by Adi Stein
A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine about 2017. We agreed, like most sane people would, that 2017 had been a nightmare, largely speaking. For every piece of news that makes things seem like they might turn around, there were three fresh signs of the apocalypse. It feels like I’m protesting constantly and yet not enough. It’s like no matter what I spend my time doing, there is something else that’s more important. And based on the fact that I’ve played enough video games this year to make a top ten list, the case could be made that I’m not wrong...
But I learned a lot from my gaming experiences this year. This is probably my most diverse list of games to date. It ranges in scale from simple iOS puzzle games to huge, blockbuster, AAA games. Each of these games taught me something new about myself, and in some cases, the world around me. Hell, I would challenge you to find a more relevant and loud example of games taking a political stance than my number one game this year.
If nothing else, these games allowed me to find peace and control in a world that feels so chaotic and unwieldy. This country is just not what I thought it was. So many issues that I assumed had dissipated in the annals of time are reappearing in violent and terrifying ways. We can chalk this up to white privilege and the ever tightening liberal bubble that I find myself in, but the result is the same no matter what: I’ve never felt so out of touch with my country. As a result, finding a safe space in my home to just unwind is more important to me now than ever before.
Which brings us back to the games. I didn’t play as many new titles as I would have liked. Many are saying that 2017 is the best year for gaming in nearly a decade, but I had less time and money to spend on gaming than in most years past. So you might notice that there are a few games on this list that did not come out in 2017... But fuck it. This is my list, right? These are my favorite games that I played in this... complicated year.
10. Gang Beasts
Squeezing onto this list just in time is my favorite local multiplayer game of the 2017. We had a few people over the other night for latke making and general holiday celebration and we had a blast with this weird physics-based wrestling game. The bizarre ways in which these adorable characters grab each other and attempt to fling one another off the edge of the screen produced some of the biggest laughs I’ve had while playing a video game. Things went from adorable to horrifying and back again in no time at all. It’s chaotic in all the best ways.
9. That’s You!
I liked The Jack Box Party Pack as much as the next guy, but there are only so many games of Drawful that one person can play (not counting my wife who is literally shouting “Drawful forever!” as I type this). Which is why I was so excited that this game is as fun as it is. Taking the same “anyone with a phone can play” style, That’s You! makes things less about trying to trick your friends and more about showing how well you know them. Questions focus on personalities rather than pure facts, which makes it more about hanging out than being right. It’s a great evolution of an already really fun idea.
It’s a match three game, but with plants. Simple, straightforward, and the perfect game to play while waiting for the train. Every game starts off easy and becomes super complicated as plant types are added. I’m not big on iOS games, generally speaking, but this game cracked my top ten thanks to its great mechanics, fun sound design, and near infinite replayability. Plus it’s free, which, frankly, doesn’t hurt.
7. Wolfenstein: The New Order
I came to this game late. Too late. I’m not much of a first person shooter guy. Last year’s Doom was great, but it didn’t even crack my top ten. So the idea that a new Wolfenstein game would interest me at all seemed nearly impossible. But man oh man was I wrong. This game goes places and says things. It’s an intense experience, being the descendant of Holocaust survivors and playing a game in which you play a Jewish man who kicks Nazi ass. There’s an incredible sequence that I just can’t get out of my head: The player character, BJ Blazkowicz is tasked with breaking someone out of a concentration camp. It begins with the harrowing, over-crowded train ride that I’ve read and seen so much about as a kid growing up and ends with you exploring the concentration camp and all its forced-labor and mass murder horror. It’s a disturbing and moving set of moments that left me tense and deeply moved. Was a AAA game with such a bizarre sense of humor really doing this? And better yet, was it actually pulling it off? Hells fucking yes it was. This game went for things and it knocked me off my feet in all the best ways.
6. Mini Metro
Another didn’t-come-out-in-2017 game on my 2017 Game of the Year List! This game got my attention when it came out in 2015, but I never made the plunge and purchased it. Hey, it was 2015. Who pays $4.99 for an iOS game? Turns out, this game is a fun little treasure. You are tasked with creating the most efficient possible subway system for a large number of major international cities. It’s one of those concepts that sounds boring as all get out, but thanks to intuitive controls, clever design, and an impressively emergent soundtrack, Mini Metro has me coming back daily for new challenges and fun.
5. The Last Guardian
I’m a huge Team Ico apologist. I don’t care that their games take too long to make and don’t have the best controls. That developer creates some of the most beautiful and emotional games on the planet, and they continued that trend with their latest (and possibly last) game, The Last Guardian. It’s a powerful game about the struggles and love that come with partnership. Does your partner always agree with you? Do they always do what you want? No. But ultimately you watch out for each other and would do anything for one another. It’s a grand metaphor delivered through a breathtaking world and one of the most endearing NPCs in video game history, Trico. It’s not a perfect swan song for this acclaimed developer but through its flaws I found one of the most moving games that I’ve played in a long, long time.
