A Year of Video Games in Ten Moments (Part 2)
Earlier this week, I started counting down my ten favorite video gaming moments of 2017, a year I probably played more games than any since my youth. That last article (available here) focused on a mix of games both new to 2017 and released in the last few years, as I had quite a bit of catching up to do in order to see just what it was I missed while I wasn't gaming as much as I had in the past.
But this top five is solely focused on games that were released in 2017. To call this past year a stacked one just might be one of the biggest understatements in some time. Hell, just looking at the three huge titles that all came out on October 27 (Wolfenstein 2, Assassin's Creed Origins and Super Mario Odyssey) would be enough to make entire years blush. I couldn't talk about all the games I played and loved last year; there's simply no time for that (make no mistake, Super Mario Odyssey is pretty damned great), but these five moments and the five games that brought them to me, will be remembered for some time.
Without further ado, on with the top five.
5. Overriding a Tallneck - Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn sneaked up on me. I can’t say I was all that interested in it on the lead up to its release. The aesthetics of it looked interesting, but prior to this year I had struggled mightily in keeping interested in open world games, and one from a developer I didn’t care about wasn’t about to draw me in. But 2017 changed me in a lot of ways, the chief of which was finally taking the time to wade into the pool of open world games with gusto, thanks to dumping more than 40 hours into Metal Gear Solid V and 70+ into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to start out the year. That newfound thirst for exploring giant worlds on my own terms put me on a collision course with Horizon.
When you first hear about Horizon: Zero Dawn, what sticks out the most is the juxtaposition of technological naivete with a world overrun by huge, monstrous robot creatures that resemble bears and sabretooth tigers and huge spiders and dinosaurs and all manner of crazy critters. It’s great watching the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn unfold and reconcile the nativism of its sparse human population with the huge technological advances represented by the robots, and Guerilla Games does an excellent job mixing the old with the new and goosing the Ubisoft-style open world that’s become de rigueur since Assassin's Creed became a phenomenon. The best case of this is how Horizon treats waypoint towers.
Towers are the gaming parlance for the viewpoint system that’s been part of Assassin's Creed since the beginning. The structure of those games revolved around climbing to an impossibly high point in the area’s geometry and unlocking that portion of the map, filling your screen with waypoints and quest hubs and all sorts of things to track down. That system has been remade in its own image in the likes of Watch Dogs, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Horizon has viewpoints too, but in this case they take on the massive, majestic form of tallnecks, giraffe-like robots that tower over the environment with the secrets of the world around them locked into their memory banks. In Horizon like so many other games, Aloy must scale tallnecks to unlock sections of the map, but the implementation of it, with these serene beasts roving the countryside while you desperately try to find a foothold to race up them, gives it a completely different feel than the other examples of its genre. And once you reach the giant disc at its top and plunge your spear into its CPU, the tendrils of data snake out across the environment before shrinking back into your head, revealing the secrets of the countryside surrounding it.
What Horizon: Zero Dawn does best is play within these well-worn tropes of open world adventure gaming and quietly knead them, rolling their dough out to new sizes and areas we haven’t seen done in quite this way before. The world-building within HORIZON is astounding, a lush and fascinating one waiting to be combed over until you can find everything you’d ever want. And setting up the tallnecks as its own unique take on the viewpoint system is a stroke of genius.
4. Playing through my first dungeon - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I can’t necessarily fully endorse the gameplay of most of the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but I can say that the first experience of approaching and completing a dungeon is a hell of an experience. The first divine beast I chose to take on was Vah Ruta, the elephant beast from the Zora domain (or, for all intents and purposes, the water beast). Breath of the Wild is pretty short on story, but there’s more to cling to during these sequences, each involving specific gameplay to reach the divine beast followed by solving the puzzles of the dungeon itself. In the case of Ruta, the lead-up involves a rather maddening sequence where you have to avoid the wrath of a particularly angry lynel (the toughest enemies in the game, really) while collecting shock arrows, but it’s all worth it when you travel through the water on the back of your Zora buddy Sidon, leaping high into the air on spouts of water and firing shock arrows into power generators on the massive beast.
