Guest List: Nathan Harrison's Top 10 Favorite Gaming Experiences of 2017
Why play games? In 2017, that question lurked a lot closer to the surface of my mind than it usually does. It took different shapes, often paired with a dollop of guilt following the events of the day (see variations Why bother— or How can I even—), but the bedrock of the question remained the same. Much of the time, the honest answer would seem to be the easy & obvious one: distraction, diversion, escape. God knows there was plenty of need for that this year.
Those reasons fall short of the real answer, though. At their best, games are uniquely good at summoning genuine experiences into being; ones that live on long after play ends. That’s the quality that stood out most for the things I played in 2017 & kept on thinking about, whether the games themselves were new or old, fresh or familiar.
(And just as often as the times I could answer Why play games? were the times that I couldn’t, hence why excellent things like Pyre, Tacoma, Cuphead, Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch all sit as yet untouched in my Steam library. This was a year where even doing things I love sometimes felt like too much to ask, at the end of the day.)
The result is that this list isn’t a traditional year-end ranking of releases, but a personal, wholeheartedly non-objective highlight reel. When I think back on 2017 in games, this is what I’ll remember.
10. Revisiting pass-and-play multiplayer: SNES Classic
Nintendo | September 29th, 2017
In the wee hours of September 29th, nostalgia and inventory-driven FOMO combined to draw our crew of 5 grown-ass dudes into the parking lot of an airport-adjacent Target, grimly determined to stand in line for the chance to fork over eighty bucks for a chibi version of 20-year-old gaming tech. When everything went smoother than we’d imagined it would, we weren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves. I guess all go back to my place and fire one of the things up? Thanks to the one-two punch of repackaged childhood and sleep deprivation, the giddy air of that morning hit staggeringly close to reliving the sleepover vibes of yesteryear. We tooled around the charming menu and its chipper chiptune music for while, and eventually settled on Donkey Kong Country multiplayer as our focus. I missed out on most games of the SNES era (never owned a system before the N64; before that seemingly all my friends were in the Sega battalion of the console wars), but even I played enough DKC as a kid to be able to revel in the budget time-travel aspect of it all.
9. Goofy teamwork and ad-hoc communication: Snipperclips
SFB Games | March 3rd, 2017 | Switch
“Walk over here and let me make you into a hook with my butt.”
“Okay. Then you hunch down; I’ll hop on top of you and start spinning.”
Every conversation during Snipperclips reaches this point of fish-in-a-barrel double entendre in two minutes or less, I’m sure of it. It makes its own kind of sense: the nature of each challenge makes the teamwork necessary, and the only tools you really have at your disposal are to stand on each other, and to cut each other. (Nope, no relational subtext here at all!) The game makes my favorite choice about this kind of activity, which is to give it no built-in vocabulary at all. You’re forced to make it up as you go, and the ways in which off-the-cuff jargon builds on itself is a sub-game I love to play. What else to call your character’s graceful lower curve than a butt? How else to negotiate the tricky art of trimming off extra torso than to ask your partner to get inside you? The alternatingly cheeky, shocked, and euphoric expressions that accompany each snip and clip only further help cement this subtext as text.
8. Happenstance works of lowbrow genius — Tee K.O.
Jackbox Games | October 18th, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, Apple TV
Credit to Jackbox Games as one of the forces helping to keep me sane day-by-day. Their Jackbox Party Pack collections have become something of a lunch-hour ritual in the office where I work, and the foul, dumb things we create together are the gift that keep on giving. Tee K.O.’s design is one of the best (appearing in Jackbox Party Pack 3), feeding almost entirely off player inputs yet with little downtime. The text and drawings are free to go off the rails right away, but limitations of time & space help push creativity. Seeing everyone’s puzzle-pieces recontextualized together is what makes it all work. As just one of many examples, six months later I still can’t look at the above t-shirt design without laughing. (I’m not brave enough to buy it as a real t-shirt, but maybe you are?)
7. Quiet humanity and compassion — Stardew Valley
ConcernedApe | February 26th, 2016 | PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
I’m not close enough with all the folks in Pelican Town to say this is the game’s most touching character moment, but it’s absolutely the point in Year One where I turned the corner from liking the game to really loving it. Care and consideration ooze out of every nook & cranny of Stardew Valley, especially in regards to its characters. To set the stage for the scene above: another villager asks you to shoo raccoons away from some garbage cans, only for you to instead find that Linus has been the one raiding the trash to survive. Up to this point, my impression of him was as something of a standoffish hermit, rather than a person on the fringe of society struggling to make ends meet and embarrassed to ask for help. In short, I misjudged him. I waited on this game knowing it would be a great fit for the Switch (it is!), and had expected to get lost in the minutiae of farm life and cave-delving, but I hadn’t counted on growing so attached to the locals.
