GOTY 2017: Game of the Year

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And the 2017 Silicon Sasquatch Game of the Year is...


 Aaron Thayer, Copyright Nintendo

#1 - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo EPD | March 3rd, 2017 | Nintendo Switch

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Aaron

I’m willing to go on record stating that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the greatest Zelda game of all time.

Actually, I’ll take it one step further.

I’m also willing to go on record stating that, 10 years from now, we’ll look back at Breath of the Wild as a turning point not only for the Zelda franchise, but also for Nintendo and the open-world RPG genre. We’ll speak of Link’s latest adventure in the same breath as Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past. I’m not alone in my effusive, hyperbolic praise.

Open-world games have never been this good.

Open-world games are my favorite genre. I like open-world RPGs even more.

I was one of two staff members responsible for placing Skyrim in the number-one spot on our 2011 awards. I’ve waxed poetic about Just Cause 2 and its open, emergent destruction-based gameplay. Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a love letter to Red Dead Redemption and its vast, dusty plains. I spent over 40 hours in Assassin's Creed Origins playing photojournalist across the gorgeous, massive map of Egypt.

So when I say that Breath of the Wild is the best open-world game I've ever played, I mean it.

Breath of the Wild actually delivers on that long-unfulfilled promise [of open-world games]. You can, and will, climb any- and everything. You can, and will, go everywhere.

It hits you about two hours in. You realize that all other attempts at creating a truly interactive sandbox were child's play. Giant maps stuffed with tasks and collectibles have been en vogue since the first Assassin's Creed. For a while, these games were enough. But when the industry began to diverge from linear level design and narratives, open-world games tried to make up for traditionally tight gameplay loops by filling worlds with ephemera: doodads, trinkets...in other words, shit. These were games where you’d squander hours collecting everything in sight, and you're lucky if you got an achievement or trophy. Developers figured out that players would gladly entertain themselves if given enough padding, or what the marketing teams call "content."

Breath of the Wild is not full of content. Yes, it has a lot to do, but none of it is tiresome. It's all optional, and it feels that way. From where I sit, Nintendo said "fuck you" to the worst trends of Western game development. No more pointless collectibles, because even this game's collectibles involve cute, rewarding environmental puzzles. And when you collect all 900 (!) of them, you're rewarded a golden turd. Someone inside Nintendo is taking the piss, and having a great time while doing it.

Somehow, Nintendo EPD figured out the videogame equivalent of eating everything from a entire buffet but avoiding the severe bloating and stomach cramps afterward.

Even if you're like me and collected all the agility orbs in Crackdown or climbed every tower in Far Cry 4, you’ll feel liberated by the low-pressure nature of Breath of the Wild. That's because the environment—even when it's trying to kill you with lightning strikes or fearsome Lynels—is actually your best friend.

See those mountains? You actually can climb them.

Developers have tried selling us the fiction that we can "climb every mountain" rendered in the far-off distance for as long as they've sold digital fantasy worlds. Admittedly, it's an intoxicating prospect. I fall for it because hell yeah, I've always wanted to go anywhere and climb anything. Yet the reality ends up looking like a bunch of invisible walls à la Skyrim. Reality, as usual, bites.

Except, against all expectations, Breath of the Wild actually delivers on that long-unfulfilled promise. You can, and will, climb any- and everything. You can, and will, go everywhere. It's an addictively simple loop that's been executed in the perfect way. Clayton Purdom over at The A.V. Club said it best:

One of the great clichés in open-world video games over the past few years is the promotional video describing “that mountain on the horizon” as a place you can actually walk to. It became a talking point so prevalent, a feature so expected that the technological feat of the background gradually becoming the setting has been rendered no longer impressive. Zelda upends this. The thrill of traversing Hyrule—clambering over rocks and through rivers, finding paths around ravines and under ruins—made the promise of that journeying sensation real. When you stand atop the mountain, for once, you feel utterly alive.

I never thought I’d play another Zelda that so totally embodied a sense of limitless adventure. I’m glad I was wrong.

