I played a lot of goddamn games this year. Partially because I’ve been ushered to for work, but also because this was a great year for the medium in entries big and small. 2017 is gonna be like 2014, and 2011, and 2007; standout years that make it easy to say that playing video games can be rad as fuck.
This list cannot and will not capture the breadth of everything I played that I would consider significant. Such is the plight of stopping your list at ten entries. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some great experiences I had that weren’t list worthy. Smaller titles like Flinthook, Domina, and Missile Cards were stable go to’s in their launch windows. I still peek into Absolver every so often, just to see what’s new. Asura and Fortnite Battle Royale still get spins from me deep into December/January.
And then there’s the games I wanted to play but just couldn’t get to them this year. Assassin’s Creed Origins looks like Ubisoft took a much needed deep breath to reassess the series and rededicate it to making that Assassin’s Creed 2 magic again. Wolfenstein II was the talk of the town in October/November and I was much more interested in it than when its predecessor launched a couple of years ago. Alas, this will slip into next year, most likely as the game I play to break up the Monster Hunter hyper grinding. The farther and farther away I get from The Evil Within 2’s launch window, the more and more thoughtful reflection and critique surfaces about it. This is the stuff that might actually put it on my radar and force me to sit and play those two games in 2018.
That said, let’s talk about the best of what I’ve actually played, eh? A quick note, though. You’ll notice under each game blub is a selection of “Required Reading” links. These are pieces written about the game that I think offer an interesting perspective on it, or about its place in the greater games conversation. I may not personally agree with all of the opinions expressed, but I fully support creating the narratives to begin with.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I spent only a handful of hours with what seems to be the belle of the ball this year – enough time to make it off the plateau and plunder some temples, climb some mountains, and die in various ways to the elements. If there’s anything to bemoan, it’s that I didn’t spend requisite time to find the magic that my peers have been enchanted by.
The desperately few characters I encountered were pretty flat and basic. The world itself felt vast and full of things to find, but separated by big stretches of nothing. The combat was simple, but lacked the bite and responsiveness of contemporary action RPGs, and the variety that even past entries of the series enjoyed.
But I think everyone who has spent anytime with the game can agree that it is a product greater as a whole than the sum of its parts. It’s climbing isn’t Assassin’s Creed worthy, but everything can be climbed, and there’s always something worth seeing at the top. The open world lacks the picturesque wonder of The Witcher, but it is teeming with life, danger, and intrigue around every corner.
It does the opposite of wrap a narrative around an expansive travel adventure, instead it gives you a living world of a canvas, an extensive palette of tools and equipment, and assumes you’re just here to paint. It’s the promise of the very first, gold cartridge Legend of Zelda reimagined, and there’s something special about that, in and of itself.
Required Reading: ‘Breath of the Wild’ is the Zelda Adventure I’ve Always Wanted by Austin Walker, How Breath of the Wild Failed Us When It Comes To Trans Identity by Jennifer Unkle
Horizon: Zero Dawn
The trouble with Horizon isn’t in its gameplay, which is rote traversal systems spiced up with some of the most interesting asymmetrical, man-vs-beast hunting mechanics you’ll find outside of — and maybe even including — titles like Monster Hunter.
It isn’t in its world design, which is a collage of the go-to entries in every open world biome playbook, spiced up with a paleo-futuristic mantle underneath it all. Nor is it in it’s characters, who span the color and culture gamut, and have a range of needs and intentions that occasionally break the mold of archetype and leak into the spaces that make them compelling.
Zero Dawn’s aggressive safeness in the face of all its promise is what is most troubling. It’s a world full of robotic dinosaurs, a conceit that almost promises a genre-shaking experience simply on concept alone. It presents a wholly distinct take on human civilization post-apocalypse that is unlike an of its contemporaries. But in the attempt to fill Sony’s portfolio with the “open world” adventure that’s oft eluded the first party game slinger, Horizon relies on too many cues from its contemporaries.