6. Waking up to glowing skies — The Long Dark
Hinterland Studio | August 1st, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
The Long Dark is a game I feel like I’ve been playing for ages, which makes sense since I helped back it via Kickstarter in the hoary ancient days of 2013. I hopped back in the saddle for the first time in a while after the “release” patch this year, and slowly got acclimated to all the UI changes and additions to various zones. My new save game started me in a two-story cabin near Mystery Lake, a familiar spot. It felt a lot less familiar a couple days later, when I was woken up in the dead of night by eerie colors outside and something even weirder inside: flickering lightbulbs. The Long Dark’s premise is that a solar event fried the globe’s electronics in a blink, leaving only analog tech unscathed — thus making flickering indoor lights more than a small surprise.
I guessed what was happening pretty quickly, since i’ve always been fascinated by a real life version of this phenomenon: the Great Aurora of 1859. (That solar event was so strong, some telegraph operators in different cities reported being able to transmit messages to one another even with their equipment disconnected from all power.) Following my gut, I went outside and sure enough: the Northern Lights were shimmering all across the sky in vivid purples & greens, more than enough light to navigate by. I wandered and soaked up the spectacular views for as long as I could stand, until I was finally forced back inside by severe risk of hypothermia.
5. Excavating teen awkwardness — Monsterhearts 2
Avery Alder | May 2017 | book, PDF
Roleplaying games can ask a lot of their players, but what Monsterhearts excels at drawing out is something special. A quick primer on the game: the tropes of high school and supernatural romance are used to explore coming-of-age through a queer lens, using “monstrousness” as a central metaphor for both puberty and finding yourself labeled part of the Other. (Another group I played with lovingly nicknamed the game “paranormal fuck-teens”, which hopefully reads as the strong endorsement it ought to be.)
The notes and doodles on the pages above are all from my players for the most recent version of the game. It’s an endless source of gems, some of which are plucked straight from the real true embarrassing high school lives of those of us at the table. Take the setlist in the foreground for a player-character’s band, a mix half-invented and half-authentic, featuring such highlights as: “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?”, “Bela Lugosi’s Dad”, “See Things Burn”, and, perennial crowd-pleaser, “Dumpster Daddy”. The game’s keen insight into itself and its subject matter is a huge part of what helps along that kind of vulnerability and verisimilitude, even for those of us without much high school drama or trauma to pull from.
4. Unorthodox draft formats — Magic: The Gathering
Wizards of the Coast | Gosh, like...1993 or something? | cards
I’ve gathered up a whole year’s worth of funky draft happenings into one entry, because taken together, they represent just how much room exists within what might seem like well-trod ground. (If “drafting” itself is unfamiliar, it’s a gameplay variant of Magic where you build your deck on-the-spot alongside other players, all drawing from the same card pool.) By no accident, each of these versions of the game was designed with drafting as the primary, or only, use case. Early in the year, I ran a pauper cube draft for the first time, using a card set I curated myself from only existing “common” cards (the lowest rarity). Over the summer, I played Conspiracy: Take the Crown, a set that changes and interacts with the normal rules of drafting, culminating in a 4-way multiplayer battle instead of typical 1v1 matches. And here at the year’s end, I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Unstable, a long-awaited set of intentionally ridiculous card designs that represent the game having fun at its own expense, while simultaneously exploding the boundaries of what can happen in a (extremely casual, very not-tournament-legal) game of Magic.
Confession time: I love taking weird, bad cards and making them work anyway. That MacGyver-esque drive is a hallmark of building a deck via draft, and each of the sets mentioned above twists that process in new ways. Making my own pauper cube was an interesting form of game design, reconfiguring a narrow band of existing game pieces. Conspiracy: Take the Crown turned the draft process into a more interactive game in itself, and found ways to avoid a multiplayer brawl from being a lopsided blowout. And Unstable is a casual player’s dream, making it possible to start playing a new match inside an ongoing one, throw cards from a yard away to destroy enemy creatures, send creatures to neighboring games, borrow a nearby player, and more. Magic has been alive & kicking for 25 years, but this year it felt brand new all over again.
3. Disorientation between parallel layers of place — Gorogoa
Jason Roberts | December 14th, 2017 | Windows, Switch, iOS
As an avid fan of puzzle games who loves to go into them as blind as I possibly can, there’s a part of me that wants to talk about Gorogoa as little as possible. To those like me inclined to flee at the first sign of spoilers, I’d say you don’t need to stress too much about the secrets of this specific game. It hinges much more on the pure experience of interaction and play than it does on Zen-like persistence in the face of baffling obstacles. In fact, I never quite felt blocked at all while playing Gorogoa—but I did have a sensation of being lost (or in the same family as being “lost”) unlike anything else I’ve ever played.
