Abby Russell is one of Giant Bomb’s Associate Producers and a NYC based comedian. In her spare time, she enjoys being on the internet, raising two cats out of societal obligation, and going cold turkey on soda. You can follow her on Twitter, but be prepared for some lewd, rude horse tweets. Please, just let her have a soda.
If you would have told me that I would be contributing to Giant Bomb’s Game of the Year lists in January, I think I would have just laughed. Why would anyone care what games I thought were good? Early this year, I had just graduated from college with a degree in film production and was looking for work as an assistant editor. I remember splurging on the Wii U copy of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, knowing it would have to get me through possibly months of job searching. I loved playing games as a hobby, but never dreamed I’d be able to make a career out of it. And yet, here we are. Me, a young professional gamer doing an amazing job writing this list, and you, a nerd gamer reading it.
For my first few months with Giant Bomb, I had to learn in a lot in ways I didn’t expect; from navigating office culture (it turns out, you DON’T have to inform your boss every time you go to lunch), to networking with other folks in the industry (true networking is just making friends without the expectation of career gain), to adjusting to life as a public figure (follow me on Twitter, I’m always trying to get my numbers up).
Now that I’m writing my first GOTY list, I’m seeing that it comes with some of its own challenges. For instance, how can I compare a game where you unapologetically shoot Nazis between vignettes of drunken parties and ultraviolence to a game where your only goal is to balance your dating life with your relationship to your daughter? And how am I supposed to compare a game that wowed me with its technical marvel of an open world to a technically modest game that moved me emotionally?
I used to look at GOTY lists as gospel. To me, these lists were the definitive peak of every game that came out that year. I mean, if it’s in print how can it NOT be true? Getting a look behind the curtain has humbled me to the process. There is no definitive peak when it comes to art, let alone an art form that is as interactive and personal as gaming.
For my very first Game of the Year list, I hope you don’t see it as the Definitive Peak of Abby’s 2017. Rather, I hope you see it as a list of games that I greatly enjoyed and that you might enjoy, too.
This game was so scary that I was too chickenshit to go back and finish it.
This game changed my perspective about death and the mourning process. It’s not a super long experience, but it is absolutely a lasting one.
My only regret with Hollow Knight is that I didn’t have a chance to play more Hollow Knight. In a year of great games, it was hard to justify taking the time to check out another Metroidvania, but I’m very glad I did.
Now that my job encourages me to play as many games as possible, I have really come to appreciate a short, well paced story. I played What Remains of Edith Finch over an evening or two and it was just the right amount of time to live in this world with a family dealing with a curse that dooms them to die untimely, tragic deaths. Each character’s vignette felt different and specific to their personalities. This meant that some didn’t connect with me as well as others, but I appreciated the impact they had when taken as a whole. By the end of the game I had some unanswered questions, but I also had a lot of memorable moments that stayed with me for a long while.
Bury Me, My Love is a mobile game written entirely through text messages. You’re playing as Majid, who is texting his wife, Nour, as she crosses the Syrian border trying to reach Beirut. Despite the heavy premise, there is a surprising amount of levity in your text exchanges. It feels like a conversation that would take place between a married couple separated by a business trip, rather than a life-risking journey. You compare the weather in your different locations, Nour shares her excitement over the discovery of a new falafel place, and she even sends pictures joking around about the life-jackets she is looking to buy. In parts, it’s funny and charming, and you get a real sense of both character’s personalities.
Sprinkled throughout these mundane conversations, you offer your wife advice on her journey. Your dialogue options can influence whether she goes with one smuggler over another or how much she sticks to the original plan. I didn’t see every ending to Bury Me, My Love (there are 19 in total) but the ones I did see were absolutely heartbreaking. Knowing that I had a hand in directing her to her fate only made it harder to deal with the sudden loss of text messages. And even harder knowing that real people were facing fates similar (or worse) to Nour.
