I want to note for a second that this post isn’t called “The Best Games Of This Year”, because, honestly, I don’t feel comfortable saying that simply due to how many good games, games I’ll probably love, I didn’t get around to.
2017 was a busy year for me. The world was…well, a lot of stuff happened in current events this year that you don’t need me to describe to you, but in the midst of all of that, I graduated college with Latin honors, got a job as a programmer, visited Japan for the first time, got my own place, had my Dad move out of Dallas, leaving me alone here, and a ton of other stuff. The fact that I have time to play any video games is honestly incredible.
But play games I did, and holy shit was this a good year for games. Japan came back with a vengeance after misguided rumors that the Japanese development scene was dying. Many of the year’s best games came from Japanese teams (including NieR: Automata, Yakuza 0, and Persona 5, all of which are still in their shrink on my shelf, shamefully). In between releasing Skyrim for toasters, Bethesda published some fantastic single-player experiences, proving that it pays off to invest in your pet projects. The Switch only came out this year, and it’s already such an amazing piece of hardware. Tabletop RPGs are full steam ahead, following the path to public fame blazed by the Fifth Edition of D&D and shows like Critical Role. Board games have never been better.
So, instead of just arbitrarily listing all of my favorite games that came out this year, despite the fact that I played a ton that did not come out this year, all to culminate to a grand reveal to my favorite game of 2017 (Prey, spoiler alert), I thought it would be more interesting to talk about the games that are inexorably linked to my life and my memories of 2017.
The Game That Almost Fucked Up My College Career: Nuclear Throne
Let’s get something straight here: Nuclear Throne did nothing wrong, I almost fucked up my college career, with the vehicle of self-destruction being Nuclear Throne. I first installed Nuclear Throne at the top of the year, after meeting game development icon and saint of a human being Rami Ismail, and after blubbering like an idiot for what felt like four hundred years, going “I should play more Vlambeer games”. I fell into a real hole playing Luftrausers, and thought Nuclear Throne would be a good game to play.
I played, like, a lot of Nuclear Throne. So much that I was sitting in the back of a couple of classes in my last semester just…playing Nuclear Throne. Linear Algebra? Who needs Linear Algebra? The only vectors I need are the ones from my gun’s muzzle to this crow man’s face!
Yeah, turns out, while you can have a philosophical argument all day about whether or not you need Linear Algebra (spoiler alert: if you’re a programmer, you do!), when you’re in a Linear Algebra class you 100% need Linear Algebra. So, I had to spend the week before finals with my head buried in textbooks learning all of the material for the first time, instead of casually recalling all of the stuff I learned in class, because I spent all of class playing Nuclear Throne. In this way, I don’t know if any game will evoke my college years of late-night cramming, sitting in lecture halls, and panicking about grades, quite like Nuclear Throne.
The Game That I Wouldn’t Shut Up To My Friends About: Deadly Premonition
Is Deadly Premonition good? That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re measuring by the metrics of realistic textures, non-repetitive music, good driving controls, a meaningful open world, or PC performance, no. In fact, by those metrics, Deadly Premonition is pretty much a trash fire. Luckily, I don’t rate games by any of those metrics.
Instead, I rank games by the amount that I get pulled into their world, by the affection I have for the characters and the disappointment and longing I feel when I have to put the controller down. And by that metric, Deadly Premonition is a masterpiece. I ended up loving FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (please, call him York), as much of a movie-referencing, tone-deaf weirdo as he is, as I ended up loving all of the weird characters of Greenvale. The mystery and world of the game enthralled me, and even when the game was at its worst, I wasn’t mad because the game was mad, I was mad because I was too addicted to stop.
I have convinced four of my friends to purchase Deadly Premonition. It has its hurdles to jump over to really enjoy, but when you get past all of that, the game is an absolute treat. Everything in the game is a monument to how SWERY65 and his team worked hard to make a game, a crazy game that only they could have conceived. While the translation from idea to product is never perfect, and that’s maybe never been more true than for Deadly Premonition, this game is the kind of paradoxical mix of unsettling and charming that it really does perfectly capture small town America.
You should play Deadly Premonition.
The First Game I Played As An “Adult”: Prey
Younger readers might not know this, but after you graduate from college you get inducted to the secret cabal of adults, where you gain access to all of the Secret Adult Knowledge like how to fix plumbing and what a Roth IRA is. Once I had finished reading the ancient scrolls and the scientists activated the gene that makes you refer to movies as “shows”, I walked outside as an adult. I wasn’t a student, for the first time in 16 years. I had a job, and two degrees.