It’s a bit of on-rails gameplay that belies the otherwise open-ended design of Breath of the Wild; there’s only one real way to complete this sequence. Some may find that disappointing, but I was thrilled the entire time, appreciating the scope of it all and the abrupt change in tactics and pacing. Once you complete the sequence, you’re dumped right out to the entrance of the dungeon itself, crawling around and through the divine beast to free it from Ganon’s mind control. It’s here that Breath of the Wild reveals the second trick up its sleeve, the ability to alter the environment itself from the map screen, raising and lowering the truck of this giant elephant to send water cascading into the dungeon at various angles and locations based on the angle and height of where you place the trunk. It’s quite the experience the first time you see it, and the designers of Breath of the Wild do a pretty great job incorporating the concept into their puzzle design, especially in the case of Ruta.
Granted, there’s some diminishing returns in future divine beast dungeons, and the bosses at the end of all four dungeons go over like wet blankets, leading to many gamers and critics alike considering the divine beasts the least interesting part of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That’s probably true on balance, but I can’t deny the effect that first dungeon had on me.
3. The King Dice fight - Cuphead
Cuphead has a pretty strong, straightforward structure to it. Three overworlds with a mix of boss battles and platforming segments, each of opens up new sections of the map until you defeat all the bosses in the area and the next world is available, rinse and repeat. The fourth and final overworld breaks with that structure, providing only a large, imposing casino that’s the home of the game’s second-in-command baddie, Mr. King Dice. King Dice is The Devil’s right hand man, and the gatekeeper stopping you from moving onto the next world prior to defeating all the bosses in the current one. King Dice is suave and has a hell of a theme song that plays in these transitional segments between worlds. You know you’re going to have to fight him eventually. It’s a video game, after all.
But the King Dice fight isn’t anything like what you’ve dealt with before. Upon entering the casino, you’re faced with a game board styled like a roulette wheel with numbered spaces from 1 to 9, a handful of “safe” spaces and hearts marking random tiles. And then King Dice, lording over you from behind the board, conjures up a six-sided die with 1, 2, and 3 sides, and you realize that you have to roll your way through the board to get to the end. Behind each numbered space is a casino-themed mini boss battle, meaning that the King Dice fight is essentially a boss rush of nine totally new Cuphead bosses. None of these new bosses have multiple forms, but their design shares the shrewd, imaginative design of the rest of the game, and the twists on casino themes (bosses include a stack of poker chips, a rabbit magician and a cymbal-playing monkey battle that doubles as a game of concentration) are a delight.
Much like pretty much anything related to Cuphead, it took a long time to master the King Dice fight, especially with the unpredictable nature of the board and not having the opportunity to replay mini bosses to learn their patterns unless you happen to land on that space. But when you get the hang of the King Dice fight, it becomes perhaps the most stressful and thrilling fight of the whole game. You don’t get to heal unless you land on a space with a heart, so every time you take a hit is potentially ruinous. And when you get to the end, King Dice attacks immediately, giving you nary a moment to relax. Cuphead was one of the great surprises of 2017, a case where a game created buzz for years and years and managed to deliver on its promise despite multiple delays.
2. Pascal’s downfall - NieR: Automata
Things don’t get much more intense than watching the end of Pascal’s effective life in the third playthrough of NieR: Automata. Pascal’s one of the more interesting characters throughout the first two (read: normal) playthroughs of the game, a robot who’s managed to escape the endless circle of conflict between android and machine and run away to the woods to set up what is essentially a pacifist hippie robot commune. No one trusts him, because there aren’t any pacifist robots in this world, so he has to spend much of his life begging androids and robots both not to attack him so he can live this peaceful, quiet existence and protect his flock. He’s part philosopher, part religious leader and all wholesome goodness.
And what NieR: Automata does to him is fucking cold, man.
By the time you revisit Pascal in the C route of NieR, you’re controlling A2, perhaps the most belligerent of the main characters. All she wants is to see robots die (for admittedly good reason, mind you), and nothing’s going to change that. Her brothers and sisters in arms were killed by machines, so her only mission in life is to destroy every machine she sees. But even she is humbled by Pascal’s docile nature and overflowing kindness, his willingness to fix her faulty fuel pump asking nothing in return. So much so that she is convinced to help build a slide for the children of the village and head over to the resistance camp to pick up some philosophy that he wanted to read (that book is Blaise Pascal’s Pensées because of course it is).
