far you’re willing to take a crazy gratuitously violent alternate future shooter game, drawing strong parallels to the overly serious and terribly handled “shocking” moments in many (but not all) of the Call of Duty games. I don’t know that we could’ve asked that The New Colossus be a game about anything else because everything it’s about is explored so dang well in a specific genre and time when we probably need it most.
I reviewed STRAFE twice and I actually wound up beating it with the re-released version of the game (finally). The ending is a really fascinating and a neat payoff. You can see both of my reviews here and here, and simply put: STRAFE is a fun shooter built by passionate people who have worked hard to build something. That “something” was maybe a little bit of a gray area for me at first and for others as well, this lead to people not necessarily enjoying the game the way the developers originally intended (their words, not mine). Any developers that give their creation such a hard look over after release and consider “where did we go wrong?” deserves my second chance if I gave up on it. Even after the game released and the main Kickstarter campaign was fulfilled, Pixel Titans kept hard at work on STRAFE to try and make it a game people can enjoy the way they wanted people to enjoy it. And I did. It’s really good, and worth your time.
A few honorable mentions before I explore the “best” for me this year. I either didn’t have the time to play enough of these this year or think they’re not quite the best this year offered.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
I’ve got a long winded talk in the works as to why this isn’t quite one of best games of 2017 or moreso: Why this game doesn’t need to exist. But I did really enjoy Before the Storm. There’s several parts that work in this game and the episode 1 “smash” sequence on the hood of Chloe’s dad’s car was something cathartic and character-defining for me when it comes to visualizing Chloe as the tragic figure that she is. I’d even argue that this game defines Chloe in that one scene better than Life is Strange 1 ever got to do. The friendship between Rachel and Chloe is well shaped if the right choices are made and it’s a decent story to tell. How it tells that story though is mired in execution on a few fronts and thus nothing of a shocker or incredible page turner. It’s definitely a welcome return for fans who either A) can never get enough of something to its own detriment or B) are able to segment “Life is Strange” off in their mind well without worrying about prequel-problems.
I keep telling myself to get back to Pyre. This interesting basketball-style story RPG….thing has a compelling world and characters, given the same awesome storytelling care and attention to detail that Supergiant’s previous two titles have had. I didn’t get too far into the core game, and I hear the core game (the basketball thingy) gets even more interesting but to be honest it might be the biggest drawback for me. I won’t really know for sure till I give it a much more honest go though. We’ll see.
I didn’t get this one till just a few days ago and it’s not necessarily a giant game but Superflight is maybe the best valued easy time filler game out there. For the “price of a coffee” you get a game that hits the particular nerves in our brains that like to explore and like to control a flying object. For me, Superflight touches a memory when I was a child playing Star Wars Rebel Assault games or the X-Wing series and the memories of the original trilogy would leak out into my real life. I wondered what it’d be like if my toy spaceship figurines had to fly through and around the landscape of my house and my backyard on such huge scales. Superflight reaches that very particular notion for me, and now it’s a wonderful way to clean your mind for 10 or 30 minutes and just say, “Can I get in there? Oh what’s down that way?” And then you crash realizing you’re going to need to fly through the whole zone a new way and hit the button to start your run over again because you crashed.
I don’t even know if I like Nioh yet. It feels more on the line of comically embracing the difficulty Dark Souls 2 bragged about and focused on almost to its own detriment. There are several times when Nioh is just unbearably difficult and cruel…in the first two sections of the game. But in the three hours I’ve spent hitting my head against Nioh, I’ve felt it. The playful, simple, well designed feedback loops and enjoyable mechanics that are present in the Souls games. Failing and learning are all part of the experience. As a certain Jedi Master put it in a recent movie, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” And as I’ve leveled up and unlocked different moves and learned some of the intricacies of the various stances in the game and how to use those stances against different enemies, I’ve felt it. Something complex and altogether exciting lies within Nioh that I’m worried most people, even the craziest of Souls fans, are going to miss out on because of the monstrous learning cliff ahead of them. I fully intend to climb that cliff though. It feels exciting.
And now for the big one, the game that’s been topping most other lists and to be honest, I’m a little surprised it’s “topping” mine.
The internet at large has mostly come to accept Nier: Automata as one of 2017’s finest games. And for tons of different reasons that are almost all valid for me. For me, Nier: Automata was a really cool semi-sandbox game with extremely likable mechanics (this is what Platinum does best) and a…kind of…interesting world. Then I started the notorious “B” playthrough and got bored with the second character’s primary mechanical gameplay loop. I had enjoyed my 20 or so hours with it and said that I might pick up the other endings and playthroughs at a later time and stopped playing. A few months later, during a lull, I picked it up again and knew that I could burn through most of the “B” story pretty quickly since I had done most of the side quests I cared about already during my “A” run. Then in a post-credits sequence I received a “trailer” for “next time on Nier: Automata” and said, “Wait…wut.” I figured the “C” run would be me playing the other mechanically satisfying character 2A through the main story and see all the secrets and truths hidden from me throughout the “A + B” story. But the “B” story only made some vague hints about 9S as an interesting character and what happened to him during the “A” run and the deeper darker secrets of this universe. Instead, the “C” run starts off continuing the established story that I had run through twice and revealed to me that really, we were half way through the game! 30–45 minutes of introduction later and the status quo of the story had majorly shifted and I was getting a title card for “Nier: Automata” once again. That was the first thing that made me say, “Game of the year material” for me. The “B” run has such a standing issue for many, including myself, but if you keep at it the places the story goes in its second half are mind boggling. But it turns out this was really just good showmanship and not even the game’s best moment.
The “end” of Pascal’s storyline was perhaps one of the most profound and odd storytelling / knowledge digging lessons I’ve been put through in a video game. The story had been far enough developed by this point to make me, as a player, feel the tragedy and horror that was striking Pascal and those around him. Moments later I was ready to jump up and down with the invisible friend next to me watching the “showdown” unfold that was “Pascal v. Engels”, given all the bravado and hype that a developer like Platinum could give it with a cross-counter camera shot and Pacific Rim-level “THIS. IS. AMAZING.” awe. Yet it is a sequence that has weight and suggestive depth behind it when one stops to think about what is happening.
But “Pascal’s End” was still not good enough. All the hard work and dedication put into the characters, the world, and the places Platinum and Yoko Taro took those characters pale in comparison to where the game takes you. Nier: Automata reaches “the best” in a list of no-numbered “bests” for 2017 because Nier: Automata is one of the few games in memory that can only do what it wants to do through the medium of video games. And it does so with that magical “E” ending. It’s the engaging opposite of the “B” run yet uses the same mechanic that makes the “B” run so bland and same-y, the difference being in the pure challenge presented to you as a player and the meaning behind it. What happens when the challenge is overcome and everything that the brief but emotional 30-minute “E” run implies is without a doubt deserving of something akin to a “Stanley Parable” or “Spec Ops: The Line” award and is truly something only video games can do.