Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
10. Punch Club 3DS
It was really, really hard to make this top ten list. There are so many games that I enjoyed this year that I just need to play more of: Hollow Knight, Nier: Automata, Gravity Rush 2, The Sexy Brutale, GNOG, Gorogoa, the list is long. But if I left Punch Club 3DS off of here, I would be being very dishonest with myself, because this was the first game I really loved in 2017.
Yes, I know the game was out a couple of years ago. But I never played until last January, when this 3DS port (with all the cute superhero inspired expansion content included), and I often played it riding the subway home from MMA training, sweaty, exhausted, and excited to be working on my stats, so to speak, in life and in the game.
This game punched me in the gut (yes, that’s intended) with its treatment of stat decay. As an aging, injury-prone athlete, the fact that your in-game fighter gets hurt and loses progress spoke to me. Even louder is the fact that, even when you are training at maximum efficiency, time means you lose levels in each area of your fitness: agility, strength, and endurance—every single day.
I’m sitting here writing this with another injury that’s keeping me from working on those real-life stats, so maybe the sting of Punch Club is even sharper for me than the developers ever intended. It’s a cute game, playing off of a lot of tropes from martial arts movies and hustling to make it in the big show. It doesn't take itself very seriously at all, and I love it for that.
Even though it inadvertently broke my damned heart, Punch Club 3DS was one of my favorite games of the year.
9. Super Mario Odyssey
I still need to play a lot more Mario Odyssey, so, the game is making my list on the strength of the ten or so hours I’ve had with it. I got way, way more of the kinds of games I like to play (3D platformers and immersive sims!) than I pretty much ever do anymore. Mario Odyssey is a spectacular 3D platformer with varied level design that encourages playfulness and experimentation. It has a solid touch of adventure game DNA that I like to think is the next big thing in great 3D platformers.
Plainly, I’m not used to being so spoiled, but I am certainly not going to complain. I fully plan to sink the kinds of ridiculous hours into this that I spent on a few other games on this list. I can't wait to yell at myself in six months for having Odyssey so far from the top slot on my list!
Pyre is a fantasy, interactive fiction, sports game (I actually think it’s more NES Ice Hockey than NBA Jam, the comparison I see most often), with amazing writing and ridiculously colorful aesthetic. I’ve liked—really liked—everything Supergiant has put out, but Pyre is on another level.
Instead of an enjoyable genre exercise with pretty colors, it manages to work out its story in a satisfying way using the language of sports and politics, and boy, was this ever the fantasy I needed this year.
Ok, I have to put a disclaimer on this one, because I am friendly with Fulbright founder Steve Gaynor. Now that’s out of the way: Tacoma is a must-play and an important game for what it does with game narrative. It builds intelligently on what the studio did in Gone Home: refining the after-the-fact story and the way a player discovers it by moving at their own pace through a believable space.
Tacoma instead puts you (sort of) inside the real-time recording of an event—this time, on a spaceship doomed by, you guessed it, corporate malfeasance—and asks you to actively participate in the unweaving of that tale, by watching, chasing certain characters from room to room, and unlocking new bits of story as you go. The allusions to interactive theater are apt, but it does one further—by requiring you to actively investigate, or the play will not go on without you.
And yes, it has a lot of trappings I’m pretty much bound to love: anti-corporate sentiment, deep labor politics, plenty of queer characters dealing with too-real problems, and to that end, SPACE LESBIANS IN LOVE. 2017 was seriously a great year for space lesbians.
Observer is the bleak, nauseating body-horror cyberpunk that we deserve in this year of miserable political catastrophe after catastrophe and this-isn’t-funny-how-is-this-real headlines. I wrote about it a whole bunch here, where I imagine we don’t deserve cyberpunk dystopias with gleaming neon anymore, unless there’s a much harder edge underneath:
This is a thoroughly shitty future, but like the cyberpunk of the 1980s, it's also built on the foundations of our own world, on our own social stratification and increasing corporate cronyism. In Observer, these is no escape from the city. There are no dreams of unicorns, and the memories we share in our cybernetic brains are almost entirely unpleasant. The message is clear: technology will not save you. It is nothing but a tool, and those in power will wield it against you.
