One frustration I've run into around Game of the Year talk is its ephemera. No one seems interested in continuing the discussion of a game once it's been ticked off on the GotY list; unless it's a "games as a service" type deal, most games can only ever hope to make it onto the GotY list of its respective year before disappearing into obscurity.
In the internet age, this holds true for most media, but at least a movie or book can be consumed over the course of a night or weekend respectively. Games require a different caliber of commitment, often taking 20-40 hours of free time to complete. Games also have the smallest window of opportunity than any other media before becoming obsolete. I've recently started replaying Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain—my personal Game of the Year in 2015—and I am once again floored by how much fun it is to play around in its sandbox. But I've also found traversing that sandbox to be twice as arduous in this post-Breath of the Wild age; trying and failing to clamber over sand hills was already an unfavorable pastime of MGSV, so revisiting the aggravation after spending most of 2017 climbing listlessly over mountain after mountain on my Switch...it's sad to see a game, one which I called one of the greatest only two years ago, become a flawed and endearing classic so soon. Add on the chore of having to get through another 20 hours of game before wrapping it up, and that memory starts to get mighty tarnished.
It would be nice to revisit these games more frequently in our discussions, instead of constantly looking forward to the next big thing. Covering games as a profession currently means sacrificing this gatsbian retrospective focus (a small sacrifice to be certain), but I'd like to believe there's a way to keep games relevant post-GotY, before depending on nostalgia to revisit them. Maybe next year, I'll write a "Games of 2018 from 2017" piece.
Anyways, here's an updated list of my favorite games from last year! Check back as I add more to the list, in no particular order.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Black Mirror, science fiction has grown increasingly concerned with the consciousness of artificial intelligence and the moral ambiguities that come with it. These stories ask the dark questions of existentialism that inevitably arise with advancements in technology and AI; most prominently, what does it mean to be alive?
NieR: Automata starts off as another story exploring this familiar concept, but later dives even deeper into the mire of existential questions we all ask ourselves in the dark of the night.
I usually find games that ‘require’ multiple playthroughs to be overly self-indulgent. If you can’t say something in one 10-20 hour playthrough, then maybe you’re not too good at saying it. But the grandeur of NieR: Automata’s message can only be told through the multiple perspectives offered in director Yoko Taro’s masterpiece. During the first iteration, the game asks what it means to be conscious. During the second and third, it asks what it means to be human, observing what we’ve done and what we still do in order to cope with our very existence, how we contend with futility, and—most of all—where do we find hope in a cycle of despair.
I’ve heard many others discuss these brooding topics after reaching the game’s multiple endings—far less than the game’s actual design. It’s a gripping tornado of philosophical conundrums that carried me throughout three playthroughs of this game, but it was its stylistic presentation and addicting gameplay that first ensnared me. The world of NieR: Automata is drab and ugly on its surface, but I quickly fell in love with the brisk motions of 2B’s swords; the exceptional sass in 2B’s walk; the enchanting musical score of eastern string instruments and robot choirs; and most of all, the fearless presentation—the camera’s dives and springs from 3D action perspective to 2D scrolling side-view, from open-world city ruins to minimalist twin-stick shooter arcade screens. Yoko Taro pulls the player along by the hand as he runs you through unrelenting twists and turns, believing more than yourself in your ability to hold on tight.
You’ll hear a lot about NieR: Automata’s storytelling and philosophical ambition; don’t forget that there’s a whole game attached, and it’s fucking incredible!
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
Most games are designed to be beaten, offering invisible allowances and artificial obstacles paving a road destined to be trekked and bested. Bennett Foddy’s infuriating platformer, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, stands out as a true challenge of skill and determination.
Getting Over It purports to be an homage to a similar game called Sexy Hiking; I know this because Bennett Foddy says so in one of his many entrancing voice-overs, which play throughout the game. As you try to climb over the calamitous mountain of trash, furniture, radio towers and ice cliffs, Foddy’s voice recites Shakespeare sonnets, quotes philosophers, and offers his own viewpoints on game design and life in general. During your climb, any misstep can send you sprawling back to the very beginning, and Foddy is always there to prod you with a little quip about your fall. Yes, Bennett, it was a “deep frustration,” as you so empathetically put it, when I lost two hours of progress with one slip of my hammer. Thanks.