8. Destiny 2
Even though I had a small nervous breakdown trying to grind between Leviathan streams, I really enjoyed my time with Destiny 2, in spite of what the gameplay offered. Yes, the shooting feels good, the set pieces are striking, and the armor upgrades are fun. But for me, I played Destiny 2 for the conversations. I could pick it up and play both with veterans of the original Destiny and folks who rarely touch shooters. Destiny 2 provided just enough of a challenge to be engaging, but also enough mindless combat that I could just focus on hanging out with my friends. And despite completely dropping this game after the raid, I really did enjoy the puzzle solving and teamwork involved in the Leviathan.
As a big fan of Uncharted 4, I was cautiously curious about the Lost Legacy. Like many people, I expected it to feel like DLC or a throw-away side story. Thankfully, it truly holds its own with a large open world section, spectacular action sequences, and a compelling story. I absolutely loved seeing how the relationship between Chloe and Nadine unfolded. Realistic, well-written friendships between two female leads is still a pretty rare thing in action games and it was refreshing to see it handled relatively well. Nathan Drake’s quips and foibles had never really been my thing, so getting to explore that beautiful world with a fresh perspective definitely helped to reinvigorate the series for me.
6. Splatoon 2
Hearing that familiar chime of the Inkopolis News broadcast the first time I played Splatoon 2 was like slipping into a nice warm bath. Splatoon was by far my most played game on my Wii U, and I was more than ready to upgrade to the Switch for the sequel. Nintendo managed to maintain the style and excitement that oozed from every aspect of Splatoon while still feeling, if I may, fresh. There is nothing I love more than looking at the inked map at the end of a match and wondering who might win, only to see Judd point his little flag to my team, The Good Guys.
I loved the new Salmon Run mode so much that, if it wasn’t for the pesky scheduling, I might have neglected the original and ranked modes altogether. They also added awesome new characters like Pearl and Marina, as well as one of this year’s best new shopkeepers, Crusty Shawn. And I was glad to hear the music still maintains its singular style without being an exact copy of the original soundtrack.
Some folks were understandably dissatisfied with some of the more nonsensical failings of Nintendo’s multiplayer, but the rest of the game was so good that, to me, those just felt like quirks rather than deterrents. Sometimes, it just feels good to be good at a game. And baby, I am good at this game.
I got Zelda during a very transitional time in my life. I played this game through months of job hunting and questioning where my future was actually headed. It was a relief to have a world I could just get lost in. To me, it felt like a real place with real people. No location I found felt like filler designed to pad out the setting. With every nook and cranny I took the time to explore, I discovered something new. I remember how awestruck I was to see something massive flying around on a distant mountain. After taking the time to ascend to the peak, I was disappointed to find the dragon was nowhere in sight, only for a dragon to burst up beneath me.
Zelda has countless moments like this, big and small, that all make for a fantastic world to explore. Exploring Gerudo Town felt completely different from Rito Village, and not just because one is hot and one is cold. Every choice made in the aesthetics, dialogue, and characterizations are all motivated in the lifestyle and values of the folks who live there. It truly feels as though every town in Hyrule has its own individual culture. And even with this diversity, the world still feels coherent.
I enjoyed the gameplay outside of the world, as well. It definitely takes a bit of adjusting to get used to the “new Zelda” style, but once I no longer felt like a naked boy wielding sticks, a lot of my quibbles with the new mechanics faded away. Breath of the Wild has so much to offer, and I cannot wait to jump back into that world and discover something new.
Super Mario Odyssey has everything I want out of a Switch game. It’s excellent for both quick play on my commute, while still being able to hold my attention for hours at a time while at home. Every world you enter feels different and exciting. I loved discovering what new mechanics and characters I would use to traverse the world.
Throughout this game, I would look to a location and think, how could I get over there? Usually after a couple tries, I would find some complicated jumping method that did the trick and found my way on top of the building/cliff/sea monster. Once I was up there I was almost always rewarded with a moon. For a game that has hundreds of moons, I really came to appreciate being rewarded for my curiosities, both big and small.
In some areas, it feels like Mario can’t walk two feet without stumbling over more moons, but once you push past that first layer, there were plenty of challenges to be had below the surface. And sometimes, I really appreciated just hopping in for mindless fun and saving the hard stuff for later.
