It’s no secret that I put a premium on compassion and humanity in games and really, in all art, but if ever I felt a particular need for art that said something about hope, friendship, partnership, love, and our connections with each other, it was this past year. Thankfully, it was a banner year for games that effectively explored these very things. Here are, by my estimation, the very best games 2017 had to offer.
Honorable Mention: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Supported by tremendously effective sound design (you simply must wear headphones when playing) and a raw, fierce lead performance by Melina Juergens, Hellblade is a linear, straightforward action game that becomes much more as a result of its commitment to conveying Senua’s struggle to the player. A Pict warrior on a quest to barter with the goddess of death for the soul of her deceased beloved, Senua sees the world in ways most don’t. It’s both a boon and a terrible burden; she sees and hears things that may exist only in her own mind, and as you play the game, hearing the voices that swirl around Senua yourself, you feel how heroic it is, how much it takes for Senua to continue on her path.
Even the weighty but straightforward combat, which might drag other games down, here becomes another way the game effectively roots you in Senua’s skin, as you grit your teeth and face the ordeal of yet another wave of enemies coming at you, and allow yourself a momentary feeling of relief when the battle is temporarily over. Hellblade is harsh and grueling, but not bleak or depressing. On the contrary, by examining the darkness as closely as it does, it finds in Senua’s resolve a realistic reason to hope, and that’s something you can take with you.
(Read more about Hellblade in my piece on the importance of acting in games.)
5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
At first, I was disappointed by how little story there is in this game. As I kept playing it, though, I came to feel that it was telling a wonderful story: a story of Link’s connection to Hyrule itself, the way its rugged mountainsides feel under his hands and the way its grassy hills feel under his feet. As you seek Link’s memories far and wide across the land, the discovery of Link and the discovery of Hyrule become one and the same, and unlike the worlds of so many games, Hyrule doesn’t feel like it exists entirely for you to plunder and conquer.
The dragons who soar high above don’t deign to acknowledge your existence, and a spirit creature that dwells atop a tranquil mountain exists not to be permanently captured and tamed, but simply to lend the world more magic, mystery, and beauty. Its use of transphobic “humor” at one point is deeply disappointing, but doesn’t undo the spell this game weaves as it reaches not just into the past of Zelda as a series, but also into the past of those of us who, like Link, have our own memories of Hyrule.
(For more on Breath of the Wild, read my post on memory and the Temple of Time.)
4. Nier: Automata
Nier: Automata’s protagonists are made for war, and like so many soldiers, they’ve learned not to think about the value of their enemies’ lives. They desperately regurgitate rhetoric that tells them there’s no meaning to anything the machines they’re warring with do, even as evidence to the contrary continues to build. “My life was contained in our moments,” a machine says of his relationship with his brother after his brother is killed, and how could those moments have meaning if the existence of the machines is meaningless?
The conflict between dogmatic belief and apparent truth erodes one character’s ability to function, and as he breaks down, the game does, too, with inspired and exhilarating results. Automata’s war is a war that exists only to perpetuate itself, and ultimately, it begins to destroy itself, because there’s nothing left to destroy. By taking this situation through to its logical conclusion and then beyond, Automata ultimately makes an unforgettable statement about the reality that compassion is the only thing that can save us.
(For more on the game, read my piece on love in The Witcher 3 and Nier: Automata.)
3. Night in the Woods
No game this year spoke more urgently to the moment we’re living in now than Night in the Woods. Mae Borowski, her parents and her friends live in the rust belt town of Possum Springs where the work is drying up and folks are struggling. The future feels like it’s got nothing in store for them but poverty and precarity, and they have every reason to be frightened and angry. Anger is necessary, anger fuels change, but anger misdirected can be poison, and like so much of America right now, Possum Springs is rotting deep within from a festering, deeply misguided anger. Mae and her friends are all breakout stars whose personal struggles illuminate economic realities and cruelties of capitalism that so many Americans wish to ignore, while living lives full of meaning, friendship, hardship and laughter in the kind of place most films, TV and video games don’t acknowledge exists.
Part visual novel, part fantasy sports game, Pyre is extraordinary for how its elements all work in concert to create the most excruciatingly tense, high-stakes contest I’ve ever encountered in a single-player game. (Pyre also has local competitive multiplayer and that’s cool, but also beside the point.) As one of many exiles cast to the Downside, you lead a team called the Nightwings in the Rites, the heated, speedy back-and-forth games that are the only way to earn one’s return to the Commonwealth. The Rites are a lot of fun to play, but it’s the vibrant personalities of the Downside’s denizens and the way the story moves forward whether you win or lose that makes you care so much about the outcome of each encounter. The way the story adapts and advances whether you win or lose is handled far more elegantly and effectively here than in any ostentatious David Cage game, and Pyre has much to say about selflessness, sacrifice, and the way even castaways can live with some measure of joy and dignity, if they have each other.
(Read my review of Pyre.)
1. Butterfly Soup
The itch.io page for Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup describes it as “a visual novel about gay asian girls playing baseball and falling in love.” And that’s absolutely true, as far as it goes, but it can’t convey what makes this game so wonderful. I don’t know if I can, either, but I’ll try to hint at it.
It has something to do with how well Lei knows the four lead characters, how they each have such distinctive voices, such believable emotional and psychological realities. Take Akarsha, for instance, the joker of the group. She’s terrified of failure, so she acts as if she doesn’t care about how well she does. She’s incredibly smart, but she plays dumb, or tries to, by saying ridiculous things all the time. But because she’s so smart, even in trying to act clueless, she can’t help but say things that are so perfect and hilarious that they actually only work to demonstrate how incredibly smart and clever she actually is.
It has something to do with the game’s humor. This is — no exaggeration — probably the most laugh-out-loud funny game I’ve ever played. And it’s all the better because that laughter isn’t at the characters’ expense; it’s the laughter of empathy, endearment and affection. Min-seo is sometimes flat-out hysterical in her aggressiveness and determination, but we also understand that she has fought hard to assert herself for who she is in a family and a world that puts tremendous pressure on her to be someone else.
It has something to do with love. This game really believes in it, without irony or cynicism, with an openhearted earnestness that it’s hard to find anywhere these days. Butterfly Soup has so much compassion for its characters, but more than that, it has compassion for its players, too. It lets you in to the circle of friendship and love these characters create for themselves in a world that often tells them they don’t belong. It says hey, you deserve this too. It’s a game overflowing with love, and in 2017, there’s nothing more radical and necessary than that.
Check out all of our 2017 year-end retrospectives!
Carolyn’s Favorite TV of 2017
Ebony’s Comfort Blankets of 2017
Carolyn’s Favorite Films of 2017
Ashley’s Happy Distractions of 2017
Anita’s Most Memorable Media of 2017
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