I had a lot of sleepless nights this year. Well, that isn’t entirely correct. I usually got some sleep, but there were a lot of nights I found myself staying awake worrying about my friends and family in the USA. Often it was the insanity of the politics happening, but there were also the California Wildfires ravaging the places I grew up.
On the flip side of this, it was one of the best years in games I can remember. I end most years thinking pretty positively about the games, but this year was really something special. This year we have big studio games with solid political messages instead of the ‘both-sides’ crap. Games using technology in ways that bring real peoples experience to life in vivid detail. And even games that are exactly how my rose-tinted memories think those old ones played.
Unfortunately, not every great game I played this year can be in a top 5 list. So here are a few runners-up in no particular order, and the very best (that I played) of what 2017 had to offer.
This game is joyful, expansive, and rewards exploration. Unfortunately, I have found that after 400+ moons, I still find the controls to be a bit frustrating. On top of that, while the capturing mechanic is fun, I find that most of the time I would rather some solid Mario platforming. That said, Uproot is the best!
The first video game I ever owned was Sonic the Hedgehog 2. While my love for Sonic has never truly gone away, I have skipped the majority of Sonic titles over the last 15 or so years. Sonic Mania is zeroing in on the old stuff I grew up with. Sonic Mania invites me back to my hometown to party with friends I’ve not seen since the ’90s, and makes it feel like none of us ever drifted apart.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus
If you told me 5 years ago that Wolfenstein would be a franchise that rises above killing Nazis to tell a story with some of the most well-realized characters in modern media, I would have laughed at you. But here we are. Machine Games gave BJ Blazkowicz a backstory that makes him feel believable despite the insanity that is his world. This game is amazing, except for the part where the level design and difficulty get in the way of seeing the story play out.
#5 – Cuphead
I got to this game a bit later than most. Sure I had seen the fantastic art bringing that 1930s cartoon style to life. I had heard the soundtrack full of big band scores and incredible jazz that broke onto the Billboard charts. I had even heard the developers at Studio MDHR talking about their inspirations, including Megaman X, one of my favorite games of all time. Not until I put my hands on the game did I realize just how perfect it all is together.
The controls are tight and responsive in a way that prevents deaths from feeling like bullshit, despite the difficulty. The music can be frantic, mirroring perfectly the insanity on the screen, which helps draw you in without becoming distracting. And those smooth visuals truly do bring each boss to life. Often weird and creepy life, but that is right in line with those old cartoons. Seriously, some of those old things are the stuff of nightmares.
#4 – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade was quite hard for me to play. While that sounds negative right from the jump, that is part of why I liked it so much. It wasn’t a hard game, it was a hard experience. It was hard for me to listen to these disembodied voices telling me I’m not good enough as they danced around my head. It was hard for me to watch Senua break down and cry with such raw emotion. The game is a technical marvel at realizing Melina Juergens’ performance.
While the game’s depiction of psychosis has come under fire for some legitimate concerns, its depiction of the symptoms is impressive. And watching the Making Of short included in the game was rather fascinating. I cannot think of any other big studio taking the time and doing the research to try and get this stuff right. Hellblade was hard for me to play because it was effective in making those symptoms feel real and tangible in a way I simply don’t have in my normal life.
#3 – Hollow Knight
Here’s what I knew about Hollow Knight when I was going in: “It’s kind of like a Metroid game.” Now, I have loved a lot of action-exploration games, particularly when they make some bigger changes to the tried and true formula. Hollow Knight had me unsure at the start from the art style, the floaty jump, and the mapping system. But as I played more of the game, I found myself getting drawn in deeper and deeper. I realized it is a blend of two series I love; Metroid and Dark Souls.
Once I got the dash, movement started feeling good. Once I reached the City of Tears, the aesthetic had me catching my breath. Once I had all the maps… well, actually that damn map stuff is seriously annoying. I didn’t care anymore though, I was engrossed. The story of this bug-filled world is fascinating, and told at the edges for those who want to look. The action is punishing with big bosses, precision platforming, and combat that requires intention. This game had me yelling at some challenges, and yet I wanted more, even after the 35 hours I took to beat it.
#2 – A Hat in Time
3D platformers were back this year, back in a way I couldn’t even keep up with. First, we had Yooka-Laylee coming from a bunch of ex-Rare developers making a new Banjo. I missed this one, but heard mostly not-great things. At the end of the year we had Mario Odyssey, where the mission based worlds were done away with for free-form exploration and excitement. But right in the middle of those was A Hat in Time, a game that felt more like Mario 64 in structure, but with so much more.
I knew next to nothing about A Hat in Time when a friend gave it to me to check out. And I soon learned that Jon ‘JonTron’ Jafari had a cameo voice role in it. With that stink on the project I still found myself falling in love. From the very beginning you get a wonderful cartoon style that lends itself so well to the cuteness of Hat Girl. You go down to the first world and find personality dripping throughout the whole island of Mafia men. You meet Mustache Girl, become friends, and learn how crazy she is. And then, after all this, you get to go to a new world where two birds are competing to make you a movie star.
This game just made me happy the whole damn time I played it. And yet, it is full of choices that seem insane and shouldn’t work. Why not put a silly Metal Gear Solid stealth mechanic into this level? Why not give people an MSpaint mini-game just for fun? Why not pretend we’re a horror game for one mission? Apparently there is no reason not to do these things, if you do them right. Fact is, they did it all right while still giving us wonderful world design, fantastic platforming, genuinely funny writing, and the cutest character ever! If you dash and don’t jump out of it, Hat Girl will just lie on her belly and wiggle her feet in the air while she daydreams!
#1 – NieR:Automata
NieR:Automata is a very flawed game. The world you run through feels pulled out of a game from 2004 with all the invisible walls. The PlatinumGames influence is clear in the combat, but in many ways feels stripped down and shallow in comparison to some of their past works. The most damning thing, though, is how long it takes to get through Route A. But if you push through all of this, if it gets its hooks in, it is a game that does something special.
NieR has, at its core, an ethos about the world. Not just through some story telling beats about the nature of androids. It goes so much farther. It goes beyond iRobot and the many sci-fi stories in modern media that ask how robots can be human. Nier asks what it is to even be human. And it does this in a story about androids who should be devoid of emotion. Entities with a task to fight a war that is never ending, on a world that cannot forget people. A world that really doesn’t need people anymore anyway.
The game is thick with this pervading sense of despair. It isn’t just the crumbled buildings and rusted robots. It is every character you meet, each side story that seems to inevitably end in a place worse than before. It is in the loving couple that want to desert the war, it is in the thinking robots looking out over vistas, and it is in Father Servo who wants to be the best fighter. It is in the main story, when it takes you back through Route A from a different perspective. And it only becomes more intense in the later parts of the game.
This game is my game of the year because it is going to stick with me. Because I watched someone go against everything they stand for to save what they care about, only to have prior choices make them lose it all. Because I had to put down my controller for over 30 minutes, staring at my avatar idling in a dark and depressing room, trying to decide which choice I could live with. Because each belief about the nature of the world was pulled away, showing me just how wrong I was, and how pointless trying to change it was. They’re all robots, right? They are programed for this.
This game is going to stick with me because, despite all of this and so much more, it managed to pull away the magic circle. It gave me an ending full of loss, full of satisfaction, and somehow full of hope.