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December 28, 2017 6 min read
Teddy Diefis a game designer and writer. He co-designed indie RPG Hyper Light Drifter, Co-founded LA game collective Glitch City and the Square Bowl charity, and is now a Creative Director at Square Enix. To hear his unsolicited opinions on game design and fashion, find him at @teddydief.
2017, whoa. I hope you’re doing okay out there. A lot of people were let down by leadership that we trusted to represent our interests. Thankfully, our games are an oasis where we can refuel and rally. This year, some feared the Death of Single Player at the hands of loot boxes. That war has taken the lives of some promising games this year. But I have faith in the amazing people making all sorts of games today. We are bigger, more diverse, and louder than ever, and we fight back.
Most games I gravitated to this year explore friendship, relationships, and how we coexist without destroying each other. Here are the games of 2017 that I loved most:
I’m real bad at shooters. Sitting down for an evening of getting killed by the more skillful is not a flavor of Me Time I enjoy. So it was only with the promise of co-op that my friends Adriel Wallick and Rami Ismail finally lured me into Bungie’s Destiny. Destiny is a shooter less about winning and more about routine, the comforting ritual of a phone call with friends to talk about life while I shoot alien-robot-space-wraiths with my elemental guns, run through level designs that always feel fresh, and unlock radder and radder fashion for my character. It’s good, simple fun, and the only primarily multiplayer game that made my list.
Pyre is the Final Fantasy X Blitzball Sports RPG I always wanted, but in a world where Blitzball is good. Supergiant games do more with less, showing indies how to make a game feel huge when your team is small. The roster of fantasy deathsport athletes each have unique mechanics and flair. But it’s the game loop that really shook me. The teams play this sport to earn their freedom, redemption from banishment. In this pursuit, the game forced me to give up the party members I needed most--to give up what I need in exchange for what they need. It’s a simple design that made the bonds between my party members feel a hundred times more meaningful and endearing, AND forced me to change up my tactics by embracing different characters.
If you’ve spoken to a game designer or a New Yorker in the last five years, you’ve probably heard them gush about Sleep No More, the interactive theatre production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that feels a lot like good level design. Give the audience control of where they go and what they see as the story plays out. Fullbright’s Tacoma evolved that storytelling method with a new technique, giving me control of both my place in space, and my place in time, letting me scrub through the hologram security footage of the Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma. What I love most about Tacoma is the clever way it got me to read character backstory while respecting my tragically short attention span. By embedding emails, browser history, and text messages inside the hologram sequences, it gave me control over the pacing of the scene, with bite-sized text to read when I felt like it.
I spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger in the early 2000s, so Kyle Seeley‘s narrative game about high school teen relationships really messed me up. The typing mechanic is simple but powerful; I pick a dialogue option, then mash keys to simulate typing as the game spells out pre-authored text. It sounds kinda mundane and chore-ish, but the moment I got into it, it hooked me into its angsty world. I used my real first name, my chosen Linkin Park avatar, and heard the clicking of my 2006 PC. It brought me back to my old AIM days, when you’d put up an Away Message to hide from a crush. Back when you could ever be “Away” from the internet.
It frustrated me in a good way--frustrated at the idiot high schooler I played. Frustrated at myself for still relating more to him than I would like. Top that off with really clever use of media: contacts sent me their new Facebook profiles, YouTube music videos they’re listening to, and actual files that downloaded to my desktop. It was a full-strength dose of nostalgia to remind me what was hard about being a teen, and challenged me to know better now.
Bless the internet for embracing this game. The Game Grumps team, infused with even more muscle from the Glitch City LA indie community, made a game that’s loving and horny no matter your preferences. It’s unconcerned with sexuality labels or relationship norms, and shows the value of family in many forms. It also drips style, from the dad fashion and character desings, to the candystriped UI and chill af soundtrack. If this game is dad, I don’t wanna be good.
The trailer and Twitch streams would have you believe this is a masocore game about screaming and writhing in frustrated pain. And I guess it is, but the real meat comes after the screaming stops. I encourage every artist to put some of themselves into their work. And while that doesn’t need to be totally transparent to the audience, I love work that is openly and brazenly autobiographical. By playing Getting Over It, I got to spend some time with the gamemaker Bennett Foddy, learn about what he loves in games, and how we agree and disagree.
Hey, I’m busy. Are you busy? You’re probably busy. The games that GET ME most in my adult life are ones that know what they are, and know how much of our limited time they need to get their message across. Not every game can be or should be short, but I dig when they are. In my 4 hours playing Everything, David O’Reilly gave me peace, time to reflect, and introduced me to a completely different worldview from philosopher Alan Watts. I can’t say I adopted it fully, but yo, that game made me stop and reflect for longer than it took me to play it. Also you get to play as a piece of garbage. The dream.
Every time I sit down to outline a story, I have a minor freakout about THE DRAMA. What will hook readers? What will the climax be?? So, I admire developer Infinite Fall for putting me in a real place with kids just hanging out smashing fluorescent lightsticks, and managing to add serious consequences without it feeling overblown. While the game builds a tangible world of rust belt Pennsylvania, something I know nothing about, it is relatable to any experience of not knowing what you’re doing with your life, something I know a great deal about.
Never has the “Walking Simulator” genre title felt so insufficient to describe a game. Giant Sparrow’s Edith Finch exists in the heritage of Proteus and Gone Home before it, but with so many rich interactions beyond the walking and voiceover (which is also stellar). A fairy tale game that imbues its players with empathy for mental illness, and with wonder for the imaginative world they live in. There’s a lot to appreciate here, so much so that it was the only game this year I finished twice.
“Important” is the word I keep using for NieR. Not “flawless” or “epic” or “amazing”. PlatinumGames made something that is important for the heritage of game design and game storytelling. It plays with all the elements surrounding the Core Mechanic, and integrates them into the storytelling. It uses UI in ways I’ve never seen. The game structure breaks expectations, and has so much to say not just about its commentaries on humanity, but about the power and opportunity of video games. Top it off with a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to rival the best JRPG fare.
Director Yoko Taro is on record as being disappointed in himself for repeatedly making games that resort to violence. It feels like he took that guilt and motivated himself to use everything around the combat to create something beautiful. Taro is tired of fighting. Even the long-game design of the upgrade Chip System seems to silently acknowledge “Hey, we’re cool to just speed this along if you want”. I think NieR wants you to be tired of fighting too, to serve its larger narrative goal.
The fight is tiring, but it’s worth seeing through. Fight for the ones you love. Fight for what’s right, and maybe the fight will get easier in the long-game. Maybe we’ll get a good ending.
Good luck in 2018, friends. <3
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