Favorite 15 Video Games of 2017 From foul-mouthed clowns & cow-punchers to hereditary psychosis & Sisyphean metaphors

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


05

Persona 5

Developer: P Studio

[PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4]


Although its core gameplay wasn’t a revolutionary departure from the JRPG subgenre’s tropes and traditions, Persona 5 kept me coming back to its magical-realist incarnation of Tokyo on aesthetic strength alone. Visually, aurally, and ethically, the game’s cast of delinquent teens had their finger point-blank on the pulse of 2017, bumping future-funk jams in the background as they dealt vigilante justice to their oppressors, all the while decked out in high-fashion fits equally inspired by Victorian literature and late-70s punk. The game oozed style down to its animated menus, bordered by sketchy illustrations: though much of the game took place in a surreal meta-reality populated by demons, an elegant charm stitched the torn fabric between its fantasy and beautifully mundane reality. Give Persona 5 a try for yourself: you’ll exorcise ancient evil, buy soylent from vending machines, date the two-dimensional character of your dreams, and have uninterrupted fun through it all.


04

Horizon Zero Dawn

Developer: Guerrilla Games

[PlayStation 4]


Horizon Zero Dawn might not have offered the best open world of 2017 — hi, Breath of the Wild; hello, Assassin’s Creed Origins — but no matter what it appeared to lack, in the superficial and reductive comparisons that commonly pass for game criticism, it more than compensated for with hope, hard-earned humanism, and technical polish. 2017 being a banner year for the format, there were plenty of games that did more, but few that did better. Whether in terms of the satisfying tactility of its weapons, the impossible, magic-hour glow of every single in-game moment, or the unexpected, hard sci-fi implications at the core of the narrative’s parallel mysteries, Horizon Zero Dawn presented itself with more craft, care, thought, theme, and feeling than any other escapist entertainment this year. Sure, the characters’ photo-realistic wax figure faces could be jarringly unnatural from time to time, but what this game had to say — about faith, our relationships to technology, and the very concept of the uncanny valley — was so much more impressive than any mere graphics engine could ever be. While I came to fight robot dinosaurs, I stayed for the mechanical flowers that pollinate poetry. And during a year that consistently dimmed belief in our collective myths — such as peaceable resolutions to decades of cultural Balkanization or the prospect of a decent, sustainable future for humankind — Horizon Zero Dawn served as a balm, a worry stone, a bright and vital reminder that, no matter what, life rarely fails to find a way.


03

Super Mario Odyssey

Developer: Nintendo

[Nintendo Switch]


All due respect to The Young Bucks, The Usos, and The Beatdown Biddies, but Mario and Cappy were the greatest tag team of 2017. Mario games tend to have a central gameplay conceit, and with its “Mario’s hat is a sentient being now” mechanic, Super Mario Odyssey was no different. In order to save Princess Peach (as well as Cappy’s sister Tiara the tiara) and restore balance to the universe, Mario and Cappy must join forces. With Cappy by his side/on his head, Mario was able to jump higher, accumulate more coins, and of course possess unwitting enemies before using their abilities toward his own purposes. The resulting body horror made for one of the single-best platformer experiences ever, which might be a little hyperbolic, but I mean come on, it’s-a him, Mario! That name carries a lot of prestige with it, and this latest adventure more than lived up to the pedigree. Collect hundreds upon hundreds of Power Moons, wear a variety of fun costumes, take over a human’s free will and force it to drive an RC car around a racetrack in under 30 seconds. Along with another game that shall remain nameless because this blurb isn’t about it, Super Mario Odyssey made the Nintendo Switch a console worth owning.


02

Cuphead

Developer: StudioMDHR

[Xbox One, Windows]


The little Xbox One champion that could this year was also one of 2017’s biggest surprises: a run-and-gun platformer based on rubber hose animation. If you asked if we wanted to play a game that looked like Steamboat Willy, we’d probably be a little reluctant at first, but usually the best and most unique games are the ones you didn’t know you wanted. Cuphead had truly stunning animation that convincingly reimagined what playing a 1930s video game would be like (thanks to independent Canadian studio StudioMDHR). But besides the delightful aesthetic quirk, there was also an impressive difficulty to the game that made it pleasantly addictive rather than annoyingly impossible (see Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy). So many indie side-scrollers rely on the same tricks from decades before, but Cuphead had mechanics that didn’t allow players to simply remember patterns. In the end, Cuphead was a reminder that all we really want in a game is to have a fun and be challenged.


01

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Developer: Nintendo

[Wii U, Nintendo Switch]


“Games and play are not identical categories. Games are organized forms of play; they have elements that might not be playful. Finite games are games that come to some kind of conclusion, and the conclusion governs how the game is played and what the game means.”

The above quote comes from a book about baseball (Fail Better, by Mark Kingwell). It’s strange to me that, in 2017, I’d be looking to a book about a physical sport for a way to understand a video game, but it’s also not surprising that the lines of philosophy in sport, video games, and art run concurrent (hence why you’re reading a video game feature on a website that focuses on music). It’s often what we do when we try and grasp various forms of art: we end up looking back as well as across to see the permutations of ideas run through their forms and related ideas. Sometimes we look at Cage and say Duchamp, or visa versa, as often it seems as if one is looking back at the other, even though often (almost always) they were both working simultaneously. Shared philosophies are reflected in aesthetic permutations in various mediums, but it’s less interdependent and more of reaching to an idea of why we talk and write about our experience with art.

