Game of the Year 2017: Games that Impressed Me

It's an unusual problem, for me, at least, to have so much to say about so many games that I actually have to devise ways to contain my praise. 2017 was an incredible year for games, with such a wildly packed calendar of releases that I'll be surprised if its ever topped. I've been proven wrong before, though!

Now, by all means, this is not a complete list of everything I loved from last year: you might be interested in my piece about games that deserved more attention, and I'll soon be posting a piece on my absolute favorite games of 2017. Instead, you can just think of this as a list of games that I found to be exceptional (in no particular order). Let's go!

Gravity Rush 2

Gravity Rush 2's plucky heroine, Kat, overlooks the colorful tents of the street markets in Jirga Para Lhao

It's my belief that there's nothing more beautiful in video games than the marriage of story elements and gameplay. When a game establishes its themes and progresses its gameplay in tandem, it's possible to achieve something truly meaningful and affective; something so much more than simply entertainment. In its best moments, Gravity Rush 2 exemplifies such a level of synergy.

The game drops our plucky heroine, Kat, into the bustling markets of Jirga Para Lhao: a colorful, floating city amidst a sea of clouds. You could press your way through its packed alleys, but it's much more likely that you'll soar up and over them using Kat's ability to defy gravity. It's both charming and whimsical to float about such a place, accompanied by casual reggae guitar chords and brassy hooks.

After just a few hours, it becomes apparent that this open world is far larger than it appears, and absolutely not in the way you'd expect. When a main-story mission sent me beyond the initial boundaries of the map, I was excited and ready to take on the open skies. I launched from the edge of the city and began to head towards a marker at the bottom of the screen. Distance is hard to judge in such an empty expanse, though, and the longer I fell, the more I started to wonder: the waypoint is right there, but am I actually going the right way? Why is this sector so impossibly far from the market? The answer to those questions hits like a punch to the gut, and it's so clever, so thematically perfect, that I wouldn't dare spoil it here. It's the rare moments like these that remind me why I fell in love with games to begin with.

Yakuza 0

A young Yakuza outcast, Kazuma Kiryu, smokes a cigarette in front of a theater in the red light district of Kamurocho.

From the box art alone, you might expect this to be strictly a violent, bloody crime drama about a bunch of tough dudes with tattoos. While that is occasionally true, what I'll remember most about this game is how delicately it frames its protagonists, Kiryu and Majima. Despite being thrust into inconceivably shitty situations, they manage to endure it all as deeply genuine and sympathetic people, striving for nothing more than to do the right thing. Sometimes, that means risking their lives to stand up against malicious Yakuza conglomerates. Others, it means comforting the manager of a remote-control car racetrack, because some kids called him a virgin. No matter how intense, or how ludicrous a situation becomes, the narrative always finds a way to loop back to sincerity, and encouraging people to become better.

Between its gripping narrative and laidback Tokyo/Osaka simulation elements, Yakuza 0 tackles a baffling gamut of themes, ideas, and gameplay concepts. Somehow, it finds success in nearly all of them. It's rare that I feel as safe recommending a game as I do with Yakuza 0, and while it does have its missteps (particularly in how little agency it gives to its female characters), it teaches more valuable life lessons than I'm able to count.

Metroid: Samus Returns

Until September of 2017, Metroid was in the midst of a sour stretch that could easily have spelled death for a lesser series. Nintendo was bent on pivoting the series to seemingly anything else, perhaps in search of something easier to market than a desolate action thriller. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Spanish developers MercurySteam were busy taking creative liberties with Castlevania to increasingly mixed critical reception. 2017 was a year of unprecedented events, but at least we can rest easy knowing that one of them was actually good: MercurySteam managed to lift the Metroid series out of its creative rut.

It's been said before, but "Samus Returns" couldn't be a more fitting name. While I have minor gripes with the repetition of its structure, the mechanical innovations in this game feel incredible. For the first time, Samus can freely aim in any direction (via the 3DS' analog stick), allowing for not only more precise aiming, but trickier enemy placement and movement. My favorite addition, though, was unleashing screen-clearing waves of bullets with the rapid-fire ability. Each of the game's other "Aeion Abilities" are fresh, inventive, and have clever uses for both combat and exploration. What more could you ask for from a Metroidvania? Samus was once again the capable, confident badass that we've always known her to be.

HQ

Last year was a near-daily torrent of terrible news and reasons to protest, mixed in with more calls to my political representatives than my friends and family. For context: I'm privileged enough to have a stable source of income, full citizenship, good health, and a support network. Nonetheless, it was a greater challenge of my mental fortitude than any I have lived through before - and I'm one of the lucky ones.

Such an environment became a strangely apt opportunity for HQ, a daily, live-streamed, rapid-fire trivia game for smartphones. The show's beloved host, Scott "Quiz Khalifa" Rogowsky, is a seemingly endless fount of enthusiasm. That energy drew me in like a parasite, and yes, I harvested the shit out of it. Those of us that struggle with mental health have come to learn that a single moment of positivity can often be the difference between a good day and a bad one, and HQ turned around so many of my bad days.

Like Pokemon Go before it in 2016, HQ became both a cultural juggernaut and a keystone of my year. For months, my fiancée and I would drop anything we happened to be doing after dinner to play HQ. When I went to holiday get-togethers, I learned that HQ is exponentially more fun to play with more people. Everyone would huddle together to judge Scott's pop culture references, brainstorm, and panic when the questions inevitably got tough. By the way, here's an advanced tactic: make sure everyone turns their sound up, because the more echoes of Scott's obnoxious voice bounce around the room, the better you'll feel. Those shared experiences will be where my memory of HQ will have to stay, because...well, recent events have led me to uninstall!

