Guest List: Ben Morgan's 10 Games to Play After Surviving 2017

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We invited some creative friends of ours to submit their own top 10 lists for our Game of the Year feature. Today, we're thrilled to share writer and game designer Ben Morgan's favorite games of 2017.

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We’ve all been saying it since January, all of us who just want things to make sense again: “It’s been a rough year.” It’s sort of like a greeting now, a way to fill the space as you stare into the void with your friends and coworkers. 

What can you do? You may have spent all year protesting, urging people to vote in 2018, supporting friends and family in marginalized groups, fighting with Nazis on social media, donating to helpful charities and nonprofits, and looking at the news through the cracks in your fingers. But you still probably need something to help you chill the fuck out. As a lot of folks smarter than me have said this year, fighting against hate, tyranny, and fascism is exhausting, so it’s important to practice self-care.

If you’re like me, the engrossing narratives and systems in games can be a solace, but their tropes and fanbases can just as frequently be a reminder of all of the hate still in the world. In sifting through a lot of games this year to make this list, I found a lot of exciting games that brought me joy and hope and laughter in a year where those things were extremely hard to find. So I decided to make a list of those specific games in hopes that they’ll be a brief oasis for you.

As a note, this is a loose list ranked on how much these games affected me and helped me through rough waters. A lot of huge games this year that I played and enjoyed, such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, aren’t on this list. They’re excellent games and were great distractions for me. You can read about them at length on literally every other year-end list. But the games on this list pushed me further into a positive emotional space and it felt important and healthy to focus on that.

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10. Doki Doki Literature Club

Team Salvato | September 22nd, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux

The content warning that appears when this game boots up should do enough to keep you on your toes and questioning the premise of your bland protagonist joining a literary club full of overeager high school girls. But I found myself lost in the game’s fake premise even before it took a turn. Maybe it’s because I’ve never played many visual novels like this to begin with, but I think it also has something to do with how this game undercuts stereotypical relationships and motivates characters honestly, even before pulling the rug out from under you. Honestly, the excellent mechanic of picking words to write a new poem everyday probably helped out too.

Lots of the writing around this game has focused on how it’s a horror game cloaked as a traditional dating sim visual novel. That’s true and the game does get unapologetically gruesome, but its horror is in service of exploring both teenage mental health issues and how the desire for a partner with a lack of agency would drive a real person to insanity.

The game forces you to look outside of itself, both figuratively and literally, painting the characters as both prisoners in this simulation and fully-realized characters with which to empathize. The tonal shifts are shocking, and they don’t always work perfectly, but there’s so much more than just a heel turn in this game’s double identity.

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9. Universal Paperclips

Frank Lantz | October 9th, 2017 | Web

As a member of a capitalist society, it’s easy to feel like you’re just a number in a large, uncaring system. Universal Paperclips eases you into building that system in an insidious, delightful clicker game that’s as fun to play as it is to discuss. You play as an AI with one purpose: to create as many paperclips as possible. The game takes this simple premise to the absolute furthest-possible extent.

Along the way you harness various systems and solve light puzzles with them to progress to a new level of paperclip production. In a genre light on much innovation beyond fine tuning in-app purchases, this game’s sense of delight and innovation immediately marks it as one of the few classic clicker games (shout-out to Cookie Clicker and Spaceplan).

About halfway through the game, as you begin to turn all existing matter into paperclips, you might start questioning the AI’s premise and what you’re asked to do. But the game continues to challenge you and ease you along with new mechanics. You’re handed philosophic quotes and dirges for dead rogue AI, but what do they mean as the endorphins from seeing higher and higher numbers rush in?

You could lightly breeze through this game as a series of systems to conquer and exploit and you’d have a blast. But long after I finished the game, I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily I was tricked into building these systems, despite the game’s signposting of the consequences, and how simple it is, even in life, to reduce the worst of what we do to each other down to data points and numbers in the name of moving forward.

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8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

MachineGames | October 27th, 2017 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Article after article about dapper Nazis and the very real violence they incite pours into my Twitter feed. Instead of the country uniting to push back the rising tide of hate, we debate whether people who advocate for genocide might have a reasonable point of view. We tear ourselves apart instead of coming to terms with the hatred, murder, and exploitation that America was founded on. It can make you feel like the world has gone upside down faster than a carnival ride.

If you’re looking for an outlet for your frustration, a progressive dreamscape where you can catch your breath, then let me recommend Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. There just isn’t a better slice of socialist revolutionary fantasy out there.

I don’t want to spoil any of the narrative points, so I’ll just say that the game’s scenes are some of the best cinematic work I’ve seen this year in any medium. The control of framing, audio, and dialogue is unprecedented in games and everyone else making cutscenes at a AAA studio should frankly be ashamed. Your opinions on the quality and necessity of the gunplay and stealth may vary. I found both fun and satisfying, but they’re undeniably messy. From a critical perspective, the level design here is a step down from the brilliant first game. But all of those faults fell away as I plowed through the game with joyful abandon.

