Greg Kasavin is a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Bastion, Transistor, and this year’s Pyre. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He’s @kasavin on Twitter.
This year, the number of games on the list I keep of stuff I feel like I need to play climbed well into the 40s, excluding all the stuff I just didn’t get around to last year or longer ago. Seeing this number now reinforces my non-empirical hunch that it felt like one noteworthy game or another dropped practically every single week in 2017, sometimes several in one day. I won’t be surprised if this goes down as a historic year for games.
The thing is, I spent more than half of this year just listing those games, not playing them. I was busy putting everything I could into Pyre, the game I’ve been working on since 2014. Despite all the great games released this year, no game is anywhere near as important to me as that one. With Pyre, a game in which misfits and outcasts find kinship where none should exist, I felt a connection to its cast of characters that I could only hope comes through to some of those who play it. The experience of finishing work on the game was taxing and disorienting enough that it’s taken me time to get back into being able to play and enjoy other games, but I’m just about there, thanks to the many amazing games on my gigantic list. Here are some personal highlights, sliced up into a couple of different lists:
After Pyre’s release in late July, I had all these games I wanted to play, but just kept putting off playing them; I was drained, and kept waiting for my mood and energy to improve so that I could enjoy these. Looking back, I think if I just hunkered down and played them, it probably would have helped my mood and energy recover more quickly. Knowing what I know about these games and my tastes, I feel like the odds are very good I’ll really enjoy these, and I want to acknowledge having hardly played them at all so their omission from my actual Top 10 is less nonsensical to you or my future self re-reading this.
This sci-fi shooter in the tradition of games like System Shock and Deus Ex looked right up my alley; though, I’ve come to realize that, since I’ve always wanted to work on a game like this but never got a chance to, it’s become a little painful for me to play them at this point. So I end up putting them off and then regret not having played them at all. Also I need a new PC.
I loved everything I saw of this game, but kept holding off playing it, and suddenly here I am. I think it’ll make me wistful for the kinds of friends and relationships I never had, and mood-wise I haven’t been in a place where I feel like I can subject myself to that kind of experience without ending up in a bad spot. And I mean that as high praise.
Last year, fighting games really kept me going, and King of Fighters XIV topped my Game of the Year list. This year, Tekken 7 was the game that really stood out, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I love that this installment really amps up the drama around close matches--there’s a brilliant new detail that puts the last hit of a match in slow motion when both players are down to a sliver of life, amplifying those nail-biter finishes.
It’s Mario meets XCOM, and they say it’s really good! That this improbable combination made it all the way from concept to a real honest-to-goodness video game is a marvel in itself, and I’ve heard rave reviews from many trusted sources including a couple of my colleagues. I need to get around to this.
These days there’s not as much novelty inherent to the tale of the scrappy indie dev cobbling together an original little game full of heart; about a dozen of those are released on Steam every single day. However, once in a while, an extraordinarily well-crafted one comes around, and that’s Cuphead. I’m awed not only by the raw talent showcased in its presentation, but in the developers’ courage to make it a straight-up classic-style side-scroller, a genre I felt deep down would never go out of style if the right game came along.
I heard terrific things about this horror-themed shooter sequel and I regret not having played it for myself yet. I love horror games because they tend to have excellent and specific atmosphere, and create emotional experiences that are about something more than just the player’s sense of fun. I really want to see The Evil Within 2’s take on these things.
Uncharted 4 was one of my favorite games last year, and the mercenary leader Nadine Ross was one of the highlights; I thought her introduction and story arc were pitch-perfect, like many aspects of the game. So, getting to play a romp with both her and Uncharted 2’s memorable Chloe Frazer sounded awesome. Just haven’t gotten to it yet. Naughty Dog’s games are often so well crafted it’s sort of humiliating.
I was so happy to see Ninja Gaiden developer Team Ninja back in great form with Nioh, a game that’s not shy about taking influence from Dark Souls but applies its own, specific theme and doubles down on fast paced and technical melee combat. I love the mystical-Japan theming, too. Unlike many of the games on this list, I have played this--enough to think it was outstanding, but not nearly enough. I’ve been meaning to play a lot more.
