It’s hard to say something meaningful about videogames in only a few paragraphs. They are a complex form whose novelty has left large gaps in our understanding which will be filled when we stop wondering “why is this boss fight good”, and instead ask “what does it mean to play”. However, I can’t resist the urge year after year to share my thoughts about the games I found the most profound, memorable, or transformative in their experience. So, here’s a short list of videogames worth recognizing in 2017.
When videogame enthusiasts proclaim any game as “harder than Dark Souls”, I immediately focus my attention on evaluating that assertion. Usually these expeditions of verification quickly end in obnoxious self-validation of my own supreme videogame skills. However, with Nioh, not only did I find challenges whose peaks exceeded the Souls games, but also a richly complex set of combat mechanics that have become my new standard for action games.
Similar to Bloodborne, Nioh offers weapons that each modify the actions available to the player. Intersecting with the distinct modes of engagement provided by seven types of weapons are three different stances that afford even more specialization in your options to administer death. Further still, button sequences and combinations can be customized per stance to such a degree that skilled players can react to the game with a precision that at times conveys a feeling of omnipotence.
This deep-seated customization empowers the player to build their own state-machines as they tear through the grand visuals of feudal Japan in a blaze of butchery which only the largest budgets could allow. The bosses along the way never blend into repeated encounters, the small cast of enemy AI are continually made fresh against the backgrounds of varied level design, and the quickened pace of combat is constrained by a constant tension with the stamina bar. This game is masterful.
Nex Machina: Death Machine
Like my favorite metal bands, simply saying the name Nex Machina: Death Machine out loud fills me with a feeling of immensity that has lingered on long after play has ended. Inside more than 120 levels resides a controlled chaos born from tight walls and constant aggression which define its play space which exists for its own sake. There is no time to think; there is only time to perform.
Similar to the arcade classics that make up its genealogy, Nex Machina’s single game mode consists of repeated levels for players to learn and internalize. On the first encounter, surviving is the only goal. Yet, as players die repeatedly, they memorize spawn patterns, enemy behavior, and secret levels, as they slowly build an encyclopedia of knowledge. Mastery is demonstrated by precision movement through strings of stages as one balances several multipliers and privileges positioning while executing a larger strategy that will earn a new highscore.
To the untrained eye, actions executed by the virtuoso appear almost clairvoyant.
Ultimately, the moves afforded to the player in Nex Machina: Death Machine are not interpretive. Amongst the endless cascades of neon voxels that explode in tandem with adrenaline soaked electronica lies zero encouragement to invent lore. The instability of the play space demands immediate focus from the mind, and lasting understanding of the game will be found when viewing the hands of a skilled player in action instead of a forum of spoiler discussions.
Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator 2
The fighting game genre operates below the conscious awareness of most passing videogame enthusiasts. Though it seems niche to those outside of its gravitation, the FGC is a strong drum beat in the fabric of videogame culture that has only become louder in 2017 thanks to a slew of strong fighting game releases. Chief among them is Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator 2.
Fighting games are the ultimate example of how hidden information can structure a play experience, as there is no greater source than the mind of another human opponent. Furthermore, they epitomize Brian Upton’s concept of the ludic sign as players build a model of behavior of their challenger which not only takes into consideration their initial tendencies, but also factors in the competitor’s own understanding of themselves. Even slight adjustments to the actions on screen trigger cascades of neural activity which will govern the physical movements of our hands. It’s really quite amazing.
Nonetheless, outside of Revelator 2’s ability to demonstrate abstract concepts pivotal to understanding how videogames interact with the mind is a fighting game that has made me fall in love with the genre again. It’s fantastic tutorials and basic chain combos create the perfect gateway drug to the deeper systems that lie beneath. For the first time in years I find endless joy in simply practicing and finding new ways to express my personality through an avatar during heated competition.
Within the rabbit hole that is the meta-critical discussion surrounding the question “what is art?”, one will usually find that the display of technical prowess can enter the fold as a justification worth justifying. Show me a large image of a wine glass taken with a camera and I will be bored. But tell me it’s not a photo at all and is instead a painful recreation in watercolor and instantly my perspective will change.
It’s impressive to see artists display power over their craft. That is why Cuphead simply must be distinguished as exceptional. The sisyphean task patiently tolerated by Studio MDHR to hand draw every frame of animation in the style of a 1930s cartoon is breathtaking in scope. It’s even more sublime in its execution.
Layer on top of that constraints which create a difficulty that is unrelenting but always fair, a brilliant onslaught of multi-stage bosses, a self-referential original score in the style of big band, and a good ole’ story centered around our pal Lucifer and you’ve got yourself a game custom built for my taste. I will forever be amazed by Cuphead’s commitment to its vision both in its art direction and the style of play afforded by its design.
Wheels of Aurelia
At the outset of 2017 I championed the views of a typical ludologist: that videogames were at their best when they focused on creating play spaces and that the form actively eroded one’s ability to tell stories. Through the months, my studies have shown me otherwise, and I now understand that even the slightest detail of a game’s fantasy can do more to structure player experience than the formal rules themselves.
Wheels of Aurelia occupies a spot on this list because it perfectly exemplifies how games can fuse both narrative play and gameplay in ways unique to videogames. As the player selects dialogue choices across a brief campaign, his or her focus flickers between keeping the car from bumping into other vehicles and reading the text through which the story unfolds.
This creates a unique experience as tricky road conditions take your mind away from the conversation, and juicy details of the developing drama are lost to roadside distractions. In the end, player action and performance blends into narrative relevance seamlessly.
Honestly, I don’t think this game belongs in the class that the others in this list inhabit. Yet, amongst its flaws is low-poly art that is among the best the style has to offer, as the Italian countryside is distilled deftly into cute and colorful structures which allow your eye to turn uncomplicated hexagons into beautiful rose windows via peripheral vision. Ultimately, I’ll remember Wheels of Aurelia as a strong example of how to successfully blend narrative and gameplay constraints in ways so many lauded games fail to do.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Give me just a tiny moment more of your time to say just one thing about Breath of the Wild. Throughout 2017 you’ve undoubtedly been inundated with praise for this game as it wracked up every adjective reserved only for the most commendable titles.
Its elegance unfolds in the seemingly endless opportunities for player action generated by only a few global constraints, each of which are so robust that there is no need for one off rules that stave off edge cases. What’s more, Breath of the Wild reveals its depth as it continually adapts and reacts to the player’s accrual of knowledge of the play space and ensures that mastery isn’t achieved by collecting a simple understanding of the basic mechanics.
So while I cannot state in such a brief article reasons why this game is special in ways that will not already sound familiar, I can call on the words of aesthetic philosopher Theodor Adorno to illustrate my final thoughts on this game.
We know now, in light of the achievement that is Breath of the Wild, that videogames have moved forward. Its design and structure has become the model for the modern, and what came before is squarely historical. When we look at past games in the genre, we do so now with a perspective which allows us to recognize problems that were previously unsolved. The heart of Breath of the Wild is a negation of designs which will now no longer hold, and for the time being it shall be fittingly bestowed the title of “timeless”.
Originally published on OK Beast