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2017 Ranked

Disclaimers about time spent are there to indicate that items lower on the list aren't necessarily bad - I just only got to explore them for a little bit.

The top 7 games on this list would be game of the year in almost any other year I've played video games.

List items

  • Night in the Woods is about a twenty year old named Mae who lives with her parents in an economically depressed rust-belt town. Locals discuss the upcoming Smelters game outside a dive bar. You can't walk two blocks without passing a handful of shuttered local businesses and a war memorial or two. Mae doesn't have a job, isn't sure where she's headed, and spends her free time playing bass in her friends' band, an activity that manifests itself as a mini game with a rock band-style note chart. Early on she gets too drunk at a party and embarrasses herself in front of her ex. I can't tell if I'm talking about a memory or a video game at this point.

    Night in the Woods has personally targeted me, which is unfair. It's very good.

  • One of the most perfect examples of video game escapism ever made, Yakuza 0 is a veritable parade of dramatic twists, betrayals, vicious fist fighting, unbelievably tone-perfect comedy, and pure style.

    So few games are *as much game* as Yakuza 0. What would suffice in other series' as mini-games or distractions are fully evolved campaigns in this game. You can engage in slot car racing, real estate management, bowling, speed-dating, nightclub management, and more. All of these side quests go so far beyond the expected, and all of them feature strong characters and plot twists all on their own.

    The plot itself is the real highlight. It's full of evil monologuing, insanely complicated character motivations and lengthy ruminations on the nature of life. It collapses in on itself more than a few times, but even a 90% success rate means Yakuza 0 is honest-to-God captivating for like 50 hours of story.

  • Observer is one of the most rewarding narratives in video games this year. First, speaking about it purely on a genre level, it does something wonderful I've not seen before.

    Have you ever been watching a sci-fi film and wandered what the grimier, more intricate aspects of the world look like? When I rewatched the Star Wars movies in high school, I couldn't help but start asking questions - is there really no political or cultural pushback to giving unlimited agency to a group of people belonging to a religion some people don't even appear to know exists? Does cross-species procreation occur in the Star Wars Universe? Are there ever anti-empire political protests? Is there broadcast news, even? There's all kinds of fan fiction and expanded universe text about these exact topics, I would imagine, but the movies are totally disinterested in exploring the nature of their world design. They build it, and let your imagination do whatever it wants later.

    Observer, on the other hand, introduces you slowly to the concept of Observers, and then just builds and builds and builds on the concept. Observers can plug into a person's mind if they have, uh... 'brain tech enhancements' (or whatever) to experience their memories. They do so in order to solve or prevent crimes.

    This raises a few questions, right? Does it work if the person is dead or dying, and if so, what does that look like? Observer has an answer. What about if someone is plugged into a virtual reality machine and falls unconscious? There's an answer here, too. What if I brain hack two different people who share memories together? Would they be different? Well, yeah, duh. What if the person doesn't have any magical brain technology - and why would or wouldn't they? Poke around Observer's pigeon-poop spotted apartment complex and you'll find a woman in this exact circumstance.

    Observer is never content to simply establish and then execute on its science fiction. It is constantly twisting, manipulating or deconstructing itself. Part of the fun of being a fan of science fiction is to poke at the genre's constraints, but unlike most of its contemporaries, Observer is actually ahead of its audience.

    Observer is also more than yet another well-structured sci-fi horror yarn. There are a lot of anti-corporate sci fi stories in the world (and, truth be told, on this list), but Observer is most interested in exploring the lives of average people who enable the system by existing comfortably within it.

    Lazarski, our protagonist, became an Observer for the sake of his family and livelihood. He hates what he does, and he hates what he's become, but he also feels like going against the grain is impossible. A megacorporation called Chiron literally owns Poland, where the story is set. The alternative to working for or with Chiron is destitution. It is what it is.

    Lazarski's son, we quickly learn, feels differently. He has a paperback copy of Orwell's 1984 in his shitty apartment, and his email is full of revolutionary protest talk. He's better equipped intellectually to deal with Chiron's tech than his father - who is now partially composed of said tech - and he's attempted to do anything he can to subvert the company's power.

    This dynamic should be familiar to just about any millennial that has a parental relationship with a boomer. Lazarski's generation accepted a world owned by Chiron; he is their unhappy but willing tool for control. His son inherits that world, has less agency within it, and tries to improve it anyway - at a potentially severe cost.

    It hits close to home in some ways. Observer builds a world in which people literally and figuratively sell as much of themselves to companies to live a miserable, impoverished life. That or they give everything, forego their free will, and accept a life of corporate branding that oils the gears of the machine that put them in their dystopia in the first place.

    Observer does all this by telling a story set in a single apartment complex. I haven't even gotten around to the game as a surreal psychological horror-thriller, which is its defining quality.

    Observer is goooood.

  • ***SPOILERS FOR NieR:Automata BELOW***

    NieR:Automata hit the gaming press like a spiritual epiphany back in 2017, and I had extremely high expectations for it when I first tried it in 2020. Unlike almost any other game I've ever played, I left Automata both speechless AND emotionless. After years of anticipation, after all the dizzying plot twists, after the truly wild climactic bullet-hell credits sequence, I found myself shrugging my shoulders. Huh - I guess that was it!

    Yet, I couldn't bring myself to litigate my feelings on Automata's thematic whirlwind or its often-slippery/sloppy melee combat. It felt like the kind of game I needed to mull over for a while before I could internalize my own feelings on it, let alone putting those feelings into words.

    I spent exactly one year doing so - and I mean *exactly* one year. I began playing the game in early March of 2020, completed it by the end of the month, and then began it again in March 2021, finishing it this time in April of 2021.

    Lo and behold, I think I 'get' Automata now and I think it fuckin' rocks.

    My inability to process Automata is the result of three factors:

    1. The game doesn't treat its plot revelations as distinctly important events in the way other games do, and trivial events are given as much or more focus than the thematically relevant aspects of the text, which gives Automata's pacing a monotonous texture on a first playthrough. We spend a great deal of time experiencing and re-experiencing the big Kaiju battle, for example, but many of the game's most damning late-game revelations are buried in a menu on the pause screen. The characters don't always directly react to these revelations, either. This would be fine in pretty much any game, but Automata is an open world action-rpg with dozens and dozens of time-waster sidequests which will take many hours in comparison to the big plot beats' comparatively miniscule screen time.

    2. Automata doesn't mind wasting the players' time. The game's map is dense with side content that's often time-consuming busywork framed by a couple of minutes of great writing. Worse, even after a second playthrough, starting the game the second time as 9S is a huge bummer. I'd say about a third (or less) of the new content in the second playthrough is essential to fully comprehending Automata's story, but many of the repeat sequences play the same way a second time as the first, but with a couple of interstitials thrown in to give greater context to the boss characters. You'll spend at least a dozen hours on that second playthrough - it really sucks the wind out of the game's pacing to complete 12 hours of near-identical gameplay to the first act for the payoff a minute-and-a-half interstitial video. The interstitials are good! But the new content should occur either more quickly or more frequently.

    3. Automata's character designs, while phenomenal in the abstract, are off-putting in practice. 2B's costume is designed in such a way that you're constantly getting upskirts as you play, and her panties are fully (hilariously) visible in dramatic and even tragic sequences. I love the anachronistic goth look, don't get me wrong, but the creepy fixation on objectifying 2B is hilariously brazen at best and straight up gross at worst. Both outcomes lessen the quality of the text.

    I'm still hundup with factors two and three, but with a comprehensive understanding of Automata's text, I find it a whole lot easier to put these things aside in favor of the game's better qualities.

    NieR is a series in which only the worst possible outcomes of an action can occur. The only silver linings in Automata's story are just that - optimistic people finding the only good they can in the worst possible scenarios. Automata is very much *about* these silver linings. The decay, betrayal, nihilism, bigotry, violence and various existential crises are battering rams chipping away at everyone's resolve, yet, crucially, we find the survivors' of NieR's punishment left standing at the end of the day.

    Still, you really can't understate what an enormous psychological head-fuck Automata is. The extreme existential despair in the game is wearying, catastrophic to the point of evoking 'can't look away from the car crash' response to certain characters' monologues. We learn at the end of Automata that the entire cast and their militant robotic opponents are not only genociding each other for no reason, but that the severe length of their war and the depletion of resources means that both sides are functionally identical. No one even understands why anything that's happening is happening anymore, but because both sides are artificial beings designed only to fight, living for nothing and dying for nothing begin to feel indistinct from one another.

