As a lead up to our Game of the Year podcast(s), Kyle, Terrell, and I have written up our personal “Top 5” lists for 2017. These lists inform our podcast discussions but are distinct from them. They are also mostly spoiler-free. Enjoy!
I’m cheating here, but I couldn’t decide between these two fantastic, short games that I played on the Switch at the end of 2017. Battle Chef Brigade is a competitive cooking game that combines some interesting twists on the “match-3” genre with some light combat and resource gathering. Set in a world where chefs protect the world from monsters by hunting and cooking them, you play as Mina Han, a young girl from a small town who wants to join the prestigious legion of the Battle Chef Brigade. During your tryouts, you must compete in 1-on-1 matches with other hopeful chefs in “Iron Chef”-style cook-offs, incorporating a theme ingredient and pleasing the taste-preferences of the judges. Dishes are created and improved by adding ingredients that you gather while hunting, each of which has a combination of the three main taste profiles (fire, earth, and water) represented by different color gems. Neither the combat nor the cooking/match-3 part would be stellar on its own, but combined, they work really well together. Battle Chef Brigade is a perfect example of the relaxing, play-for-15-minutes kind of game that works so well on the Switch.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is another relatively short, relaxing game that I really enjoyed playing on my Switch. I missed the first iteration in this series (SteamWorld Dig, 2013), but SteamWorld Dig 2 seems to pick up where its predecessor left off. You play as a little robot named Dorothy who sets out to find her friend Rusty, as well as the cause of a series of earthquakes that have been troubling the robot community. You spend most of the time mining for resources and exploring underground caves and mines. The mining reminds me very strongly of a little Flash game I used to play online called Motherload, and the environment design calls the HD version of Spelunky to mind, in a good way. The game has a good loop of mine, head to surface, sell resources, buy upgrades, repeat, and the upgrades are interesting and meaningful enough to keep you invested in that loop. It also has great music, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Check it out if you want to chill out with some mining, light combat, platforming, and puzzles.
4. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (MachineGames)
More than any other game this year, I think The New Colossus found itself in the right place at the right time. Set in a world where the Nazis won the war, The New Colossus picks up where MachineGame’s first reboot of the Wolfenstein franchise (Wolfenstein: The New Order, 2015) left off: BJ Blaskowitz and a small group of guerilla resistance fighters have just launched a nuke at an important Nazi military compound, and somehow BJ’s friends manage to rescue him and escape in a stolen Nazi submarine. Hoping to set off a revolution against the now-interplanetary Nazi regime by uniting scattered resistance groups in the USA, The New Colossus presents us with a version of America that is defeated, subordinate to, and complicit with Nazi rule.
In a year when the president of the United States failed to condemn Neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA, The New Colossus can’t help but be relevant. In cut-scenes, overheard conversations, written documents, and scripted in-game sequences, MachineGames confronts the player with the strands of violence, white supremacy, and fascism woven into American history, and poses hard questions about what we are to do in the face of both extreme and everyday acts of oppression and violence. The characters in The New Colossus are complex and complicated (at least on the side of the resistance), including southern, moonshine-drinking communists, civil-rights era black revolutionaries, and even former Nazis. The New Colossus is at its best when it allows you to observe and partake in short conversations between members of these disparate resistance groups, revealing the messiness of organizing people who don’t agree on everything – or even like each other. Even the brutal protagonist BJ Blaskowitz becomes more than a Nazi-killing-machine through some difficult (and perhaps sometimes over-the-top) scenes revealing his life growing up with an abusive, xenophobic father.
But as other critics and writers have already argued, the game struggles to maintain a consistent tone: deeply serious and moving scenes are interrupted by fart-jokes, and the nuance and momentum of the cutscenes is often undercut by hours of brutal gunplay, which ranges from passable at best to uninteresting and frustrating at worst. But I have to admit that most of the scripted and cinematic sequences in the game were so good, I felt compelled to see the story to its end. And without spoiling any of its power, I’ll just say that the final scene of The New Colossus was one of the most powerful, emotional, and politically charged endings to a video game I’ve ever seen.
Ultimately, The New Colossus is still mostly a first-person shooter where you kill an endless stream of Nazis. Its message, that a deep undercurrent of violence and white supremacy is terrifyingly central to American history, is a critique that scholars, activists, and public figures have been making for a long time, in many cases more thoroughly and consistently than The New Colossus. But even if the writing for this game was finished long before the 2016 election, The New Colossus resonates with our current moment in a way that few other games did this year, and that was enough for it to earn its spot on this list.
3. Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall)
First, a confession: I actually played this game in 2018. But it was early 2018. And it came out in 2017. So it counts.
And it counts in a big way. Night in the Woods is a 2D, side-scrolling adventure game presented in a simple illustrated style in which all the characters are anthropomorphized animals. You follow the story of Mae, a 20-year-old girl who returns to the town she grew up in after dropping out of college. You explore Mae’s home town of Possum Springs, catching up with old friends and bothering the locals. As you get to know Mae, her friends, and her family better, you start to see what’s become of the residents of Possum Springs.