Even with Aloy, the prickly and gritty protagonist with an even stronger mascot identity, breaking up the sausage fest of iconic cover people on any given game store shelf, Horizon’s best ideas are curtailed by the expectations divined on the genre by Assassins Creed and Skyrim. For the inevitable Horizon 2 to live up to its potential, it needs to flee the safety of this open world comfort zone.
Required Reading: Do we really need to like Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Aloy? By Steven Strom, Horizon Zero Dawn and the Morality of Playing God by Blake Hester
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade is many things at once. It is a plodding, third person action game that feels somewhat like a premonition of style for the new God of War. It’s a psychological thriller that uses mental illness in both clever and somewhat exploitive ways. It’s a puzzle game when the biggest puzzle to solve is why are these puzzles even here in the first place.
But in its willingness to punch above its budget and take risks really pays off. Ninja Theory used it’s core competencies – great motion capture tech, high level acting, etc. – and took a big sidestep into a different and, frankly, brave interpretation of the genre they know so well.
It doesn’t do everything it wants to do well, and I don’t think that every discussion surrounding Hellblade is honest about it. But the game’s best beats are highly imaginative and emotionally powerful nonetheless.
Required Reading: Hellblade’s Fenrir Encounter Belongs In The Pantheon Of Great Boss Fights by Ethan Gach, Two steps forward, three steps back: how Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness by Steven Scaife
Doki Doki Literature Club
There are two types of people in this world, people who have been changed in some way by their experience playing through Doki Doki Literature Club, and those who haven’t played it. We newly enlightened folk speak cryptically to each other about The Moment in that game where it turns from cute moe girl-seducing sim, to gaping maw of the soundless Void. But we should be mindful not to reduce this game down to just a singular shock, because it is much more than that.
I do not like visual novels, and I do not like anime. It took great strength of will for me to even sit down and start Doki Doki. It was the cacophonous voice of the post-Doki people in the industry and community that kept my curiosity light on. They all sang the same refrain: Doki Doki isn’t what you think it is, and you’ll know it when you see it. For the first hour and a half, it’s exactly what I thought it was. And then it suddenly wasn’t, and I knew it when I saw it.
In my patient twiddling through dialogue blocks and awkward flirty conversations with people way too willing to be wooed by you, you can really find yourself getting charmed by how interesting some of these characters can be. Anyone who’s ever been in high school knows people like Sayori or Monika. Hell, I dated a Yuri and a Natsuki in high school (which says nothing good about me, I’m sure).
So when this game begins to get unnerving – prefaced by a very Star Wars-ian “I have a bad feeling about this” sort of conversation you have with one of the girls – you do get genuinely worried that your going to see something happen to one of these characters that you don’t want to see. You’ll even be able to basically call exactly what happens to whom before it does. Then it comes true, and you still aren’t prepared.
Many people sort of stop talking about the game here, but honestly, this is where the true horror starts. Not in a gorey, jump scare way. But in a tense and reflective “this is why commodizing love and affection is incredibly weird” sort of way. Please just play this fucking game. It’s free, takes about four hours, and will make me feel less like someone who just read from the Necronomicon.
Required Reading: Doki Doki Literature Club‘s Horror Was Born From A Love-Hate Relationship With Anime by Gita Jackson
Injustice 2/Tekken 7
It seems almost like a slight to make these two games share a spot on the list almost solely because they are both fighting games. But to put one before the other would be to misinterpret my experience with both.
Injustice: Gods Among Us blew the doors off of the fighting game community, mostly attributable to taking everyone by surprize. From the satisfying tactical depth and a great story by the genre-leading story tellers at NetherRealm, the bar had been set high. Injustice 2 had no issue leaping over that bar. The story was not as well done, but the art and the acting was top notch. The new characters and new interpretations of the old ones was a satisfying experience.
