Was 2017 a good year? No.
I spent most of 2017 coping with 2017. I imagine I am not the only person reading this who did. Games helped with that, but so did activism, and more than anything else, being with those who I care about and with whom I could commiserate with helped. In dark times, you huddle for warmth.
I am a games romantic. I know this, I have learned to keep it in check lest I become another games evangelist who says things like “games are the ultimate artistic medium”. To be a conscientious games romantic, just as in any romance, requires recognizing faults just as you recognize triumphs.
So when I wanted to write about games that I loved in 2017 (I staunchly refuse to rank them, for reasons that I hope are extremely understandable), I wanted to emphasize that these are the experiences that give me hope.
Games, like any other art, give me hope. Games are empathetic, without being “empathy games”. Games help me organize my thoughts. Games help me see a path forward that isn’t demarcated by failure, but illuminated by the lessons one takes in every moment. Games are there for you.
This last year, if I could find a theme between all the titles I’ve chosen to highlight here, it’s resilience. Survival through the harshest times, under social and material pressures. Games about the little homes that we carve out within the wreckage.
Without further ado, here are the games that were there for me in 2017.
Night In The Woods
This was one of my most anticipated games of this year, and it didn’t disappoint. I wrote many words about it over at Paste, and honestly I’m not sure what I can say here that I didn’t say there.
It is exquisitely crafted, both visually and textually, and a standout among games I’ve played in my life, let alone just this trash-fire of a year. It ties together the complicated nostalgia of coming home to a town that has changed, with the new and cold future that awaits you.
It is a game about failures, about coming to terms with those failures, and moving forward. It is a game about home, and what that means, and who dwells there with you. It is a game about self-expression and art and creativity and shooting crossbows and monsters and friendship, and I treasure it.
This is not the best game ever. On a technical level, even with the improvements over the past year, it is still a mess. Framerate is all over the place, I get booted out of games in the log-in screen probably about 25% of the time, hit detection is uncertain on a good day.
But god, when it is good… it is so good. It is unparalleled good. It is the realization of the Battle Royale subgenre in the purest form, simple and uncluttered and cutthroat. It manages to be both a pulse-poundingly terrifying experience in singleplayer and a clownish goof-em-up with occasional tactical soirees in squad mode. I will be playing it, undoubtedly, throughout 2018, with many of my friends in tow.
It’s NBA Jam but in fantasy-hell and also it’s made by the team who made Bastion and Transistor. I could have stopped there but honestly even on top of that it’s jam-packed with incredible characters and writing and absolutely breathtaking art. There’s even multiple endings.
Pyre is so much about the found families and the connections therein. Stepping into the Nightwing’s wagon felt like coming home, with all your friends around you. It is a game that celebrates the warm moments, even in literally hellish times.
(To clarify, specifically Hiveswap Act 1, which released this year.)
2017 was weird for a million reasons but one of them was that I decided, after playing through Hiveswap, that I should embark on a quest that eluded me in high school: I should read Homestuck. And honestly, if this cute lil game about kids helping each other evade eldritch horrors tipped me over to finally start reading Homestuck, that’s pretty incredible in and of itself.
But to speak more specifically about the game, Hiveswap is a lovely point-and-click adventure with great music and a charming cast of characters. Joey & Jude, the main earthling kids, are so instantly likable that I was looking up merchandise for them literally as soon as I finished my first playthrough.
In a year that was mostly defined by Bad Things, Hiveswap was a game that, like Homestuck before it, felt resolved to exist within bad things and not feel perturbed by them. Even in the struggle, there is still laughter. There are still jokes. There are still kids finding joy in the little things, finding friends on alien worlds and helping them realize what freedom looks like.
Dishonored 2: Death Of The Outsider
I would have played any new Dishonored. But Death Of The Outsider is especially good for many, many reasons. The abilities are new and interesting. There is no longer a consequence for lethal play, meaning I am free to murder literally everyone. The levels are lush and full of detail, murder playgrounds of suitably murder-able enemies.
I am not necessarily a huge fan of immersive sims, but the specifically Dishonored branch of immersive sim design is absolute candy to me. It bridges cat-and-mouse assassination play with treasure hunting and secret-finding and legitimately interesting political and social storytelling, and Death Of The Outsider is that cranked up even further than in Dishonored 2. A perfect game to sink into and stab many, many people in.