Formerly a mining town, then a factory town, Possum Springs has fallen prey to economic and trade policies that decimated rural towns across America. Jobs that once paid a living wage (thanks to unions, the game reminds us) have been replaced by minimum wage, seasonal, or contract jobs. The player/Mae’s freedom to simply sleep, wake up, and explore the town every day stands in stark contrast to her friends’ and family’s schedules – they have jobs to go to (every day), bills to pay, and too many responsibilities to handle. Although her friends are happy to see her, Mae struggles to reconcile these new, grown-up versions of her friends with the ones she remembers, and her friends are often frustrated with her inability to understand the very real limitations that shape their lives.
While Mae doesn’t face the same material pressures that her friends do, she does have to deal with her own problems. Through stories Mae tells, hints she drops in conversation, and surreal dream sequences, the player gets the sense that Mae has been dealing with depression and other mental illnesses for a long time. But it’s a mark of the game’s excellent writing that no conflict with friends or parents simply resolves to one cause, mental health or otherwise. Night in the Woods is able to tackle sensitive topics like mental health, sexuality, and labor relations well because it refuses to extract them from the context of the story it wants to tell – it resists the urge to shout directly to the player “HEY LOOK I’M GOING TO ADDRESS POLITICS NOW!”
While Night in the Woods consists mostly of exploring spaces and conversations, it also has a variety of little games you can play throughout which help to break up and pace out the story. Good pacing kept me interested in exploring and learning more about the people in and the history of Possum Springs, and unlike a game like The New Colossus, there’s practically not a minute of play time that felt boring or needlessly long.
The game also has some really exciting, supernatural-ish twists and turns, especially towards the end. If you want a relatively short game that features great writing, excellent visual style, a real sense of history, and a great story that also manages to tackle some difficult issues, Night in the Woods is a great place to look.
There’s a lot of reasons why Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) shouldn’t be a good game. Even after its “official” release on December 20th, the game suffers from a laundry list of problems: hackers, animation glitches, serious lag issues, hit detection, loot box bullshit… even its name is an overlong jumbled mess. It also features my least favorite aesthetic style – military-focused realism. And to top it all off, it’s a first/third-person shooter, a genre more tried (or tired?) and true than almost any other in video games, a genre where “innovation” means the guns look slightly different or there are slightly modified modes for multiplayer matches. By all accounts, PUBG shouldn’t be a candidate for this list at all.
And then I spent 200 hours playing it between July and December.
I will admit that during at least the first 40 hours, I spent a lot of time dying and not knowing why. As my fellow SAP-ers will attest, every few weeks I’d mention how I was finally done with PUBG. But something always kept drawing me back. That something? Fear. Tension. Uncertainty. Not knowing if I was safe or not. PUBG’s simple formula of “100 people jump out of a plane flying over an island and must converge towards the center of ever-shrinking circles until only one person remains” scared me as much as any good horror game I’ve ever played. You just never know if someone is just over the top of that hill to the north, or if that sound you thought you heard outside the building was someone’s footsteps. It’s a game that produces a gnawing, persistent dread, a tension which makes it unbelievably exciting to play. But PUBG can also be hilarious, as many videos and gifs attest. Vehicles bug-out and fly across the map, explode randomly, grenades bounce back at their throwers, and teammates accidentally kill each other in the heat of battle.
And then on rare occasions (for most of us), you get a chance to be #1. Sometimes it comes down to luck – you hid in the right building, your enemy moved into your poorly-thrown grenade, or you run into them by accident and just so happen to have the better weapon out. Sometimes skill plays a bigger part – you get the headshot you needed, you chose the better position in the circle, or you move to better cover when your enemy isn’t expecting it. But when you finally get that first-place finish and the end-game screen proclaims “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!”, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a video game before.
For me, it’s the moments of great tension and great hilarity, along with the much rarer moments of great triumph, that make PUBG not just an excellent game, but an experience that has produced memories I don’t expect I’ll forget any time soon.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD)
We’ve talked (and written) about Breath of the Wild at length, and if you’re reading this list I imagine you’ve already read, watched, or heard plenty about this game. Breath of the Wild did the impossible – it successfully changed the Zelda formula. Its “open-world” twist on the Zelda franchise does away with a lot of series staples: few, if any areas, are inaccessible after a short introduction section, dungeons have been broken up into tiny pieces and dispersed throughout the world as shrines while simultaneously being replaced by four puzzle-focused “dungeons,” and new weapons aren’t permanent upgrades but rather tools that get worn-out and eventually break. But by breaking out of the series’ conventions, Breath of the Wild restores something to the series that was missing for me for a while: a sense of wonder. You can see a massive mountain in the distance, work your way to the top of it, slide down the other side on your shield and fight a giant Hinox that you didn’t even see before. Every nook and cranny of the world in Breath of the Wild has something to discover, something to fight, or something to collect, and its always up to you how you want to go about doing that. As with many excellent games, there are a whole host of well-made design decisions that allow the end experience to work as seamlessly as it feels, but in the end Breath of the Wild is a game that empowers and encourages you to play around with all the tools it gives you, and makes sure there are plenty of moving parts in the world to use those tools on and with.
In 2017, Breath of the Wild let me escape to somewhere beautiful, somewhere where I could experiment and explore and enjoy and just get lost for a little while, and for me, that was exactly what I needed.
Derek Price produces and co-hosts the Scholars At Play podcast, and is also a PhD candidate in German Studies and Media Studies at Vanderbilt University. His dissertation project "Playing Economy: Leisure and Labor in German Gaming Cultures" addresses the convergence of labor, leisure, work, and play in and around German video games and board games.