The only reason I would stop hitting the Multiverse mode of Injustice 2 hard would be the inescapable gravity of a new Tekken release. Tekken 7 has been tapping on the walls of the FGC for the better part of a year before it was actually released, but the hype was cacophonous when it would finally drop. Taking lessons from contemporaries like Injustice, Namco Bandai ramped the storytelling up in its main mode, finally putting a stake in the heart of the Mishima saga (kinda). But the fighting has never felt better, and even as the characters get more and more zany, and the systems start to resemble more 2D faire, there is nothing like a good Tekken game, and it’s been awhile since we could call one that with complete confidence.
Resident Evil 7
Capcom is not a developer/publisher known for doing anything that isn’t easily categorized as safe. They would rather iterate on things that are solid bets than attempt to push their own barriers to do something off center. Even with that said, Resident Evil has always been the exception to this rule. Of Capcom’s many flagship, historically reverent franchises (Street Fighter, Mega Man, etc.), RE has always been the one to change the most more often than the others. RE always seemed like an experiment from iteration to iteration.
So it’s weird and somewhat inaccurate to say that Resident Evil 7 is a very un-Capcom like risk for the company to take with such a long running series. The first person point of view is really the only new concept present in it. What really does this game the most favors is that it finally feels like a Resident Evil game full of all the things we actually like about Resident Evil games.
RE7 brings the gameplay back to small scale, isolated, and focused play spaces we came to enjoy about the earliest entries – going as far as putting it in a creepy, puzzle filled mansion even. The scarcity of items, the seemingly omnipresent main villains, and the labyrinthine property from which you desperately try to escape all drench you with that heavy sense of tension and unrest that most horror games have since traded for jump scares or white knuckle action.
Oddly enough, we probably have Hideo Kojima to thank for this shift of mood, perspective, and setting. If his ill-fated Silent Hills concept, P.T., didn’t make such a splash in 2014, Capcom may have never gotten the gall to really self-assess the pinnacle horror franchise.
Required Reading: 2017 was a banner year for horror games by Brock Wilbur, Capcom Explains the Long, Confusing Journey of Making ‘Resident Evil 7’ by Patrick Klepek
It would be so easy to let the conversation about Nioh stop at the most obvious place — it’s Dark Souls with samurai. It’s impossible to separate the two when discussing them, but calling Nioh anything short of a masterful repurposing of the FromSoftware formula is both reductive and wrong.
Nioh takes just as much influence from the most important action RPG series this decade as is does from one of the most important hack and slashes in history, Team Ninja’s own Ninja Gaiden. It’s a lumbering maze runner with elements of roguelike deathucation and risk management, but also a snappy action game where you and the enemies move a double the speed with deliberate lethality.
The Ki system, which rewards you showing some strike discipline by refunding spent stamina and boosting your offense and defense, is the unsung hero of Nioh, and is what keeps it interesting for tens of hours. It’s setting is almost perfect for this game, pulling at the heartstrings of Onimusha lovers who still wait patiently for a new entry. The story of a weeaboo’s first samurai adventure is the weakest thing here, but even though its plot is far more coherent and conspicuous than Dark Souls, it doesn’t make itself a nuisance.
Required Reading: How ‘Nioh’ Tells Stories Through the Deaths of Other Players by Patrick Klepek, A Guide To The Real-Life Figures In Nioh by Heather Alexandra
“Who lights the way for the aimless?” ask Tariq and Celeste, who preside over the Liberation Rites — the Super Bowl of this ritual/sport — in rousing song. In a game about chasing the legacy of kings and paying fealty to the gods, the story seems to suggest that it’s the exiles themselves who, ultimately, must find the will to their own light in darkness.
I think it’s telling that this will always be the bedrock message I take from my time with Pyre. Maybe this globe-trotting adventure starring punished misfits who exist in a living prison world came to me when I needed it most. It’s not too much a stretch to say that I find a kinship and correlation in some of its character’s struggles – the stoic human-turned-demon Jodariel especially. I’d be lying if 2017 did have me looking for inspirations to help drag me through my own personal Downside.
