Interesting Games of 2017: The Year So Far

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My goodness. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a non-silly post. The new job has kept me busy, and on top of that I have made a real push to catch up on games released in 2017, now that we have passed the year’s halfway point. This latter task has given me plenty to mull over, and while I’m not yet prepared to write longer critical thoughts on the games in question, I thought I would collect some “quick takes,” as a way of priming the pump.

I still have a substantial backlog of big releases from 2017. I have not yet played Nier: Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017), or RiME (Tequila Works, 2017). I’m making my way through Resident Evil 7: biohazard (Capcom, 2017) right now. And although I recently bought Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), I’m afraid that my 2012-built PC might not run it smoothly, and have been putting off installing it.

I have, though, found the time to play over a dozen other games released in the past six months. Thoughts below are listed in order of the release date of the game. I’ll set up links in this page if and when I write fuller pieces on any of these games.


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We Are Chicago

(Culture Shock Games, released February 9) A noble attempt at using the medium to tell the story of disadvantaged youths that should be called out for what it is: a failure. My sympathy for the intentions of this game, combined with my respect for the potential of the medium, compels me to honest about its failure, and not mince words. Fuller thoughts can be found here.


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Night in the Woods

(Infinite Fall, released February 21) Despite some hiccups in pacing and voice, Night in the Woods tells the most vital story of any game in 2017. It also proved to be an excellent palette cleanser after We Are Chicago. Swapping 2D cartoon visuals and magical realism for the former game’s stilted 3D animations and warbling attempts at quotidian observation, Night in the Woods genuinely reaches the heights of socially-conscious storytelling that We Are Chicago aspired to.

I’m not going to belabor my praise for this game here, as I intend to write a post entirely devoted to it shortly. (Update: that post is here.)


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Stories Untold

(No Code, released February 22) The “control a character that is playing another game on an in-game computer” genre has been around for about five years now. As far as I can tell, the recursive puzzle platformer Atum (Team Cupcake, 2012) kicked this particular trend off. It was followed by The Second Amendment (Ramiro Corbetta, Jane Friedhoff, and K Anthony Marefat, 2014), which fused fumblecore with text-parser interactive fiction, all in the service of a delightfully awful pun.

Stories Untold feels like the first time this micro-genre has produced a full, thematically-coherent work. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that work. As much as I liked what I played of Stories Untold, I also found it to be unconscionably buggy. The kind of bugginess where my progress wasn’t just stymied by bugs, but actively deleted. I’ve never wanted to like something so much, but been completely kept out of liking it—or even experiencing it—by technical problems.

So I can’t, in good faith, recommend this. I do very much hope that it gets a patch, though. And if you play through it to the end without encountering any game-breaking bugs, I hope both that you enjoy it … and that you let me know how it ends.


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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

(Nintendo EDP, released March 3) In the opening hours of Breath of the Wild, I was unsure if Nintendo was going to be able to pull it off. Typically, the pleasures of an open-world game are heavily based on mystery: on not knowing what’s beyond the next hill, of tumbling into unexpected places and plotlines. Skyrim had the surprising enormity of Blackreach. Red Dead Redemption had its rumored werewolf. San Andreas had its body bags in the desert.

Conversely, the pleasures of Legend of Zelda series have, since the release of A Link to the Past, been all about familiarity. The franchise has attained the status of comfort food: we know its items, its boss patterns, its story beats. Was Nintendo going to be able to do this? Could it use all of the well-known races, well-known enemies, and well known story threads of the Zelda franchise, but somehow also incorporate the wonder of chasing the unknown?

Trotting my way to Kakariko Village to meet Impa after leaving the Great Plateau, I remember spotting the Dueling Peaks in the distance. “Ooh, that looks cool,” I thought; “I wonder what’s beyond it.” Then, I answered my own question: “Kakariko village is beyond it. And Impa is there. And she’s going to give me a very familiar quest. I’ve done this all a dozen times before.” Herein lay the the problem of the game.

And yet, as I played on, this feeling on conflict diminished. Breath of the Wild proved to be a genuinely successful open world game, largely because it didn’t care to be a traditional Zelda game. The item-gating was gone. The musical elements—already vestigal and horridly undercooked in Skyward Sword—had been put out to pasture. There were fewer “temple” areas, and they were leaner. Those looking for their 3D puzzle fix could instead seek out the 120 “shrines,” which bore a striking resemblance to Portal test chambers. The breakable weapons were annoying for the first ten hours or so, but became a tense and gratifying exercise in inventory management as the game went on. And the climbing … the climbing was very good.

