While I certainly played enough games this year to fill up a top ten list, not every game I played this year left a significant impact on the landscape of my gaming career. The few that did though, are certainly worthy of the utmost praise. So here’s a short list of my top five games with a little more in depth look at what each of them brought to the table.
5. Night in the Woods
While story-centric indie darlings are a dime a dozen these days, games like Night in the Woods manages to stand out due to a combination of eccentric charm and unique writing. Following Mae Borowski, a college drop out from a small town where everyone knows everyone, NiTW delves into Mae’s coming of age as she drops out of college and comes home to find that all of her friends have moved on in their lives while she is still stuck in her juvenile ways.
The jazz inspired soundtrack wonderfully compliments the game’s various dynamic situations to be anywhere from threatening to toe-tappingly smooth or joyfully upbeat. Its various platforming sections are maze-like and reward exploration with quirky dialogue sequences or meaningful story lines that compel one to chase them down in each new sequence of the game. The art style is undeniably lovable with a cartoonish, cardboard cutout-esque aesthetic that lends to a visual of simple shapes that make up a larger more over all intricate picture. It’s a delightful spectacle the whole way through.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with the young adult characters who are emblematic of today’s millennial generation in their world views and language. I found myself howling with laughter within the first moments of the game at the lead heroine, Mae’s dialogue with a gruff janitor who answers her sarcasm with monosyllables in a wonderful showing of the disconnect of generations. This same attention to effective dialogue drives each part in the game as nearly every character becomes a three dimensional figure capable of failure. It gives the sense that NiTW is a play where every actor has some essential part in the greater message of the piece.
Night in the Woods is a wonderful coming of age tale that addresses the feeling of directionlessness everyone faces when they leave their home and have to adjust to adult life, but all in the zeitgeist of today’s millennial generation. Mae’s trepidation over inheriting her elders’ world is made manifest in her friends who have either settled into a life of dull acceptance or are desperately making sacrifices to escape the gravity of their dying rural town. Combining this with Mae’s degrading mental health and an element of cosmic horror, and Night in the Woods is harrowing adventure about the current generation’s struggles with a world in turmoil.
4. Resident Evil 7
Resident Evil is an undeniable pillar in the formation of horror gaming as we know. Yet, the argument can be made that it’s been on a downward slide along with the rest of survival horror as a genre within the gaming industry over the recent decade. With titles like RE 5 and 6 receiving tepid reactions at best, to the unmentionable dregs that were Operation Raccoon City and Umbrella Corp, Resident Evil seemed to reflect the banality of AAA gaming industry’s out of touch, focus test driven game development in the recent years. Then came Resident Evil 7, a game that proved survival horror was far from dead as a genre.
While Resident Evil games of the past focused on over the top and often nonsensical gameplay and story elements, RE 7’s story is more intimate and grounded. As the protagonist Ethan gets a message from his presumed dead wife, he sets out to the rural swamps of the American South and comes face to face with a horrifically mutated family of cannibals and a small army of horrific creatures called the “molded.” Each area of the game is themed with different stylistic horror elements such as body or torture horror with plenty of jumpscares that is otherwise steeped in existential dread and fear.
Resources are scarce. Environments are claustrophobic. Controls are tight and enemies are aggressive and tough. It’s a constant fight to just get by from start to finish and with new gameplay elements being thrown in at every new area it always feels fresh and the pacing is impeccable. While it brings all these new elements to the table, it still feels like a Resident Evil game at heart with nonsensical puzzles, corporate intrigue, and the fear of running out of options. Pay attention to Resident Evil 7. It’s going to bring about something wonderful for the horror genre.
Cuphead is a game which its legacy alone is worthy of note. Over its development, the devs went through hell and back, hand drawing every key frame and animated model, taking great risks with personal finances, and even scrapping nearly the entire project all on the path to creating a work of passion. The Moldenhauer devs’ dedication in making a game that came from an effort of love for the craft and personal determination was enough to win me over but what’s more is that it’s a damn good game.
What’s immediately noticeable from Cuphead is its unique art style inspired by the Fleischer cartoons of the 1930’s. The bug eyed cartoon caricatures of the pioneering era of animation are prevalent in every aspect of Cuphead’s design and lend to an unmistakable art style that sets it apart from any other platformer to date.
The game itself is mostly multistage boss levels that feature both platforming and bullet hell-esque plane piloting that test the player’s ability to react to recognizable attacks that vary in frequency and ferocity. It’s a challenging game to be sure as levels only take about one to two minutes to complete, but you will die time and time again trying to reach that point. It’s a perfect example of a tough but fair gameplay gameplay design where you never feel like you didn’t deserve the impending failure.
What makes Cuphead so great is how simple it is in premise, again the tough but fair platformer, but how often it changes up game play to force you to react and adapt to coming challenges. Combining that with an unforgettable art design and Cuphead is an absolute must for any platformer fan out there.
2. Hollow Knight
If I could put a list of games that I was feverishly anticipating, Hollow Knight wouldn’t have been on there. In fact, I had no idea of its existence until after its release and I saw some showcases of it. But I soon came to be enthralled with its tight combat and immersive, unique world which quickly became one of my all time favorite platformers. Boasting a Metroidvania style game play design with a world littered with countless platforming set pieces and technically challenging boss fights, it never ceases to keep game play fresh.
I was immediately won over by its cutesy art direction of adorable bug creatures overshadowed by a grim, dying world devoid of hope and plagued by acceptance of fate. This odd juxtaposition creates the somber setting of Hollownest and is host to breathtaking visuals and some of the most intricate background work I’ve seen in a two-dimensional platformer to date. Combining this with a music score that draws on the themes of hope and desolation and I found myself frequently in awe. I can still remember the first time walking into the City of Tears as I simply sat on a bench, letting the music play, and watching as the rain poured down the glass of a dead, subterranean city. It’s a moment that will forever stick in my head of feeling warm in an otherwise empty world.
Striking visuals aside, Hollow Knight has a wonderful world with a hidden lore aspect that can be compared to the scant plot points of the Dark Souls universe. Much of the overarching world building is done through subtle hints in dialogue, item descriptions, and environmental elements. Despite the apt comparison, it still deserves to be judged entirely on its own merits as it creates a world and story of whimsy that is unique to Hollow Knight.
1. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
More than any other game this year, and potentially more than any other game I’ve ever played, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has left a lasting impact on everything I stand for as a mentally ill gamer. Crafted as an indie project from a small team at Ninja Theory, Hellblade explores the topic of psychosis and mental illness through the tale of a Celtic warrior, Senua who has set out to reclaim her lover’s soul from the Norse underworld.
Every aspect of the game is built around making psychosis into an interactive experience without sacrificing game play to deliver a well-rounded tale of loss, self-discovery, and triumph. Everything from the hallucinated voices that constantly comment on story points and guide the player during game play elements, to visual illusions that serve to beguile or disorient the player are representative of real life accounts of those who have suffered from psychosis. Even the very game play elements are meant to be metaphorical representations of the symptoms of said mental illness.
While most video games either cling to abstract, artistic interpretations of mental illness or use it as simply a theme in the story, Hellblade shows the true horror in dealing with the hellish nature of one’s own deluded mind. Which is a sentiment I deeply appreciate. On that same note, it also shows it’s not only possible to overcome these inhibitions, but accept them as part of our being and live in spite of them. All to become stronger than one may ever believe themselves to be. It’s the traditional hero’s journey of separation from the real, delving into the unknown, and returning to the world renewed and ready to spread their achieved enlightenment.
If there was ever a game that exudes the human spirit’s ability to overcome, it is definitely Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.