I was thrilled to hear that the latest installment of Resident Evil lived up to the incredibly high standards set by some of the earlier games in the series. I also heard that the absolute best way to play it was in VR. So I kept putting it off, thinking I’d get PlayStation VR at some point, but I just haven’t yet, so this remains unplayed. I love it when big franchises like Resident Evil take big risks that pay off, as was the case with Resident Evil 4, one of best games I’ve ever played from back in the day.
Developer MachineGames was formed by some of the creators of one of my all-time favorite games, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. That team’s sharp, wry, darkly comic writing and specific attention to detail has made every one of their games fascinating and memorable to me, so I look forward to finally playing their latest, and was excited to hear it packed a number of stunning moments.
Now! With all that out of the way, on to the games I did play:
These are the games that stood out to me the most this year among those I played, excluding Hearthstone, which I was too embarrassed to put at the top of this list for the fourth year in a row, even though that’s where it belongs. Don’t pay too much attention to the rankings here; my opinions on many of the games on this list are still coming into focus, and in many cases I still have more of them to play.
OK, technically this is a 2016 game, but if you want to get technical about it, I finally got around to playing it just this year, via the Nintendo Switch version released this fall. This is a staggering work once you get past the unassuming exterior, which doesn’t take long; there’s way more here than what you might expect from a farming game, and the quaint farmland setting becomes a backdrop for a fascinating RPG that always felt like it had something interesting to say. I appreciated lots of little details--the satisfying crunch of chopping down a tree, the distracting hum of fluorescent lights at the JojaMart--all the more so that this was largely the work of a solo developer. I quickly felt a connection to the trajectory of its narrative, and loved how it would keep subtly subverting my expectations.
I am a stodgy, almost begrudging old Mario fan who’s never quite enjoyed the mainline games in the series since they went full 3D. But, games like Super Mario Galaxy and now Odyssey came awfully close to rekindling that old love. Mario Odyssey’s kitchen-sink approach to world design proved genuinely charming, and I love the little details in its audio design, and how many playful mechanics it packed into the adventure. Plus, along with Knack II--a game that nearly made this list, I'll have you know--it was one of the few games this year I was able to play and enjoy with my 7-year-old son.
I was both drawn to and intimidated by Persona 5’s massive scope and beautiful presentation. I really love its distinctive setting and its sense of style. I admire its uniquely unusual game structure. Most big RPGs are honestly kind of a mess if you look at them closely, and Persona 5 has many of its own weird, messy, probably-flawed ideas, despite the slick veneer; yet, the way it pulls them together, and the raw ambition of the work, makes for something that feels one-of-a-kind, and really makes me miss the last time I visited the Japan many years ago.
There’s a misconception that smaller developers take the biggest risks in the business; strictly speaking, the handful of AAA developers left out there are the ones working under the biggest pressure. Think about how much is expected out of that $60 game these days, and whether you would stake hundreds of millions of dollars and the livelihoods of hundreds of people on such a game. Developer Guerrilla had a good thing going with its Killzone franchise, and could have just as well kept turning out new installments. Instead, that team reached for a rare opportunity to make something new with Horizon, and absolutely nailed it. This game has a great, accessible, "how come nobody thought of that before" concept that’s a just-right mix of fresh and familiar, alongside absolutely first-rate production quality. It’s a class act, and one of those games that makes you wonder how come there are so few original AAA games anymore, because it makes the near-impossible act of creating one of these look like it was easy.
Leading up to its release, I was leery of Hellblade’s attempt to portray real mental health issues in the context of a cool quasi-historic action adventure game. But, soon after I started playing, I was won over by the sheer quality of the work, and the forthright way in which the game chose to tackle its subject matter; that is, by stating it plainly and up front, then proceeding to create such a stunning and haunting world. I love some of the subtle design choices. Hellblade finds ways to get you to explore and examine its stunning environments, rather than run right past them as you would have done in a lesser game. And, it gave me one of my favorite mechanics of any game I played this year... a button to charge at my enemy with reckless abandon. There is extraordinary talent packed into every aspect of this game, and at this point I’m not surprised, when it’s Ninja Theory at the wheel.