    Even though I quite like Automata's central story, it's the individual sequences and characters that make the game special. Automata is very much a game you enjoy most after the fact, once you've attained a language to decode the complex plotting and thematic relevance of each sequence (hence the multiple 'routes'/'endings').  

    Each of Automata's locales represents a distinct school of thought on what meaning humanity finds in an existence with no explicit goal or purpose via the emulation of machines. These concepts are escalated to a ridiculous conclusion because the machines lack the proper context to understand what led humanity to these conclusions in the first place. We find an amusement park full of weapons of war which now shoot balloons rather than bullets in the name of entertainment. But what IS entertainment? To machines, it is the declaration of 'I'm having fun!' in opposition to 'I am at war.' The 'entertainment' machines become accidental conscientious objectors to war during a side quest in which a parade becomes a sort of unwitting protest to war. But the machines can't conceptualize a world beyond their design, so a life of 'entertainment' can only be achieved as an aesthetic. They still march and shoot guns - the bullets are just balloons this time.

    These pastiches of human behavior vary from brilliant to straightforward parody, but they always force the player to frame their own definition of purpose against the game's portrayal of artifice. Just like Automata's androids have to reckon with the fact that the machine's chaotic interpretation of individuality intersects with their own, so does the player. This is the reason why the machine's interpretation of religion is the last machine 'society' we see. The machines apply logic to an inherently illogical concept, and arrive at bizarre but logically consistent outcomes. To be 'as God intended' is to be 'like God,' and to be in heaven is to exist alongside God. Therefore, to die is to become a god, and any other pursuit is therefore of little import. To the machines, murder is a sort of kindness towards others.

    Automata is not only a game about questioning life's 'purpose,' as it were, but moreso a game about how it feels to *doubt* purpose. It's about falling on the wrong end of an existential crises. But Automata isn't a nihilistic game by any measure - it's a game *about* nihilism itself, and how one can arrive at nihilism as a poor but legitimate philosophical outcome to life's punishments.

    Like any great text, NieR:Automata doesn't just ask big questions but also answers them. If life's ambiguity and society's cruelty robs existence of its intrinsic purpose, but we're also driven to find that purpose regardless - wouldn't it be better to hope against hope to find that purpose? After Automata's credits roll, the three protagonists are re-created exactly as they were before they were destroyed - when they awake, it's likely they'll find themselves in a scrap heap all over again. But the possibility that they'll find a resolution to their endless conflic and build something worthwhile *still exists.* If a meaningful life (or, for the characters in Automata, simply a conflict-free life) is technically possible, it would be better to try, try and try again than to resign one's self to the machinations of society, no matter how slim hope becomes.

  • Like every other Arkane title, Prey is brimming with good ideas, transcends its lesser qualities to produce spectacular moments of player expression, mood, and discovery, but is also powered by the rusty machinery of other, more ambitious games that were stunning - a decade ago. To dismiss Prey as a Bioshock rip-off is too reductive, and it also fails to address what makes it a frustrating game generally: it yanks most of Irrational Games' design straight out of Rapture, but it does so haphazardly and without purpose. Yet, Prey also *exceeds* Bioshock's ambitions at times, establishing a metanarrative of ethics and identity that extend from player, to player proxy, to player proxy's *proxy*, and further down still. It is a daring, unsettling sci-fi horror yarn encased in an, uh, shock schlock shell, and regardless of my various hangups with it generally has stuck around in my head much, much longer than most other games.

  • Here's a weird sentence: Doki Doki Literature Club is one of the most constructive fictional texts about mental illness I've ever experienced.

    This game has a total grip on me. It's been years since I've found myself so obsessed with a game, or really with any story in any medium. I am shellshocked by its existence.

    I don't want to give away anything about what lies beneath this...fuckin nightmare thing, because if you've ended up here in my weird sub-corner of this weird corner of the internet and don't know about it, I would hate to be the person to give it away. So I'll just say this:

    If you choose to romance Yuri by ignoring Monika's advice, there's a moment where Yuri hurries all the characters out of the room so you can be alone with her. Right when she's at the door, Monika turns to look you in the eye and smiles. I'll do my best to quote what she says from memory: "Yuri is such a nice girl. I hope you enjoy your time together."

    That line produced a pit in my stomach. I have never felt such a visceral sense of dread in a game before. I didn't progress the game right away, I just sat there. I knew what buttoning through that text would mean and I was not ready.

  • No game in recent memory is as prescient as The New Colossus. In a year where America was greeted each morning by flagrant assaults on common decency, freedom of democracy, freedom of the press and a stunning resurgence of American fascism, The New Colossus was one of the only pieces of entertainment to turn to that was just as keyed in as those of us keeping up with the news. It was paying attention and it was angry.

    The New Colossus also got me thinking quite a bit about the nature of the action hero. Quentin Tarentino did something to the genre film that has had a cascading effect on all other instances of mass media entertainment. I feel like every action film post-Pulp Fiction/Kill Bill was simultaneously over-indulgent in terms of gore and a deconstruction of action movie heroes. Games adopted this narrative tick for a while, too.

    While I like a lot of Tarentino's methods, most of his narratives ultimately collapse into meta analyses of filmmaking and film iconography. Death Proof, for example, probably really got you thinking about why we celebrate the kinds of '70s filmic anti-heroes that we do, but the conversation stops there, and his films rarely try at a pointed social statement. Is the action genre really limited to black-and-white hero villain narratives and commentary about itself?

    The New Colossus is, instead, something different. BJ Blazkowicz is an uncomplicated protagonist: he is a big, burly American dude who lives to shoot nazis in the face. That's his initial A to Z. The world BJ inhabits, on the other hand, is *tremendously* complicated. Contrary to his own assessment of his fascist antagonists, the nazis aren't monsters - they're men and women who made a choice, and they don't always look like a big scary dude with a shaved head and a swastika tattoo.

    Besides being utterly mind blowing as a story-driven action game, The New Colossus is arguably the sharpest and most direct instance of political commentary in video game history. There is a scene involving an...extraordinary? I guess is the word? depiction of a famous historical figure that sickened me so much I literally dropped my controller. And that character was only the second most vicious depiction of an important political figure in that scene.

    Seriously. This is a game in which your very pregnant wife more or less tells you "hey BJ, there's Nazis on Venus so let's go to space and stop that, don't worry I kidnapped a famous actor who was taking a trip up there to play you in a major motion picture so let's get in a UFO and get to murdering" and that is the *least* insane thing about the upcoming level.

  • What Remains of Edith Finch is a gorgeous exploration of fate, and how we allow those closest to us to define who we are, for better and worse. It's about cleaning the dust off of your heritage and taking a long and critical look at where you come from.

    Edith Finch is like a collection of short stories from an impossible memoir. There were so many moment in it where I couldn't believe what I was seeing, or what the game was having me do. I wanted to take a long walk after each family member revealed their final moments, but instead I sat still and played through everything in a single sitting.

  • The Evil Within 2 is a shockingly accessible sequel to an infamously obtuse horror opus. It keeps the core concepts of The Evil Within but smooths out its jagged edges - mechanics I enjoyed in that game only came together for me after hours of what felt like a battle against the game itself, but here in the sequel, every action and consequence feels intuitive.

    Same goes for plot: although The Evil Within 2 is stuffed with mysteries and seemingly inexplicable imagery, all of it is competently decoded in the story's latter half. Funnily enough, that's my one knock against it. If there's one thing I really loved about The Evil Within, it's that the barrage of evocative but indiscernible horror throughout had just the right stuttered pace and hazy logic to recreate the feel of being awake in a nightmare. The Evil Within 2, while creative and intelligent, feels like it pulls its punches. For a game set in a collective dream, it feels far too knowable.

    That's just the story, though - the gameplay in The Evil Within 2 is a huge leap ahead of its progenitor. If you've got the patience for it, I'd recommend sticking with the 'Nightmare' difficulty mode. Every single resource and mechanic comes into play, and the tiniest enemy encounters can have an extreme impact on the tools/bullets you have available for later. I don't know that The Evil Within 2 is always scary, but ratcheted up like that it's *thrilling.*

  • There are quite a few indies these days which gameplay consists of using a fictional text messaging app and little else, but if nothing else, Bury me, my love is surely the best of them. The game follows a Syrian refugee as she emigrates from the company to arrive somewhere, anywhere, that will allow her to live her life away from war. The player is cast in the role of her husband, who provides remote support via a non-branded What's App-like.