I want to question the implications of this violent power fantasy, despite its excellent politics, but I don’t know if I have the strength this year. I know that the brief good feeling I got from blowing digital Nazi heads off doesn’t solve anything. But it gave me the energy to keep existing in our current reality, and that has to be worth something.

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7. Subsurface Circular

Mike Bithell Games | August 17th, 2017 | Windows, iOS

In Mike Bithell’s Subsurface Circular, you’re a robot detective stuck on the subway in a large city. It’s a fairly linear, text-based game that’s elegant in presentation and limited in scope.

But that limit allows the game to laser in on its themes and really pack a punch. You unpack this mystery by talking to robots who all have a set job in this largely automated society. You never encounter the ruling human class, but you learn about them through the robots who serve them. Each robot’s purpose is key to communicating with them and solving the light puzzles that help you work towards the conclusion.

Not only is that narratively satisfying, but it highlights the game’s core questions: Is it worth upsetting the status quo to try for something better? Are the people advocating for change ready for the consequences and are those advocating for more of the same really aware of the continual cost?

Bithell’s writing deftly threads the needle of truly considering both sides while slowly adding more and more weight to your choices. The short but heavy nature of the game makes it feel like the best science fiction short stories; it sticks around just long enough to knock you off balance and send your mind reeling.

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6. Everything

David OReilly | March 21st, 2017 | PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac, Linux

This game’s title is both literal and impossible and it survives on the brilliance of that duality. The game doesn’t contain everything, but the attempt is admirable and a blast to play. It’s both a wonderful piece of software that can play itself and an immersive experience on which you can map a variety of feelings. It belongs both in an art museum and in every set top box as a screensaver. In my first fifteen minutes I was deftly moving between being the sun and an atom, a herd of elk and a blade of grass. The experience was both unique and extremely simple. David OReilly balances the wild scope of his idea by underpinning it with a simple execution.

My revelation moment came as I set a field of obelisks to dance in geometric patterns. They occasionally birthed a new, tiny obelisk at the center of their dance. My wife came over to watch after a few minutes. “Are you a graveyard of obelisks?” she asked. “They’re dancing,” I replied. We both watched in a rich state of peace for a while.

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5. Tacoma

Fullbright | August 2nd, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One

It’s hard to explain Tacoma while capturing what’s so wonderful about the game. It’s ostensibly a game about exploring a wrecked space station and recovering its AI. But what you’ll actually be doing is recovering the fractured narrative of the crew that was onboard the station. Even the narrative recovery isn’t the whole point, as fun as it is to manipulate cutscenes and follow characters around.

The real joy of discovery, for me, came from uncovering the themes that permeate the game’s narrative. Tacoma is asking the type of questions the the best science fiction asks by making the future extremely similar to the present. We’ve progressed into the stars, but we’ve kept the ceiling of traditional capitalist power structures in place. The specifics of life on the space station may be different, but these people are still living under corporate control. They have the same limited dreams and frustrations. Not even the ship’s AI is free from these concerns.

These striking ideas are all supported by a diverse cast of interesting, likeable characters who I came to know and feel for over the game’s three hour journey. The game’s character models are expressive enough to generate empathy while avoiding the uncanny valley. I loved living in this considered world with these characters so much that I could’ve taken 20+ more hours with them, even though the game wraps up its narrative threads nicely.

In closing, Tacoma is the best episode of Star Trek that I’ve ever played. Please let Fullbright make a Star Trek game. Please, I beg of you, whichever deity or wealthy benefactor is reading my GOTY post. Thank you for consideration.

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4. Butterfly Soup

Brianna Lei | May 29th, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux

Brianna Lei’s visual novel Butterfly Soup, about a group of queer Asian girls in Oakland playing baseball and falling in love, finally convinced me that I love visual novels. There’s just something undeniable about the interactive, visual format that leads to a quick, powerful relationship with all of the principle characters.

I have to give a lot of credit to Lei’s honest, hilarious writing as well. These characters and dialogue would sparkle in any format, but it’s especially wonderful to see Akarsha’s shit-eating grin after pulling off a horrifying pun or meme joke. It melted my heart to see Diya blush or freak out as she’s confronted with a social situation or an unexpected feeling.

The conflicting ease and difficulty of conversation between high schoolers is something I’ve never seen so accurately captured in any medium. When the message “I miss high school” appears at the end of the game (not a spoiler please calm down) I found myself agreeing with the sentiment because the game had convinced me, not because I would’ve agreed going in.

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3. Night in the Woods

Infinite Fall | February 21st, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

I didn’t have an experience like Mae’s in Night in the Woods: I never dropped out of college and moved back home. But I lived with the fear of that possibility in every action I took while I was in school. I knew that one wrong step could send me back to the bottom of the line. I saw friends floundering there behind the meat counter, just like Mae’s dad, when I would go home to work during the summer.