It’s difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about this year’s Zelda, seemingly the shoe-in for every Game of the Year award, and very deservedly so, even in a year with so many other stunning games. So, let me just note two things in particular about it: One, that the underlying decision to draw influence not from Zelda but from a Western tradition of open-world games speaks to an open-mindedness and humility I really respect and admire; it can’t be easy for a company like Nintendo to stay a step ahead of the times, but this new Zelda felt like the perfect way to keep Zelda fresh and relevant, yet still true to itself. And two, that the developers’ investment in climbing mechanics in particular--they let you go ahead and climb trees, mountains, whatever--creates in Breath of the Wild a sense of freedom beyond that found in other open-world games, which is a truly amazing feat.
In recent years we’ve seen a growing number of first-person narrative games, especially from smaller studios. On the face of it, Edith Finch looks like yet another one, but really stands out with its exceptional production quality, a clear yet gripping narrative structure, and a surprising number of mechanics designed to strengthen your connection to its cast of ill-fated characters. It’s an incredibly affecting interactive story that, once you get past some superficial similarities to other first-person exploration games, is unlike anything else. I played a build of this last year and it struck me then, but playing the finished game this year really brought home just how much care and attention to detail went into every little aspect. It’s a beautiful game, laced with dark humor and a melancholy that really spoke to me.
Hollow Knight appears to be a straight-ahead Metroidvania set in a gloomy little bug-themed world. But, the outstanding quality of its execution, along with several specific and well-thought-out design choices, make it feel like a landmark game in this wonderful genre, where so many others come across as derivative. I loved the finely tuned feel of its challenging combat, and its emphasis on exploring the unknown--it felt surprisingly tense and dangerous, drawing appropriate influence from the good old Souls series. And I fell in love with its weird bug world and expressive characters. It’s an incredibly well-put-together game that punches way above its weight, considering how much sumptuous detail is packed in versus how few people had a hand in the game’s creation. To me, a great game often shows its hand immediately, when it feels good just to move about in its world, and Hollow Knight is a fine example of this.
When I was eight years old, I was playing a computer role-playing game called Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which forever changed my worldview and convinced me I wanted to make games myself when I grew up. I think the spirit of Ultima lives on today in various story-rich, open-world RPGs, though I think Larian’s work on Divinity: Original Sin II truly stood out during what’s been a real renaissance period for computer RPGs these past few years. A great RPG might be characterized by its terrific combat system or characters and world, but very rarely are both aspects as a highlight, as is the case here. I’ve enjoyed Larian’s games for a long time, but this one really felt like their magnum opus, and I think is a landmark achievement in the genre--pushing closer than ever to the imaginative and freeform experience of pen-and-paper role-playing.
Look, I went into NieR:Automata expecting to love it. I think PlatinumGames has produced some of the greatest-ever character action games in Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising, and I couldn’t wait to see that gameplay pedigree married with the aesthetic and sensibility of Yoko Taro, whose games have always fascinated me. Besides, the instant I first saw the android 2B, Automata’s blindfolded, pale-haired protagonist, I felt like I had to know her story.
However, after a great first impression, NieR:Automata left me a bit cold with its open-world structure, and I set it aside for a little while. But then, as the hubbub around it refused to die down, I picked it up again, and it grabbed me, culminating in one of the best endgame sequences I’ve experienced in a game in years. I just did not expect the story to come together as strongly as it did. I’m listening to the outstanding soundtrack even now as I write this, and there was this one bit of writing, right in the last five minutes of the game, that hit me much harder than any bit of writing I’ve experienced in a game in some time. What can I say? This is the kind of game I wish I could make. Failing that, I’m very grateful someone else did, and that I got to play it.