But what I love about this game is Foddy’s arc from sarcastic troll to encouraging companion. As I got further up the mountain, his soliloquies became more sincere, focusing more on my successes than my failures, vocally exploring what it is that pushes us to attain such abstract goals as the end of a game, or the top of a mountain, or from left to right on a TV screen. Getting Over It was an expedition of the soul, a test of my resilience. Every time I fell back to the start, it took something to get me climbing again, something that I imagine not everyone has. Or perhaps it’s within all of us, and Foddy’s game brings it out? Either way, it is only with Bennett Foddy that I was able to get over it—and that moment was one I will not soon forget.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Here it is! The game you all knew would be here and are probably bored and secretly upset that it is here. The Nintendo hit many people seem to have forgotten was so good and, somehow, even resent the game for how good it was before all the other ‘17 games got out to be all good and stuff. The perennial rival of ‘17 that every game would later be held up to, then snobbishly tossed aside in very posh fashion, leaving you seething in a puddle of frustration at the injustice of it all. “Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a totally different kind of game!” I hear you cry, “How can you compare the two?” Then you run home in a blaze of outrage, charging boldly unto the shores of Reddit, exclaiming your unheard wisdom for the world of mobile-hating snobbypants to hear.
And I, ever the mighty video game critic, size up your words against mine, and toss yours listlessly aside. As I adjust my monocle.
There is little I can say about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that hasn’t already been said by others. Removed from the hype around the Switch’s release, Breath of the Wild maintains its impressive status as both a marvel of level design and a revelation for the open-world genre. I have my own gripes with some of its design choices—not including the divisive weapon degradation system—but the memories I keep coming back to are the moments of awe and childish wonderment I experienced as the barren land of Hyrule opened itself up to me, mile by mile. It’s this feeling of adventure that everyone seems to collectively reminisce about, and that speaks to the game’s excellence more than anything else I could say on my own.
No multiplayer experience yet has thrilled me like the last circle in a match in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS. Every instance, every sound heard, every minute decision made determines the outcome of this critical phase. Do I have enough cover to heal myself? Is there enough time before the circle closes on me? Where is this last guy?! I could try to draw them out with a few shots in the air, or I could stay hidden and wait for them to reveal their position. All of these are strategies I’ve considered, sweaty-palmed, under the strain of real-life adrenaline. Because any wrong move means death, and death means game over—a concept that has never felt so true in any other game.
The permadeath battle-royale format seems like such an obvious game concept, it’s a wonder no one has come out with it before now, but PUBG handles it like a well-seasoned genre. Even after leaving Early Access on PC, the game is still littered with performance issues and ugly as hell, but the actual game itself employs some of the deepest levels of strategizing found in any other competitive shooter. At the most zoomed-out level of play, you need to think about map-placement, where you are relative to the circle, what obstacles will you need to circumvent, where might other players be approaching from—while at the foreground, you’re looking at your inventory, considering whether or not to carry twenty bandages or use the extra space for more ammo, or you’re looking at the closest building, wondering if its opened doors portend a cleared-out safe haven...or a firefight.
All of this applies to PUBG in general, but the game’s greatest moments take form in its squad matchmaking servers. The last time I’ve had this much fun with a core group of friends in an online multiplayer game was Halo 2.
Now before we go any further, you should be made aware of my unreasonable fondness for Halo 2. That game is my shit. Get online, lobby up with my friends, warm up with some Slayer on Lockout, queue into some Big Team Battle, get to the Warthog!, gotta take out the sniper, sticky grenade glowing in the faces of our enemies. Fuck yeah.
There’s plenty to list about how Halo 2 influenced my tastes as a gamer, but one concept that sticks out today is its Big Team Battle matches; sixteen people dropping in for an all-out heavy artillery, multi-faceted battle. While one of my teammates could be sneaking into the enemy base for a covert flag capture, I and two others could be across the map fighting off five enemies while boarding a vehicle to rendezvous with our infiltrator[TK]. The word was epic—and the usage of that word had been socially criminalized for years…until now.
Yeah, I’ll say it: PUBG is fucking epic, y’all.
The experiences I’ve had all year in PUBG, both with friends and on my own, remind me of these large-scale moments I had over ten years ago. But the experience in PUBG is far more expansive, enough so that you can explore the charming moments in-between the action more inquisitively. PUBG often goes from zero to eleven in the blink of an eye; one moment, you’re looting a house while shooting the shit (so to speak) about real-life nonsense with your friends, when suddenly one of your teammates cuts the chatter with an alarmed tone reading off compass measurements, directing our collective attention to the very real threat encroaching on our position. Sometimes the perp drives by ignorant of our propinquity. Other times they take notice—and open fire. That’s a moment in PUBG: one second, you’re casually telling jokes and complaining about server lag (zero); the next, you’re shooting out windows, running from grenades, and firing on a jeep set ablaze doing 60 straight towards you (fucking eleven).