4. Destiny 2
Fuck Destiny. Every year that it has had the opportunity to be on my Game of the Year list, it has been. And every year it’s been on this list, I’ve felt angry about. And felt guilty. Usually. Not this year. Destiny 2 is far better than its predecessor. It still suffers from a split personality - it has a fulfilling story with a clear end but it wants to be a game that you keep coming back to every week - but it’s an ultimately far more satisfying experience than the first game. I spent a decent amount of time with Destiny 2 and was happy with nearly every hour I put into it. That is, in large part, thanks to the fact that its moment to moment gameplay is some of the best in the business. Thanks to that and a decidedly more interesting antagonist, Destiny 2 is mostly what I wanted from it. Now I just wish that it was more okay with me walking away.
3. NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata is a slow burn. A really, really slow burn. It did not grab me right away and I’m still not done with it, technically. But it’s that pace that has made me love this game. The way its world, characters, and art unfold before you- the way its endings, androids, and ideas overlap made this a profound experience for me in 2017. NieR is, at its core, a philosophy game. Yes, it has developer Platinum’s signature third person action gameplay and oversized boss battles, but the real draw of this game is its core question: What does it mean to be human? NieR addresses this question in a brilliant way by eliminating humans from the game entirely. You play as multiple characters throughout the game, none of whom are technically human beings. Over the course of your adventures you deal with a planet filled with machines thrust into existential crises. While the story is fairly straight forward, it’s the multiple playthroughs and side quests that have me pondering my own existence. The standout, so far, is a repeating scenario in which I see one lonely machine on the top of various tall buildings, gazing off at the view below. I try to communicate with it, but am unable. After finally hacking into its thoughts, I find a machine that has been plagued by questions such as, “Why am I here? Is life pain? What is the point of the world?” They’re the kind of thoughts that many of us have, but they are presented in such a simple, straightforward, and unique way. This ends up resulting in a sense of isolation that, counterintuitively, made me feel like maybe I’m not so alone. Maybe, in the end, that’s exactly what I needed in 2017.
2. Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn is breathtaking. Visually it stunned me at every turn. Its story was profound and emotional, telling a heart wrenching tale of humanity’s inability to save itself from its own ambitions. Its characters are interesting, its world is engrossing, and its gameplay kept me coming back hour after hour. All of this is also why, in some weird way, Horizon is my most disappointing game of the year. Taken piecemeal, Horizon is unmatched is so many ways. But the exciting moment to moment gameplay fails to tell the game’s incredible story well. Too often I found myself locked in one space, watching a hologram or listening to an audio log, and unable to explore one of the most beautiful worlds I’ve ever seen in a video game. But even though these parts didn’t click together quite the way I had hoped, they are all best in class on their own. I love Horizon: Zero Dawn.
1. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Well fuck me if there wasn’t a game that I needed more this year. I’m gonna try not to get too preachy here if only because maybe Game of the Year lists are not the best/most valuable place to argue against the growing tide of fascism in our country, but I never thought that seeing Nazis and swastikas on American streets in a video game would make me say, “This is almost too real right now.” Wolfenstein II does a near perfect job of allowing for mindless cathartic violence while still having hyper relevant and urgent conversations about racism, bigotry, and what it means to simply be an American. There are countless mind blowing moments that I won’t spoil, lest someone loses their head (wink wink), but there is one moment that stands out as a perfect example of this tonal marriage. As BJ Blazkowicz, you’ve just blasted your way through Nazi-occupied New Orleans. BJ has taken down Nazis and their horrendous war machines and he finally gets to the resistance camp he’s been searching for. There, a preacher pours him a cup of whiskey. Though BJ and the preacher are both on the same side (the Nazi-killing side), a debate breaks out quickly about who is at fault here. Attacks are thrown against the preacher for not fighting for his country in World War II. Fingers are pointed at BJ for not fighting for basic civil rights here in America. They’re both right. How can we protect our country from foreign evils if we can’t even deal with the bigotry that is festering within our own land? It’s an incredible moment and one that you just don’t expect to get from a AAA first-person shooter about blowing up Nazis. This ability to swing the mood so far in both directions is a true testament not just to the amazing writers and developers, but to this medium as a whole. It’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t work in a movie or book. It is so successful because it makes the audience accountable. It puts you in the situation and forces you to confront how profoundly fucked up this world has become. It’s exactly what was needed from 2017. The evils in our world are more present than ever and they need to be confronted head on. Wolfenstein II gives you that uncomfortable confrontation, but it gives you a catharsis that, at least as of writing this sentence, doesn’t exist in reality quite yet. It’s my favorite game of 2017 because it says so much so well about this terrifying world we currently live in, but it also gave me hope for our ability to save it.