Games of the Year — 2017

Mike Kelly
10 min readDec 26, 2017

It was goddamn criminal to just reduce this list down to 10. Gaming exploded with more incredible experiences than I think I’ve seen in a single year. The medium is bursting with creativity and style. There was something for everyone this year, from old classics to new revolutionary genres. Timewasters and true art. It’s going to be one of those years I point back to when I say that I love gaming.

10. Horizon: Zero Dawn

Rarely does a game have such a unique vision, and rarer still is that vision made beautifully manifest in a triumph of a game. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world is at once primitive and advanced — tribes of humans battling beast-shaped constructs of steel and silicon amidst the decayed ruins of human society. A familiar world, but one that asks so many questions: what happened to humanity? What are these machines that now roam the wilds? How will these tribes find their way forward on this shattered planet? Aloy, a Nora outcast beset by a unique destiny, ventures beyond the sacred lands of her tribe to find the answers that humanity desperately needs. It’s incredible to roam and soak in what Guerrilla Games has built, and an absolute triumph at realizing a unique sci-fi world.

9. NieR: Automata

A sequel to a poorly-rated game that was a spinoff from the fifth ending of yet another mediocre game is not the most heartening of pedigrees. Yet Nier: Automata transcends its source material to become a poignant meditation on humanity. Set against a backdrop of a forever war of machines and androids, you follow two YoRHa units, 2B and 9S, as they fight through a world millennia after the human era has ended. The burden of sentience and the despair of an empty future without end weigh heavily on all that inhabit the world. All that dwell here search for purpose wherever it can be grasped: religion, sex, authority, community. Rare is the game where I put the controller down because of the philosophical concepts that I am forced to confront. It’s a game that chooses to go beyond classic philosophical ponderings and, much like the great scifi writers of old, evokes a deeper examination of existence.

8. Battle Chef Brigade

It’s amazing how long it took to make a game that so completely captures the feel of Iron Chef. By adapting the simple gameplay of match-3 puzzles with a rudimentary side-scrolling fighter, Battle Chef Brigade demands that you perfect your logistic, speed, and puzzle solving skills to create dishes in a head-to-head cooking competition. Sometime between defeating a dragon and cutting the bones out of the steaks I took from its body in order to season my dish just right for the judge’s palate, I realized I was actually exhilarated by the process. In the split second between the judge tasting it and pronouncing her verdict, I felt the same pride and dread of when someone tastes my own cooking. The story serves the game’s ends, but the true triumph lies in the battle.

7. Night In The Woods

Night in the Woods is a series of quiet moments. You take the role of college dropout Mae Borowski as you return to your hometown and discover how it has been exposed to the ravages of economic decay. She is a person I’ve known (and been!) at various points in my life: uncomprehending of responsibility, bouncing between depression and mania, and with an almost childlike rejection of the realities of the world. Her journey is not traditionally heroic, but instead grounded in small moments. Sitting with her father on the couch at the end of a long day, watching a shitty TV show that he loves, avoiding the conversation about how long they’ll be able to keep their house. The shocked silence after her childhood best friend snaps at her for not understanding why they’ve taken on the responsibility of working long hours. Waking from a nightmare where she is stalked by her own fear. You don’t need grand heroes and villains. Sometimes you just need to recognize the state of your own world.

6. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

In a crappy location in a shitty part of town, the bar VA-11 HALL-A feels like home. Bartender Jill puts in her shifts and commiserates with the characters that stream through looking for a moment of quiet. Set in a bleak consumerist future where each person has little power to change things, VA-11 HALL-A is a place where people can carve out some semblance of normalcy and ownership. Nobody here has either the desire or the ability to change the world. There is no grand purpose that unites them. But it’s in their individual stories that the game shines. Small anecdotes, recounting weird situations, and self-deprecating griping all define these individuals . VA-11 HALL-A ends, but not because it has reached a story apex. The people here continue their lives outside the bar, and Jill still comes in to put in her shifts. You just come in for a round and a chat.

5. Yakuza 0

Japan has never been more bizarre than it was during the economic boom of the 1980s, where Yakuza 0 is set. Glitz, glamour, and the seedy undercurrent of vice and organized crime suffuses the streets of Tokyo. Hundreds of activities await, from racing model cars to street brawls to literal porn theatres and hostess clubs. Tokyo lives and breathes around you. And it’s underpinned by a plot right out of the annals of film noir — a real estate land grab that is bathed in blood and deception. Remarkably, it balances its grimdark story with an absurdist humor that stuns in its creativity. One moment you are choosing between life and death of an innocent, the next you are hiring a literal chicken (named Nugget!) to be a part of your criminal organization and taking over gang territory via karaoke battle. It’s a game full of surprises, both heartfelt and hilarious.

