Bruno Dias precariously straddles the line between “game dev” and “game journalist,” with mixed results. His nonfiction has appeared this year mainly on Waypoint, and his writing will be in Dim Bulb Games’ upcoming Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. His 2017 mobile game, Voyageur, is coming to PC in 2018.
The end of this year comes with two feelings: “Fuck you, I’m still here, you couldn’t kill me”; and “I’m so glad to have made it this far to have seen what I have seen.” This was a hard list to put together; the first six or seven games in it came very naturally, but after that it was very much a wide open field. Indiepocalypse or not, loot crate madness or not: so many incredible games came out this year, and I hope they helped you find peace and meaning in turbulent times.
Dishonored is a fantasy of revenge, a story about clawing your way back to the top of a power system. In Death of the Outsider, it becomes a fantasy of revolution. It’s about breaking the existing power so that a new world, for better or worse, can hatch. In 2017, that lent it all-new resonance.
And if we are facing another cycle of dormancy in the immersive sim, well, between this and Prey, we had not one but two peaks in the genre. Arkane returned to us both the Thief and System Shock lineages of games, with astonishing mastery of the form. I’m thankful for that, even if we don’t get another one of those for a while.
Breath of the Wild is a game that invites genre-smashing comparisons. It’s secretly a 3D platformer. It’s secretly an immersive sim. It’s secretly a Portal-like. It’s secretly a Souls-like. It’s secretly a survival crafting game. Breath of the Wild is AAA-scale resources pointed at the task of building something novel. It is completely ruthless about discarding old assumptions or mechanics, and completely shameless about stealing good ideas from others--and improving them. It’s built from the standpoint of creating a world, not iterating on a genre.
There is so much of this game, and it never falters; it pulls off every step of it with complete grace. It’s almost boring to talk about in its frictionless perfection.
I have a lot more hours of watching this game than playing it, and I don’t regret it. PUBG is the greatest spectator sport in games. In April, I wrote about watching less-than-expert streamers. Over the rest of the year, I’ve watched some of those less-than-expert streamers rise up and improve their game enormously, and the climb from horror film to taut military thriller has been fascinating to watch. PUBG hasn’t been installed on my machine at all for most of this year, but it has been a constant companion nevertheless. It takes the idea of designing a game for Twitch; of designing a game to be watched, and turns it into something exciting instead of wearisome. Of all the games on this list, this is one I most hope big studios take notice of--and its vast commercial success ensures that they will.
Opus Magnum is a gift. It’s a game about constructing beauty. It sweeps aside the sad contrivance of puzzle games (The Witness, I’m looking at you) and replaces it with an invitation to build, to iterate, to solve a problem.
In a year of bombast and chaos, where every other big release seemed momentous, Opus Magnum stands out for not overselling itself; it is exactly what it needs to be.
I didn’t take to Hollow Knight at first. It seemed like just another Metroidvania to me, but I couldn’t stop playing. It crept up on me, how much I liked this game. Hollow Knight isn’t in a hurry to sell itself, to show off its bigger and better ideas, to explicate. It’s content to let the player pick away at that shell until it cracks open by itself.
The War of the Chosen expansion is so transformative it might as well be a new game. But it wouldn’t work so well without the baseline set up by XCOM and XCOM 2. Having spent two games letting you get used to the XCOM action economy, Firaxis proceeds to turn it on its head. There are enemies that interrupt your turn with their movement, and abilities that let soldiers swap actions; expectations are broken and rules are bent.
War of the Chosen deploys all this to make the player feel powerful and enemies feel threatening. That, more than anything, is what gives War of the Chosen its XCOM-as-superhero-movie feel.
Tacoma is one of my favorite places in games. Space, in games, is so often a vacuous arena where soldiers and monsters vie for dominance. Tacoma is a vision of space as a place where ordinary human struggle might follow us; a vision of space as a place that’s real, not mythical. It’s deeply necessary and deeply affecting; a view of the future that is neither apocalyptic bombast nor empty utopianism.
I often go back to the Infinity Engine games and end up seeing them as great games in potentia; they’re intricate stories held back by archaic mechanics, user interfaces that aged poorly, and an excess of content that feels inconsequential. Even the vaunted Planescape: Torment has this problem.
At the same time, Pillars of Eternity left me cold at the end, and Tyranny seemed slight. Tides of Numenera is the first time the isometric RPG feels fully realized to me. It understands what it’s trying to achieve and isn’t afraid to do what it has to do. It dispenses with combat as the center of a character’s value and lets its world break and change as you move through it. More than that, it gives us a world that is as bizarre and fascinating as the city of Sigil, a setting full of the surrealism and wonder that is present in so much literary fantasy and so few fantasy games.
The New Colossus understands fascism. That this is such a rare thing in media in our hell year 2017 is dismaying, but it doesn’t undermine its value. It understands, in its vacillation between different tones, how fascism is at once completely ridiculous and utterly terrifying. How fascism deploys its own absurdity as a defense mechanism and as a loyalty test. How fascism turns on the petty prejudices of everyday people as much as the megalomaniacal designs of demagogic leaders.
In its central moment, we meet Hitler, senile and delirious; it forces us to inhabit the world of Hitler’s breaking mind, even if briefly. And later, once we have escaped that world, it reminds us: Yes, Hitler was a joke; Hitler was completely ridiculous. All those people are still dead.
We measure the quality of games in terms of entertainment value divided by price; as the best free game of the year, EPISTLE 3 therefore has infinite value. That’s just math.
Yes, there were other free games this year that were more ambitious, bigger, or more polished. But those games didn’t have the Breengrub, or Cuboid Alyx Vance. They didn’t take the logic of everything we held so dear in games circa 2004 and completely dismantle it. They didn’t make me choke on my coffee laughing.