I'm firmly of the opinion that video games just keep getting better, and 2017 was definitely a data point in my favour. There were so many good games out over the last 12 months. Assassin's Creed: Origins, which rehabilitated one of my favourite game series; Torment: Tides of Numenera, giving me a dose of the text-heavy RPGs that I loved as a kid; amazing indie efforts like Tacoma, The Sexy Brutale and Antihero. Even now, at the end of the year, more beautiful things are emerging into the cold. Gorogoa only came out a few weeks ago. It's too much. It's almost a sin to try and trim them all down to just a few of my favourites – and yet I must. Here are five games that I'm holding close to my heart this year.
Little Nightmares is principally a platformer with some puzzles, and yet is also one of the most frightening horror games I've ever played. Horror games like Outlast are alright: they make you go 'Ah!' because you turn a corner and there's a big demon with an axe, or something, but when you turn Outlast off you stop being frightened. Jump scares are cool but they dissolve quickly, like candy floss washed in a puddle by a raccoon. Little Nightmares had me unsettled long after completion, in a way that made me want to turn all the lights on. It's like when you played hide and seek and hid in the wardrobe upstairs, sitting on top of your parents shoes, and then you suddenly realised that although you were playing a game the wardrobe was in fact quite dark and scary and maybe there was something horrible lurking behind you – but was it more frightening to sit there not knowing, or to turn around and discover you were right?
As Six, a tiny girl in a yellow mac, you run through a world of frightening, monstrous grownups, where everything is too big for you. You have to climb on chairs to reach door handles. And you're chased by these monsters, half the kind of thing cruel adults might threaten children with (stop sucking your thumb or a man will come and cut if off), and half cruel adults themselves. It's beautiful and terrible and very, very good.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Ninja Theory's crack at bringing back the 'independent AAA' game seems to have worked, as Hellblade was a success critically, and has gone into profit sooner than anticipated. Telling the story of a Celtic warrior contending with her own mental health as well as the Viking raiders who sacked her village, in Hellblade Senua travels into Hel to retrieve the soul of her lost lover Dillion.
Fighting demons to get your boyfriend back sounds pretty standard for a game, but in Hellblade Senua is in the midst of a psychotic break triggered by finding the aftermath of the Viking raid. She is constantly accompanied by external voices, with distinct personalities, which speak to her as she goes on her journey, and no distinction is made between what is and is not reality because it is all Senua's reality. Ninja Theory did extensive consulting with mental health professionals and people who have psychosis themselves to try and create a meaningful and empathetic representation.
I really liked the game. I thought it was excellent in its use of sound and perspective for puzzle solving especially, and still think Senua is a wonderful character. But then I've never experienced psychosis myself. Hellblade has been discussed by people who have, with some finding it invalidated the experiences of people with mental illness, and others finding the opposite, or even saying it helped them connect with family or loved ones. That this discussion is even happening around a video game is pretty big news in and of itself.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
One of the comments on our video review for Breath of the Wild was, 'If you liked it so much, how come you gave it a 9?', which is obviously amazing. The game itself was amazing too, which I'd say was lucky if Nintendo's track record with Zelda games wasn't so consistent (because I even liked that one you didn't like, probably). Ninty had a lot to prove with the Switch after the post-Wii slump of the Wii U, and it came out swinging with a new mainline Zelda game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was hotly anticipated not just because even people with the most shrivelled, Scrooge-like hearts have a place there for Link, but also because Breath of the Wild promised to take the series in a different direction, which was all directions at once because it was a giant open world. Like the postman, it delivered. Breath of the Wild is free and open, just dumping you into a beautiful wilderness and sending you on an adventure. There are almost no map markers so you feel like the master of your own fate. Plus when you cook stuff the food does a little dance in the pan and it's pretty great.
A few fighting games came out this year and were mostly alright, but you can only play as Wonder Woman and hit Superman using a drunk patron in a pub bar in one of them, so you figure it out. Injustice 2 is great not just because of the quality of the fighting, but because of its quality overall, especially in the motion capture of the characters. Ed Boon and the team at NetherRealm captured the feel of dozens of DC stalwarts without going too grim-dark and ruining the fun. Fundamentals like stellar combat and cool fight stages add to little details like unique fight intro dialogue for different characters. Taken all together it's the sort of game that you want to stay home and cane for an entire weekend.
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Headline reads: Dishonored liker in liking Dishonored shocker. There will always be a place in my heart for Dunwall and the world of Corvo, Emily, and, in this last installment, Billie Lurk. Arkane made such a weird, lovely, horrible world of stylish murder, packed with so many grim little details that it was impossible for me to not fall in love with it.
Death of the Outsider might not resonate as much with you if you're not already a fan of the series, and certain areas are more melancholy to play through if you're fresh off the back of Dishonored 2, but that doesn't diminish how stylish a game it is. It presents the mechanics of the previous Dishonored games in a streamlined way, and then lets you loose on a small, but very dense, area to succeed in your objectives however you see fit. And this is set against the backdrop of a world moving on from it's arcane, magical past, beset from all directions, so the title is figurative as well as literal. It's almost sad. And it feels like the Outsider would have died anyway. It's lovely.
There's also a video of me saying all of this out loud, for your convenience, and the lovely Colm Ahern has also done his own list of games that were indeed of this year. Plus, if you're the sort of person who enjoys just one thing being top of other things, we hashed everything out in an official VideoGamer GOTY Podcast, so keep an eye out for that.