2017! What an unmitigated dumpster fire. Which I know is about as far from a hot take as you can get, but my point is this: somehow, escapism became a counterbalance. Some of the best games (and films, and movies, and albums, and books) came out this year, as if artistic antibodies hurried to fight the geopolitical garbage being piled at our doorstep.
And gaming over delivered. Between the astounding success of the Nintendo Switch and the odd but earnest rallying cry Wolfenstein II made in a year when Nazi’s made a comeback, the world of gaming somehow managed to both distract and edify. So without any more delays, here are my top ten games of 2017. It was a good year for games, and frankly, here’s why.
10. PLAYERUNKNOWN’s Battlegrounds
You’ve heard of Battlegrounds, right? The messy, crunchy, sprawling game that started as a mod and ended up selling over 20 million copies since launching this year. The elevator pitch is simple: you and 99 other people (real people, not NPCs) parachute onto an enormous island, and the last player (or team) alive wins. You can leap out of the plane at any time, and you have nothing but the clothes on your back. Essentially, it’s Battle Royale meets The Hunger Games, meets janky physics and aggressively homophobic public voice chat (seriously, turn voice chat OFF). The Xbox One release recently was a buggy trainwreck and still managed to sell over a million copies in three days. It’s a crude, weird monster of a game, but it’s here because of the incredible stories you and your friends will emerge with after playing, and because as far as bloody, brutal playgrounds go, it’s the best.
A couple of years back, artist David O’Reilly made Mountain, an indie game in which you stare at a procedurally generated, ever-evolving Mountain. Mountain is sublime, but it’s about as pared back as a game can get. This year, he released Everything, which lets you play as… everything. Part open world, part meditation, part philosophy lecture, Everything is joyous, sprawling, contemplative and goofy in equal measure. It does what O’Reilly promised: it lets you become anything around you, from dust mites to cars to buildings. In many ways, it’s like Battlegrounds; it’s a big, messy toy box, but Everything seems to try and teach you something – that we’re all in this together. It’s a hell of an experience to immerse yourself in, this year of all years.
Tacoma is set on an abandoned space station, and made me cry like an idiot baby. Fulbright, the developers of Gone Home, have created a very short, very sharp, fantastically immersive… walking sim, I guess? I hate that this genre (encompassing games like Firewatch) has been dismissed as “Walking Sims”, as if the absence of combat or platforming somehow takes away the “game” element. If you’re looking for a deeply engaging, profoundly personal narrative experience where you genuinely feel a great deal of agency, without needing to flee from a face hugger or stomp an alien nightmare to custard. It’s a touching piece of storytelling, and you’ll love it.
7. RESIDENT EVIL 7: Biohazard
Somehow, RE7 was the best horror game I’ve played in years! The reason? It learned what it needed to from the classic Resident Evil games, and married it with the atmosphere and pacing of the best Japanese cinematic horror. It’s less an action game, and more a first person horror RPG; it genuinely manages to combine story and scares in such a way that I had to play it through twice to wring everything I could from it. Here’s a recommendation, though: play it with Japanese dialogue and English subtitles. The Japanese voice actors do a much better job, and it adds that extra layer of “Oh shit, shit, shit, I’m trapped in a Japanese horror film”. Bring a towel.
6. What Remains of Edith Finch
Another “walking sim”, Edith Finch is as cinematic as Tacoma, but more expansive. It’s a deceptively kaleidoscopic foray into a family beset by tragedy, and, again, made me sob heavily at points. There are certain story beats that, for some reason, cinema doesn’t seem capable of pulling off for me anymore; Edith Finch had me whooping and gasping to myself the entire time. It’s an absolute delight, and won’t take you more than a couple of hours to finish.
5. Yakuza 0
The Yakuza series is one I never delved into, but the hallmarks were familiar to me already: small open-world hubs, side content, melodrama and spammy button-mashing combat, as well as an operatic story that spanned decades of intrigue within the Japanese crime underworld. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the series, and good GOD did it have me from start to finish. The side content is a delight, ranging from touching to parodic, but the main story (which hops between the two playable protagonists) was beyond riveting. Yakuza 0’s strength is it’s story, and it’s characters, who laugh, cry, scream and bleed with such poe-faced earnestness you can’t help but cheer them on right up until the credits roll.
