Johnorable Mention: Horizon: Zero Dawn
My affection for Horizon: Zero Dawn primarily stems from the love I once had for the CW’s excellent sci-fi young adult series The 100, a show which trafficks in the same kind of post-post-apocalyptic creole that at once relaxes me and grabs my imagination. It’s a reverse-fantasy situation, transforming advanced technology into a new kind of magic. The worldbuilding becomes a game where the player tries to guess which piece of fantastical terminology will map onto a recognizable piece of tech and what that could mean for the state of the world. Horizon’s depiction of 31st century Western America is well realized, and even a chance to spend more time in that world is worth any weaknesses this game might possess – but to be fair, those weaknesses are few.
10. Destiny 2
Destiny 2 brought games culture to an absolute standstill earlier this year in a way I had occasionally seen but rarely been able to participate in. This year, this time, I got to be a part of the zeitgeist. I got to be in on the joke, and I loved it. I understood the memes. I devoured every Destiny-centric news story and planned my weekend around the first Xur. I consumed. And sometimes that feels good for a while, only for you to remember how we all got into this hyper-capitalist mess in the first place and eventually you snap out, but for those couple weeks it feels so good.
It still does, not in the same ways, but in all the ways that count. The game plays like a dream and the loot is meted out in a way that feels like a legitimate loot game rather than an incomplete title. Almost every problem I had with the first Destiny has been fixed, which is really all you can ask from a game where the sum total of its appeal is watching some numbers tick up.
9. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
2017’s most delightful surprise, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is both moderate reinvention and statement of purpose. The series needed to find its way home in order to start a new chapter. Back to the familiar sense of dread, to the more restrained location, to grossing out players with all the gore and violence a videogame-ass-videogame could muster. Biohazard’s dedication to its own mechanics and systems almost feels retro, with no desire to obscure the man behind the curtain. There’s an inventory-ass inventory. There’s a drink-based health system. There are over-the-top boss fights. There’s a chainsaw. You’ve seen this all before, but rarely executed quite like this. Resident Evil VII is all craft.
8. Emily Is Away Too
There’s an important distinction between people who grew up with the internet and people who grew up on it – I’m absolutely in the latter category. I didn’t go to a traditional high school, and I wasn’t exactly prone to making friends in a hyper-masculine sports-focused part of New York State, so I found that all-too-essential human connection online instead. I remember so much about my first online relationship: visiting her high school in Ohio, talking with my friends about my relationship troubles over the same program I used to chat with my girlfriend, and ending the relationship over the phone. I literally couldn’t do it in person, so my only recourse was the ultimate coward move. I know plenty of other people who have been through something similar. Even if we took different paths, there are just certain things you understand about your first online love.
Emily Is Away Too is built on that shared emotional language. These people and their lives feel recognizable, because how could you ever forget them? You lived those lives and met those people – at the very least you should be able to recognize the broad strokes. The scene where you’re trying to keep two very important chat windows going at the same time felt so authentic that I could believe I was replaying a scene from my own life. Emily Is Away Too’s sharp writing makes this game worth a look, but I suspect a fair number of my fellow millennials will find meaning in the game’s pitch-perfect mimicry.
7. Puyo Puyo Tetris
I’ve been playing Tetris for about as long as I can remember. For me, Puyo Puyo Tetris was a way to hone my block-stacking skills in front of my friends, who traditionally have been on the receiving end of a good thrashing. The campaign is a really fun way to explore both Tetris and Puyo Puyo, and the plethora of inventive arcade and multiplayer modes were enough to keep me coming back to Puyo Puyo Tetris in the months since release. But that core – that sweet, sweet Tetris – is a perfect realization of arguably the most iconic video game ever made.
6. Night in the Woods
This was a good year for games that spoke very specifically to Mike Cosimano. I guess if you’re going to release a video game about a self-loathing college dropout returning to their dead-end hometown, all the while dealing with unspoken parental disappointment and the very real specter of mental illness, you could pick worse years for said release than 2017. I don’t need to recap everything that bummed people out this year, especially when everyone has a completely disparate list of 2017’s worst moments.
Night in the Woods feels like a (capital g capital n) Graphic Novel, in that it has all the hard drinking, cursing, and existential dread of a first novel but with the extremely clean anthropomorphic animal aesthetic of an experimental modern-day Disney cartoon. One way or another, these creatures are gonna work though their emotional stagnancy via snark and band practice! If you’re in the mood for Night in the Woods’ particular brand of bittersweet, there’s a good chance this game will speak to you as well.
5. Heat Signature
Heat Signature feels like a really good sophomore album. It’s an artist coming into their own; synthesizing the pros and cons of their debut into a sort of road map for the future. Designed by Tom Francis, the man behind Gunpoint, Heat Signature is a strong follow-up to 2013’s best game, with the same emphasis on improvisation and failure state recovery that first captured my imagination when those tenets were stapled onto a man with super jumpy pants.
Although the transition from Gunpoint means Heat Signature loses my all-time favorite setting (sci-fi neo-noir), it still benefits from my all-time second favorite setting (grungy space), crafting a world so deeply lived-in that your very presence feels like a trespass. Finally, a game where I can truly become the scheme-ruining goblin I was born to be.
