Samantha Kalman is a game developer from Seattle, WA known for creating Sentris, and for her year-long reign as League of Heels world champion. She's currently hard at work at System Era Softworks developing their Early Access game Astroneer. You can find her on Twitter @SamanthaZero.
Hey bombkids! It's December again and you know what that means. Time to put away your Men of Game Development calendar and kiss this dumpster fire shitshow of a year goodbye. Good riddance I say. It's been A YEAR for sure; of stupid politics, necessary nazi-punching, and some very aggressive loot box monetization strategies. Personally, I was satisfied to have forgotten about the fact that Super Mario Sunshine ever existed. Then, BAM, 2017. Thanks a lot Dan. He knows my feelings on the subject so let that be the last we'll speak of it.
On the flipside, the best thing to come out of 2017 is video games. I was sincerely impressed by the quality and quantity of games I wanted to play this year. Nintendo came out swinging. Steam is utterly flooded. Even my damn phone hosted dozens of hours of good gaming time. Abundance is the keyword of the year. I'm pleased to share my opinions of these decadent electronic distractions with you now.
Best Reason to Own a SNES Classic: Final Fantasy VI
Thusly, Samantha reveals herself as one of those annoying hipster millenials who called Final Fantasy VII garbage before it was cool. Fuck you Cloud, Final Fantasy VI is actually the best Final Fantasy. It has the best characters: an ensemble cast who all have their own skin in the game and motivations to work together. It has the best setting: an industrial world dominated by technology fueled by the enslavement of ancient magic. It has the best plot: with mystery and political intrigue and shifting power dynamics. It has emotion: whimsy and drama and joy and tragedy, somehow expressed effectively by the characters even given the technical limitations of the SNES.
Yeah one of your characters can suplex a motherfucking train and that's cool, but did you know that train is full of ghosts? And the guy who can suplex it has a rich fucking backstory about how and why he learned the ability to suplex a train? There's another scene at an opera that's a classically great moment from its era of gaming history. And at one point, depending on how you play, you might have to confront one of your characters' deep sense of hopelessness in a way that's pretty daring even by 2017's standards. It might be one of those retro games that isn't sexy in that "yeah this is retro af!" feeling way. But it's ambitious and rich and subtle, and it's definitely worth your time even after 23 years.
Best Villain: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I probably put more hours into Zelda than any other single game this year. It had its hooks in me for month or more, and while it did I just wanted to spend all my spare time playing it. I love the way it breaks the established formulas of the series while still feeling like it belongs. I love the way the designers refocused the game on emergence and multiplicity of interactions within the game's systems. I love how physical it feels, and its satisfying delivery in the cartoonish breakage of its own laws of physics. I thought I would hate the breakability of weapons. Instead, I really appreciated the pressure to choose when to engage in battles with random enemies. Approaching combat scenarios when I had no weapon to draw became a really fun challenge. The density of encounters it just impressive.
The reason I'm awarding it with the best villain is not because of the final battle. While that battle is interesting (and also dynamic based on how much you've opted-in to the other dungeon areas), this game's version of Ganon is not the greatest version of the character. Rather, the best part about Ganon in BOTW is his invisibility. He is an idea peppered throughout the world, manifest in ruins and legends; evidence of tragedy. He is the calamity that destroyed the world and sunk his roots deep across the land. We never get to understand the ostensibly beautiful world he destroyed but by echoes; foggy memories as enigmatic as the calamity itself. Ripples of that darkness surface early and often, reminding us that we don't the limitations of this Ganon's power. That idea in of itself is utterly terrifying.
Best Thirsty Fandom: Splatoon 2
"hi im a squid and im also a kid and im gonna squirt ink alllllll over the place! i love to swim in it too but not if its urs GROSS. also im into cool tshirts and logos and wait have u seen the new sneaks they are so extra. a lot of my friends r friends with furries and that's cool they r the best but i like ketchup and being invisible would be rad. whoa hang on i gotta steal these fish eggs real quick but when they turn that mode off every day it's bedtime so i gotta brush my weird snaggletooth. stay fresh!"
Goddamn I love Splatoon so much.
Best Cross Dressing: Super Mario Odyssey
I'm having a ton of fun playing through Mario Odyssey right now. It reminds me a lot of how I felt playing Mario 64 for the first time: I don't know the best word for the specific feeling but I keep smiling. It's like a joy of movement distilled into a fine aerosol and misted directly onto my eyeballs. Mario 64 had the advantage of novelty, creating joyous movement in a 3D space for the first time. So many of us, myself included, take that feeling of movement for granted. The game we have in Odyssey is not so much a re-invention of that movement.
The solid foundation its built upon is firm. We know it because it works, but it's less compelling because we know it.Odyssey embraces its commodity of movement with constant interesting rewards and discoveries for doing the movements well. And the few new moves afforded by the hat throwing mechanics change enough dynamics to make playful experimentation with movement extremely satisfying. Plus there are so many interesting worlds to move through. I'm taking my time with this game. I haven't seen all the worlds yet and I want to enjoy moving through them. I don't think anything I've played yet in the game is ridiculously challenging, but I hear it goes there. I also think at some point I stopped looking for a ridiculous amount of challenge in Mario games. I look to them more for finesse of movement, of inventiveness and presentation, for secrets and delightful moments. Mario Odyssey does all those things really well.