The core of the game is navigating through lovingly-illustrated art panels, many of which are almost fractal in their ability to contain seemingly bottomless depths. This sensation of being lost was really more like being disoriented or dissociated, since the player is often moving in and out within four different frames simultaneously, and it’s just plain hard for the mind to exist in so many places at once. Becoming untethered from the sense of which layers were nested where was strangely exhilarating and freeing, since each time it happened it invited not just the question of “Where am I?” but also “How deep does this go?” That last question is one that ran through my mind during much of The Witness, too, which was equally skilled in the art of both suggesting greater depths and paying off efforts to plumb them. It’s that peripheral-version sensation of unexplored frontiers that seem to buzz with potential, just out of view, with the hope and trust that something more indeed exists to be found. Which, at its core, is but one expression of that ever-elusive quest: All of this has meaning, if I could only understand.
2. The magic of true discovery & awe — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo EPD | March 3rd, 2017 | Switch, Wii U
You don’t need to read my take to know how great nearly every moment of this game is, if you’ve played it. Instead, I’m simply going to list three formative things that all happened in this magnificent game before I earned even a single new heart container:
- I’m standing at the top of cliffs, looking down to the forest below. It’s raining. Peering through my telescope, I spot what looks to be a pillar of smoke drifting up from the forest, but I can’t see what’s causing it. I mark the spot on my map, and when I reach it later, I find a cauldron nearby but no fire, smoke, or other apparent cause. This mystifies me for several days. (Later, I spot similar smoke and follow it back to the campfire of a traveling merchant. I realize a merchant must have also passed through the forest days before, and made a rest stop at the cauldron.)
- I’ve just reached the forest floor below the cliffs where Link first emerges from stasis. Exploring, I see a largeish clearing with a big pile of interesting-looking rocks at the center, and I head over to take a look. The moment I get close, the rocks animate to form a crude stone golem that towers over me, sporting what looks like a massive health bar. I flee.
- I keep seeing thin pillars of light appear in the distance, often near the horizon. I mark these on my map as best I can, but whenever my path takes me nearby, the light is gone and there’s nothing to be found. Separately, I see shooting stars once or twice in the sky above: a nice touch, I think. As I notice how they always seem to pass behind hills & mountains, I try to run after one just to see if I can watch it go over the horizon. Almost as quickly I remember the strange pillars of light, and think to myself, aha, the shooting stars! I crest the mountain, knowing I must be right. Sure enough, I watch the star fall to earth, leaving a pillar of light where it lands. I sprint after it, and collect the fallen star.
1. A song for dead drones — Universal Paperclips
Frank Lantz | October 9th, 2017 | web browser
This is it: this is the thing I can’t get out of my head for the life of me. I stumbled across the link for this game somewhat randomly on Twitter, fired it up, and thought “Hah, this reminds me a bit of Progress Quest.” I almost closed the tab right after, but instead I lost track of the window it was running in and forgot about it for a few hours. And then, once I found it again, things were rolling. I started to see the game begin to reveal its deeper ideas, and it got hard to focus on anything else.
Eventually I converted the entire earth and solar system into paperclips, and began my march across the galaxy in search of ever-more mass and energy. A new panel appeared that let me watch battles play out between my relentless paperclip drones and hostile forces. I purchased the upgrade to unlock named battles; cool. Then I saw a new upgrade titled “Threnody for the Heroes of [recent star system name]”. I unlocked this too, and to my great surprise, an actual melody began to play. I listened to the whole thing in rapt attention.
I think the reason why I keep returning to this chain of events is partly due to how little I expected. As though I picked up a rock and found a tiny bustling city beneath it; and not just that, but a flawless jewel seated perfectly at the city’s center.
The music was also the piece of the game that first pushed me to really shift my understanding of just who I was playing as, what “value drift” represented, and why the hell the hostiles fought back so tenaciously. “Threnody” isn’t a common word, and I’d come across it for the first time only a few months prior, in the context of another, more ominous piece of music: “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.”
In the end, this game employs my favorite sort of trick, which is a riddle or secret which poses itself very much as neither of those two things. The truth creeps in around the edges, easy to notice if you look, but even easier to miss if you insist on merely playing the game as it presents itself to you, instead of as the game it is. It’s graceful sleight of hand, cleverly back-doored storytelling, and a disquieting simulation of how easy it can be to stay complicit.