So, yeah. Everything you’ve heard about this game is true. Nintendo pulled it off.


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Kona

(Parabole, released March 17) The past several years have witnessed a vivid burst of exploration-based narrative-driven adventure games, and Kona borrows wildly from a lot of them. Like Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2012), a solid chunk of it consists of rummaging through people’s drawers and diaries. Like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015), portions of its story are related by spectral figures. There is the the wilderness-wandering of Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016). And I was even getting a Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax, 2009) vibe from its mixture of snowy environs, secluded cabins, and ghostly presences. And, on top of all of these influences, Kona adds even more ingredients. It is a survival sim, with an ever-pressing need to find sources of heat in the bitter cold. There’s even some light combat.

As far as the actual storytelling of Kona goes, I was less than impressed. The tale it weaves lacks strong hooks, with the supernatural elements draining some of the life out of the human elements. And the whole thing’s weight down by an oppressively chatty narrator. Play-by-play narration was a delight back in the combat-centric Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011), but it runs counter to purpose in an immersive sim. I should be determining the importance of a note I found in a drawer myself, not having it announced to me over the game’s speakers. In the end, I switched the audio over to French (fitting, for the setting in rural Quebec), and avoided reading the subtitles when possible.

However, although I wouldn’t recommend Kona as a model for game storytelling tout court, I would recommend it as a model for how to introduce “gamier” aspects into the basic Gone HomeEverybody’s Gone to the Rapture model. As far as survival sims go, Kona is not terribly stressful. But the extra pressure its heat-seeking mechanic provides actually breaths life into its setting. I hope that other developers are taking note as they find new ways to tweak the basic “wander game” formula. Finding new things for players to do while they are soaking in the environmental storytelling is never a bad thing, in my book.


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Everything

(David OReilly, released March 21) So, yeah. If you hit a bug, it can be confusing. But, if you don’t, this is a weirdly rapturous experience. It’s like Charles and Ray Eames’ The Powers of Ten (1977), mixed with the pure joy of dumping out a huge tub full of children’s toys. It’s definitely like no “inhabit the form of something else” game we’ve seen before. It’s … something else. What, exactly, I am not sure. But I do know that I am consistently enjoying the experience of going back to it.


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Persona 5 

(Atlus, North American release April 4) It has been oft-noted that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Atlus, 2008) came packaged with a conformist streak, one that had a detrimental effect on the game’s portrayal of characters who were exploring their sexuality and gender identity. I am unhappy to report that Atlus seems to have learned the wrong lessons from this. Persona 5 so over-enthusiastically bucks the conformity of its predecessor that it ends up mired in the shallow rebellion of teenage angst. And yet, despite offering an anti-authoritarian narrative about overcoming the prejudices adults hold toward youth, queer characters are nowhere to be found in the main party. (The game does include a couple of gay background characters who show up on occasion to facilitate gay panic jokes. Tactful, that.)

I was a bit annoyed by the focus Persona 5 placed on its overarching framing narrative. Although I may be mis-remembering them, my memory is that neither Persona 3 nor Persona 4 took control away from you on quite so many days, leaving quite so little of the game’s calendar open for the time-management aspects of the game. I finished the game with a paltry number of maxed-out confidants, which I found annoying: it feels like the game is engineered to specifically force you to wait until your second playthrough to get to know the side-characters deeply. Considering that my first playthrough took me 108 hours, that is not a design technique I particularly appreciate.

(I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t already contemplating a second playthrough.)


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Blackwood Crossing

(PaperSeven, released April 5) This one made me question whether I was made of stone. Blackwood Crossing and Rakuen (see below) have both been critically acclaimed as the top tearjerkers of 2017. Blackwood, though, left me somewhat cold: appreciative of its artistry, but wary of its more treacly aspects.

Some of the fault here lies with the game’s jankiness. Movement is weirdly sluggish, and the objects littering the game’s close-quarter spaces have unusually large hit boxes. Your character gives every table and chair a wide berth, resulting in very narrow paths of navigation, traversed very slowly. The interaction highlighting is also rubbish—I’d wager that, if tallied up, I spent a good 10 minutes of my playthrough tapping my “W” and “S” keys, searching for the exact, unconscionably small spot I had to stand in to prompt interactions.