So, the first thing I did was go straight to my local game shop, buy a copy of Prey, plop down on my Dad’s couch, and play it until 3 in the morning. Turns out, being an adult is a lot like being a teenager, and so I slipped right back into my teenage habits of getting, just, real deep into a video game. And no game was so perfect for that role like Prey.
Prey is a goddamn masterpiece, a perfect 10 in my opinion. The way that game makes its world breathe and feel alive, and the way the characters on board Talos 1 feel like real people, right up until they get murdered and eaten by alien goop monsters, was what let me slip so deep into that game. Combine that with a perfect execution of immersive-sim style gameplay, encouraging exploration and creative thinking, and just like how the Typhon consume the bodies of their prey, Prey consumed me and my thoughts for weeks.
When I was a kid, I was afraid that there would be a point where I would have to take a step back, out of all of these amazing virtual worlds I was exploring so that I could focus on the real world and grown-up problems like mowing lawns and whatever the fuck a cleanse is. Prey reminded me that, no, no amount of years will make me stop immersing myself in these incredible games.
The “Holy Shit I’m Actually In Japan” Game: Gunslinger Stratos
You hear a lot in nerd apocrypha about Japanese arcades, and how they’re full of hardcore dudes just chain smoking and being really good at fighting games. I wanted to go to Japan for a lot of reasons, but some nonzero percent of that desire came from the desire to experience a Japanese arcade, to see the sort of alternate reality on the other side of the world where people, like, leave their house and go to a place to play video games, something which for us Americans is mostly a dead dream of the 80s.
When I got to my first arcade in Akihabara, a Taito Game Station, I walked through a couple of floors of grabber claw games, some fighting games, and beelined to find a category of game I could only vaguely postulate existed, the sorts of games that were made for the arcade, in a country where arcades were not just a type of bar you can go to that might have a Ms. Pac Man cabinet, but were a part of nerd culture. Towards that end, I found Gunslinger Stratos, a third-person shooter that used custom lightguns that I whipped together like a chubby, gaijin Bayonetta.
I had been culture shocked from the moment I landed at Narita Airport, doubly so the first time I walked out of Shinjuku Station. There was a certain amount of being lost in those first couple of days, as I wandered around a combination of enchanted, curious, and clueless. I had to frantically Google about a dozen terms just to order my first dinner in the country. I got constantly lost, was massively intimidated by the crowds and the subway system, and had this little feeling in the back of my head that I was in way over my head.
It’s weird, but on my third day in Japan, walking into that Taito Game Station in Akihabara, all of that went away. Despite most of the signage being in Japanese, and having never heard of half of the games in that arcade, I was able to just walk right up to Gunslinger Stratos and play with the guys next to me, despite the fact that we couldn’t speak a word to each other. I got my ass kicked, sure, but something about the way I was able to just play a video game with some strangers comforted me, and from that moment on, despite being on the other side of the world, I was without fear or intimidation, and knew I could get around however I had to.
The Game That Kept Old Friends Together: Star Wars Tabletop Roleplaying Game
My college friend group is somewhat odd. We all actually went to high school, and while subsets of the group were friends back then, we never hung out as a collective whole until college, where we all subconsciously decided that meeting new people is scary and opted to instead coalesce into a group of people who weren’t strangers, but weren’t friends either.
We became friends quickly, though, good friends. Over the course of college, I ended up living with about half of the group in assorted configurations, and even while doing the thing everyone tells you not to do (common knowledge seems to say that friends who move in together will have knives to each others’ throats by the end of the week), we only got closer as friends. Or maybe I was the shitty roommate and no one was impolite enough to tell me. Also possible. Probable, even.
At some point in college, we all went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens together, and it was using this movie as a catalyst that I attempted to roll the dice on turning the friend group into a tabletop group as well, and it worked. For almost everyone in the group, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG was their first roleplaying experience, and the campaign we clumsily started that January persisted all the way through 2017, moving towards a grand finale in 2018.
Over recent years, tabletop games, roleplaying games in particular, have started to hold a special place in my heart that video games could just never encroach upon. The fact that I have an excuse to bring all of my friends together in physical space to all play a game together is something that, especially as we all branch out into our adult lives, is fuckin’ hard. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG for me is not just a game with brightly-colored dice, it’s the thing that kept my friends together through all of 2017.