    The only conversational medium more sterile than texting is email, but the writing of this title is really sharp. It would be difficult to create tension this way, I think, via a choose your own adventure-style multiple choice branching narrative that occurs over a fake cell phone app, but The Pixel Hunt turn the shoddy, impersonal nature of texts into an effective narrative tool. There are moments in Bury me, my love in which the stakes feel incredibly high, and the dinky 'whoosh' of the text arrival/send sound, the pregnant ellipses indicating a potential response, the pseudo-friendly corporate aesthetic of the app all drive home the desperation and lack of safety net these characters ultimately have.

    Bury me, my love viscerally imparts the feeling of desperation of a refugee, of what it means to flee from the place you call 'home.' As someone who lives in the US, media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis only gives you a window into the abstract, mass action that is 'many people need to get out of here to survive.' To see it from the eyes of a person under threat because of it, even a fictional person, is moving and terrifying.

  • In some ways, Fated Retribution is the AAA Tekken game I've been waiting to play since I got angry at my friends for Eddie-Gordo-button-mashing me to death in middle school. There is finally an honest to God campaign mode, and it is occasionally fucking transcendent.

    But, then...the grand series of poorly framed cut scenes and somewhat compelling story beats come at the expense of any other meaningful single player content. Tekken 7 simultaneously fulfilled my childhood fantasies and then removed the bonkers arcade mode cut scenes that got me to show up in the first place. Sigh.

    Forgetting that, Tekken 7 is a *really* solid multiplayer package. The net code seems...bad, maybe? I'm only 40% sure I understand what a net code is/does. Also, some of the added Ultra Moves are cookie cutter variations of the classic 'hit guy into air, knock him dramatically into the floor' move. But the re balanced mechanics are really friendly to casual players, the soundtrack is so silly and good, and the character and stage design work is out of this world. They added this dramatic camera zoom effect to sudden death fights that is unbelievably cool. I've had so many fun matches in this thing that I can't help but love it in spite of itself.

    This game is *perfect* for my skill level at fighting games. Its ability to be both hilariously silly and all-out anime serious, as well as its impressive roster of fighters, all of whom are better represented here than in many past titles in the series, make this one of the best fighting games I've ever played.

    And that's without that goddamn arcade mode I miss so much.

  • Battlegrounds is incredible because every time I play it, I have a new story to tell afterwards. To win, the game demands you think tactically as a person more than it asks you to master its mechanics or its ruleset. Every single match I've played where I end up in the top 10 is more thrilling than any other multiplayer shooter I've played. Ever.

    I'm stuck in a shed. Another player, who is way more decked out with gear than I am, walks past the shed into the building adjacent to me. I hear a series of shots as he demolishes the two players taking shelter on the second floor. It's quiet for a minute or two, then I hear the front door open.

    I have no room to maneuver in the shed whatsoever, barely any armor and one good shotgun with 15 bullets total in my backpack. I prop myself against the wall by a large window, training my shotgun at a gas canister near the door. The decked out player peeks around the corner. He's wearing a giant black leather jacket, a motorcycle helmet and bad 90's biker sunglasses. He looks hilarious.

    Decked out player notices my shed. I have no idea if the gas canister will kill me when I shoot it, or if it will explode at all. I lay totally still and watch him through the window as he hovers near the door. We both remain still like this for a long time, listening to the silence.

    Then - he leaves. And I sprint away and hide under a large rock where I'm unceremoniously run over by some asshole in a dune buggy.

    Is "this game makes my hands real sweaty!" a good descriptor for why I love it? Even playing the regular Xbone game, which is easily the worst way to play, is an experience and a half.

  • Tacoma is more or less the inverse of Fullbright's Gone Home and their original breakout project, Minerva's Den. Those games are about the multi-faceted life of a single person put in a difficult situation. Tacoma is about the lives of a half dozen nice (suspiciously nice, if you ask me) people who live in the rubble of un-compromised capitalism, and the game takes delight in the nature of plot and linearity. The core mechanic of Tacoma is entirely predicated on learning what happened to its cast of extremely morally good, hardly flawed (hmmm) people. Only two major characters have an especially impactful arc, and even then we only get to learn so much about them.

    I kind of loved the sensation of looking at a timeline, identifying the blank spots on that timeline, and then figuring out where each character was and when they were there. It's a satisfying storytelling mechanic. The only way to progress is to understand a moment from every possible angle.

    Like all Fullbright Games, Tacoma is at once depressing and deeply hopeful. Stumbling onto a pamphlet for the Buffalo, New York campus of Amazon University is one of my moments of the year for an uneasy pit in my stomach.



    POST/CAPITALISM is not a rigorously drawn progressive road map, more a series of 'if A, then B, then C' arguments that force the player to re-examine 'that's just how things are-isms.' Regardless of the player's politics, POST/CAPITALISM's form makes for a wonderful interactive essay. Plenty of Americans tie capitalism and freedom implicitly, but it is a system with non-subjective flaws that too-often are left unaddressed in mainstream political discourse. POST/CAPITALISM's Point, Counterpoint, Counterpoint structure does a great job of, in a *very* general sense, exposing those flaws and suggesting alternatives.

  • There isn't a single element of Biohazard that isn't cribbed from some other entry in the Resident Evil series or from another franchise altogether, but PT's cancellation has made me so thankful for Biohazard's existence. This is a smartly made thriller that extrapolates our fear of what lives in that abandoned shack or dilapidated mansion in the woods. It revels more in its molded, soiled landscape than it does in its monsters, and the game is so much stronger for it. Scenes in which the player is forced to confront the Big Bad are nowhere near as effective as those early moments where you hear the heavy 'thunks' of footsteps coming from the garage across the hall, or when you find a dirty VHS simply labelled 'happy birthday' next to a flickering television.

    *small spoiler below*

    Also what was up with dude's hand? Was there something I missed there, or did they just sew it back on and then it worked A-OK?

  • Have so many divergent thoughts about this game that I don't think it's possible for me to write a coherent piece about it, so here's some scattered thoughts:

    - Origins is a Homerian epic, and I've never seen that in a video game before. Plenty of games are 'epics' but most of them are designed in a 'fantasy epic' mode that prioritizes long term politicking and interpersonal relationships. Origins is more old world mythmaking: one remarkable hero, driven by a stringently defined system of ethics, travels around Egypt solving problems as he follows the trail of a conspiratorial cult. And that's really neat.

    - Origins recreates Egypt with a profound attention to detail. Because this is an Assassin's Creed game you could reasonably dismiss Origins' simulacra of ancient Egypt as the world's prettiest window dressing, but at a certain point, you'll still be calling it the world's prettiest *something.* It's an undeniable work of art.

    - Origins adds harsh RPG leveling to a franchise whose combat has historically been defined by the hilarious ease with which the player can commit mass murder. What this means in practice is that the player can still very much commit mass murder with ease, so long as they're appropriately leveled to deal with a given area. Every area with enemies is now heavily level-gated, and being underleveled in this game is no joke. If you're so much as three or four levels lower than an enemy, assassinations straight up just *don't work.* Dudes will quite literally grab the knife from our of their own neck and throw you to the floor for more damage than you just output. It is *wild.* This has two huge ramifications: first, it fundamentally undercuts the 'open world' aspect of the game. It's not quite an 'open' world if every single element of it is gated off until the player completes a series of linear challenges. Second, it disallows the player to opt out of challenges they might otherwise dislike, because XP is at such a premium in the game.

    - Bayek is almost certainly the best protagonist in the series' history, if not Ubisoft's. He is a man compelled by grief and rage, yet he's not humorless. Origins' depiction of grief, generally, is its strongest narrative component. In a world defined by harsh injustice and senseless tragedy, grief is as common an emotion as joy or love. All are felt equally, all are a perpetual subject of discussion.

    - All of Origins' loot mechanics are transparently habit-forming, lizard brain, manipulative garbage. You're constantly picking up new maces, swords, bows, whatever, and weighing incremental changes to your damage outputs based on whatever trash you've picked up off the ground. Loot mechanics in video games are the equivalent of miniature slot machines and they are bad. Point blank. Origins happens to feature a slot machine that *never fucking stops,* and I hate that.

    - This game is weirdly sexy? Sex is generally badly done in video games, but Bayek's relationship to his wife, Aya, demonstrates genuine romantic chemistry that I almost never see in video games.

    - The History Tour DLC, which allows the player to explore Origins' recreation of ancient Egypt with the a tour guide to explain a wide-ranging number of historical topics, is one of the flatout coolest things I've ever seen in a AAA video game. Hands down. It's actively better than the regular game.