But even if the game left me emotionally cold, it is not without successes. Blackwood Crossing shares some DNA with Fragments of Him (Sassybot, 2016), while sidestepping some of that game’s problems. Again, our interaction primarily takes the form of clicking on objects and human figures to prompt lines of dialogue and the opening of blocked paths. But Backwood Crossing‘s embrace of dream logic opens up much more interesting possibilities here. Collecting objects and stringing together lines of dialogue becomes an interesting puzzle rather than just busywork, as the trial-and-error process of opening up the next area also gives players time to untangle the tragic tale lurking behind the game’s hallucinatory imagery. The game’s technical shortcomings are certainly a shame. I’d like to think that, in their absence, I’d be able to connect with this on an emotional level, in addition to appreciating it intellectually.


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The Sexy Brutale

(Tequila Works / Cavalier Game Studios, released April 11) The Last Express (Smoking Car Productions, 1997) is a game that I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I find it to be one of the most ambitious and gratifying experiments in game narrative design ever created, and admire it more than just about anything. On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that there’s basically no way one can get through its mid-game showstopper concert set-piece without using a walkthrough.

With a few notable exceptions, in the 20 years since The Last Express first appeared, there have been a real dearth of adventure games based on moving back and forth in time, observing things play out in a real-time scenario. Happily, things are looking up on this front. White Paper Games are scheduled to release The Occupation sometime this year. And, if we’re really lucky, we’ll get Luis Antonio’s Twelve Minutes before too long, as well. In the meantime, though, we have The Sexy Brutale, an isometric adventure-puzzle game about thwarting murders in a large mansion/casino.

The Sexy Brutale‘s main twist on the Last Express formula follows a trend that I’ve seen a lot in modern adventure games: rather than requiring you to juggle large inventories across a large space for a long amount of time, the game is concretely broken down into discrete segments, each with only a handful of events and inventory items to juggle. The result is that things are massively streamlined, and you don’t have the giant pile-up of events like the midpoint setpiece of Last Express, which players need to spend the whole first half of the game preparing for. In The Sexy Brutale, you’re mostly confined to a few rooms of the mansion at a time, tasked with foiling one single murder (even as others are audibly happening all around you within the larger estate grounds).

At first, I wasn’t sold on this streamlining. I foiled the second murder completely by accident, without even having seen it play out once in all of its grisly detail. This ability to stumble upon a solution struck me as a pretty serious design problem. But it only happened once. The murders gradually incorporated more and more elements, spread across larger and larger sections of the mansion. By the time I was intervening in the game’s sixth murder, I was utterly impressed. Yes, it had been streamlined into a bite-sized chunk, but it was a very hearty and satisfying chunk. Although I’m not crazy about the visual design of the game, and feel like its soundtrack could have been toned down into something moodier, I nevertheless hope it finds the audience it deserves, so that this new renaissance of real-time observation-based adventure games continues to flourish.


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What Remains of Edith Finch

(Giant Sparrow, released April 14) The opening chapter of Giant Sparrow’s debut game The Unfinished Swan (2012) had one of the most eye-grabbing visual hooks in videogame history. Throughout the running time of that game, Giant Sparrow proved themselves to be among the most creative developers working today, filling chapter after chapter with new design twists. Unfortunately, though, the game itself was a little rickety. The pacing was off (the “throw water to grow vines” chapter, in particular, felt unnecessarily padded), and sometimes the common mechanical thread of “throw this blob of stuff forward” felt more like a hinderance than a source of coherence.

I am delighted to report that, in their sophomore effort, Giant Sparrow have noticeably grown as a developer. What Remains of Edith Finch drops the pretense of mechanical coherence, and instead becomes what Unfinished Swan ought to have been: a celebration of the possibilities of the medium, continuously playing with scale, embodiment, and control schemes in a cornucopia of experimentation. Technically, the game is about death—it is a family history of the Finches, who are prone to dying at young ages from unusual causes, and nearly every vignette of the game ends in a Finch death—but it is an oddly joyous experience. This sense of joy doesn’t simply stem from black humor (of which there is some, but not as much as you might expect): the freewheeling experimentation of the game’s mechanics themselves actually act as a celebration of life’s possibilities.

I still suspect that Giant Sparrow are building to a genuine masterpiece (Edith Finch falls short of this goal). But if they’re giving us games this interesting and delightful in the meantime, I say we let them build at their own pace.