Okay and the dress-up stuff is awesome. I'm currently rocking a dirty scab look with my striped suit and construction hat. As soon as I saw evidence that Mario can wear Princess Peach's wedding dress as an outfit, I was sold.
Best Space Lesbians: Prey
Okay I confess. I've only played Prey for a few hours so far, and haven't reached the point in the story where I know what's going on with the space lesbians. BUT I know that there ARE space lesbians in Prey because Danielle Riendeau has talked so much about them. And honestly just knowing that space lesbians are going to show up somehow somewhere is enough for me.
Gay shit aside, I can say that Prey is profound in its presentation and progression. I'm constantly on edge while playing, nervous that a shape-shifting alien could be anywhere around me disguised as a plant or a chair or a sheet of paper. It's fucking paranoia-inducing. I'm mistrustful of everything, especially the nature of the reality they've presented to me so far. They've cultivated that mistrust extremely well. Now just wait until I unlock my latent alien powers so I can give give those alien bastards a taste of their own medicine. HAHA WHO'S THE COFFEE MUG NOW MOTHERFUCKERS??
Best Fighting Game: Absolver
I didn't keep tabs on Absolver's development. So when this odd fighting-souls hybrid was released, I jumped onboard. Not too long into my first session, I randomly tag teamed some mobs with another real human person and accepted their party request. I spent the next hour running around with my new rando friend, running around the map taking down enemies and besting the boss of the area. Our party of two disbanded when I realized they shut all the pathways to keep parties contained in the same area. I never saw that person again, but I'll always remember the dozens of masked assholes we collectively punched in the face.
Mechanically I found the fighting systems really satisfying. Collecting moves and defining your fighting style is cool and personal. The system of chained move execution was super fun to learn, and is simple enough to reduce itself to a low frequency hum when you're in tense situations. Research and articles I've read about the competitive PvP endgame sounds really cool too, and makes me want to jump back in to see what the community has to offer.
Best Esport: Pyre
The choice here is obvious. Nothing (not even dota) can compare to a psuedo-alternative satanic ritual to grab a glowing sphere and jump into a burning flame before your opponent can stop you. I've always wanted to sacrifice my corporeal form! This video game is the next best thing.
Pyre is my favorite game by Supergiant. The lore, weird spirituality, and enchanting darkness all instantly hooked me when I played an early build some years ago. Playing the finished game is delightful when I'm in the mood to get a little weird. The rules of the sportslike competition are interesting and feel of negotiating the field is very good. Somehow they applied the strangest narrative wrapper rich with themes about mythology and freedom, and did it super successfully.
Best Late-to-the-Party Indie Game on Switch: Moon Hunters
backed Moon Hunters when it was running its kickstarter campaign, and I met Kitfox Games studio head Tanya Short at PAX a couple years ago. I've known about this game for so long that I'm utterly ashamed I didn't pick it up until this year. Turns out, it's a really fucking cool blend of Secret of Mana and a Roguelike. The narrative hook has you playing through a story that's being told, sort of a tale passed down through generations, told over and over again. It's a story of different communities going through a shared crisis, and you are the traveler(s) at the center of it. The characters are all designed with interesting variety in appearance and ability.
The side stories driven by NPCs add the right amount of context to the world to make the game more enjoyable without detracting from the core loops. This is another game on this year's list with strong spiritual and mystical aspects of the world and characters. I'm super into it! Each playthrough is only about an hour, so a session is satisfying without dragging. And the connective tissue between sessions is meaningful, with characters and abilities and new areas of the world that reveal themselves the more you play. Plus it's four player, so you can team up and fight the villainous Sun Cult together.
Best Fowl: PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
I just wanna know, how is it cooked? Rotisseried? Roasted? Fried? Show me a fucking photograph, Brendan!
Best Vision of the Future: Tacoma
Space Luxury. Labor Economy. Body Positivity. Racial Diversity. Amazon University. Obsolescence Day. AI Personhood. Thematically, Tacoma has a lot of good shit going for it. It doesn't hit you over the head with any of this heavy stuff. Rather, it just presents it plainly and trusts you to notice the implications of what's going on. And, it's a game about listening to people, something we could all practice a little bit more.
Best Existential Crisis: Universal Paperclips
You should play Universal Paperclips. Or you know what, don't. It consumed my life for two solid days and I don't think I would willingly wish that fate upon anybody. See, it all starts with one paperclip. Next thing you know you're building automated paperclip factories out of paperclips, destabilizing the world economy, creating an army of paperclip-powered drones, and consuming all matter in the known universe to make more paperclips. What good does having a bajillion paperclips do for you if there's no more paper to clip? Ever? Ponder that shit while you're bringing in the new year.
More importantly, have a great end of the year and let's look forward to more video games to distract us from 2018!