The Game That I Reminisced Over: Puyo Puyo Tetris
When I was in high school, my friends and I were pretty ravenous for any game we could play at school instead of doing, y’know, anything productive. Plenty of mediocre flash games came and went, but one standby constantly stood as a time-tested game that was always fun: Tetris.
Flash forward five years, and I had a good high school friend in town, back home from his new job in Idaho. Our friend group sort of exploded across the country over the course of college, and as the only one who remained in Dallas, I’ve been lucky. Whenever people come back home, by extension, they also come to see me. When he came back, we trawled our local game store for some good split-screen multiplayer games, and I landed on Puyo Puyo Tetris. We went home, poured ourself some glasses of whatever liquor I had lying around, each grabbed a Joycon, and went into Battle mode. This was probably around 7 PM.
The next time I looked at the clock, it was 2 in the morning. Something about the sort of mechanical process of just playing Tetris made it perfect for assuming a sort of zen state, where we just sat and played, occasionally remarking about where our friends were now, reminiscing about dumb stuff we did as kids, or just yelling obscenities at each other. Playing video games with my friends is something I’ve done for a decade at this point, but something about it being Tetris made it so familiar. It was like repeating a ritual we hadn’t gone through in a long time, even though this was technically a new game.
The Last Game I Played In 2017: Dream Daddy
(Technically the last game I played in 2017 was The Jackbox Party Pack 3 at a New Year’s Eve party but I have fewer interesting things to say about that)
To be honest, I’m not 100% sure why I bought Dream Daddy. I’ve never played a visual novel or a dating sim, am not really a fan of the Game Grumps (although I was in the past), and am a cisgendered straight white guy, the sociological equivalent of a Chili’s. So, buying a gay dating sim produced by the Game Grumps is atypical for me. Part of it might have been that I was playing Demon’s Souls at the time, and reached a point where I was like “Fuck this, I wanna play something easy and wholesome”. Thus, Dream Daddy was purchased.
Dream Daddy is a sublime video game for a variety of reasons. The humor is spot on, with a very 2017 blend of self-deprecation, absurdism, and puns that never comes off as “fellow kids” territory. The minigames are all in all fairly clever, my favorite being an encounter with a fellow Dad that launches a Pokemon-esqe battle to see who can brag about their children the best. But the place Dream Daddy absolutely shines is the characters.
The best character in the whole game is easily your daughter, Amanda. Despite you the player not really having much presence in Amanda’s upbringing (the game starts near the end of Amanda’s high school career). Despite this, you end up feeling a sort of weird paternal connection to the character, as Amanda shares your sense of humor, your social awkwardness, and your habits good and bad (including eating a bunch of junk food and watching terrible reality television). Moreover, Amanda accomplishes what is apparently impossible in writing: she is a teenage character who behaves in a believable way, neither being “just a tiny adult” nor “a child allergic to logical decision making”. She reacts to the world of the game in a way that believably conveys the flaws of her character as well as just what it’s actually like to be a high schooler about to go to college.
Dream Daddy also has a full cast of dateable Dads who live on your block. These Dads generally initially conform to a one-word trope (there’s a hipster, a teacher, an outdoorsman, a fitness junkie, a goth, a “bad boy”, and a youth minister). At first, they seem to play these tropes fairly standard: goth dad Damien has gargoyles in front of his manor and wears a cape, leather jacket-wearing bad boy Robert downs straight shots of whiskey at a dive bar down the street, and gym nut Craig says “bro” a lot and coaches his daughters’ softball team.
As you play the game, however, these characters open up into interesting characters with pasts that affect them, goals they drive towards, and interesting personality quirks. Robert, the tough guy, is a major cinephile. Hugo, the intellectual teacher, loves pro wrestling. Damien, the goth dad, is afraid of scary movies. These are played for more than just gags, they help flesh out the characters as real people.
Moreover, the rewards for pursuing a Dad to the end aren’t always just “you bone”. Instead, these paths always end in what feels like a healthy, logical conclusion for the friendship, which sometimes means you don’t end up in a relationship. It doesn’t feel like you “didn’t win”, but rather like you actually advanced an interpersonal relationship in a real way. It’s neat.
In a way, I think it’s appropriate that I capped off 2017 with Dream Daddy, because I think the thing that was most important to me about 2017 was my interactions with other people. From meeting one of my idols at the top of the year to graduating alongside my friends to reconnecting with old friends to seeing my Dad move away to pursue a better career to the random people I befriended in Japanese bars, people were the source of all the good things in my 2017. Hopefully, this is a trend that will continue into 2018 for me.