29 December 2017

For a lot of people, 2017 was an especially bleak year. And I’m not just talking about active warzones: The country south of mine seems to be be actively attempting to murder its poorer citizens in a shocking display of arrogance and greed.

But this is mostly a gaming blog, which gives me the perfect excuse to skip over the fact that politics is the central concept that binds together every single thing in our lives. So, I’m going to only talk about my experiences related to video games this year. If you were expecting leftist drivel, stick to my Twitter feed.

Switching things around

I’ll have to commend Nintendo for not being scared of money this time around. If anything, 2017 was the year of the Switch. They really knocked it out by doing what I always said they should be doing: swallow their pride, open their bottomless catalogue of intellectual properties, and pump up game after game. And it worked: since the Switch came out, there’s been at least one new good first party or third party exclusive game every month, and the indies are rushing to the console. Really if you bought a Switch right now you’d have a lot of things to play, as long as you didn’t already play most of them on a PC.

But the main reason you would buy a Switch, of course, is for the big system sellers, which is why they’re called that. Nintendo put out two only six months apart, which is quite something: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Both of those are really good, but let’s expand on that a bit. I’ll start off with Mario because it’s more straightfoward.

Let’s do the odyssey

Back when the Switch was shipped, I told myself I wouldn’t buy it until a good Metroid game came out for it. I say “good” because after the atrocity that was Other M the name “Metroid” is no longer a seal of quality. And then they announced Metroid Prime 4, which feels weird to me: that trilogy was essentially self-contained so there’s no need for a follow-up and Retro Studios isn’t even involved in it. What is most likely is they use the name to emphasize that’s it’s not going to be another Other M, which is… encouraging?

But anyway, what ultimately broke me and made me buy the damn console was Super Mario Odyssey. Yes, I know, it was a moment of weakness, but my girlfriend is also enjoying Splatoon 2 as her first real competitive gaming experience so as a whole I’d say we’re getting a lot of value out of the thing. But Odyssey is… well, let’s not mince words, it’s a Game of the Year contender. I dislike using the word “fun” to describe games as it’s not really meaningful, but really I struggle to find a better term for the pure, simple, unadulterated bliss that coats nearly the entire game. Really, it’s a barrel of fun and kittens.

A lot of people have been quick to call the game a “return to form” for the franchise, since the open ended level designs is closer to Mario 64 and Sunshine than Galaxy, but to me it reminds me much more of Banjo-Kazooie. After all, there’s no mission select screen which leads you to a special variant of the level where you can only grab a subset of the collectibles. Instead you have the whole world to explore and you collect things at your own pace, and those things don’t kick you out of the world everytime you get your hands on one. Sure, you don’t unlock abilities over time, and there’s no hub world connecting everything together, but it’s still closer in both scope and structure to the Rare collectathons of the nineties than Mario 64.

In the end it’s a smooth ride most of the time. I especially like how Cappy serves as both a weapon, a tool, a hint factory and a character. In Super Mario Odyssey, you either jump, or you use your hat. And it all controls so well, when you die it’s nearly always through your own hubris. And when you do die it’s no big deal because, as a first for the series, you have infinite lives and the checkpoints are never far away. Captures work as power ups but they bring much more variety to the table, and since you can tank damage without losing a capture it makes the game much more forgiving. Also the game runs at a butter smooth 60 FPS on what is essentially a portable console, although the sacrifices they’ve done to make it happen are interesting to read about if you’re into that sort of thing.

And the collecting has never been so satisfying. I say that by comparing it to Banjo-Tooie, which I also played this year, on an N64 no less. I always considered it to be technically superior to its predecessor because of all the quality of life improvements, like infinite lives or the ability to keep your notes when you leave a level. And I say the game has aged surprisingly well, considering the platform it’s on. I was having a relative blast until my replacement thumbstick broke, which is when I stopped playing after amassing a whopping 72 jiggies. The sound design is strange, however: my roommate found the talon trot’s particularly grating, as are all the talking noises. The soundtrack is still kick ass, though.