    - The modern day framing in Origins is the loosest, least committal iteration of the Assassin's Creed ancient aliens-y myth they've done since Unity. They are barely managing to tie the core AC narrative together with loose string.

    - Origins' ending is baffling, but it allows the player to participate in an extremely significant historical event in a more direct way than the usual Assassin's Creed stuff where you skulk through the shadows as history unfolds around you. Origins has you straight up murder a figure from history; you *are* the history.

    - On that note, Origins' depiction of Cleopatra is tremendous. It feels broadly ahistorical, but as far as Hollywood Ancient Egypt goes they characterized her in a really fun, contemporaneous way that really worked for me.

  • The final boss of Cuphead is good. The Mr. Dice fight is...shit, man, he's a monster. We're talking a Dark Souls-level emotional experience. There's the moment of defeat - not a like, 'aw I died!' but more like, 'I died 100 times here, what is happening am I missing something' - then the realization that the task in front of you is impossible, *then* the unbelievable rush of overcoming that impossible challenge.

    This game is such a joy to play.

  • Nidhogg II adds a layer of complexity to a game that's greatest strength was its accessibility and flawless minimalist design. As a result, I have to assume it's divisive, but I actually like how frantic and somewhat complicated Nidhogg 2 is.

  • Butterfly Soup is one of the best written games of the year, but its limited scope can make it feel frustratingly inflexible. There's very little to be found in the way of player choice - while I don't think every narrative game that utilizes dialogue options must then allow the player to alter the plot, I *do* think moments in which the player can explore or interpret a character through appearance, inner monologue or mundane conversational decisions help a lot. I think I was hoping for more of that.

    This isn't to say that Butterfly Soup somehow owed me mechanics I mistakenly assumed would play a larger role in the experience. A visual novel can definitely function as what's written on the label. But Butterfly Soup can feel a bit oddly paced, and it just kind of stops once the story really gets going. There's a romantic arc that, apparently, is Butterfly Soup's A-plot (and it's good!), but I found myself more enamored by just about every other interpersonal relationship in the game.

  • Super Mario Odyssey doesn't so much cement Super Mario as a continued innovator in the AAA gaming space so much as it proves the Mario team cannot coherently interpret what the rest of the industry is doing. If you look at the specifics of Odyssey's bizarre collection of semi-cultural stages, you can see the rough (re: barely perceptible) outline of western AAA games. The open world-style cityscapes, the dramatic increase in collectibles, the radical reduction in difficulty curve, the frequent use of a photo-realistic graphical style - these all occur in a Mario game because this is where the mass global playerbase is at.

    Bven with these inclusions of the generic AAA game filtering through Nintendo's production pipeline, it's worth saying that the Nintendian filter is powerful, and the end results of Odyssey's use of AAA tropes is that they're weird in the way SEGA's Dreamcast output was weird. They re-frame the familiar from an oblique angle, and freely mash the tropes of the original franchise with the realism of the other games they're adapting, which leads to brilliant oddities like New Donk City. Does Mario traversing a garden planet full of robots who care for a world after what appears to have been a NieR:Automata-style post-apocalypse make sense? Does it cohere with the rest of the game experience aesthetically or narratively? Honestly - no! I really don't think so. I don't think it makes much sense at all, really. But I certainly enjoyed seeing it.

    Nintendo has been trying to recapture a massive audience for Mario ever since the sales for Mario games slowed during the mid-2010s. Odyssey feels like a particularly concentrated example of that goal, and in comparison to the back-to-basics approach that was exemplified by Super Mario 3D World, Odyssey is much more compelling. But I do think both Super Mario 3D World and Odyssey are missing something important in terms of their platforming mechanics: they're too clean, too safe, too trimmed to the barest essentials, too...I hate to use this word, but too Disney.

    There's something Disney-esque in the pristine design of these games that wasn't as apparent in past Mario titles, something so frictionless that it's difficult to put your finger on. I think part of my problem with it is not that Odyssey is too *easy,* per se, but that it's too simplistic - there are such a bevvy of rewards for so many simple challenges that it almost starts to feel like Odyssey is a video game playing itself.

    The deeper problem, though, lies in Odyssey's new core mechanic: using a magical hat-ghost named Cappy (sure), Mario can now, Kirby-like, become his own enemies and steal their abilities. And that sounds promising! But unlike Kirby, in which enemy abilities are merged seamlessly with a functional default toolset, Mario also adopts the speed, shape, and movement style of enemies, limiting his potential abilities as much as expanding them. In practice, the player is tasked with using alternate movesets to solve simple puzzles or traverse hostile landscapes, like a floor made of lava or a deep underwater cavern. That's about as robust as the game gets.

    Previously, a new main-line Mario game typically would make a bold decision in terms of the core Mario mechanics which would affect the entire game experience. While Odyssey certainly has its own unique voice in the Mario canon and it's an extremely enjoyable game in its own right, the moment-to-moment gameplay within it feels more restrictive than any 3D Mario title before it, because Odyssey gives the player fewer platforming tools. Mario, using his cap, can now consume and embody nearly any enemy in the game - the problem is, the limited toolsets of these enemies makes this ability feel more like selecting a series of restrictions on Mario's maneuvarability as much as they feel like they add potential, and as mentioned previously, the challenges which demand the use of these abilities are therefore dead simple. This reduces the game's core mechanic into a kind of toybox. That's fine it its own right - I like simplicity in a platformer just about as much as I like a challenge - but at the end of the day, it's a novelty.

    We can talk about the failures of a game like Super Mario Sunshine all day, but there's no denying that Sunshine's F.L.U.D.D jetpack gave the player a radical amount of vertical and horizontal post-jump control, opening up a variety of platforming possibilities unique that game. The Galaxy games, for their part, relied heavily on unusual shifts in gravity, forcing the player to re-calibrate their understanding of the game space over and over throughout each stage, enabling the level designers to seamlessly blend spectacle and challenge in equal measure. Even Super Mario 64, primordial as that game is, would shift the gameplay style dramatically now and again thanks to it's unlockable suits. Think of how the metal suit changed the dynamics of underwater levels, or how the winged cap enabled Mario to soar through open air environments. Odyssey might give the player Kirby's ability to become enemies, and that's certainly a new enough Mario trick, but rarely does this new 'verb' use the game's enemies to fundamentally shift Mario's abilities in the way F.L.U.D.D. did or the way 64's caps did. And Mario seems slower this time out, and less flexible. Odyssey is an extremely tight platformer, probably the tightest Nintendo has made since Super Mario World, but the ceiling of potential given to the player - and by this I specifically mean the ability to select a unique playstyle to overcome the game's challenges - has never felt lower.

    All that being said, it's self-evident that Odyssey's core focus isn't on the platforming gameplay experience, and if the more recent Bowser's Fury is taken as an example of what's to come, I don't think Super Mario 3D World or Odyssey's distillation of the Mario formula are a sign of more diluted Mario games on the horizon. In its own right, Odyssey is a delightful, bizarre, and sometimes ingenious adventure through a series of picturesque worlds. It is the most like a rollercoaster ride the Mario series has ever been, and it's a fun detour from the prescribed design of the rest of the series.

  • It's fascinating playing Kiwami immediately after finishing Yakuza 0, as it simultaneously enhances and detracts from the experience of seeing the first Yakuza's story retold.

    On the one hand, the beginning chapters are extremely effective. Having just spent many, many hours watching relationships build and solidify between the primary cast, the player is just as shocked as the protagonist to see how nothing is as it used to be after a ten year absence; Kamurocho itself is a colder place, more indifferent to Kiryu's presence than the lavish playground of the last game. The sense that life moved on without Kiryu's presence is palpable.

    On the other hand, the sheer scope of Kiwami is (in most respects) minuscule as compared to its more epic prologue. The story gets arguably as knotted as the last entry, but only once it reaches its final chapters, at which point it becomes a machine gun hale of savage plot twists. The approach of building a straightforward revenge plot over many hours only to reserve the real twists for the end makes perfect sense for a PS2 game, but contrasted with the otherwise pristine labyrinth of its prequel's story, it feels weirdly both threadbare and overcomplicated.

    And then there's Majima. I loved Majima in the first game, but can't quite wrap my head around his turn as The Friendly Joker, even though I understand his origin story in Yakuza 0 is actually the one at odds with Kiwami's portrayal. The 'Majima Everywhere' system, in which Majima appears in literally every circumstance to instigate a lengthy fight scene is, at first, a hilarious change of pace, but quickly wears out its welcome once it becomes clear he's an HP Sponge Grind Machine. Majima Everywhere is an inspired idea, but it costs an unforgivable amount of the player's time.

