I keep meaning to write these posts, this commentary on the games that most affected me, most touched me, were most present and prevalent in my life through the year.
I keep forgetting to do so. I wrote a program to scrape Steam and keep track of what I’ve played, but I never deployed it. I tried to wield the Playstation Network API to scrape what I’ve played and when, but the API no longer publishes that information. (Thanks Sony. Thony.)
Games have been the most meaningful and intense experiences of my life, transcending books in terms of impact and meaning and giving me a sense of connection, of community, of stories that included me.
From Fallout 2 and Mass Effect allowing for lesbian relationships, to Privateer and the freedom to just pick a direction and see what’s out there, to Doom and Quake and early online play, Counter-Strike, and more.
Games mean so much to me, and I want to talk about what I’ve played in 2017, and try to make this a thing going forward.
The Top Games
We have to start somewhere, and the top five are a great place to do that. These are all games that came out in 2017, were all excellent and meaningful and are games I fully intend to replay numerous times.
Game of the Year: Night in the Woods
There could be no other game but Night in the Woods. A game I backed on Kickstarter years and years ago now, a game whose art style was deeply excellent, it promised storytelling and nuance and delight and it delivered.
Ostensibly a side-scroller, NitW is better described as a visual novel/choose-’em-up that uses sidescroller mechanics to navigate the world. The setting is a town that used to be the focus of a primary industry, mining in this case, but the company who owned the mine has left, leaving a vacuum that … never filled.
It focusses on Mae, a college dropout, and her story of reconnecting with her friends, with hope, with despair, with the story of uncertainty of the future. Or perhaps the certainty of a future that is too overwhelming to contemplate.
It is in many ways a millenial simulator, touching on the fears and realities of what it is to live in the shattered remnants of the promises of prosperity and plenty, to know that what once was can no longer be had, and trying to make do in the aftermath.
It is heartfelt and beautiful, its protagonists are real, broken and beautiful and making choices that are good, are bad, but often merely are.
I cannot recommend this game enough.
2: Horizon: Zero Dawn
Where do you even begin.
An amazingly-realised, beautiful open-world game, filled with giant robot dinosaurs.
A strong protagonist, a woman, who shuts down the poor behaviour around her, cast out from the village and deeply close to her adoptive father figure.
A woman who has actual muscles. You can see them. They’re defined. There is none of the waif-esque design that permeates the art direction of most women in games, with stick-thin limbs or a lack of definition, Aloy is strong and her body shows it.
The number of well-realised, strong women throughout the game. The contempt that Aloy has for any misogyny that she faces. The way she shuts down any hints at a Love Interest Story.
The excellent combat with the giant robot dinosaurs.
The utterly heartbreaking main story of centuries past, the people trying, trying to live and grow in their future.
Did I mention giant robot dinosaurs?
This game made being strong a thing women just get to be, it avoided the tropes of Violent Trauma Creates Masculine Strength Because That’s The Only Strength Allowed (looking at you pretty hard here, Tomb Raider). Aloy commands respect, she is vulnerable and fierce and strong and powerful, and she is always, always capable and competent.
I haven’t played the DLC as of this writing, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Prey is, wow. It is the ultimate expression of what an immersive sim can be. Set on the space station Talos 1, it is a beautifully realised actual, working environment that captures exactly what it would be to work on an Art Deco-themed space station, with room for everyone, with the spaces you’d expect and require, like gyms, washrooms, a mess hall, entertainment facilities, even a little museum for when VIPs come to visit.
There are dark secrets underneath the shiny exterior of Talos 1, a world tinged in choices both heartwarming and sinister.
I went in unspoiled, and Prey blew my expectations in the first five minutes.
Much as Dishonored is the true successor to the Thief series, a love-letter of the brilliance of well-realised and realistic experiences, so too is Prey the true successor of System Shock 2.
Where Bioshock’s core twist had my jaw drop, it wasn’t an immersive sim, it wasn’t a space that was meant to be used or manipulated or explored as though it was real. It was nothing but a shooter with some magic in.
Prey is the sequel we deserved, that we waited fifteen years to have. That Prey used the same Art Deco theme as Bioshock could easily be read as “Stand back, and watch what happens when this gets done right.”
Prey gets literally everything right. It even has a canonical gay relationship.
But it’s not entirely perfect. Load times on PS4 (where I played it) are interminably slow, and given the endgame has you running all over the station, those load times are utterly miserable.
And, and this is I think my biggest nitpick on the environment, is that the VIP apartments didn’t have ensuite washrooms, which did break the “this is a working, sensible space” that was otherwise so beautifully realised.
Another Kickstarter-backed delight, Sundered is a Metroidvania set in ever-changing Lovecraftian ruins, and the protagonist, Eshe, is beset endlessly by the dark denizens therein.
Entirely hand-drawn by the ever-brilliant Thunder Lotus, the highlight of this game must and can only be the massive, overwhelming boss fights, fights that utterly dwarf your avatar in scale.
There are two halves to the Metroidvania, both in the collection of new weaponry and tools, but also in the ability to corrupt those tools, granting advanced powers and abilities beyond what the tool would offer.
At the price of your sanity, represented by ghostly enemies during attack sequences.
The game is utterly, utterly beautiful, both still and in motion. It captures all that I want out of a good Metroidvania game, a world to explore and backtrack through and explore again, always finding something new and meaningful. Sadly I haven’t beaten the game, but I fully intend to replay it.
5: Dead Cells
An early-access soulslike sidescroller, it bills itself as a Metroidvania crossed with a Souls game, but it’s closer in form to a roguelike soulslike with Metroidvania elements.
This was the first Souls-y game I really sunk my teeth into and played, and it feels good. Starring a corpse reanimated by what appears to be an animated fungus, you roll, dodge and slice your way through increasingly difficult areas, with an increasingly broad selection of swords, shields, and magic.
Overall it feels really good to play, satisfying in its tight and responsible controls as well as its similar-but-always-different dungeon designs.
I’m quite happy with this one.
A cyberpunk exploration of a dilapidated apartment block in futuristic Krakow, a truly beautiful game on the nature of memory, perception and humanity.
Excellently realised, deeply marred by forced stealth sections that completely break from the style and pace of the rest of the game.
7: Mass Effect Andromeda
There was lots of hate for this game, but I quite enjoyed it. The rushed story and development really showed, but there was lots of enjoyable moments and Ryder being the cutest space dork around was deeply endearing.
I really enjoyed this game, and I really want to see much more of this part of the universe.
Wait What About
There were so many excellent games this year, and I didn’t play all of them. Brilliant games like NieR: Automata or Breath of the Wild aren’t on this list because I haven’t played them yet. Much to my own disappointment.