That Nintendo EPD delivered on Eiji Aonuma's boast of "See that mountain?" back in 2014 is all the more impressive considering the long list of failures and half-truths that preceded Breath of the Wild.

The Zelda franchise hasn't felt this fresh since the original.

Breath of the Wild is a reimagining of the original The Legend of Zelda. I base that off of the experience of playing each game for the first time.

I remember how vast the original Zelda felt. No guideposts, no real idea where to go. So, I went wherever I wanted. Quickly I learned that there are optimal methods of progression, but that feeling of being handed the keys to a playground wherein my success was only limited by my creativity embedded deep in my cortex. Nintendo did its best to maintain that spirit of wide-eyed exploration across Link's follow-up adventures, but things tapered off after Ocarina of Time and the series' transition to 3D. Despite the extra technology, Hyrule somehow kept getting smaller—more restrained.

Yet there I was, in March of 2017 and I'm reliving 1992 and the first time I played a Zelda game. Breath of the Wild generously gifted me those childhood memories all over again: the incredulity at the size of a world; the shock of finding a secret all on my own. As much as I love this franchise, I never thought I'd play another Zelda that so totally embodied a sense of limitless adventure. I'm glad I was wrong.

This is a once-in-a-generation game, a peerless experience that transcends its predecessors and exposes the laziness of all other so-called open-world efforts.

Breath of the Wild is a success, full-stop. – Aaron Thayer

 Not an easy sword to get

Not an easy sword to get

Nick

I think it was somewhere around the 20-hour mark in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when I realized something enthralling—and also kind of frightening:

I was playing the best game I'd ever encountered in my life.

That's a weird thing for me to admit about a game. After all, it doesn't look great for a media critic to draw a line in the sand and say "ok, pack it in—we found it. This is the one." And as a game developer, it feels counterproductive to decide that a "best game" can even exist—there are lessons to be drawn from all kinds of games.

Tonight, while I was putting off finishing this draft, I hit the 110-hour mark in Breath of the Wild. I've been playing this game almost every day for almost a full year. And my opinion hasn't changed—not once. For at least the duration of The Year That Was 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was officially—er, at least, by my estimation—the greatest game I'd ever played.

So much has already been said about what makes this Zelda game stand out, both within its own series and in the greater context of modern games. I just want to focus on one theme, which I think is the core of this game's success: the joy of discovery.

Everything in this game—every quest, every NPC conversation, every shift in the weather, every suspiciously-placed boulder—is designed to pique your curiosity. This massive rendition of the world of Hyrule is filled with literally thousands of carefully-designed vistas and pathways that are so subtle they almost don't seem designed at all. But the more time I spent learning how to adjust to the game's many dynamic systems—the chemistry, the time of day, the shifting of weather patterns, the perils of a new blood moon—the more apparent it became that these systems all interlock flawlessly. Yeah, it's frustrating the first few times you're trying to climb a mountain and it starts to rain, causing Link to lose his grip. But whenever the game closes a door, it opens a dozen windows—provided you're willing to look for them.

The single-greatest victory of Breath of the Wild is that it teaches us to seek our own answers. We've been so heavily conditioned by most major game series to look to familiar cues to figure out how to progress in a game—a game map littered with optional objectives, or a quest log stuffed to the brim with a bland checklist of stuff to knock out. Zelda borrows a couple of old conventions, but they're really just wayposts—cues to nudge you in the right direction. Finding the destination is entirely up to you; all the game wants to do is inspire your own creativity, ingenuity, and sense of adventure. 

Everything in this game comes together with such finesse and symmetry that it still boggles my mind as a designer. Even nearly a year into my time with this game, I can't look at this game as anything other than an unprecedented triumph of a major studio working at the peak of its capabilities. And if we're lucky, we'll see other studios carefully dissecting the lessons of Breath of the Wild for their next major franchise releases. 

Breath of the Wild doesn't only surpass every other open-world adventure to date—frankly, it also just might save the genre from itself.  — Nick Cummings

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