But there is another powerful factor to consider about my love of Pyre: it’s really fucking cool. Supergiant Games are well-known for their world-building, and their expertise at making every corner of a setting feel unique and lived in is on full display here. Like their previous entry, Transistor, Supergiant takes a well worn genre and makes it feel brand new. It’s visual design has much to do with that, supported by Darren Korb’s incredible didactic soundtrack. But the incredibly strong writing is maybe the game’s strongest pillar.
This is all before even speaking to the clever strategic sport of actually playing The Rites. Each Triumverate sports signature colors and has their own superstar players. Teams twist and turn around one another frantically to put the other’s fire out. The comparisons to basketball are sound when keeping these in mind, but it’s adaptation of tropes across all sports makes it feel bigger than any one game. It’s a game about how we will play games even in the most dire of life situations.
Required reading: Pyre Is a Game About a Game—But It’s Really About Why We Play by Julie Muncy, Passing Through Pages by Reid Mccarter
It gets harder to talk about Nier: Automata the more you talk about Nier: Automata. After awhile, you start to wonder how crazy you sound to people when explaining it. That turns into a sort of resentment for the people around you who just have a difficult time understanding it’s vision. The debates about where this game should be catalogued in the various Game of the Year discussions across the internet grow more and more existential and chaotic. It makes you wonder, was this Yoko Taro’s goal the whole time?
Doubtful, but the amount of inner reflection Nier inspires in you makes everything else you’ll do soon after you read the credits of the final canon ending seem far more curious. You’ll have questions about things you never thought to ask. You might even look at your Roomba differently. Also: do people still have Roombas?
There’s nothing wholly new about Nier’s overarcing sci fi tropes, which center around what humanity looks like in the far future, when the only thing left of us are robots we made in our image. Does humanity still exist if the only civilised bits of people aren’t even flesh and blood?
Nier’s lackluster open world and repetitive, oft-unrewarding combat is counterbalanced by how often the game changes the world and the battle around you. You maybe start an encounter on the ground swinging swords like a DMC clone, have the perspective shift into a 2D platformer mid swing, and end the whole thing in a jetpack shooting drones down in a Daikatana bullet hell. All the while the clever writing and potent cinematography tease every bit of value out of each shot. Nier is one of those games that not everyone will play, but everyone will talk about for years to come.
Required Reading: An Empty Artifice by Devin Raposo
Cuphead is the only game this year that did everything it sought out to do perfectly.
The hand drawn art for the characters, backgrounds, and menus all look incredible in stills, but the magic is really when you see bosses and bad guys in motion. There’s a certain meticulity that shines through, like when you eat a homemade pie versus a store bought one. The end product is essentially the same, but the imperfections tell a culinary subplot that gives the whole product a boost. Knowing that every single frame of this game was measured and manifested by hand has that same effect.
The music feels the same way. There is so much unique, well-tailored music for every screen of this game that it’s sort of mind boggling when you open up the soundtrack and just peruse. Everything and every place has its own song, that takes inspirations from real world artists of the era. And everything in the game shucks and jives to these beats as if they know that fact.
All this before the gameplay, which is ultimately a series of Mega Man levels if you cut off everything before the boss fights. While you’ll be able to participate in limited platforming du jour, the game’s focus — killing bosses and collecting their contracts for The Devil — is the core component.
And dammit is it a difficult task! Every boss fight is filled to the edges with personality and unique assortments of challenges that makes every attempt a learning experience. Rare does any of these fights take more that five minutes to beat, but every second is one that requires you to do something, or wait for something to do. And with limited life and infinite dangers, you’ll be restarting and retrying ALOT.
And that’s the charm of it all. Learning through failure, reapplying the lessons into your next attempt and making a little bit of ground each time, until you finally vanquish something, just to trot through the Mario 3-inspired maps to find another ugly bloke to do it all over again with. It’s video game purism, and Cuphead proves that there’s still space in the modern landscape for that.
Required Reading: “We quit our jobs, remortgaged our houses” – how relentless passion made Cuphead a reality by Alex Gilyadov, Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleischer Animation by Yussef Cole