  • Hollow Knight is a brighter, gentler Dark Souls set in a 2D Metroidvania space. Like Dark Souls, it wants you to unearth a wealth of lore from a strange, surreal and hostile space, but it doesn't quite have as much to say about the human experience *outside* the game's plot as the Souls series. Similarly with its Metroidvania inspiration, Hollow Knight wants to give you just the barest core of gameplay to start so that each new power feels like a revelation, but Hollow Knight's base abilities are so barebones that each new power instead feels like one step closer to 'normal' than one step closer to powerful.

    I don't want to come across too negatively here, because I really did enjoy my time with Hollow Knight - it's just that Hollow Knight's metatextual relationship between Souls and Metroidvanias are inseparable from the experience of playing Hollow Knight, and Hollow Knight doesn't take those tropes in any meaningfully new places. Same goes for the narrative. It's good, really, and I ended up liking all the characters, but it's also nearly identical to the plot of the first Dark Souls, right down to the twist ending. It feels like Hollow Knight is a softened or even de-fanged take on its inspirations.

    It all comes together well enough that finding new spaces or meeting new side characters feels exciting, but it just never goes that one step further to transcend the games that inspired it.

    When I finished Dark Souls for the first time, I took a long walk and thought about *life.* I thought about what it means to overcome a challenge, I thought about what it means to lose yourself when you lose your will - to become *hollow* in the context of life - I thought about my friends and coworkers, the ones who still feel like there's a path to that life they imagined when we were younger, the others who fight just to keep balance and the ones dreading what tomorrow looks like. I thought about being raised catholic, and prostration, especially in the context of me, personally, having played (and quite enjoyed!) a game in which I was stressed out 85% of the time.

    When I finished Hollow Knight, I thought about Hollow Knight. I wondered which areas I failed to reach, which power-ups I never found, which secret bosses remained undiscovered. And then - as evidenced by the above - I ended up thinking about Dark Souls again.

  • A Normal Lost Phone is a phone game that, when you open the app, just opens a stylized version of a smartphone for you to excavate. It's such a great simple premise: you find an unlocked smart phone on the ground and can't resist poking around.

    Piecing together the life of the person who owns said phone, you start to learn things about them, things they hide from the people in their lives. Sometimes its as simple as what their favorite song to play on loop is, and sometimes it goes deeper: why would this person have two dating profiles on the same app? Why are some of their photos inaccessible? More pressingly, why are there so many panicked text from a number labelled as Dad? Because of our cultural obsession with capturing and presenting ourselves at every possible moment, all of these questions have a discoverable answer.

  • Breath of the Wild is a good video game that promises more than it delivers.

    Well, maybe that's not quite right.

    Breath of the Wild is a good video game that leaves a wide space for potential interpretation; more than anything, it is a Zelda game about erasing the friction of traditional video games from the Zelda format. It features an expansive, yet quiet open world dominated by lush, empty space. Characters speak plainly about objectives and side-quests. Dungeons - now referred to as shrines - are designed to stick out from the rest of the world as much as possible, and have multiplied in number to the extreme. Every aspect of Breath of the Wild's world is intuitive, unlike, say, Elden Ring, in which decrypting the purpose and function of the space is an important aspect of the experience. In Breath of the Wild, you will understand almost everything in front of you perfectly after a single encounter, if not before. It's the most knowable open world in video games.

    "Knowability" is an essential aspect of the game's design. Breath of the Wild's genius is that it features only a handful of primary mechanics, all of which are transparently video game-y, and all of which interface with a world that doesn't feel particularly video game-y. Breath of the Wild translates the core components of the Zelda series and integrates them into the generic form of the open world survival sim. Because the Zelda mechanics are so thoroughly carved into their most basic premises, the pieces fit neatly.

    To put it more simply, you're still looking for cracks in the wall so that you can set off a bomb and explore a hidden cache, but this time the cracks in the wall are integrated into the design of the world in a naturalistic fashion. You're still doing 'old Zelda stuff' - you're just doing a lot *more* old Zelda stuff, in a more limited context, over a much greater series of hours.

    Therein lies the problem. In smoothing the rough, video game-ass video game edges of the Zelda series to make it more closely resemble the form of other mega-huge open world titles, much of the old, anachronistic Zelda charm is lost. The fact that the world is reducable to a handful of interchangeable parts makes it feel small, even though it is, literally speaking, the biggest Zelda world yet.

    Past Zelda titles were set within an semi-open world that nevertheless must be tackled somewhat linearly, due to the fact that aspects of the game world are locked behind move sets, weapons or tools which are awarded to the player as dungeons are completed. See a crack in the wall that a bomb could destroy? Well, you better find out where the Gorons live so you can unlock the bombs you need to get you there.

    By contrast, Breath of the Wild allows the player to go basically wherever as soon as the game starts. This choice reinforces the 'adventure' aspect of the game in a broad sense, but it also limits gameplay and narrative potential. In a semi-linear open world game, the designers know precisely what the player can do, and can carefully adjust the challenge or subvert the player's expectations accordingly. If a player can do whatever whenever, every element of the game experience must be complete-able in any order, and that friction - well, what is this crack in the wall and what am I supposed to do about it - can't be allowed to exist. The granularity of the old Zelda games is by necessity done way with. The puzzle can't be 'what is this mechanism and how do I interface with it,' it has to be, 'ah, this is one of the six gameplay features in this game, I just need to figure out how to get there.' In making a game that so heavily favors the journey over the destination, Nintendo have made a kind of Legend of Zelda treadmill, in which the player completes one of several identical tasks again and again and again in only slightly different aesthetic contexts.

    This choice has crucial narrative ramifications, as well. 'Anything can happen whenever' fundamentally alters the possibility space of an adventure story, limiting the toolset of the storyteller. In Breath of the Wild's case, the core conflict of each side story can be reduced to a binary state: [person or place] is being affected by Calamity Ganon vs. [person or place] is no longer suffering from the effects of Calamity Ganon. The limitations of the player's toolset - combat, climbing, crafting - mixed with the nonlinear world design led Nintendo to frame all of its subplots in a kind of fairy tale mode, where characters and their motivations are one-dimensional to more easily fit within Breath of the Wild's context.

    Remember Keaton, that bizarre, lovesick kid from Majora's Mask? Keaton was this guy who fell in love with a woman right before the end of the world but, due to Zelda bullshit, was cursed to age backwards into a child, and was subsequently forced to live in obscurity as his fiancee watched the world end from her window, her wedding dress collecting dust in the corner. Remember the way towns would bustle with energy in Ocarina of Time when Link was still a child, only for them to be reduced to rubble as Link lept forward through time into adulthood? Hell, remember the way Midna's relationship with Link got gradually deeper and more complex throughout the course of that otherwise terrible game? Or the slow unveil of the nature of Wind Waker's waterlogged Hyrule?

    None of these narrative beats are possible if any essential piece of information is discoverable at any given moment. Or, maybe better put - Nintendo did not seek to design a sufficiently meaningful narrative experience around its simplification of the Zelda formula. Breath of the Wild is bigger than past titles and frequently more pleasant to observe, but it has no ambition to convey any particular concept, no urgency to engage with the player. It's a little bit of Zelda for a *lot* of time. In Breath of the Wild, enemies perpetually respawn so that you can always fight them again whenever you want. Shrines, similarly, all fulfill the same basic design premise and provide the same reward. Explore, gather, craft, destroy, spend, explore. Again and again and again.

    I have to believe that some players complete their 87th shrine, collect their 87th Zelda token (exchangeable for a nominal increase in health or stamina) and think to themselves, "that was worth doing 87 times!" This mode of interaction - casual consumption of repeated content - is probably the point. "I like this task, and I would like to do it as many times as possible," says the player. "Well, here you go!" exclaims Breath of the Wild, unveiling yet another shrine with yet another physics-based puzzle. Another lever, another ball, another guardian, another token, another heart piece.

    Breath of the Wild is, basically, The Legend of Zelda: Vacation Mode, in which the world is an infinitely recyclable to-do list and the reward is 'more tools with which to complete the to-do list." Its potential to say or do anything cannot supercede that. Maybe defeating Calamity Ganon at the end of the game with all of the Divine Beasts active feels like a *moment* to some players, but after completing the game, the only thing I kept thinking about was, 'no one in this world even knows what the Calamity is. They don't seem to really care that much about it. *I* don't really care that much about it.'