Forgive the digression, but I personally find this above point important, at least for myself, when I try to understand what I find so enjoyable, invigorating, impactful, and remarkable about Breath of the Wild. In all ways, it shouldn’t be: another franchise game in the running output stream of a mega-sized corporation that specializes in spectacle and entertainment, etc., etc. But against an understandable skepticism against large-scale video game producers (cf. loot boxes, the existence of EA), we often forget companies like Nintendo were at the start of the medium, or in fact were the start. Breath of the Wild was not a swoop-in project from the outside, even if it’s open-world construction bears some resemblance to games like Skyrim or Assassins Creed. BOTW’s true predecessor exists in its own lineage: the original Legend of Zelda.

Before the term “sandbox game” was coined, Shigeru Miyamoto referred to the original Zelda as a “miniature garden that they can put inside their drawer.” I love this quote because it reflects how games at the time were built around experimenting with the experience rather than the presentation of a cinematic, linear plot. Zelda was approached more like a garden than a book. Early games, in their limitation, had to find new ways to approach a person’s interaction with it, and after the limitations of platform games became obvious, why not make a game wherein a person just might miss one of the game’s crucial objects because it’s not explicitly laid out for them to grab? For those who are unfamiliar, the original Zelda puts a sword, your main weapon, in the care of an old man inside a cave. This cave is in the first screen you start on, but nothing stops you from not getting it, save for an extreme difficulty navigating the surrounding areas full of enemies (it is possible to make it all of the way to Ganon, the final boss, without the sword, and to play the rest of the game without it). Everything about the original Zelda was so antithetical to a guided experience. Sure there are numbered dungeons and even one that requires an item from another to gain entry, but the closest dungeon to the start (arguably) is the one marked “2,” and there’s nothing to stop you from entering it.

So what might have looked like a technical limitation initially ended up being a source of liberation for the Zelda series. As Kingwell states how the interaction with finite games is governed by their conclusion (think of games that bait you with multiple endings, how the result is dependent on very specific interactions within the game, and how a player is rewarded with this ending by behaving a very specific way), at what point does a game lose its sense of play? In a game like the original Zelda, and especially in BOTW, play is created by the absence of organized form. To free-jazz enthusiasts (and many, many other art forms) this is definitely not a new concept. Even to video games, hell, even to the Zelda franchise it’s not new. So why then does BOTW’s sense of play give me the feels so much?


Here’s an example: BOTW contains a physics engine that lets you essentially “break” certain puzzles. There’s a puzzle in one of the game’s shrines that works by way of the motion controller; you attempt to move a ball from point A to B by rolling it through a maze. However, if you take your controller and flip it upside down, the maze turns around as well, revealing a maze-less, smooth backside that makes guiding the ball to the point much easier (at least for me). But no approach to this puzzle is exactly the same; I’ve watched videos of people pan-flipping the ball like a fried egg to its goal; I’ve seen people try and hit it like a baseball as it dropped from the sky; and I’ve also witnessed some genius bomb Link over the wall that blocks you from the shrine's reward, ignoring the puzzle altogether. At first discovery of these type of "breaks," I thought I was some sort of genius (obviously delusional). Eventually (and after subsequent updates to the game), I realized that this is exactly what the game designers wanted. BOTW puts its focus on a physics engine over a constructed puzzle, hoping that a self-directed experience will be greater to share than every last one of us running through the same pattern, boarding up the experience with the word SPOILERS.

Thanks to the time investment required of video games, merely watching a video of the game being played is akin to playing it these days, albeit saving our already strangled-for time. Hell, I've done this in the past, mostly because the notion of experience in gaming has become so tied to narrative and plot that we bowed out of "playing" video games. Why play a Silent Hill game for all five different endings when you can play it once and watch the other four on YouTube? On top of that, games have continuously had to bait players into rewards for playing them, leading them down horrendously convoluted plot lines (Resident Evil). I'd even argue that the loot boxes we so loathe today are part of what we've come to expect with being rewarded (sure, it takes advantage of us, but we also expected rewards; companies just found out how to monetize that desire, which is what they're best at). If the dearth of awful video-game movies isn't enough to convince you that gaming’s true strength is not in its plot, then I'm not sure what will.

As far as plot goes for BOTW, it seems to be the first game in the Zelda series that acknowledges its redundant nature, and then asks the player, "Why are you looking forward to this ending? It will happen again, as it has over 10,000 years (as in 18 games in the main franchise dating back to an idea started in 1986)." Not to say it doesn't fall into its own history in a way that isn't somewhat conspiratorial ("Is that Ganondorf's horse? The large one?"). I'd even argue that a person who never completes BOTW enjoys it just as much as the person who does, as I’ve seen whole communities built on the experience of speedrunning the game (current record around 40 minutes — that’s starting the game and beating the final boss), on collecting the game’s 900 Korok seeds (which contains the ultimate fuck-you to reward seekers Korok shit), and even on a dedication to just doing goofy shit.

Expectation colors experience; try as hard as we may, what we expect will always bleed into how we see/hear/read anything placed in front of us. Every now and then, we experience a work of art that goes out of its way in both methods subtle and unsubtle to break us from this cycle. It might be outside of the realm of possibility to be a true blank slate and, in the reality of humanity and history, only possible in ignorance, but it’s often a work’s subtler transgressions that last beyond those of a more obvious flavor. I can’t help but think of works by Cage when I play this game, and it might be that a video game’s strong suit is how far removed it is from the problem of authorship/auteur theory. BOTW is not a new entry into this idea, but rather a reminder of what was there while we were taking an artistic format for granted as a children’s toy. Maybe BOTW will signal a movement into which we quit expecting to be constantly rewarded for participating in a work, asking that we turn inward to study our own experience rather than constantly criticize works on the grounds of delivery and feed. Cynically, I doubt this, but if I could interact with every artwork at the level on which I can interact with BOTW, both myself and the experience will be better off for it.

Credit to Joe Davenport for bouncing off ideas and helping me find secrets.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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