4. Persona 5
It’s a shame that 2018 has already been officially christened as The Year of Corky, because 2017 brought the video game stuff I do like. Games like Heat Signature or Zelda brought the open-ended improvisation, while games like Night in the Woods or Persona 5 fused genre trappings with larger thematic content in the most obvious way possible. I love a subtle message as much as the next person, but there’s something I truly adore about a work completely defined by its ideology.
From every angle, Persona 5 is about co-operative rebellion. In some way, it feels like a Japanese Watch Dogs 2 – this game taps into the unspoken fears, hopes, and beliefs that come hand-in-hand with growing up in the 2010s. Your weird friends will be the only hope and solace you have in the coming days. You don’t have to suffer institutionalized abuse. Take that hope and that solace and use it to shove your brilliance down your foes’ respective throats.
Aesthetically, Persona 5 is a curious hybrid of in-your-face punk and improvisational jazz, but like every other game in the series, it’s really about the scope of human connection, both on a macro and micro level. It may not be as fresh nor magnetizing as Persona 4, but it’s still one of the best games you can buy on a PlayStation.
I have an anecdote from playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds that perfectly summarizes why I love this game so much.
I was moving towards one of my favorite hiding spots (a house on the right side of the map) when I heard gunshots behind me. The dirt exploded around my feet as I made a break for the house, only just barely making it inside. With several minutes left before the map was set to shrink, I figured I could regroup inside and come up with some plan of attack. I poked my head out quickly to get a grasp of where my rival had set up shop…but I didn’t count on another player in a nearby car spotting me.
I had only one choice. I hid inside the house. The car had managed to spot me, but not the sniper hiding in the grass with a rifle trained on my house’s front door. Of course the player in the car wasn’t going to get out when they had a rolling death machine at their disposal. Of course the other player hunting me wasn’t going to reveal their spot when there was a rolling death machine kicking around. Of course I was going to sit inside that house grinding my teeth.
The person in the car began to taunt me, driving in circles around the house and revving the car’s engine as a sort of Warriors-esque “come out and pla-ay”-style taunt. Eventually I had to get out of the house, or I would’ve been trapped outside the blue circle. I zigzagged it out the front door while the car was on the other side of the house, in the hopes that I could get some distance before my opponents had time to react.
My plan actually worked. The car rounded the house and made a beeline towards my future corpse, accidentally running over the prone sniper along the way. I popped two shots through the windshield, killing the driver. In my panic, I left the car abandoned and booked it over a nearby hill. PUBG rules.
2. Super Mario Odyssey
I could play Super Mario Odyssey pretty much every day of my life. Everything about this game is so finely crafted that I feel confident putting it at the very top of any sort of Mario ranking. The worlds in Odyssey are brilliant, constantly rewarding the player for experimentation and exploration at every skill level. If you’re just poking at Odyssey while you’re on the toilet, you’ll be entertained. If you’re sitting down for a multi-hour session, you’ll be entertained. I found Power Moons to be one of the most addicting collectibles in recent memory. I agonized over each hidden Moon and delighted in the Moons that I just kinda tripped over.
Games like Mario Odyssey are the reason why we still buy Nintendo consoles, no matter how wild the pitch. No other game company could make a game like this, because there’s an implied quality to major first-party Nintendo titles. You expect games from the people who gave us the unqualified classic Super Mario Sunshine to be good. Super Mario Odyssey is better than good. It’s great.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
A lot of people don’t understand exactly why we as a culture still talk about Citizen Kane. That’s fine! Not everybody should have to suffer through film school. If all you know about Citizen Kane is that it’s considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, then you’ve at least nailed the broad strokes. What made Citizen Kane important – what made it formative – was its technique. It expanded American cinematography on the eve of the noir boom, popularizing and expanding a filmic visual language that people still use to this day. It’s not that Citizen Kane hit some objective checklist to become the Best Movie or even that it got people to take American cinema seriously.
Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane because its crew found new ways to use the tools they had been given.
We as an industry talk a lot about the Citizen Kane of videogames. At first some of us did it sincerely, now all of us do it ironically. I’m here to make an illegal u-turn and whip this discourse back into the sincerity lane. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the Citizen Kane of video games.
Breath of the Wild isn’t a literal 1:1 to Citizen Kane because it expanded game cinematography or something like that. Yes, the game looks gorgeous, but visual direction is not the primary language of video games. Interactivity is how games communicate with their players; Zelda redefines that interaction by creating a world where every aspect of post-apocalyptic Hyrule interacts with everything else. If you have enough patience and a solid understanding of the game’s mechanics, there is no limit to what your imagination can accomplish.
By giving players a box of easily accessible tools and a physics ruleset that feels recognizable and logical, the game actively encourages you to sequence break, hairbrained problem solving becomes the norm. There’s no more glitching around mountains trying to avoid another long trek like in Skyrim. Now you can just climb over that mountain, all the while looking for places where Link could rest when his stamina gets weak. That’s noteworthy because it feels real. It’s human. Breath of the Wild is the greatest fantasy simulation ever created because Link as a physical object starts with all the limitations and skills of your average person.
Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule feels like a real place, not because it’s populated with a horde of NPCs following a set path or because it’s got the best god rays, but because I can get those apples by chopping down that tree. Yeah, it’s still a beautiful game filled with whimsy and thrilling adventure, but its willingness to experiment with things we take for granted is what makes Breath of the Wild so magnificent. Zelda redefines the basics in order to elevate its ephemera, so obviously it’s gotta be my Game of the Year.
Congratulations to Kentucky Route Zero, 2018’s Game of the Year.