    Zelda is resurrected at the end of this game, and *instantly* upon being freed from 100 years of spirit captivity, announces that she has so much work to do. The camera zooms in to an image of one of the game's many photograph-able flora, one more element of the game world translated into a collectible that can be checked off of the to-do list. More work to do. More content to consume. Over and over, forever.

  • (Episodes 1-3)

    I'm not convinced my actions are having as much of an effect on Aradia Bay like they did last time, but I believe every second of Chloe Price's story in a more immediate way than Max's. Before the Storm shares its predecessor's occasional 'made for TV teen dialogue' issues, but it allows its protagonist to be different shades of frustrating, confused and angry. TellTale-style games often cast you as a calm, inherently neutral figure who is forced to take sides to limit or resolve conflict. Before the Storm is the first time I've been made to role play someone who is instead a defined, multi-faceted person who, in fact, lives to *instigate* conflict, even in spaces where a conflict doesn't need to exist.

    The scenes with Chloe's controlling stepfather David, and the slow but complete hold Rachel develops over her are too real. Even in episode three, which is unequivocally the low point of the franchise so far, there are moments of raw feeling that really grab me. There's a scene in which Chloe's crush, Rachel Amber, asks Chloe if she wants to run away together to California. As an adult, I intellectually understood that it was a question that made no sense and could never come together, both because I understand the impossible logistics of a choice like that *and* the constraints of modern game development, for that matter - but my heart was there every step of the way.

    There's a tenderness to Before the Storm missing from most video game storytelling, a sense that difficult people can be (and do) good, that being true to yourself sometimes means acting on instinct in the face of your better judgement. It's a sense that the most challenging situations we have to negotiate in life can take years, or decades, but that the value of doing so is indisputable. David may never fully let go of his traditionalist ideals of a stable family, for example, but standing up to his aggression doesn't also have to mean dismissing his own struggles with his life in the military, and his identity after re-entering a society he can't seem to forge a space for himself within.

    I mean - hold that guy accountable, he is the worst and sucks forever, but, you know, be a person about it.

    I was in the minority on almost every single decision Before the Storm allows the player to make. Most player's moderate Chloe's tendency to lash out, but I fail to see the point in that considering her character. Very few games allow the player to be a raw nerve, and too many encourage us to be politely noncommittal.

  • So much about Persona 5 begins to fall apart the more you pick at the awkward spots in the story, particularly the game's overarching theme of combating injustice. Throughout the course of the main plot, you encounter a series of awful men whose indiscretions become exponentially bigger and more dangerous to society. The game begins by casting its heroes opposite a pedophilic high school gym coach, but they eventually battle criminal underlords and abusive corporate CEOs, leading to a final confrontation between The Phantom Thieves and a fascistic political candidate. On the surface, this feels like the Persona series tackling contemporary subjects, but each evil person is positioned as an evil individual who, while abusing a large category of people thanks to their positions in society, are ultimately unmoored from any systemic influences that led to or even emboldened their behavior. T

    his is a game that can paint a target on systemic injustice as perpetrated through corrupt officials but which cannot, paradoxically, recognize the functions of those injust systems. Each villain in this game has a profit motive to commit their crimes - even the sex pest gym teacher can only enact his abuses thanks to the prestige (and therefore, the funds) he subsequently enables his place of work to absorb. Persona 5 depicts the effects of capitalism on systems and individuals - it has to in order to do anything with its premise at all - but it's all predicated around the evil acts of the powerful individual.

    Persona 5 is not a game about class warfare, and I wouldn't expect it to be, but at a certain point, if you are going to stage an 80+ hour RPG epic about battling social oppression, the functions and root causes of that oppression are going to need to end up being a little meatier than 'there is a metaphysical mean guy who makes other people more mean.'

    And the game makes two maneuvers I find totally frustrating: first, it waffles on the power disparities it depicts constantly, most famously by staging Ann's character arc around her sexual abuse before reducing her to the butt of a barrage of underhanded sexual jokes, but this occurs in other, subtler ways, too. For example: if you get too worried Persona 5 is going to stake a claim that the capitalist division of labor will naturally produce poor conditions for the working class in the bit of the story in which the team take down a corrupt CEO, well, don't fret too hard about it, because the corporate heiress to that CEO you took down is a permanent team member. She inherits the corporation - an event which in and of itself is reflective of a huge systemic problem - and ends her storyline by promising to open up more business under the brand name. Think the game is going to seriously consider an unjust police force in this story about a child who is wrongfully accused of a crime? There's still no need to worry - one of Persona 5's chief supporting characters and a fan-favorite romance option aspires towards a bluer life as a police commisioner at the end of her story.

    Persona 5 isn't anti-capitalist, anti-cop, anti-sexual objectification or even anti-corporate, the easiest and broadest social position for a game about rebellion to establish. No, Persona 5 is a game about befriending the good cop, the good corporatist, the good sexual harraser (here's looking at you, Ryuji). The people you fight against are also your friends, and therefore, the problems that arise throughout the plot can't be results of policy or social structure, but only of individual bad actors who can easily be brought to justice if only the right gang of precocious teens would step up to the plate and handle things.

    Persona 5 is agonizing in its narrative for this reason. I don't need Persona 5 to tackle any of this headier, weightier stuff but, well - the game fucking brought this stuff up! If you're going to tell a story about systemic injustice that ends with you effectively maintaining the status quo, I don't really know what to do with that other than mock it.

  • There were at least a few times I booted up The Witcher 3 just so I could play a few rounds of Gwent. For as intricate as the game was in its infancy as a Witcher 3 minigame, however, it was ultimately 'solvable.' By the end of the game, I had a deck that could only lose if I decided I wanted it to.

    For its hotly anticipated standalone release, CD Projekt Red has upped Gwent's complexity while retaining its ugly feudal charm. Like all TCGs, I eventually ran out of patience to keep up with it, but this is the first time I've actually enjoyed one for any length of time. It's deep without being obtuse like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh.

  • The original Crash series was a huge part of my childhood, so seeing the first 3 titles - which I played in their entirety over and over years ago - restored and remade this faithfully with just a completely alien art style over the rest of it made my head spin. It's an amazing, bizarre experience. It felt like I was reliving a memory I'd never actually had.

    Replaying these as modern games so long after the initial release does reveal more weaknesses than strengths - I'd forgotten the absurd 'find the one wall that's not actually a wall to unlock the final levels' tasks Crash 2 and 3 in particular demand of the player in order to see each game's true ending. The meat of the gameplay - the quick, wayyyy harder than it looks platforming challenges, are another matter entirely. Crash 1 more than any goes from breezy romp to "FUCK i'm going to KILL my television" difficult without warning from level to level.

    I love it though. It would've been preferable to me to just have cleaned up, HD versions of the original games in all their janky, pixelated glory, but as far as full remasters go this one feels at least spiritually in line with the original titles. A ton of fun to revisit.

  • When I began Destiny 2, I actually kind of hated it. The premise was so thin, and the game had no flair or narrative substance to speak of to keep me hooked.

    Then, very suddenly, I became obsessed with the combat mechanics and the gameplay loop and played through the majority of the campaign in two sittings.

    Like a fever dream, Destiny 2 then passed through me and I have felt zero desire to ever return to it.

    Still - that was a fun day.

  • Not to be too reductive to Ruiner, which is actually really compelling, but Hotline Miami plus Blade Runner is a real winning combo if you want me to like a thing.

    Ruiner's narrative is almost entirely dedicated towards justifying sociopathy, and when it takes a stab at saying something greater it reveals how much of the game's appeal is really in its wasp-sting combat and busted neon dystopia.

    What an aesthetic, though, and they couldn't have nailed the soundtrack any harder if they tried.

    Ruiner's developers, Reikon Games, are based in Poland. They're borrowing Japanese anime aesthetics and more or less remaking an American film, so some things get lost in translation in the script. This is somehow an asset to the narrative. The protagonist only speaks via words and images that animate on his Daft Punk helmet. The fact that they feel like they were run through Google translate makes them so much more terrifying. A few choice quotes:




    That's some good, creepy stuff right there.

  • Dead Cells' mechanics are super-fast, allow for quite a bit of creativity in play and generally feel great to experiment with. It's the rogue-like part that holds it back - no matter how many runs through Dead Cells, no matter how many new areas you discover, it always feels like you're hitting the exact same spaces with the exact same enemies. Unlike, say, Spelunky, in which the placement of a shopkeep or a princess/prince/dog might radically change how you choose to pursue a path ahead in a level, Dead Cells playthroughs are only unique to one another insofar as you might pick up a weirder sword, bow or shield than the last run. And for my money, if that's the appeal, Enter the Gungeon already exists, and commits to this idea much, much harder.