4. Hollow Knight
This year, I finally learned to love Metroidvania games, and it’s all thanks to this polished, creepy, perfect game from Adelaide studio Team Cherry. Hollow Knight is part Dark Souls, part goth Pixar, part Castlevania; a gradually unlocking map woven together by hard-earned shortcuts, like an ornate puzzle box. Vague story beats conveyed by cryptic NPCs. An upgrade system that alters your play-style without making you overpowered. Oh, and an utterly beautiful soundtrack. Hollow Knight is one of those games you’ve likely been begged to sink your teeth into by fellow game enthusiasts, but here’s a tip: it hits the Switch early next year, so if you have one, hold on a little longer.
3. Persona 5
I was begged by some friends of mine to get the most out of the fading brilliance of the PS Vita by clocking Persona 3 and 4. What are they, I asked, as their jaws dropped? Well, they explained, incensed, they’re games where you go to school in Japan by day, and fight supernatural threats at night. Sort of like Hogwarts, I said! BETTER, they yelled. So that’s what I did. I played them both, and learned to love them. Persona 5, however, was something else entirely; part heist game, part best friends sim, part dungeon crawler, part Japanese Hogwarts, and all done with the fluidity and stylishness of the Cowboy Bebop opening credits, P5 blew me away. Also, because it takes place over a school year, I have only this week finished it. It’s long. Really, really long. It’s a big commitment, but it’s one of the most enthralling, rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
2. Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is what you’d get if you blended up Zelda with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. There are moments where you’re standing on a hill, grass moving in the wind, not a soul in sight, and a single piano note is heard. Then, just as quickly, it fades away. The thing Breath of the Wild does better than any of the Elder Scrolls games does, in terms of a sense of adventure, is it doesn’t fill your plate. You can jump around between shrines and chase the occasional side quest, sure, but once you’ve cleared the gorgeous opening hours of the game and have entered the world proper, your log presents you with an abstract and simple goal: defeat Ganon. And that’s it. It’s on you to figure out how. And so that’s what you do!
You’re forced to engage that part of your brain that was weaned off actual adventure and exploration by endless iterations of Skyrim, re-released every year for what feels like close to a century now. Link gets no XP, and his weapons break, so combat becomes a tactical decision. Grass burns and creates updrafts that can be used to float on your glider; metal gear attracts lightning. Everything has a physical relation to everything else, and it’s this constant interplay that gives every encounter real stakes. I’ll be returning to Breath of the Wild for many years to come.
1. NieR: Automata
NieR roared to the top of this list almost effortlessly, and is now sitting in my top ten games of all time. It’s a game about robots acting human, and humans acting like robots, and about loss, and compromise, and friendship. It’s dystopian, but it’s deeply hopeful somehow, too. The world has long been razed by a conflict with aliens, and humans have retreated to the moon. In their stead, sent to continue the war, are small crack squads of androids, who receive daily proclamations of encouragement and thanks from their distant creators. They war against feral, mindless machines in cities long since overgrown with towering forests, and filled with stray, wild animals.
Somehow, the combat (which is twitchy and fun, for sure) is the least compelling thing about NieR: Automata – this game lives and dies on storytelling, be it straightforward, meta, or environmental, all three of which the game pushes to it’s limits. And here’s the best part: there’s an ending for every letter in the alphabet. Some are goofy, some are tricky, but there are five “real” ones. Until you’ve unlocked those, you’ve not truly played the game. I’m not being an elitist here, either. Some of the best writing in the game doesn’t leak out until you’ve begun to push past the borders of the first ending).
Once the fifth “real” ending was over and the credits were rolling, I had to stand up, wipe my face off and walk around the room, punching the air like i’d just won an emotional lottery. It’s a ballsy masterpiece and if you don’t pour yourself into it’s metallic embrace, you’re missing out on the finest game released in 2017.