Dave enters the room. He hangs his coat on the rack and removes his snow-caked boots, placing them neatly by the door. Dave purposefully strolls across his smartly furnished living room towards the fireplace, where a bottle of his favorite vintage Scotch whisky awaits atop the mantel. Dave reaches down and with a small twist ignites the fireplace, and with that same twist removes the cap from the Invergordon 40 year-old and pours himself a double serving. He swirls the drink and admires its bloom, and with one exhale he is freed from the stresses of the day. Dave slides into his leather wingback chair, careful to not wake his cat who is resting peacefully on the ottoman. Dave trades glances with the fire, matching his breath with that of the gentle flame.
He senses a presence.
Dave turns and notices you, the Neokaido reader, observing his actions silently and with deep admiration. With a warm smile, he raises his glass.
Oh! Hello! I didn't see you there. Please make yourself at home. Have a seat, I'll fix you a drink.
You sit in the leather wingback opposite Dave's chair. You've hardly a moment to examine the room from your new vantage before a powerfully sharp smell stings your nostrils. Your eyes focus on the glass Dave has deftly slid into your hands.
I suppose you have come to reflect on the year. What a year it has been...
Dave emits a pained sigh and you catch the briefest hint of melancholy in his eyes before he looks at you with familiar warmth. You realize that he has retrieved an album from below the coffee table.
So many memories... Please, sit back and let me tell you about ten simply wonderful video games that I have played this year!
You allow yourself to relax despite your anticipation. This is what you have waited for all year. Dave begins.
It all started in the town of Possum Springs...
1) Night in the Woods
Unless you are some alien creature that subsists off the suffering of others, you recognize that the world is hurting. Unprecedented levels of corruption have all but guaranteed generations of abject poverty while capital consolidates to roughly eight people, and everyday folks are too tired, too hungry, too filled with ennui to do much more than watch it happen. Night in the Woods is a time capsule of small-town America during late Capitalism; its characters' lives sundered by forces outside their control, while their burdens and guilt trap them in a stage of arrested development.
Night in the Woods explores the exacerbating effects of austerity culture--defined as extravagant fear combined with blithe optimism--on the well-being of its characters and how poverty complicates relationships. Mae is adept at pointing out her friends' problems, but without any solutions to offer them she only stokes the malaise her friends have snuffed out in her absence. Watching Mae try to reconcile her feelings and her friendships evokes pity, largely because I could see so much of my younger self in her. As Mae becomes increasingly convinced that an inevitable apocalyptic event will destroy Possum Springs, her increasingly desperate cries for help cannot bore through the emotional fortresses her friends and family have erected. It’s a harrowing journey, but Night in the Woods peppers in the perfect amount of charm, witty dialogue, and hope to make you cheer for these characters. My favorite example of its hope is in a poem written by Mae’s neighbor Selmers, delivered in the game's final moments:
The stars the stars
Like lights on cars
Drive ‘cross the dark
And never park.
Night so dark
But stars so bright
2) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
You have probably heard a lot about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild this year. At some point a friend or coworker told you they picked up the “new Zelda” and gave you a look reminiscent of a young man receiving their conscription notice. There is a fervor around BotW you haven’t experienced since Ocarina of Time or, if you’re an oldie, the original Zelda. I would wager by now you are about as ready to hear more gushing for BotW as you are to return to the dentist, but humor me.
Breath of the Wild does more than reinvent the wheel for Zelda, it shows the industry how to create a vibrant open-world by, paradoxically, removing things for the player to do. Placing its focus on the journey rather than the destination, BotW allows players to blaze their own paths and create their own stories. It was bold for Nintendo’s first truly open-world game to defy so many genre conventions, but it did so with such aplomb that it will undoubtedly become the game that other developers study for the next ten years. The way BotW invites players to use all their senses to explore its world and uncover its secrets make it an incredibly personal and truly unforgettable journey.
3) What Remains of Edith Finch
I wasn’t sure what to think about What Remains of Edith Finch as I read preview coverage. I took it for another visually pleasing stroll-playing game that my barbarian palette cannot appreciate. The last three games of its ilk I played--Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Tacoma, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter--left me unfulfilled. If not for the constant haranguing from my cohost Zac to play What Remains of Edith Finch, I would have passed it by and considered its accolades as the hollow fanfare of doting critics.
So, thank you Young Zac. What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the most affecting games I have ever played. Its whimsical construction, diversity of voice, and wonderful narration made every vignette feel personal. I felt literal empathy, like I could feel Edith’s love for her family myself. It’s the only game where I texted my partner immediately after to request that we play it together. Even now, sitting in my local cafe as I write, I’m finding it difficult to stifle the emotions that surface just thinking about it.
Pyre feels borne from a misunderstanding of the phrase “fantasy sports," What if fantasy sports meant magic basketball where you and a team of fantasy creatures dunked spirit orbs into a blazing inferno?
Oh, was that not enough of an endorsement?
5) Divinity: Original Sin II
Divinity: Original Sin II is not my “most played” game of 2017 (unconscionably), but it is easily my most deliberately played game of 2017. Every action in D:OSII requires such intentional planning and weighing of consequences that you often forget what quest you originally set out on when you left town ten hours ago. The sheer density of quests and characters is stupefying, with your quest log essentially dwarfing Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past before you exit the first act. If you are the type of player who frequently save-scums when things don't go your way, you won't finish this game.