Sonic Mania

Sonic and Tails dash through the rocky desert in Mirage Saloon Zone

Physics experts say that there are four fundamental forces in our universe: gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak force, and lastly, the strongest force of all: nostalgia. That statement is scientifically incorrect will never seem as true for any franchise as it has for Sonic these past several years. It couldn't have been an easy decision for the execs at Sega to hand their mascot and most prized property to a handful of fan-game developers. But to the fandom...? It was a win from the moment it was announced.

The summa cum laude Sonic fans at PagodaWest and Headcannon understand that Sonic isn't simply a game about "going fast" - it's a platform game at heart. Mania's numerous mechanics and gameplay gimmicks add color to the experience, making each stage memorable and uniquely challenging. Above all else, they provide opportunities to simply "play," which seems shockingly refreshing for Sonic. Recent entries in the franchise, especially the 3D ones, appear to borrow inspiration from roller-coasters by relying on speed, anticipation, and release. Sonic Mania is not a roller-coaster, though, it's as video game as it gets.

Sonic Mania is designed with such a clear sense of purpose that the original trilogy might even fall short. Despite borrowing so many levels from previous games, Mania is not simply "more" Sonic, or Sonic "as it was." It's a comfortable interpretation that resembles our precious childhood memories of the Sega Genesis, kissed by nostalgia and sweetened by time.

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods feels, in many ways, created for a hyper-specific audience that I happen to fall into: one that fled the prideful, often bigoted atmosphere on Facebook to find seclusion and some modicum of "safety" on Twitter. Sidenote, so much for that plan, huh? To people like us, NitW's themes are all too real: depression, career and economic anxiety, the baby boomer / millenial generation gap, life and friendship after moving on from school, so on and so forth. It wears the guise of a cute and stylish game about animals, sure, but in reality, it's courageously political.

Many of the games I loved in 2017 were, in one way or another, about either escaping or overcoming the ugliness of the world. This game makes for a curious exception: it's both inspiring and meaningful, but not out of any sense of optimism. It acts instead a call to action; a dismal reminder that our world is terrible, prejudiced, fearful, and difficult. It's on us to find our own coping mechanisms, because, well, we're going to need them.

NieR: Automata

Combat android "2B" faces off against the "enemy of mankind," the machines

Unless you spent 2017 passed out under a rock (totally understandable), you hopefully had at least one friend insisting that you need to play NieR: Automata. If you didn't get around to it, though, I can understand the aversion. It's...well, maybe an impossible game to parse? The gameplay is a fluid blend of various action genres, and its narrative is challenging from the get-go, overflowing with difficult questions about identity, purpose, and death. For better or worse, NieR: Automata is the kind of game that legitimately needs to be experienced firsthand to be understood.

Without spoiling anything, I can sing praise of its drop-dead gorgeous attack animations and stupendous, flamboyant sense of style. I can allude to its bonechilling soundtrack and its deeply considered use of that soundtrack. What I can't tell you is which characters, plot points, or sidequests will define your experience. Its a story with so many memorable moments (and sparingly, some subleties too) that its hard to predict quite how it will land with each player. It may seem that its grim, apparently nihilistic inclination is at odds with the tight action gameplay, but its precisely this combination that makes it such an interesting game.

Regardless of how it hits, its message remains relatable - painfully so. Automata argues blatantly that human beings kinda' suck. We're inherently and unavoidably selfish, stubborn, irrational, misguided, and (truthfully) violent. Whether its through work, entertainment, play, or creativity, we spend our days seeking any form of solace from our mere existence. Even still, there's meaning to be found in the pursuit of a reality that's better. "Trying" leads to failure, and we're even prone to that outcome, but someday, we might accomplish something worthy of absolving our own mistakes. Glory to mankind.

Xenoblade 2

Life is, at times, an impossible balancing act - we make things too complicated, we worry about situations out of our control, and we give in too quickly to our weaknesses. It can be easy, especially when we're hurt, to let our empathy slip and overlook the pain of others. It's at times like these, times like most of 2017, that we can thrive off of a clean and simple expression of hope. For me, Xenoblade 2 was exactly that, and what it may have lacked in complexity, it made up for in passion.

That said, I definitely was not prepared for Rex's utter exuberance. For a long time, his ceaseless enthusiasm and naiveté actually pissed me off. He was that obnoxious friend trying to drag me into something overwhelming, and I was the wallflower not wanting to be disturbed. Xenoblade 2, though, had a hell of a trick up its sleeve in Yasunori Mitsuda's incredible, emotionally-manipulative soundtrack. How could I stay bitter to Rex when his hot-blooded heroics were underscored time and time again by the soul-stirring melodies of Counterattack? It was such a simple, stupid trick, but they got me.

As the plot progresses, Rex's positivity is put through its paces. He learns something many of us have already internalized: optimism alone is not enough to overcome life's greatest challenges. It's here that Rex truly begins to shine as a character. He doesn't concede an ounce of positivity to this painful truth, he reinforces it with motivation forged from the pain of those around him.

Maybe we don't all need the type of "wake up call" that Xenoblade 2 has to offer, but I think that sense of simplicity still carries an important purpose. Rex may be naive, sometimes, but he's not wrong. Even if reality can make "hope" and "empathy" seem like distant platitudes, that's all the more reason to fight back, and do the more difficult task of finding ways to deliver hope to the people around us.