Trackless is weird, and gorgeous, and attempts things few games of its size and status deign to try. Like the greatest games, Trackless shows the player a fully-conceived world shown only through snippets, a futuristic religious-state consumed by ritual and technology in a tense ballet.
More than anything else I played this year, I felt that Trackless gestured toward a sort of spiritualism that felt all-too-familiar, the spiritualism borne out of desperation — of ritual and journey and hope and passion. It shows a comforting sort of normalcy, bathed in the markers of the divine.
There is so much about Tacoma that I love. The stories that unfold on the deck of the Tacoma station, viewed through the ghostly vision of Ami Ferrier’s augmented reality headset, paint a stark vision of futuristic labor struggles, pain and loss, and above it all, coping.
Tacoma feels like the hyper-advanced version of a reality that we know all too well, of corporations taking familiar faces and claiming they are our friends, all the while with their cuffs around our ankles. It is deeply haunting and deeply optimistic, the entire station finding their salvation through half-steps and clumsy stabs at connection. In many ways, it feels like the perfect game for this year, when the closing-in of corporatism felt ever nearer.
I know. It didn’t come out this year. I, like others, sort of missed Tyranny on release last year. It was a game that launched around election season with the tagline “What if evil won?”, so I can understand feeling a little put off at the time.
I highly recommend people pick up Tyranny. You are a villain, yes, but it’s not a game so much about the moral equivalencies of “good” and “evil” as it is about the stories of those who live in a time of surrender. You are tasked with wiping out the last remaining vestiges of independent rule opposing the Overlord Kyros. It is harsh work. It is draining.
But the thing about Tyranny that surprised me is that throughout all of this it is unafraid to ask harder questions than many games I’ve played before. Do you side with chaotic evil, hoping that in its maelstrom you can save the few you can? Or do you choose to side with the more lawful Unbroken, hoping that their lust for order lies on top of a more peaceful future?
Or do you betray them both, knowing that there is already blood on your hands?
Tyranny doesn’t pretend that there is a good answer to all of this. It doesn’t paint one side of its many conflicts as the “right” side. This is an ancient, dangerous world. Sometimes you have to be ruthless, in a ruthless world.
Many times while playing Tyranny I found myself questioning my own actions. I was complicit, I knew this. There would be no redemption for me. The Overlord watches my every move. I cannot rebel, but I can help where I can. I can stoke little fires, build the infrastructure for others to take hold of when I am gone. There would be no redemption for me.
And yet, I kept playing. And maybe that says something about me, as a player, that the fantasy of power that Tyranny offered was a good enough escape. But unlike other games, Tyranny does not pretend that power doesn’t come with a price.
All my magics, all my little good actions, they all came with a blood cost. Villages burned, families separated, good people tortured. And that is the truest power fantasy: All I can fix, I took part in the breaking. All I have, I have stolen. No good endings, just less bad ones.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus
There are good endings in The New Colossus. There are hopeful things. There is resistance to evil in even the most remote places, the places we have forgotten about. The poor and the broken-down still carry rifles in America. The costumed evils are absurd and, were it any other year, I would call them exaggerated.
Here, they are familiar, and horrifying. The Klan walk arm-in-arm with Nazis. People of marginalized identity are killed by the state with no recourse. Eugenicist viewpoints run the country. Our heroes die, over and over and over.
Sometime around the beginning of this year, I read Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark. It has stuck with me this entire year. There is one quote that I will not forget.
“The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.”
The New Colossus tells us that there is always hope. There is always anger. Black power movements lead the charge of the American resistance. Communities are banding together to make themselves safe. New movements are taking hold. Hope surges forward in the dark, creating & recreating itself, existing on the fringes of possibility.
Perhaps, with luck on our side, in a few years we find The New Colossus’s message trite, overwrought, too blatant. A relic of a more afraid time. That would be a small kindness.
For now, it is loud. It is angry. It is good, and unafraid. And for that, it is wonderful.
Dante Douglas is a writer and artist and game designer. You can find all of his writing, projects, and contact details at his website.