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Kevin VanOrd's Top 10 Games of the Year

Kevin VanOrd dusts off his game critic hat to talk about the best of the best of games in 2017.

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Kevin VanOrd used to be reviews editor at GameSpot. He was very judgy. Now, he makes games with Larian Studios, creator of Divinity: Original Sin 2, and Cleaversoft, creator of the upcoming EarthNight. He's still very judgy.

I don't know. Is it a proper game of the year list if I don't sit rigidly in a room and yell at my objectively wrong colleagues in anger because they think Halo: Reach is better than fucking Vanquish? It seems so wrong to just write a list and give it to the Internet without enduring a few weeks of mild shouting and passive-aggressive stares.

Still, truth be told, I miss some of those meetings at GameSpot, at which we discussed important matters like "Is Super Smash Bros. a fighting game?" and "We're really choosing Skyrim over Dark Souls?" Yet a new generation has risen. New editors will convene to pop aspirin and tranquilizers while their coworkers reveal their demonstrable wrongness. Or maybe that's only what I did.

In honor of those years, and of the friends that suffered at my side, I swallowed a Xanax and wrote up my choices for the games that meant most to me in 2017.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

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My second-favorite Final Fantasy got a facelift--and more importantly, it held its own next to 2017s most beloved JRPGs, NieR:Automata and Persona 5. I'm still in love with its opening scenes, which introduce you to a nation at war, and the sacrifices its people have made, in a straightforward and lush visual language. This series has long been terrified of silence, filling every possible moment with rambling nonsense. How refreshing to play a confident Final Fantasy that allows its world to speak for itself.

Overwatch

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It's my bad romance, and I just can't quit it. (Please indulge me my mixed metaphors.) Playing competitive at a sub-platinum level is a parade of leavers, de-rankers, clueless Widowmakers, Meis walling you into your own base, Reins that charge alone into danger, and offense Torbjorns. But every night, I load up a match, confident that if I Lucio hard enough I can carry the match. I mean, it's not like anyone else is going to choose a healer, right?

Overwatch feels too good. It moves too beautifully, it flows too perfectly, it rewards me too scientifically to quit. Oh, I'll make the threat again. But we know it'll be an idle one.

The Evil Within 2

I could only stomach a few hours of the original Evil Within. The stilted dialogue, the ol' "mental care facilities are scary" tropes, the weird controls--I don't have the time anymore for games that get good some number of hours in. I need them to start good.

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The Evil Within 2 starts good and stays good. It's gorgeous, mysterious, and mystical. Where the original's inadvertent camp factor made it hard to take seriously, the sequel nails the tone. Not since Resident Evil 4 has a horror game kept me so glued to the screen.

Assassin's Creed: Origins

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With every new Assassin's Creed, we always hear the same refrain: this is the one that restores the series to its former glory. I was certainly told that about Syndicate, a by-the-numbers entry in which I encountered far more bugs than I ever did in the notoriously glitchy Unity. But I'm here to tell you: Origins is the Assassin's Creed I'd been waiting for since Brotherhood. The setting inspires much of this enthusiasm--the golden sands of Egypt are simply stunning--but I can't overlook the gentle Bayek, the series' best protagonist since Ezio. Nor can I overlook the mightily improved combat; I wouldn't be surprised if For Honor's team had a hand in Origin's hard-hitting mechanics. Plus: the first photo mode I would actually call a game-selling feature.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade is short by most standards. But it took me a while to finish.

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It took me a while because it is, in some sense, too good. Not to get too deep into it, but I spent years in and out of hospitals being treated for depression with psychotic features, and the ill-famed and ill-named borderline personality disorder. I've heard voices that weren't there, and I've felt presences that weren't real. Hellblade depicts this battle for the mind with beauty, honesty, and discomfort. To play it was to confront, endure, and conquer demons I'd battled before.

It took me years to defeat them the first time. I figured it was OK to take a few days to defeat them again.

Songbringer

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Where so many procedural games feel haphazard or (paradoxically) predictable, along comes Songbringer: colorful, absorbing, and as carefully paced as any static game. Its world is a cohesive pixel-art paradise that sparks my imagination more than most fully 3D open-air sci-fantasies. Every dungeon entrance makes me giddy. I don't know what mysteries I'll find inside, but I can't wait to find out.

Pyre

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No developer possesses a finer mastery of artistic cohesion than does Supergiant. I have no words for the beauty of its setting or the perfect weariness of Pyre's best characters. (Dalbert Oldheart is a perfect analog for my own tired self.) Some believe combat to be Pyre's weakness, but I adore how it compliments its artistry and story arc. How appropriate that the modern-day rituals of athletic competition, in both their mundanity and their mystique, would serve as inspiration for The Rites. Through them both do we hope to find paths to atonement and fulfillment.

Dead Cells

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Feel free to put PUBG on your year-end lists, though I think you'd be a bit silly--not because it's in Early Access, but because it's a poorly optimized and clumsy mess. Instead, consider Dead Cells, an Early Access roguelike whose action is already pitch perfect in a way few such games ever are. Every step, every slice, every leap moves exactly as fast as it should and lands exactly the way it should. Success is never a struggle against the controls, but a struggle against the monsters and meanies that stand between you and the next gorgeous region/awesome weapon/cool reward.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Does this game ever end?

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I hope not. I hope it goes on forever. I hope that I never stop hearing that beep-beep whenever a new shrine is near. I hope I never stop stumbling upon new and incredible surprises. I hope that there is always one more region to explore, filled with more towers and more obstacles to overcome, and lorded over by weird creatures and curious travelers. I hope I never run out of waterfalls to zing me towards the heavens, and oases to rest in.

I am led to understand that Breath of the Wild has an ending. I am also led to understand that after dozens and dozens of hours, I am not close to reaching it.

And so I breathe a sigh of relief. I guess everything has to end. But I'd like to keep this one alive for as long as I can.

Night in the Woods

Rather than write glowing words anew, it seems appropriate to repeat what I tweeted just days ago. The thoughts are disjointed. I think that's OK.

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I hate how perfect Night In The Woods is. I hate how there are so many lines that make me angry because I wish I'd written them. I hate how its characters are so real. Not shades of grey as we usually think of them in so much popular fiction... but authentic. Human beings don't have renegade/paragon sliders. It's just a cloud, subject to a kind of emotional thermodynamics.

I love everyone in Night In The Woods because they're people. (Well, cats and bears and stuff, but you get the idea.) Different circumstances, different desires. Trying hard to just... be. I don't always like Mae. But I still love her. I love her mother for allowing herself her own anger and rawness. I love Bea. She is so trapped, but so loyal anyway. I love Gregg. And then suddenly he's too much, and I love him all the more for it. I love Pastor K. She is neither self-righteous nor self-loathing. She just wants goodness.

I love the way the game gates progress. It hangs so many subtle but charming lampshades on its own gaminess.

This is not just a GOTY candidate but a GOAT candidate for me. I'm upset that I will finish it. I hate the idea of not doing crimes with Mae and Bea and Gregg and Angus. Then again, that's sort of the point, isn't it? "I stayed and got older. You left and stayed the same." To grow up is to leave some things behind, even as they still shape you. Like parade floats. Like friendship. Like mistakes. For now, though, I am beginning to mourn the inevitable end of my time with this game, even while I play it. I want to stop time right here, and let myself stay in Possum Springs. I am already nostalgic for a life that was never mine to start with.

Night in The Woods means so much, and I am grateful for it.