By Sunjammer 2 Comments
It’s hard to write about pleasure in 2017 without acknowledging what that pleasure stands in contrast with. It’s no exaggeration to say that in my 36 years as a conscious human being I have never felt as unsure about the world I live in as now. It’s tempting to hang the gold medal for why this is on a single individual, but if all the world’s chaos, disenfranchisement and uncertainty could be chalked up to a single wealthy idiot with a direct line to vomit his vapid misanthropic poison into our heads, it would at least be something that could be managed with patience and a sense of humour. Instead, you-know-who has become a sort of symbolic hub about which spokes of other basic human evils revolve, amplifying a style of discourse and mistrust and faith in a fundamentally pessimistic weltanschauung that has been steadily building essentially since the internet became a household thing.
This was the year it became impossible to hold your ears and shut your eyes and la-la-la your way out of the realisation that humanity in the west has been steadily disconnecting from itself, that the worst aspects of free market economy and mass media driven consensus reality has divided people into fiercely adversarial communities, and that perhaps big budget entertainment and the way social media pushes the myth that we are all somehow the same people no matter where we are is a coat of slick corporate paint more suited to pushing product to a global market than it is to crafting global solidarity and a feeling of belonging with one another. This was the year the symptoms became so loud we must consider the root causes.
In other words, It’s been hard to play wonderful video games and not at the same time wonder if we aren’t simply entertaining ourselves into oblivion with myths of villains, heroes, progress and triumph against evil. On a more personal note, this was also the year I was diagnosed with a debilitating disease, one that I’m still learning to cope with.
It’s not been great.
These are the games that brought me comfort and joy this year, some viscerally, some intellectually, and one to the point of tears. They are in no particular order, and some are not even from this decade.
Super Mario Odyssey
I have really mixed feelings on this game. Overwhelmingly positive, but wistful still. It’s a beautiful 3D platformer that despite ambitions of accessibility is really playable only to players of 3D platformers, filled with nostalgic references that are tailored to the hearts of a very specific demographic of people, or even an age group of players. Compared to the open-faced friendliness of 3D World, Odyssey is a love letter to those that played Super Mario 64 or those that have been with the franchise since the 80s, to the point where some elements of the game lean on feelings of nostalgia that are blatantly irrelevant to newcomers. It’s a perfectly playing game, obscenely polished and brimming with attention to detail that tells you the people that worked on the game loved it dearly. But it’s also a game that feels like a letter goodbye. It is a game I played very carefully, very slowly, because I’m not sure there will be a lot more games like it, and especially not a lot of games that are so ebullient about how old they are, or so aware of the heartstrings of the players that more than anything wish themselves back to a different time.
X-Com 2: War of the Chosen
I didn’t like X-Com 2 very much. It was a buggy, bland looking game filled with design choices that actively made the game stressful to play, and sometimes simply unpleasant to play. I did finish the campaign but the idea of replaying on iron man or a higher difficulty was out of the question. This was a game that would routinely drop utterly insane bugs on you that all but necessitated save games as a safety net: No, purists, I’m not going to accept an enemy that teleports across the map and gets a melee kill in before three overwatch shots go off. When a game about judiciousness disregards the rules that allow you judgment, I’m out. The expansion fixes nearly all of this by turning the game into G.I. Joe action figure mayhem. By the midpoint of the game you are swimming in super-powered units wielding bizarre alien weaponry, you’ve gone down random-chance research paths that can significantly extend the shelf-life of outdated classes of weaponry, you’ll have significantly more units you care about because of a system of battle fatigue that keeps rotation high, and you’ll be egged on by memorable villains that genuinely seem to want to get you. If you didn’t love the original X-Com 2, I don’t blame you. But War of the Chosen is less an expansion pack and more an overhaul, and it made the game truly wonderful.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
All this talk of The Last Jedi made me want to remember why I used to love the franchise so much, because right now it just feels like a bland merchandise machine. Clearly Star Wars was always a merch factory, but the quality of said merch seems to have dropped drastically, more concerned with maintaining the company line than expanding the universe and inspiring affection. I had to check myself to see if this was true, and the Star Wars game dearest to my heart was always TIE Fighter. A quick download from GOG later confirmed it. If you want to experience why Star Wars and in turn Lucasfilm Games were so beloved in the 90s, TIE Fighter is a hell of a reminder: This is DOS-era PC gaming given Nintendo-levels of TLC, with stellar presentation, immaculate understanding of the threshold from entertainment to simulation, coupled with an understanding of the franchise so confident it stands shoulder to shoulder with any movie, book or comic. TIE Fighter is to this day a great playing, great looking Star Wars game, filled with memorable and evocative moments that put any recent title to shame.