That’s when all hell breaks loose, as a virus strikes many of the machines, turning them against their fellow pacifists and devouring the gentle ones that couldn’t even consider fighting back. Pascal flees with the children of the village to an abandoned factory (which happened to be the home of a machine death cult in playthroughs A and B), but the psychotic horde of machines follow them there, forcing Pascal to abandon his pacifist ways and fight for the future of his people. But he’s too late, returning to the children to find out that they have committed mass suicide, having been compelled to do so because Pascal taught them the concept of fear as a survival mechanism. The existential dread that came along with that fear made them believe death by their own hands was better than the unknown fear of what could come. Pascal, faced with the knowledge of what he’s wrought, pleads with you to either end his life or erase his memories, for the tragedy of what has happened is too much to bear. Regardless of what choice you make at that point, NieR: Automata has changed you at your core.
1. Wyatt loses his mind - Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
“The little guy died this morning. He didn’t eat his cheese. Starved to death. So it goes...Oh, the kid? Yeah, he’s not here anymore. He went looking for the truth but he didn’t like what he found...Kid’s father had his future all staked out for him. Ivy League straight to the top of congressional power. Cut him off when he joined the military. Ungrateful brat, he called him. The kid’s mother fell into a depression in that big dark house. Same day the kid shipped off for Europe, she swallowed a bottle of pills. And that was it. That was that...He saw perfect patterns. Swallowing branches of a great tree. The all-knowing space entity at the center gazing upon him. The kid was approaching the apex of the universe, but it all slipped away! And a colossal black trench opened up, swallowing the colors and the kid couldn’t see anything except for a trans-dimensional gaping maw swallowing his soul. Oh, nothing matters anymore, man! Oh, sunset for humanity! Tell ‘em that he’s sorry. Tell ‘em that he loved them.”
I’m not entirely convinced that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is the best story told in a video game in 2017, but it is without a doubt the best told story of 2017. The voice acting, the directing of the cutscenes, it’s so dynamic, so far beyond other games that you have to sit up and take notice while you’re playing it. And there are all sorts of big, flashy moments that make you do just that, whether it’s the reveal of a certain famous dictator in the game’s latter moments, or the big turn in the center, or BJ’s tragic return to his family home. And those moments are the ones you remember, but Wolfenstein II is full of so many more, big and small. It’s Wyatt, in the midst of a giant, dissociative LSD-fueled breakdown, huddled in a bulkhead mumbling to himself about his life and his failures and the failures of the world, all seen through the lens of his madness brought on by hallucinogens (the fact that you only get to see this scene if you choose the Wyatt path - which is absolutely the right choice - is criminal). It’s such an absurd game in so many ways, so outsized, so brazen, so confident in its storytelling, but it absolutely nails the small moments too, building a cast of all shapes and sizes and styles and colors.
Wyatt’s slow descent into madness is so wonderfully handled, continued with a sense of grace and compassion from his guilt born from being the survivor and losing his best friend J in The New Order to diving into the past after the death of Caroline and stumbling upon a sheet of LSD. The tripping allows him to escape, even just for a little bit, but all that really manages to do is wallpaper over the rot beneath the surface. It’s grim all the way down. His friends are dead. His mentor is dead. Nazis have taken over the world and claimed his homeland. Finding solace in an imaginary rainbow-colored chameleon can only take you so far. Reality is eventually going to come flooding in. And when it does, it hurts. But despite hitting rock bottom (and thanks to a timely intervention from one B.J. Blazkowicz), Wyatt perseveres and fights on.
There are so many shades to the revolution brewing in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The group reels from the death of their leader and mentor. BJ is the tired, beaten down, grizzled war veteran, waiting for the sun to set on his harsh life but unwilling to see a world run by fascists while he still has an ounce of strength to live. Grace and Horton are radical revolutionaries, one out of the Black Panther mold, the other from Marxism. And Wyatt’s the young soul caught between it all, not strong enough to take them on alone, not confident enough to lead them, suffering from a crisis of faith when faced with the abyss. He's a less impressive BJ in a lot of ways, also abandoned by his father and faced with the tragic death of his mother. He has his own kind of strength in him, but can’t harness it on his own. He has to rely on the support and fortification of his loved ones. And with their help, by the end of the game, he’s right there, front and center calling on the subjugated in America to step up and fight their oppressors until death do they part. There’s nothing more American than that.
Well that's that. Time will tell if I have the opportunity to dip my toes into the video game writing world due to my busy film reviewing schedule, but it felt good to talk about video games again. I'll see you on the other side.