When I landed the Associate Producer position, one of the things that really made me appreciate just how big of a change Giant Bomb had on my life was when Scott Benson (co-creator of Night in the Woods) followed me on Twitter. I had been following the game’s production ever since buzz about its Kickstarter surfaced in 2013. The idea that the creators suddenly knew who I was was eye-opening to say the least.
Once the game finally released February, it did not disappoint. Mae is not always a likable protagonist, but neither are we in this increasingly contrived and frankly unbelievable saga that is Real Life. I don’t relate to Mae in a lot of ways, but it is so easy for me to empathize with her struggles. I know what it’s like to feel like your life isn’t going where you intended. I know how it feels to try and find where you fit back into an old friend group. Like many people, I know how it feels to just be overwhelmed.
When I first started playing as Mae, I tried to find solutions to the problems that simply weren’t there. At one point, Selmers, a local poet, mentioned how she was looking for work. Later, I overheard another character say that their company was hiring. When I went back to Selmers, I fully expected a dialogue option to let her know about the position. I was surprised to see instead it was just their normal chatter.
You can’t do everything your first time through Night in the Woods. While playing, I had to learn to accept that there wasn’t a way to see everything, help everyone, or find a solution to all of my problems. Just like in life, sometimes you have to learn to accept the world--and yourself--for what it is. Once I realized that with Mae, it was a really liberating experience.
When Dream Daddy was announced, I was expecting it to just be more clickbait fodder. Instead, I got a touching story about a single father settling into the neighborhood the only way he knows how: by dating every dad living on his cul de sac. Even when it does go “memey” with mechanics--like the eggplant emojis shooting out of your Dad-Dates, or the abundance of corny dad jokes--the game’s depth and charm still shine through.
As a comedian, sometimes I get laugh fatigue where it’s unusual for me to genuinely laugh out loud, even for jokes I enjoy. With Dream Daddy, I was openly laughing through the majority of my playthrough. The writing manages to be consistently hilarious, surprising, and touching. None of it ever felt shallow or cheap, and I found myself genuinely caring about my dad and his relationships with the other characters. So much so, that when I watched other people play with their custom dads I would think, that’s not what the Dad looks like. Even though the dialogue options were the same, I felt a real sense of ownership over my character. They managed to give the player-protagonists a unique voice while still feeling like me.
I was truly invested in the relationships with every dad that I dated. At first glance, everyone could be seen as a stereotypical hunk. There was Jock Dad, Brainy Dad, Goth Dad, Artsy Dad, etc. But the more time spent with each of them, the more depth that was revealed in the characters. Throughout our lives, we make snap judgments about everyone we see. All of these assumptions about whether or not they’re worth our time before we even get to know them. Dream Daddy is a game about looking past the surface and finding commonalities with everyone.
The game ends in a final barbecue with all of the Dads in attendance. No matter who you end up with, everyone is kind and accepting of your new relationship. There are no bad breakups and no unnecessary drama. At worst, a dad may say that he wishes he had more time to get to know you. In a year as hateful as this, I was so thankful for a game celebrating loving and accepting your neighbor.
I’m not usually one to care too much about spoilers going into a game, but when it came to Cuphead, I wanted to experience it all for myself. Getting to discover each new wave of every boss was so incredibly satisfying. I’m not always one to be drawn to an ultra challenging game, but I loved seeing myself getting better while playing. Nothing felt unfair or like it was hard just for the sake of being hard. Every death, every reset, every fuckup was because of me. It was always clear that I needed to do better, and I was more than happy to take on that challenge.
There is no denying that Cuphead has a lot going for it outside of just the gameplay. I have never seen a game follow through with its aesthetic as well as Cuphead. The hand-drawn animations manage to honor the 1930s animation aesthetic while not feeling out of place in a modern video game. The music suited the style perfectly, while serving as an ideal complement to the excitement of going one-on-one against bosses like King Dice and Cagney Carnation.
Playing co-op on a recent Playdate was some of the most fun I’ve had with any game all year. Having another player to keep track of makes a once challenging game pure chaos in the best possible way. Every moment I played of this game just left me wanting more. I just wanted to see one more wave, one last boss, or one more try. And when you deal with the devil, you pay the price. In this case, this price is a very well designed video game that I enjoyed a lot.