4. Ladykiller in a Bind

For a more in-depth discussion, I wrote about this game earlier this year.

Girls tying up other girls. Lesbian BDSM. Like thousands of other pieces of media in the corners of the internet, it would be easy for a game to fall into pure prurience. However, Christine Love’s latest opus, Ladykiller in a Bind, is less concerned with purely titillating its audience as it is exploring the power dynamics of sex.

From the title screen, stamped with “All Power Exchange Must Be Negotiated”, the game makes its intention clear. This is a game that explores the ideas of consent, negotiation, and power. It does not treat sex as a reward for achieving a difficult gameplay goal. Rather, it explores the context around the dynamics of sex and attraction. Everything is negotiated, down to the names of every single character in the game. Conversations have a risk/reward element — where do you perceive your social power at this moment in the conversation, and can you use that to get what you want? Where are the boundaries of your own character, and where would you end up if you were to push on them? It’s a remarkable game that does not flinch from discussing the reality of sexual power exchange.

3. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

The opening scene of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sets the tone for the entire game. Senua, a Pictish warrior, quietly paddles a roughly-carved boat towards misty unknown shores. However, she is not alone. She is unavoidably aware of the whispering voices that surround her, chastising and mocking. As you listen, the voices move, stalking about your head, speaking as if they are pacing around you. You, the player, are disoriented and scared. The camera swings to focus on Senua, and you realize that what you see as scary is something that she has endured her entire life.

Senua suffers from a mental illness, a psychosis where she hears voices in her own head. She has never had any respite from them, and there is no sign she ever will. As her story unfolds, you see how this woman had to endure her life under a society that viewed her as an evil omen. Even her father refers to her very existence as a curse that he must endure. Beneath it all is a woman, a girl that is terrified of her own nature, fighting for her own peace wherever she can find it in the brutal world she inhabits.

2. Persona 5

Few game series have drawn me in as deeply as Persona. With the last installment nearly a decade ago, it was long overdue for a resurgence. Persona 5 is a stylish-as-hell JRPG, an achievement in pure art design. Everything from the character outfits to the game’s menus are painstakingly dynamic, soaked in panache and flair. It revels in its own exuberant presentation, daring to be colorful and fun.

The story weaves itself around the concept of “emancipation”, as Joker, the main character, draws allies to himself in an attempt to liberate people from those that would cause them suffering. In the real world, he finds friends through his daily routine — school, part-time job, socializing — that share his own sense of imprisonment. Once they find a path to an alternate world, Joker and his friends form the Phantom Thieves, an organization that seeks to steal the hearts of the wicked and free the oppressed and victimized.

Joker becomes a source of trust and stability for friends who seek their own emancipation — not just through the heists of the Phantom Thieves, but through the dynamics of the real world. The self-conscious boy who faces his own insecurities. A gun-runner that finally speaks to his son after years of separation. And a womanizing caretaker who comes to understand what his shut-in foster daughter needs. It’s a story both fantastical and mundane, and
Persona shows the wonder in both.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Every once in a while, a game comes along that radically redefines an entire genre. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild takes the bones of the open-world game and garbs it in new flesh. The entire history of the genre that Zelda helped define is challenged and remade — no longer are games held to the template of the Grand Theft Autos and Skyrims of the world. Breath of the Wild hearkens back to Zelda’s first iteration and shows what games of today could do if they go beyond the comfortable.

When you emerge from the Shrine of Resurrection into the soft plains of the Great Plateau upon starting the game, you look out over a nearby vista. It is there that you learn all you need to know. This world is vast and open to you. Every hill, every tree in the distance is there for you to explore. Secrets await. The only limit to this world is you.

However, the world is much more than its landmass. Everything in this world interacts with other parts of it, creating interplay that is yet another frontier to explore. A flame can catch in dry grass and begin to spread. Animals will follow their instincts and flee from it, while a strong thermal updraft will draw in nearby leaves and detritus, whirling them skyward. And you can open a chute and ride that same updraft, gliding over the world. Cannot reach an island in the middle of a lake? Simply fell some trees to build a makeshift bridge, or find a higher vantage point to search the coastline for an abandoned raft.

The world wants you to discover it. I lost count of the times I climbed a mountain just to see what was there. Or I poked around a ruined village, trying to discover the fate of its inhabitants. I walked along the fortifications of an ancient battleground, seeing how the forces of evil swarmed the defenders. There are also the quiet moments in the scattered settlements— people going about their day, gardening, training, building. Children laughing as they play tag. Dogs lolling about in the grass.

Breath of the Wild is a true epic, a quest laid bare for you to experience in a thousand different ways. Danger around every corner, but also beauty and grace from the unexpected. A life-or-death struggle, and a moment of peace in the world.

Breath of the Wild is the journey.

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Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.