Usually when RPGs are this content dense I see the patterns in the quest design--variations of bandit caves, macguffin hunts, and arduous backtracking through copy-paste caves to look behind some rock. In D:OSII, your quests range from solving riddles given to you by decapitated heads with a death wish, picking flowers for demons, trying to get a party member laid to usher in a new era of dragons, and everything in between. Combat oscillates between harrowing, skin-of-your-teeth bouts and Benny Hill yukfests as imposing beasts repeatedly slip on ice slicks you create. D:OSII affords seemingly limitless experimentation. For me that experimentation lead to “Barrelmancy,” where I take a barrel filled with roughly ten-thousand tons of garbage and use telekinesis to drop it on my opponents’ unsuspecting noggins for a guaranteed one-hit kill. Divinity: Original Sin II doesn't just invite you to break its systems, it revels in it.
6) NieR Automata
NieR Automata is 2017’s biggest surprise and also its slowest burn. Asking me to play through a game up to three times to “get it” felt like an unconscionable ask, and it was only due to NieR’s absolutely stellar soundtrack that I persisted through the second (largely unchanged) playthrough. By its third playthrough, your perception of its world and cast is completely reframed. NieR Automata has among the smartest direction I’ve ever experienced in gaming. NieR Automata is a... *ahem*... near-perfect showcase for gaming's potential as a medium for storytelling over film or literature or spoken word. The way its various philosophies and themes are explored through its gameplay have permanently etched them into my soul.
NieR Automata is also a case for why you should never write off a developer. Way to go Yoko Taro! Also, the fact that some of the most non-apologetically anime shit of all time is being discussed with such soberness is mind-melting and I welcome it.
I don’t use the word “enraptured” flippantly. I might have used it once to describe the movie Dog Bites Man and I’ll probably use during the actual rapture in 2020, but here I’m using it to describe Gorogoa. I think it fits. I booted Gorogoa for a quick peek and two hours later I was at its credits, a long globule of drool pooling down my shirt and my eyes struggling (resisting, perhaps) to bring the real world back into focus. It’s a shame that the word Gorogoa sounds like a grindcore band because I think telling someone they’re “more beautiful as Gorogoa” would be an incredibly romantic sentiment. Gorogoa’s beautiful hand-drawn animation and its interlocking puzzles are something that just has to be experienced if you want to leave this life without regrets.
8) Super Mario Odyssey
Mario’s platforming has always been a kinetic symphony that revels in the joy of self-expression. Super Mario Odysseycontinues this tradition, acting as a panacea for the doldrums and bringing a big grin to your face. I stare dumbfounded at Super Mario Odyssey, wondering after dozens of hours of playtime how is this still such a blast to play? I’m unsure if Nintendo even designs these games anymore; I suspect once every ten years they offer a blood sacrifice to the elder god of satisfying platforming.
The debut of Cappy, the ghost hat that allows Mario to posses anything without the foresight to wear a hat, adds a ton of variety and fun challenges to what could have been an immediately tiring gimmick. Setting aside the horrifying implications of Mario’s newfound powers, they are incredibly refreshing and novel ways of exploring its vibrant worlds. And the garnishes--from Mario’s wonderful away of costumes, tastefully implemented nostalgic bits, and its infectious theme--cement Super Mario Odyssey as the Mario game with the most personality since The Thousand Year Door.
I love gaming a whole bunch, but I am of the opinion that most of it is empty calories. Then there are games like Dujanah that constantly challenge you to think about what you are experiencing. Dujanah’s exploration of eschatology (the study of death/end times), its portrayal of life in an oppressively conservative world, and the diversity of its inhabitants and their problems all invite reflection for its own sake rather than to reach a specific understanding. There’s something incredibly discordant about how Dujanah is presented, almost as if you are flipping channels and catching bits of completely disparate worlds and experiences, but its fictional world somehow feels cohesive and fully realized. I was visiting this strange country but before long called it home. Dujanah’s moment-to-moment vignettes of human pathos and its mastery of language drew me into its narrative--in some cases, literally. Playing Dujanah planted a hunger in me; I will assuredly revisit its world to see how its inhabitants are, but I will also embark to understand my own world too.
10) The Norwood Suite
I was listening to the The Norwood Suite soundtrack as I was writing on my tenth pick for game of the year, Cuphead. One listen to Cosmo D's soundtrack should be enough to make you understand why The Norwood Suite is here instead. The Norwood Suite evokes a sense of place that is almost unsettling. Its outrageous design guides you through its eccentric halls and lavish rooms. These rooms feel alive, even sentient; you can feel their eyes watching and hear them whispering their history through the soundtrack’s heartbeat. The music feels intertwined with the DNA of the hotel; its percussion and thick cello drawl in every molecule of oxygen you breathe.
The Norwood Suite is one of my favorite spaces in gaming. It’s the uncanny intersection of mysterious and chic. It evokes the feeling of stepping into a social space outside of my experience, interacting with a unique crowd who all share a hip hivemind. Fundamentally, they just want to eat a famous sandwich, take a swim, and see a famous DJ, but for a brief moment I felt like I was a part of something exclusive.