Thief 2 is like the car I got when I was a teenager and I’m still maintaining and tinkering with it, making sure it runs and plays beautifully. At this point it’s clear that it’s one of my top 5 favourite games of all time, and I’ve been eager to play it from the couch with a good TV and sound system. This year I’ve been working on building what I feel is the ultimate Steam Controller layout for Thief 2, replaying the game again and again to perfect it, and it’s been an absolute blast. The wonderful levels still hold up, the atmosphere of blocky polygons and perfect 3D audio hold up, the narrative holds up, and since it’s such a slow and steady game, it plays beautifully in pitch blackness on a 50" TV, just the way it played beautifully in pitch blackness on a CRT monitor when I was a kid. Thief 2 is masterclass immersive sim stealth gaming and every time I start it back up I’m instantly transported back to that time when games like these were even conceivable, and the mere act of sitting still in shadows listening for distant footsteps was enough to convince me I was committing a transgression. Thief 2 is timeless craft.
Tooth & Tail
Tooth & Tail has the best voice work I’ve heard all year, bar none. The fantastic soundtrack aside, the way these creatures bark made-up slavic at each other is so convincing it conveys the themes of the game just as well as the gorgeously hand-painted, hand-pixelled art. It’s a brilliantly clever rapid fire RTS with a vicious and strong theme of survival and starvation, an RTS with every core genre concept intact short of a tech tree that plays with so few buttons involved it would play perfectly with one Switch joy-con alone [insert begging for a Switch version here]. Tooth & Tail is just a blast to play, fun to look at, great to listen to, cheap to buy: There wasn’t a better RTS this year.
Rutger Hauer is the worst part of this game, and that should be saying a lot, because he’s Rutger Hauer and nothing Rutger Hauer is ever bad. Ageing, tired, not super-interested Hauer is your guide through a dystopian sci-fi nightmare of an adventure game that thrives on overwhelming density of image and screwing with your head. It is ugly, disturbing, sad, impressive, repulsive and fascinating as all hell. While some of the Blade Runner references are on the nose, the game quickly finds a voice of its own that is considerably crueller and meatier than the skylines of its inspiration, reminding me at times of that other amazing indie nightmare, Stasis. If you like your techno-dystopias with a healthy dose of body horror and mind-fuckery (the game has a blood-vision mode), Observer will keep you well fed.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
The first game in this series had me beyond impressed with its world-building, its sense of scale and its harkening back to the single player MMO feel of Final Fantasy 12 (aka. the best one). Excellent storytelling, gorgeous music and the sheer enormity of its world made XC the first modern JRPG since the PS2 era to really capture my heart. Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U is a sprawling masterpiece of exploration and scale but felt more like a spinoff than a sequel, so my hopes were high for XC2 to be a real return. I am approaching 200 hours in XC2 and I’m still not sure if it takes place in the same world as XC or not, because it doesn’t feel like I’m close to the end. This game _goes_. I don’t think anyone in the industry does scale the way Monolith does, and XC2 introduces worlds that are almost impossibly huge, and then makes them swim through a sea of billowy clouds. The story lacks the emotional core of XC, and many of the characters are too Anime to really care about, but the welcoming, beautiful enormity of its worlds keep me going back for just another run through those grassy hills. The combat system is a chaotic mess that takes dozens of hours to fully open up, the compass and map system is hot garbage, the way you unlock new weapons by essentially random chance is more often disappointing than anything else, yet all of these negatives pale when the game is taken in as a whole. Combatting deep depression, this is a game that falls over itself to show you wonder and keep you lost in its vastness of systems and sights, and I’m so grateful it exists.
Confession: I have never finished a Persona game. They just go on forever and often I feel their core narratives suffer when compared to the more intimate narratives of their individual characters. Persona at its best is the time spent with its characters, and while the combat systems and RPG mechanics are polished and satisfying on their own, the grinding of the RPG sections can come at a cost of the affection you have for the world. I was glued to Persona 5 for well over 150 hours, and the moment I decisively fell off it was after I had felt the basic story between my character and his friends had been concluded in favour of the bizarro world-threatening story propelling it all along. I reached a fight that tipped from hard to annoying, and decided I simply didn’t care all that much about how it all ended: The moments I had had with the other characters of the game made the experience worthwhile on their own, and so I let the game go with a clear conscience. It’s no Persona 4 — It’s too aloof and obsessed with appealing to angsty teen mentalities about how bad adults are — but it’s a hell of a great place to hang out.
