John Bellomy is a programmer at Naughty Dog, known for his work on such popular franchises as Uncharted, The Last of Us, and USB Drivers for PlayStation 3 Fight Sticks/Instrument Controllers. Please yell "YEE-HAW" at him via Twitter.
Sitting here trying to unpack the twenty years of life that happened in the last twelve months doesn’t seem like a year of half measures. With more than a fair number of bright spots set against the backdrop of larger anxieties, this year felt especially exhausting and writing this as I am huddled up recovering from the flu only adds to the sense of limping across the finish line. For all the retreating from the outside world I found myself doing, there was just a staggering amount of amazing titles to lose myself into. You can find so much to love this year, from teams big and small, the breadth of creativity on display reminds me why I joined this industry and leaves me hopeful for us and our future. But really between Horizon, Assassin’s Creed, Mario, etc., my real game of the year is photo mode.
Escher-esque puzzles with lovely storybook aesthetic to match. The mechanics are beautifully suited to touch interfaces where curiosity is easily indulged and rewarded, and furthers a sense of an unfolding story. I played on an iPad, which I can strongly recommend. In fact before I knew it I had devoted an entire morning in bed to seeing it through to the end, and subsequently spent the rest of the day dwelling on the experience. Themes of war and conflict and hope and connectedness resonate as the game deals in detailed introspections and big picture ideas, both metaphorically and literally.
The impact this game has had on our industry is undeniable, but honestly I don’t think it would’ve made my top ten if I didn’t eventually win some chicken dinners. Like previous multiplayer entries in my top tens where PUBG falls depends entirely on the people I get to play it with. So it was in those games where everything clicked into place that the true magic of this game shined through. A fortunate piece of loot, a couple good flanking kills, me and my squad moving as one cohesive unit, all culminating in an emotional high unparalleled for me this year. Or sometimes the opposite.
I haven’t sunk my teeth into an AC game since Black Flag. Despite the smoke on the street about Unity being pretty okay, I felt like the franchise and myself could use a little more time apart. Origins ended up being an ideal entry to jump back into the stabby frey with, mostly because it trades less in big game assassinations and more Egyptian beat cop. This is a game with a wonderful sense of place, and those are my favorite kinds of games to turn on a podcast and lose myself in. Some quality side mission vignettes add as much depth and texture to the world as lovingly rendered environments or the impressively scaled monuments to their cultural might.
7. Persona 5
After putting down Persona 5 it’s safe to say I’ve now played more Persona than I’ve watched. This time I also made the decision to use a schedule guide. I didn’t want the anxiety of missing out on social links, since I’m really here for the story. Yet even after my FOMA-less playthrough of the game, I ended up immediately going back in and playing through the entire game again a second time to get the platinum and see all the bonus bits. With an amazing visual aesthetic (and soundtrack to match) this game oozes style and I wanted to soak every bit of it up. Plus my wife was amused seeing me getting bossed around by a cat.
Guerrilla stretched their wings and demonstrated an impressive ability to pivot from a first-person narrative shooter to third-person action open world. Their technical prowess on full display, Horizon is easily one of the most beautiful places to be in. I loved hunting and picking apart the oversized electro-fauna through combining the various tools at my disposal. While I came for the robot dinosaurs, I stayed to see a surprisingly good science fiction story through to the end; enough to earn the only other platinum for myself this year.
Something about the year of our lord two thousand and seventeen just put me in the killing Nazis mood. Thankfully Machine Games is here to oblige me and with gusto. The New Colossus is unflinching in it’s credo: the violence is unabashed and its message is unmuddied. Perhaps most impressive of all is that despite all this it’s not without its subtlety. The resistance is a messy, multifaceted conglomeration of the best characters and there are many brilliant pieces of world building told in snippets you stumble across in the world. Still no other game had my jaw on the floor as much as Wolfenstein. My advice: set the game to it’s easiest difficulty, hold down the trigger, and enjoy the ride.
Nintendo’s foray into the open world genre is a tour de force of design and a fascinating lens through which to view open world games and how we play them. The game, with a lovely minimalistic yet melodic soundscape, presents itself quite simply but still waters run deep. The emphasis on not just having solid core systems but on the interaction between those systems results in one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experiences that I’m so fond of. Each combinatory discovery felt a unique moment in my own winding path through the game, and in retrospect, a little obvious, because of course those two things would interact like that. Easily my favorite Zelda game, it makes me excited to see Nintendo continue to spread their design wings.
What could’ve easily been a by-the-numbers story about AI, by the end Nier hollowed me out and left me reflective of what we pass on, both intentionally and not, particularly as I find myself more and more preoccupied with in regards to my own children. While the combat was fine and I enjoyed tinkering with the memory management system, the story was really what hooked me. The game has some powerful character development with moments both touching and gut wrenchingly tragic, and more than its share of existential crises. No game had me more agonized over choices it was asking me to make. And that soundtrack? So fucking good.
Despite having an already sizable backlog this game got its hooks in me and didn’t let go until I saw the 100% completion screen. Perfectly suited for the Switch, I found myself squeezing in as much time as I could, wherever I could, to dig out a few more gems or push for a new upgrade. The loop is well executed, with the upgrades satisfyingly paced and meaningful. It was always an effort to pull myself away from mining just a couple more levels down. There was just something so appealing this year to just digging myself a little hole and crawling inside.
There are so many ways to hold this gem up to the light and see brilliance. Toe to tip there’s a masterclass level of polish on display and it is executed with a joyous exuberance. The controls are as good as you’d demand from a top shelf Mario game, but mastering the hat dive combo rewarded me with a newfound sense of dominance over the world. New worlds brought new sights and interesting character designs, new sounds backed by a marvelous soundtrack, and new creatures to hollow out their souls to play with new micro mechanics. So infectious it was, this game dominated my entire house, taking turns exploring, battling, or just dressing up (and woe was the day my Switch had to go in for repairs). It is a testament to the quality of the controls that they were so easily picked up by my younglings and assist mode is very chefs kiss here for making some very smart accessibility improvements. From the 2D 8-Bit sections to documenting my journey in photo mode to just reading the travel brochures I greedily soaked up every last bit Odyssey had to offer and left all the happier for the experience.