    I think the most disappointing aspect of it for me is the game's general lack of narrative. I knew going in Dead Cells was mostly devoid of plot, but what's there are thin lore fillers I could really care less about. Finally beating that last boss, getting a ton of cells, and then having the game just boot back in to the main area with little fanfare was quite the anti-climax.

  • Thimbleweed Park is special. Its the most lovingly handcrafted game of the year. I'm not sure I'm such a big fan of its intentional adventure game obscurity, but for people like me who just wanted to explore this 90s PC-Pixel world and talk to its weirdo inhabitants, the easy mode did the trick.

    This game could potentially be higher on this list had it not spent over a quarter of the game forcing me to play as Ransome The Clown, who is an out of place garbage creature who goes for laughs 9 out of every 10 lines, and succeeds 1 out of every 50 attempts. Woof. He's really terrible! He's so, so terrible.

    I loved stumbling onto the library in this game. It has quite literally hundreds upon hundreds of books, all of which are filled with text written by the game's kickstarter backers. I spent hours just wandering around reading everyone's fun little short stories.

  • Serial Cleaner is a good game with a clever conceit that was *so* close to greatness. It has the exact structure of Hotline Miami, except you're the guy cleaning up the aftermath of the murder spree instead of the one causing it. It also commits to this painted, art-deco 70's visual design that really grew on me

    Here's where it dips: you get caught by a cop, you have to redo everything. Fair enough, but the final chapters of Serial Cleaner are arduous and feature patrol patterns that inherently require some trial and error to get right. Nothing is more frustrating than spending ten minutes carefully plotting out a route through a crowded hotel only to lose instantly because someone happened to glance at you.

    On top of that, Serial Cleaner features none of the narrative qualities of the work it's subverting. The plot: you're a dork, you dispose of evidence, then it gets personal. Sure.

    You unlock bonus outfits from classic '70s films and can actually clean up murder scenes from movies like Pulp Fiction, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and A Clockwork Orange, which is a neat touch.

  • Hidden my game by mom 2 is an absurd puzzle game. It feels like an extra mode in WarioWare that didn't make the cut. Charming, fun and likable. One of the best titled games ever.

  • Hell (by ahintoflime)

    I love games that capture the feeling of existing in the surreal corners of the internet. Hell lasts for maybe six minutes total and as the product of a game jam it isn't nearly equipped enough to go anywhere with its aesthetic, but those clowns sure were rude.

  • I guess this is the best cover of NeoGeo's Windjammers on the market, but High Horse Entertainment made a huge mistake by stealing Rocket League's art style and aesthetic so outright. This game is a joy to play, but absolutely everything around the main mechanics is a grey slog. Part of Windjammers appeal was its beach party personality, after all.

  • (Played free levels)

    If I had bothered to pick this up, I bet it would've placed higher on my list. I'm not sure I love seeing Nintendo's cheery-eyed mascots bein' fun and stuff on my soulless black monolith of a smart phone, but I missed the feeling of having Mario in my pocket all the same and was happy to put him there again.

  • Typeshift is one puuuurdy puzzle game. I fell off this fairly quickly, though. I think its because entering an incorrect answer produces a 'you put the incorrect password into this iPhone' effect that I find frustrating.

  • NNC News

    Another fun (if somewhat obvious) narrative metaphor from a game jam. NNC News' central mechanic of censoring broadcast news scripts on the fly is sure to draw unfavorable comparisons to the more comprehensive Papers, Please, but NNC has one leg up on that dystopic indie-classic: it is bright and cheery-eyed. Its dictatorial government has an air of idiotic flamboyancy, making it a perfect time capsule for 2017.

  • This game has one of those weirdly literal titles that forces me to assume it was translated at some point? It's not, like, *wrong* or anything, but indie games are crowded and 'old guy goes around places' doesn't scream pick up and play to me.

    Old Man's Journey is cute, but didn't inspire much feeling in me one way or another. I like the idea of games like this, though, tying a puzzle game to a heartfelt, easy to follow story makes for a relaxing time.

  • Tom Nook was cuter when he wasn't after my actual money.

    But I missed having Tom Nook in my pocket, too.

  • I've struggled with how to write about Hellblade quite a bit, because I can see the appeal of its intent but strongly dislike its execution.

    It's impossible to read Hellblade as anything other than a game about schizophrenia, because Hellblade reminds you it is about schizophrenia as much as it can, as often as it can. The entirety of the game's marketing emphasizes this point, as did the game's critical response and various press cycle interviews. Hellblade begins with a disclaimer explicitly stating this point, and credits a Mental Health Adviser in the opening sequence before even the game's director, programmers, writers or performers. Hellblade insists you discuss it on the merits of its portrayal of schizophrenia before you consider it in any other light.

    So why, then, does Hellblade propagate absurd myths about mental health disorders? Why does it imply that its protagonist's schizophrenia, which forces her to perceive patterns in the world around her and take painstaking account of them, somehow gives her a special ability to succeed? Schizophrenia is a deeply affecting disorder. It can debilitate a person and ruin their life - it does not grant you special video game powers.

    All this is not to say that I think gamifying schizophrenia is somehow inherently wrong, or that its even a poor medium to communicate to an audience who do not suffer from it how schizophrenia functions. My criticism is more specific: Hellblade implies via its mechanics and narrative that its protagonist's schizophrenia has its own positive merits that allow her to exceed in certain specific areas where a person without mental health issues would not.

    This is simply not true. Schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders, are *disorders.* They demand empathy, patience, and a great deal of hard work on the person who suffers through them. I don't want to detail an experience that I do not have as someone who does not have schizophrenia, but Hellblade feels to me to be particularly backwards thinking.

    Even discussing the game in terms of pure mechanics, my jaw genuinely dropped once I realized Hellblade is, for all intents and purposes, an extremely glossy hidden object game. It tasks the player to spend significant amounts of time walking slowly and silently staring at walls, twigs, and other random environmental paraphernalia. What an atrocious core mechanic that is. The game's combat sequences, on the other hand, look weighty and consequential, but there's something incredibly hamfisted to me about a metaphor in which someone battles their demons via swordfights in their head.

    I can understand why someone might praise Hellblade for its intent, or at least the obvious attempt at sympathy from its developers writ large for those suffering from severe mental health problems; but I'm frankly baffled that anyone would finish this game and feel that it was a comprehensive, or even simply a helpful assessment of its subject matter. Would love to hear from someone who did.


    A simple but clever little art piece about how language is gendered.

  • I have a ton of respect for Friday the 13th's structure, as I think it does an incredible job of distilling the action and tone of a slasher film to a competitive video game. That said, it's a bit too much of a cartoon to terrify, and far too slow for more than a few one-off sessions. Hiding in closets from some janky Jason-wannabe can only be so fun. Props to the cabin mode in this game, which acts as a kind of interactive museum of both the game's development and franchise's history.

  • (Played for less than two hours)

    An adorable but surprisingly stressful ranching sim where you collect happy little goo balls so you can harvest their poop.

    I was having a good time exploring Slime Rancher's compact little world, but I was accruing slimes way faster than I was accruing food. I didn't even know they needed food. My farm, which was once fun and carefree, was starting to resemble a Saw warehouse. Without anything to sustain them, my slimes started to get visibly depressed, so much so that even releasing them into the wild wasn't enough to keep them alive - they were just too weak. I felt bad so I ran out late at night to forage for food, but I have no idea where I was supposed to find it and I could only come up with a couple chickens and some carrots, hardly enough to feed almost 50 of these weird little guys.

    When I came back my slimes were being eaten alive by bigger, tar-colored goo balls with yellow eyes. I started panicking and used my slime gun to blow them off of the nearby cliff side. This attracted their attention, and they promptly started taking bites out of me. I couldn't manage everything fast enough, and my attempts at keeping them off of both myself and my critters were failing fast.

    On the edge of death, barely keeping the hoard of gooey cannibals at bay, I sprinted towards the refuge of my house. Before I entered, I turned to glance back at my happy farm, which had been sundered. A chorus of terrified squeaks and the wet sounds of biting masked my footfalls as I collapsed into the front door and fell asleep.

    When I awoke all but four of my slimes were left alive, and they were literally starving, sulking around the now empty space where their companions used to run, jump and poop.

    I will never play Slime Rancher again.