Dead Cells is a remarkable achievement in playability: Gorgeous presentation aside, Dead Cells plays better than I ever expected it to, with every run becoming a balletic mix of deliberate, brutally lethal combat and lightning quick platforming, through levels that skirt the precise limit separating the procedural from the hand made, giving you just enough familiarity to inspire confidence and enough of the unknown to where you’re still measured in your approach. Dead Cells played fantastically from its earliest release on Early Access, and it’s only been getting better and better. It’s been the perfect game for a breakfast run or a run before bed, a nice way to bookend a day, and I’m so glad it exists.
This game is perhaps the best realisation of the immersive sim created to date. A game that after a short preamble truly sets you free on its world, letting you craft your own play style among myriads of interesting systems and choices. This is visible in the small things, like its world-breaking stair-and-bridge-building goo gun, and in the bigger things, like how it leaves you with numerous goals to achieve with no true north as to which one of them is going to give you narrative progress or just a cool upgrade or more world to digest. The setting of Talos 1 is System Shock reimagined by the artists that built Dishonored, a gorgeous golden dream of steel and glass and leaves, and bizarre monsters that can feel truly alien to engage with (although they aren’t particularly frightening despite the game’s best attempts). I loved every moment of this game, I loved its twisted sense of freedom, its capacity for cruelty and empathy, its fatalistic world view, its way of designing a world where an air vent from one room to another isn’t clearly placed there just to fill a charter of “alternative paths” but because it belonged there. Prey is a modern classic, and well worth play and replay.
I don’t play games online almost as a rule. Other people are the worst, especially in a competitive environment, but somehow I’ve got more hours in Splatoon 1 and 2 than I can count. It’s just too much fun to be spoiled: a playground snow-fight madhouse of colour and energy that served as an exacting contrast to the bleakness the real world kept serving up daily. The motion controls for aiming are game-changers that it shocks me are not the standard in shooting games these days, they’re just that good. The presentation is peerlessly fun, the new maps are great, the old maps are great, the co-op Salmon Run is breathlessly intense and satisfying, and Nintendo’s steady trickle of new content keeps the sequel continuously fresh. I adore this game.
Breath of the Wild
Within 20 minutes of starting this game, I was getting emotional. I was stalking through a small forest on the game’s beginning area, The Great Plateau, hunting for wild boar. The game was quiet but for the rustling of leaves and wildlife, a setting sun visible through the softly moving canopy of leaves. In the real world, I was sitting indian-style in bed, my new Switch cradled in my lap, headphones on. I was in the middle of my first encounter with multiple sclerosis; Most of my left side was numb, standing left me off balance, and my fingers felt sluggish and unresponsive. I didn’t know what it was yet, and I was terrified. Using the motion controls I gently aimed my bow at the boar and let off. I hit it, but failed to make the lethal critical shot, and it bolted into the undergrowth. Swearing I got out from my hiding spot and simply started running after him trying to land more arrows as it darted to and fro into the distance. I was determined to hunt this boar so I could cook a recipe I’d found at a cabin nearby, but my bumbling pursuit had me running straight into a Moblin camp. I was delighted to see the Moblins focus their attentions on “helping me” take down the boar, and once they’d completed my hunt for me they went to go back to sleep, letting me quietly take the meat.
Breath of the Wild is just full of stories, and everyone’s stories seem different. My favourite moments of the game involved climbing. As kids, I think, we have a more natural relationship to the earth simply by being smaller. It is more natural for us to touch the world than it is to stride across it. Breath of the Wild reminded me of climbing trees, of pulling grass out of the dirt, of that good feeling bruises used to represent. My hours of scrambling up hills, cliffs and trees in this game lifted me out of darkness and actual fear. This game felt magical, alive and most of all, it felt like it wanted me well. This game wanted me to go out there and play. That first night with the game, climbing a tree in those woods to look at the horizon, I had a moment of just listening to the wind, the grass, and I could almost, just almost, feel that dirt under my fingernails again. That nostalgia was so overpowering I couldn’t hold back tears. Breath of the Wild is not just my game of the year, it’s the game of years. One of the best games I have ever played. It’s a genuine treasure.