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Little Nightmares

(Tarsier Studios, released April 27) One rarely hears the term “cinematic platformer” being applied to games besides those developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by figures such as Jordan Mechner and Éric Chahi. I’m tempted to say, though, that we’re in the midst of a second renaissance of the form. The first time I played LIMBO (Playdead, 2010), I was stunned that such haunting atmosphere and pitch-black grisly humor could be wrung out of a platform game. The delicacy of the character animations—emotive while also never feeling unresponsive, a tough balance to achieve—blended perfectly with the subtle textures of its landscapes, forming an overall package that was as unified as it was self-assured.

Few things have been so immediately striking to me in the intervening years. But, playing Little Nightmares, I got that LIMBO feeling back. The expert use of color and scale, the hauntingly expressive animations of the player-character, the delightfully awful character designs (I was especially fond of the long-armed “janitor” character who stalks you in the “lair” area): as much as I enjoyed playing the game, these details made me suspect that I would also enjoy simply watching it being played, for its cinematic qualities. A true triumph of production design and quality animation, and grotesque in the true sense of the word: so repulsive that it goes past scariness, and ends up fascinating and comical.


Rakuen

(Laura Shigihara, released May 10) Laura Shigihara was a vocal performer on a key track from To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011). This, combined with the fact that Rakuen is also made in RPG Maker, has invited plenty of comparisons to Kan Gao’s earlier, much-beloved game. For the most part, these comparisons have been positive: reviews for Rakuen are positively glowing, with many praising it as a worthy successor to To the Moon‘s tear-jerking crown.

Not to be needlessly contrarian, but I personally think that, once you get beyond the surface connections to To the Moon, a better reference point for Rakuen is the lovely and under-appreciated Fran Bow (Killmonday Games, 2015). Like Fran BowRakuen embraces utter, morbid seriousness on matters of mortality, while still somehow finding room for whimsical, colorful fantasy. Both games embrace fantasy as an emotional coping mechanism, one that can be healthy, and need not shy away from the realities of loss.

Rakuen does Fran Bow one better, though: whereas the tragedy in Fran Bow was entirely fictitious, Rakuen is explicitly set in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and related Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. This is an incredibly bold choice, and carries with it substantial risk. I daresay that Rakuen falls in the footsteps of Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erise, 1973) and Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) in successfully blending fantasy elements together with a frank acknowledgement of historical national trauma. Definitely recommended.


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The Dream Machine, Chapter Six

(The Sleeping Machine, released May 11) The first chapter of The Dream Machine released waaaaayy back in December 2010. Given that eager players had been waiting to play the complete game for over six years, I was a bit surprised that Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring decided to go with such a downer ending. (Spoilers, I guess?)

Final bum note aside, however, there is plenty to love about the concluding chapter of this long-in-development game. It is as beautiful as ever, with the psychedelic dimensions of this particular entry giving Erik Zaring room to stretch the game’s visuals to new heights. And it is surprisingly funny! I might have chuckled a few times before in the preceding chapters of The Dream Machine, but I have not laughed as hard during any game released in 2017 as much as I did perusing the cosmic ironies one could rain down in answer to prayers in the “god phone” section. As eagerly as I was awaiting the completion of this project, I didn’t think The Dream Machine would end up being the funniest game of 2017. And yet, here we are.


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Perception

(The Deep End Games, released May 30) Perception is a game that, on paper, is extraordinarily ambitious. And then, somehow, somewhere along the line in its production, it became weirdly humdrum, with design problems that echo the design problems of plenty of other games. (Chief among them: poor signposting, and an over-reliance on artificially-implemented waypoint markers over environmental cues.) My full thoughts are here.


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Walden, a game

(Tracy Fullerton and the USC Game Innovation Lab Walden Team, released July 4) I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this game since Tracy Fullerton mentioned it when she visited the University of Chicago back in November 2011, making it second only to the final chapter of The Dream Machine on my list of games I have been excited about for the longest. (The past couple months have been good on that front.) A playable alpha build hit itch.io back in February, and it rather unceremoniously received its final update to the “Release Version” on the 4th of July.

Despite (or perhaps because of?) my intense anticipation for this game, I actually haven’t played it yet. But I am hoping to do so soon, and to post some thoughts on it on August 9th, in honor of the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Thoreau’s essay. (Update: I actually split that into two posts, here and here.)

Well, that’s quite enough for today. Expect more than cats in the coming weeks, though.

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