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda is everyone's favorite video game disaster. Beyond the relentless combat scenarios, the pointless repetition of tasks, the staid plot, the predictably Borg antagonist and the veritable riptide of jank, there is only one truly unforgivable thing in Andromeda, one sticking point that actually remained locked in my craw, and that is the introduction of its only new species, the Angara, who are a race of plastic Avatar ripoffs. This entire game is predicated on the notion of science and discovery, and the only discovery we're allowed to have is that existence looks a lot like a SyFy original movie across the universe.

    We also get to learn that the Angara use ancient yet bewilderingly advanced tech from a centuries-old civilization, which we're told is dangerous. The very first Mass Effect game taught this exact lesson within, no joke, the first hour of the game, and it takes Andromeda upwards of 50 hours to reach this obvious conclusion.

    Even if the new species is generic and bad, the new locale still had the potential to be a memorable frontier. It is not. We learn everything about the Andromeda galaxy from the Angara, and it - like its denizens - has no identifiably unique features whatsoever.

    Even the presentation of all this is bad. The game's most important narrative moment has you opening up diplomatic relations with the Angara on their home planet, and it lasts six minutes somehow.

    "So aliens *do* exist, huh?" ask the Angara.

    "Yeah, dude" you reply.

    "Are you gonna Borg us like those other guys?"

    "No, I've been shooting them for 20 hours now, so definitely not."

    "Ok. Goodbye."

    I spent 70 hours playing Andromeda. I would not have done so had the combat not worked so well and the rest of the game worked so poorly. The truest simulation of discovery Andromeda can offer is wondering when and where it will break, and what will happen once it does.

    My favorite moment with it happened during a poetry open mic at a bar on the Nexus, Andormeda's massive space station hub area. I could hear a nervous Turian preparing to read something, but when I looked at the stage he was standing eerily still with his arms locked at his sides. He was accompanied by the event's host who, also eerily still, stared me dead in the eye from across the room.

    Nothing about this is unusual so far - the quality of animation in Andromeda is low, so these little incidental scenes are usually stilted. The Turian begins his poem, and after only a few short lines takes a step away from the center of the stage, towards the left. The host then, as if on cue, walks offstage - but she's still staring me dead in the eye through the crowd.

    Suddenly, the Turian turns to the left and then stumbles into the audience. He's just standing around the tables now, and does all this without missing a beat of the poem. He approaches a random table and begins colliding with a seated audience member, stopping right in front of her, continuing his long pointless screed in a calm, loud voice until the reading is finally finished.

    He looks off into the distance like a poorly programmed automaton - which, I suppose, he is. After this point, I'm pretty sure he ceases to exist in the game, so maybe he was spending his final moments reflecting on the importance of good scripting.

    A single person begins to clap for the performance, and the seated NPC, still in mid-collision with the Turian, takes a long swig from her glass.

    All that said? It plays great and, I know this sounds odd, but I had a blast watching Andromeda's creaky ship get tossed by the storm again and again. Funniest game of the year?

  • Fractured Minds is a first-person indie narrative in which the player navigates a series of day-to-day situations brutally redesigned under the guise of a vaguely defined mental illness. This game has its heart in the right place, but from a gameplay perspective the followthrough on the mechanics isn't there, and from a narrative perspective, the scenarios feel a bit thin considering what the game wants to do.

    For example: one sequence in Fractured Minds features a busy city street filled with speeding cars and abstracted pedestrians that walk in an endless single-file line in and out of the play area. While intellectually I can pick up on what the sequence is doing and how it's meant to represent the isolation, anxiety and paranoia of mental illness in what otherwise might be a generic environment for the average person, it's also transparently mechanical and only gestures towards what *might* be a perspective resultant from latent mental illness. I can understand it from the perspective of its designers, but it doesn't engender any great feeling within me otherwise.

    If anything, I think the sequence represents a totally rational perspective regardless of the implication of the mental health narrative framework. Most city streets, at least in America, are hostile to the pedestrian by design, and the social framework of American society is such that, yes, citizens of these cities are packed in an urban sardine can and very much taught to intentionally disregard their fellow man. Any city within a capitalist framework is going to feature the 'winners' and 'losers' of the capitalist game more transparently than in areas in which the classes are kept from one another, so it's not really a critique to say that American cities in particular are, by design, grotesquely anti-social spaces that naturally lead to outcomes in which desperate people are rendered invisible and affluent people are not - it's a simple descriptor of reality. What this sequence does to extrapolate on the *unique* experience of someone existing within this framework differently *because* of their mental illness is theoretical, or at least, interpretable to the degree that the player can freely fill in the blanks along those lines with whatever they happen to already perceive as a function of mental illness regardless of the game and its narrative.

    Take any number of Fractured Minds' sequences and really think about what you're being shown. Another sequence features a tiny, flooded apartment building with roaming searchlights that hunt for the player. The fear, it seems, is over surveillance. Again, if you live in America, you *are being surveilled in this mode.* There are cameras on every device, most of which steal your data thanks to mandatory EULAs without your understood consent. It does not indicate a mental illness in you, at all, if you feel anxiety about that.

  • I thought Telltale had hit a new low with their original Batman storyline, but this sequel is arguably worse. The Enemy Within is the goofiest undercover cop story I've ever seen in my life. Bruce goes undercover with some villains in the hopes of nabbing a bunch of supervillains at once. A lot of people subsequently get put at risk for no reason. The Joker gets recast as a kind of goofy nerd with a dark side, and the game tells you over and over that your actions might assuage him from turning into a mass murdering clown serial killer - this is never true. He will always turn into the exact same character, your choices are meaningless. Pretty bad stuff.

  • For Honor is a tremendously cheesy game of alpha male/female brutality. Knights fighting Samurai fighting Vikings; cool, I guess. I love the mechanical juxtaposition of the dynasty warrior smash 'em up and the simple competition of rock paper scissors. Yet, there's something so doofy about the character models. Player characters are double-sized humans relative to infantryman and it looks...bad.

  • HQ is actually not very good as a trivia game. Its entire appeal lies in the zietgeist of its existence. I feel like every game I've played in it so far has been structured to begin with two or three questions like this:

    1. Which of these animals lays eggs?

    A. Human Beings

    B. Chickens

    C. The City of Baltimore

    And then immediately transitions to this:

    What style did this famous European architect from the 1400s pioneer?

    A. Obscurism

    B. You should've payed more attention in universityism

    C. A third entry that sounds identical to Obscurism (how are all of these trick questions, why am I so stupid)

  • I don't hate Wildlands. I actually think its world design is lush and fun to look at, and mechanically the game is far from awful. But I get such a bad taste in my mouth from Tom Clancy games anymore. Say what you will about Clancy as an author, but his - well, his 'brand,' I guess you'd call it - used to be far from all the military ra ra-ing it's become.

    Besides that, Wildlands really needed to be more than one more Ubisoft open world power fantasy, but that's exactly what it is. No more, no less.

  • Yet another idle/city building game. World of Tomorrow's got sharp visuals, a script purportedly from Futurama's original writing staff, and enough nostalgia for the show's original FOX run to keep it afloat for a long while.

    It is also an unmitigated disaster. Because this became my 'I just woke up and want to watch a bar get longer' game this year, I had a vested interest in seeing it get better after its janky, lackluster launch. It didn't. Each new addition or special timed event Worlds of Tomorrow presents to the player is more mechanically and technically broken than the last.

    The economy is an insane mess. Like many players, I've been at the money and experience cap for months, which the developers have attempted to address by exorbitantly price hiking new buildings. That's all fine and well, but they can't add these expensive buildings fast enough for me to not just hit the cap again immediately. For special events, new characters (who are available for a limited time) have special forms of currency which, paradoxically, are almost impossible to accrue before they disappear forever. They are a huge hassle to get, and even spending your time on multiple play sessions every day is far from a guarantee that you'll unlock most of them.

    What's more hilarious is that, like all idle games, Worlds of Tomorrow allows you to spend real money in lieu of their pizza-money nonsense, but the prices are fucking nuts. The most D-Tier, barely-remembered robot from 4 seasons ago can cost up to $50-$70 of real world cash. So what does a new character actually get you, other than the benefit of their presence in your city? 3-5 poorly compressed audio clips of dialogue from the show - and sometimes, because the game is glitchy as hell, they don't even do that right away.

  • (Virtual Beggar)

    This is a clicker that condescends to the homeless. My top 10 list will almost certainly be a deluge of anti-corporate narratives, and I think there's some divine poetry in my inability to find anything worse to play this year than a predatory game about pointless wealth accrual.