nier automata

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017

by Jed Pressgrove

2017 had plenty of good games compared to the last few years. But don’t be thrown off by the hype: several of the biggest releases were very flawed (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Yakuza 0) or downright terrible (Resident Evil 7, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Xenoblade Chronicles 2). The gaming world still has incredibly low standards, and many critics can still be indistinguishable from fanboys, but as always, the games themselves represent a vibrant art form.

1. The Norwood Suite

Cosmo D’s 2015 game, Off-Peak, was an audiovisual and thematic revelation. No other independent first-person game — not Dear Esther, not Gone Home, not Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — had captured humanity in such provocative, comprehensible, and technically daring terms. Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape. It complicates the theme of art under capitalism; whereas Off-Peak focuses on the diversity and struggle of artists in an exploitative system, The Norwood Suite covers a wider range of expressive individuals, including corporate sellouts, leading figures who abuse other artists in the process of creating iconic works (as exemplified by Peter Norwood), and more. Last but not least, The Norwood Suite confirms its developer’s distinctiveness as a surrealist. Some fans of Cosmo D compare him to filmmaker David Lynch. That’s an oversimplification. Lynch, who often serves up ominous abstractions, has never so blatantly called attention to cultural joy, sacrifice, and problems through a surreal lens, nor can he fully explore the possibilities of music within space. Cosmo D, like the people he portrays, is his own artist.

(See more thoughts on The Norwood Suite here.)

2. Nier: Automata

With some of the most resonant images, songs, and dialogue of the year, director Yoko Taro presents the bigotry of androids in Nier: Automata as a reflection of our own othering, which has no political boundaries.

(See full review of Nier: Automata here.)

3. Splasher

This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that “more” does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.

(See more thoughts on Splasher here.)

4. Little Red Lie

As the most cynical game of the year, Little Red Lie sometimes lays everything on too thick. At the same time, one would be lucky in 2017 to find more compelling writing, from a standpoint of form or unfiltered emotion, than Will O’Neill’s work in this game. Little Red Lie is an ominous statement on how individuals and society influence each other, but it also functions as a mirror. In highlighting all of the characters’ lies, which come in innumerable forms, the game asks us to take a longer look at our own words. The coda, which aggressively breaks the fourth wall, might feel like an accusation or an insult, yet I interpret it as a moral challenge, a chance to be honest with one’s self.

5. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.

(See full review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

6. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.

(See full review of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

7. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

If Mario + Rabbids didn’t have a pointless story and so much inconsequential item collecting, it could have been the best turn-based game of the year. As it stands, movement within a tile-based system has never been this electrifying.

(See full review of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

8. Super Mario Odyssey

There are two strange signs of Super Mario Odyssey’s greatness. First, the game manages to counteract its pandering nonsense — a photo mode, nostalgic and trite two-dimensional platforming segments, repetitive item collecting — with sheer ingenuity and humor. Second, we may never see another pop game that reveals the urge of so many different people to enslave, brand, and manipulate things for their own gain. Cappy is innocuously packaged as a friendly guide, but his popularity as a device for unbridled control speaks to a double-edged type of catharsis, where we see in each other a common dark thread.

(See full review of Super Mario Odyssey here.)

9. Pyre

Developer Supergiant Games goes beyond the norms of RPGs and sports games to show how sport connects and divides us. Unlike countless other games, Pyre sees potential for revolution, both personal and social, via nonviolent means. In today’s world, that’s a controversial idea, especially for those who only see sports as games.

(See full review of Pyre here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

10. Torment: Tides of Numenera

Yes, I would have preferred this sequel to the unforgettable Planescape: Torment to stand out more visually and to distance itself more from the numbers obsession of many RPGs. But you also won’t find many games in 2017, or any year, this concerned with exploring the philosophies and sentiments of beings who may make you uncomfortable. Tides of Numenera is a call for people to leave their echo chambers and bubbles, even while the ghosts of history live on in startlingly destructive ways.

(See full review of Torment: Tides of Numenera here.)

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Doki Doki Literature Club! Review — Male-Pattern Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Dan Salvato wants to upend lighthearted cliches with Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel in which you play as a boy who joins a high school lit club comprised of four girls. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, the character types, such as an overtly shy girl, will be instantly recognizable, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of Japanese cartoons to see through Salvato’s basic gimmick: get the player to grind through loads and loads of cutesy dialogue so that when things like suicide and profanity come into the picture, the player will be shocked.

Salvato’s failure as a writer is two-fold. First, he insists on rejecting anime/manga cliches with other cliches, the biggest of which is the idea that girls — or does Salvato think or say “females” in that male taxidermist way? — are crazy, dangerous bitches who can’t control their attraction to boys (for more sexist perspective, play Sam Barlow’s overrated Her Story). Regardless of whether you give the protagonist a male or female name, you see the events of the game unfold as a boy observing the insanity of the opposite sex. But Salvato doesn’t treat this standpoint as an aspect of immaturity or growing up. Instead, he presents his narrative as an adult story, with unexpected darkness designed to make hipster gamers go “Whoa,” and I’m being kind with the use of “unexpected”: the game literally tells you it’s disturbing before you even start playing, thus defeating its whole (admittedly shallow) purpose.

The second limitation of Salvato’s approach is a trendy reliance on meta nonsense, such as rewinds, save-file shenanigans, glitchy visuals, and more. Doki Doki Literature Club! features such things to amplify the uneasiness of the player, but indie trash like Pony Island and Undertale regularly utilizes the same or similar devices. Doki Doki Literature Club!’s fashionable trickery is especially unimpressive in light of Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata, which uses game-isms like new game plus and “buggy” static to illuminate the horror of two factions on the brink of genocide.

Video-game discourse often misses the fact that independent developers, despite being removed from a mass market that specializes in objectionable content, are just as capable as any of propagating longstanding prejudice. With Doki Doki Literature Club!, it might be tempting for some to dismiss this concern as heavy-handed; they might say Salvato is doing all of this in the name of horror. If that really is the case, I wonder how anyone could be scared of familiar, self-commenting filth.