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Phill Cameron (@phillcameron) is a UK editor for Gamasutra
The breadth of games released in 2017 is frankly astonishing. Not just in terms of genres and topics that they cover, but also in the method of delivery.
This is the year that saw VR really come into its own, as well as the rampant success of the Switch, both of which offered a unique platform that suits different ways of digesting and experiencing games.
Not only that, but with an ever-growing base of people playing games, more and more niche ideas are able to find purchase (and more importantly purchases), which pushes even more interesting and experimental concepts into viability.
Picking a top 10 this year, as with all years, is a difficult task, but I've tried to focus on capturing that variety in a year where I felt like every week something new and surprising was released.
I’ve ended up playing a lot of VR games this year, not just because I had to justify a PSVR purchase to myself, but because there’s a sense of experimentation to everything that’s intoxicating. However, out of everything, nothing has absolutely nailed the sense of being in another place, having a physical effect on that place, like Superhot VR.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact element that brings it all together, but I think being able to properly observe everything that’s happening while time is paused, decide how you want to influence what’s going on, and then executing that plan, all while contorting and twisting your body to dodge bullets, grab weapons, and eliminate bad guys, that really achieves it. It’s not the only VR game that makes me sweat, but it’s the one that makes me sweat the most. A dozen action movies come to life, in the way that was always promised but never quite delivered on.
While I’ve always dipped into Zelda games, I’ve never properly become invested in one. They always seemed just a touch too game-y, the systems a little too close to the surface in ways that were more contrived than intuitive. Breath of the Wild manages to keep the whimsy of the previous games while overlaying system after system in a way that evokes Far Cry 2, of all games. Each encounter is the opportunity for accidental providence or chaos, things never quite going how you planned, and mores the better.
That’s not to mention the wonderful sense of discovery and exploration that is second to none, and by and large down to the freedom of the story structure. Your objectives are simple, so simple that you can be forgiven for only giving the barest of attention to them as you wander through the world, and that frees you up to tackle things at your own pace, in your own order, in your own way. It takes the open geography of open worlds and applies it to the objective structure, too, in a way that feels simultaneously obvious and revolutionary.
It’s telling that the graveyard you encounter near the end of Edith Finch feels empty, as though the gravestones are just placeholders, a reference to the occupants, rather than any sort of memorial. Because the house itself is the true graveyard, these shrines to each member of the house locked away behind sealed doors, frozen in a snapshot of the person in the moments before they passed.
There should be something morbid about traipsing through this empty house, but there’s enough joy in the vignettes that you slip into for each character that it never feels oppressive. Instead you’re just struck by the unrealised potential of these people that so often passed before they should have, as well as how so many of them died in what was seemingly their most triumphant moment. Lewis’ cannery job is an obvious standout, but so many of these inventive and surprising stories manage to capture the essence of the characters in sharp relief. The room that you entered before, that was filled with hints of the person who left it behind, now left like an echo of those final moments. It’s rare for a game to really reverberate emotionally, but Edith Finch is a rare game.
This is the second year in a row I’m putting Rainbow 6: Siege in my games of the year list, and for the second year in a row it’s received an incredible amount of support from Ubisoft Montreal, and continued to maintain its place in the pantheon of online shooters against increasingly stiff competition. In a landscape that includes Destiny 2, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, CS:GO and Battlefield, somehow Ubisoft has taken a difficult to learn, brutally unforgiving and full priced game and brought 25 million players to it.
I’ve played all of the above games this year, but Siege is the one I keep coming back to. When I try to analyse the reasons why, it’s the way that the different systems present in the game interact that I keep coming back to. Variance of play is incredibly important in player retention, and with an ever-increasing roster of operators, Ubisoft is only ever expanding the possibilities of what a round of Siege can look like. That, coupled with exquisite sound design and level destruction, and the avenues for play are as wide as they’ve ever been.
Similarly to Rainbow 6 and Breath of the Wild, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a game defined above all by its systems, and the freedom they offer the player. When you first begin to play, Divinity keeps its cards fairly close to the chest. You learn a few spells, they seem to give you powers that might, perhaps, border on being abused if you spot an opportunity. Maybe you can teleport to that bit of level geometry that seems like it should be out of reach? Could you perhaps fly over that locked door instead of finding the key? What’s that, your player character has been arrested and is locked up in prison, and then killed during an escape attempt? Doesn’t matter, the rest of your party has a resurrect scroll and just needs to make their way to the prison.