In other words, bet on the house every time.
That's what we need in 2017. A warning that fits the times.
5. Mario Vs. Rabbids Kingdom Battle
I never really played a tactics game before Mario + Rabbids, unless you count some of the slightly meatier tower defense games out there. So, I found myself almost a little shocked by just how well the formula worked for me, and here I am, months after I started playing it, and close to 100% completion after finally besting the game's unreasonable (and wonderful) "Ultimate" Challenges.
The weird humor and bright aesthetic (including a killer score by Grant Kirkhope) helped, along with an incredible sense of momentum when taking turns on the battlefield. I loved thinking on my feet, mixing various characters' strengths, and feeling my way through garish cartoon wars.
I cannot stop playing this game—and honestly, I don’t want to. I expect my surprise Rabbid obsession will last long into the new year.
4. Butterfly Soup
This is the funniest game I’ve played in a very, very long time. It’s also among the most heartfelt. Butterfly Soup is a visual novel about four, queer, Asian-American, teenage girls who love baseball and each other, and it hits hard with jokes, energetic writing, and genuine portraits of young women finding themselves amid uncertain cultural waters.
There were scenes that spoke so directly to me—I never, ever get to play games about queer women athletes—and others that I appreciated because they didn’t, but always felt very grounded in lived, hard-felt experience.
3. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
In any other year, Death of the Outsider would be close to a shoo-in for my game of the year.
There are twists on the Dishonored formula: like a power that allows you to plan your stealth (or violence) across a given space. There’s an excellent story about redemption and forgiveness, starring the series coolest protagonist, Billie Lurk (making this the second Arkane game this year helmed by a queer woman of color).
I think it’s actually the very best Dishonored game, distilled to a potent 5-mission brew, with maybe the smartest-ever reuse of level assets I’ve seen in a game.
2. The Legend of Zelda Breath Of The Wild
My top two games this year were very hard to separate, for a long time, so fundamentally did they both serve me exactly what I seek in a game: fascinating, well-designed worlds, fun ways to move in those worlds, and exploration that always brought me interesting new things to do, or ways to interact with the world.
Breath of the Wild is hard to hyperbolize, because it is that good in so many ways. It’s world is massive and importantly, varied, offering new types of terrain, interactions, adventures and even mysteries in every corner.
And the thing I was most afraid of—missing those big, epic, puzzle-filled Zelda dungeons—proved no problem at all. I loved the bite-sized shrines, and the opportunity to much more easily mix up play between exploring the world and spelunking in puzzle-boxes.
It only just barely edged out BOTW, but Prey is, unequivocally, my game of the year. Between this and BOTW, I fell head over heels with video games again, and reclaimed a lost desire to see my favorite experiences to the end.
Burnout is pretty weird in this field, but it’s real. When you play a little bit of everything, you have to make excuses for playing a whole lot of any one thing. But these experiences moved me to spend close to 300 hours with them, and I doubt I’m really done. You can make many arguments that BOTW is technically a more impressive work, but, when I think of the game that defined this year for me, on the deepest possible level, it’s Prey. As I type this, I can’t wait to go back into the game for a third playthrough.
As this is my own person top ten list, I’ll indulge for a moment. Prey, more than any other bigger-budget game I’ve ever played, made me feel in on its power fantasy. It let me play with everything I like: exploration, experimentation, intricate level design packed with secrets, a sci-fi story with plenty of mindfuckery, the ability to play hero and save lots of people’s lives, and—of course—space lesbians.
For my money, it represents the very best of my favorite genre—a game that invests in the seamless interaction of story, systemic gameplay and inspired world design.
Is it sad that the big budget immersive sim is probably dead now, after this phenomenal year, and this crowning achievement? Very much so. But I'm glad we got Prey. I'm glad I got to know Morgan Yu and learn her story, as messed up as it is. And I'm even happier I got to master this fascinating, complex, mechanically rich place.