Night in the Woods is terrifying in its catharsis. The game pulls no punches in its explication of millennial ennui and the hard financial realities at the root. It refuses to make any character a villain, beyond the mysterious forces at work on the town’s fringes who are, as in life, frustratingly hard to pin down. It’s easier if there’s someone to blame, and we can find those people in headlines and exposes, but Night in the Woods wisely limits its scope to the isolated town of Possum Springs. The game is a brutally honest portrayal of a town struggling to survive that focuses on broken individuals who can’t get by alone.

The game’s mechanics and visuals are operating at a confidence level that the characters within could only dream about. The game frequently interrupts its smooth platforming with a new, clever mechanic that’s often unique to a sequence and never overstays its welcome. I frequently stopped to just enjoy jumping on the power lines or take in a beautiful scene. You can check in with a lot of the same people every day, to develop impactful stories over time. But I also found myself checking in with locations too. The game’s handful of dense screens became my home.

When the game ended I felt a sense of wonder along with regret. My narrative felt complete, yet I knew that the nature of the choices the game presents meant that there were just as many stories that I didn’t see. The game’s most powerful feature might be the way it fills you with its sense of longing, of always seeking, but never finding easy satisfaction.

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2. What Remains of Edith Finch

Giant Sparrow | April 25th, 2017 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Determining the cost and the weight of a human life is truly impossible. But like a lot of the creative output of our species, Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch takes another run at the impenetrable wall of mortality. It’s incredible just to bear witness. Edith’s adventure is similar in broad scope to Gone Home, the game that set the high water mark for first-person exploration. You’re a young girl who has come to an empty house looking for answers. But no one is coming back to give them.

Your entire family is dead and it’s your mission to sift through their lives. The house is intricately designed and begs for exploration. But, the real masterwork here is Giant Sparrow’s boldest move away from the tenets of the genre. Each family member’s death is a playable minigame with its own set of controls and rules that deepens the experience and puts you literally in the deceased’s shoes for a moment.

The quality and emotional resonance of each of these minigames is totally unique, immaculately constructed, and devastating. Dealing with death and grief in fiction means navigating a landmine of trite bullshit and meaningless aphorisms. I played in awe as Edith Finch made honoring each character’s life feel as natural as walking. I had to ignore the urge to pause and consider each story after its conclusion. The desire to see the game pull off the impossible again pushed me through at a gluttonous pace.

Your connection to the specifics here may vary, but I’d wager to say that if you’ve ever experienced grief you’ll find something here to touch and uplift you. My great aunt died earlier this year. She was the guiding light of our family and her absence has taken a huge toll. She loved to paint, just like Edie, the matriarch of the Finch family. When I got to Edie Finch’s room, it reminded me so much of my aunt’s that I couldn’t move or speak for minutes. I just sobbed. Eventually, I picked the controller back up and finished the game. It felt like a small piece of my grief had floated away, full of the understanding of a life well-lived and the inherent value in every human experience.

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1. Pyre

Supergiant Games | July 25th, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4

Pyre made me feel hopeful in a way that nothing else I played this year did. At its core, Pyre is about continuing to have hope against all odds. It’s a theme that richly resonates through the game at every level.

In Pyre, you’re essentially a manager of a fantasy sports team made up of people stuck in purgatory, exiled by a country in an endless war that has banned reading and any form of dissent. The world itself is a masterful piece of fiction that slowly builds and unfurls both narratively and visually as you travel across it. Every narrative twist felt earned and every bit of lore the game drips out was deliciously prepared with just the right amount of detail. The game walks the tightrope of giving you just enough information to understand the history of the world while not drowning you in page after page of sub stories and fantasy garbage.

You move your cast of characters towards freedom through a series of rituals that play like a mix of basketball and football, but mostly reminded me of the excellent arcade sports games of the 90s. The controls and objective are extremely simple. Just get your character to the other team’s fire and jump in it. But, there’s just enough stat adjusting and character type variation to keep things endlessly interesting.

To make things even more engaging, you’re often literally playing for your character’s freedom. The game does an excellent job of giving you time to get to know and appreciate everyone on your team through its compelling dialogue. So that, when you’re playing for them, the stakes feel so high that I was screaming at my computer every time the opposing team got one over on me.

To add to the drama, the game’s score and visual style are second to none. Supergiant Games has always had a good handle on a game’s tone, but this is the culmination of their talents. Darren Korb’s original songs are heartbreaking and perfect. The score goes all over the place from shrieking guitars to ballads to driving synth and it all just fits. I can’t stop listening to it even weeks after finishing the game. I’m actually listening to the Pyre soundtrack as I write this and getting emotional all over again. 

Still, none of these excellent parts are specifically what makes this game magical. It’s the hopefulness at the core of the game that makes every moment gleam. I never felt as blindly hopeful about the future this year as I did when leading my ragtag group of persecuted failures through a storybook hell to their freedom from a fascist reality. In a year where I couldn’t find hope for myself or for the world, I found this game that generates it in an infinite loop.

Ben Morgan is a writer and game designer in Portland, Oregon.