It’s liberating, especially when it’s all wrapped up in a compelling world with consistently rewarding storytelling and a functional and often surprisingly deep combat system. I bounced off the first Original Sin hard, but here the more I teased at it, the more I realised I could do, and the more motivated I became to play.
Just to get this out of the way: Fuck Bennett Foddy.
First of all, screw him for making me want to get up this hill. Secondly, screw him for making every single tiny inch of vertical progress something that is fraught with the risk that I might push off a ledge instead of hook onto it, and find myself plummeting down the entire length of my climb so far. Thirdly, screw him for programming Getting Over It to recognise those moments, and opt to perhaps play some jaunty bluegrass track called ‘Whoopsy-Daisy’, or maybe just have his cheery Australian voice read out a quote about the lessons we can learn from failure. Or just come up with his own smug acknowledgement of how much progress I just lost.
But most of all, screw him for actually making me fire his stupid game up again, make 30 minutes of progress up this ridiculous edifice that he’s erected, only to mess up on some tiny little lip of rock and tumble through the air once again, only to have him mock me.
Each time I think of it, I’m amazed that Hellblade exists. It’s an aggressively difficult game to experience, with huge amounts of effort expended on Ninja Theory’s part to make the player frustrated, confused, disoriented and panicked. Reams of game design theory push developers in the opposite direction, but that’s when the intent is to help the player achieve what they want to achieve. Here, Ninja Theory want to achieve that disorientation and panic on the path to empathy, and it’s incredible how well they succeeded.
The audio is the real star here, the binaural voices that circle around you in a maelstrom of mockery and doubt, the whispers and shouts that ebb and flow as you delve deeper into Senua’s nightmare. It’s long enough an experience for you to get used to them, which lets Ninja Theory begin to play around with their presence, use them as a mechanical force to both help and hinder the player. It’s an astonishing thing.
Another entry in the ‘games that get systems right’ genre, Heat Signature is an exercise in failure. You board a ship, have a quick scan through it, and figure out what you’re going to do. Take out this guard, steal that keycard, move through this door, disable that alarm, and you’ll be away, right? Except you forgot about that other guard’s patrol pattern, or maybe missed that one of them had an emergency shield, or a thousand other things go wrong, and you have to improvise.
The suite of ridiculous technology that you’re provided with only broadens those possibilities, and coupled with the ability to pause for as long as you like gives you the opportunity to construct impossible solutions to impossible problems. And some of the time, they actually work.
The problem I’ve always had with fighting games is that they are counter-intuitive. The absurd combinations of button presses are so abstract from the actual performance of the move they correspond to that I find it impossible to overcome the challenge of learning them. Absolver manages to achieve the task of deferring the complexity of its systems into the moveset itself, having you construct which kick flows into which punch, meaning that the actual performance can be relatively simple, and often quite beautiful.
It’s a game filled with clever mechanics that make sense on an intuitive level, such as blocking and countering moves is how you learn how to perform them, or that if you want to dodge a sweeping kick you jump over it, and if you want to dodge a straight punch you turn to the side. Following the development of the meta-game over the first few weeks was really compelling, as a mexican wave of tactics swept through the player base, moving from lots of fast, weak moves began to be replaced with slow, powerful, uninterruptable attacks, until the player base moved onto something else.
At the opposite end to Getting Over It in the ‘occasionally having philosophy spoken to you’ genre, Everything by David O’Reilly confused me at first. It felt like I was supposed to be tracking down those orbs of philosophy, that they were being triggered by something I was doing, and the ‘game’ was to find those triggers.
But as I explored laterally, and then through the layers of scale that become more and more surprising and impressive the further you shrink or expand, Everything began to become more meditative.
I don’t think it would be incorrect to describe Everything as the first philosophical adapation, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the last. It’s incredible to see O’Reilly take the lessons, or more accurately his interpretation of the lessons, of Alan Watts and translate them into an interactive experience. That only becomes more clear the further along you get in your exploration, especially when you reach the culmination of the game which requires you to have internalised the lessons and philosophy of Watts to complete.