While I’m on the topic of collectathons, I picked up and then completed, in the span of a single weekend, the little indie gem A Hat in Time. People have been comparing it to Banjo-Kazooie, which I understand because there’s upgrades, but the game is paced much more similarly to Mario 64, with each level being broken up in missions. Sometimes you can go off the rails and get a time piece from another mission than the one you’ve picked up, but most of the time you have to follow the tracks. And what I especially liked was how the game never felt repetitive, and how each individual act is its own unique thing. The writing is some of the funniest I’ve read in a while in a video game, and there’s so much charm and personality in everything that it’s hard not to play A Hat in Time with a big goofy smile. Also the platforming is top notch, so that always helps. If I had some complaints, it’s that it’s probably too short, but that’s the reality of indie game development for you: you can’t have so much specially crafted content without spending several millions of dollars on it, so yeah, I understand what’s going on. Still, give it a go, it’s great.

Taking a breather

Okay, so, let’s talk about the other big Switch game: Breath of the Wild… which I actually played on a Wii U because when it came out I did feel like buying a Switch. And it’s probably the new game I spent the most time playing this year. At more than a hundred hours sunk into it, I can at least say I enjoyed the experience, and yet, there’s something nagging at the back of my mind. Like the first two thirds of the game was pretty much a 10/10, and then the remaining time was a somewhat linear decline. In the end it’s still a great title, one of the best in 2017, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that something is missing. Actually I know what it is, but it’s gonna require some context first.

You see, when it comes to video games, I value content over systems. I mostly appreciate games as a storytelling medium and I especially like when I see a story told in a way that cannot be told in a different medium. I don’t mean I always need a written plot: stories can also naturally emerge through player actions. But the systems that allow me to interact with the world don’t really grab my attention that much. That is not to say I can’t get into a deep set of mechanics, but when I do play competitive games it’s mostly just as an excuse for social interaction with friends. That, or because the sunk cost fallacy means I can’t stop playing League of Legends.

In, say, Metal Gear Rising, I ended up memorizing the one or two combos that could get me to brute force through most fights, just so I could get to the plot. I don’t play JRPGs anymore because they have way too many systems. A usual game of Civilization V for me starts getting boring once I get to the mid-to-late game because the sense of discovery is gone and now it’s just min maxing. In other words, I play games as long as they let me either experience or build stories. Or, to say it yet another way, the purest a game is, the less I enjoy it.

Open world games are problematic for me because a lot of them are pretty much just sand boxes. My favorite open world games are games like The Witcher 3 or Fallout: New Vegas, where the world is a space where dozens of little stories occur, and I really enjoy just moving from plot to plot, meeting people and discovering new areas. In short, how much time I can spend in such games is directly tied to the amount of quests I can complete in them, because once that’s done there isn’t much left to do. Oh, and also the world itself is important: Skyrim might have a huge map, but most of it repeats itself over and over again. Dungeons are especially egregious cases of copy-and-pate design. Same goes for Fallout 3, which is why I can never get into Bethesda open worlds because they cut corners to compensate for their shitty tech pipelines and design principles.

Back to the Breath of the Wild. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite open world game or my favorite Zelda game: The Witcher 3 and Majora’s Mask hold those respective titles. But it’s still a damn fine game because that sense of discovery, of constantly finding new things to experience, stays for a very long time. That’s mostly due to attention to detail, and also to brutal Japanese work ethic that surely cannot be good for anyone’s mental health. The bottom line is that BotW is packed so full of stuff, that it takes a while before you start to see the edges of the sand box. And especially important is its approach to world design: the game never holds your hand and tells you where to go. There’s no dotted line, no dot on the map. You have to explore, talk to people, find landmarks, unchart the territory by yourself. In a sense, it makes it the opposite of Ubisoft Montreal style open worlds, which are games in which the world itself is just an overly complicated level select screen. In BotW, the world is a living breathing thing.

And ultimately the main reason why Breath of the Wild is not my GOTY is that it didn’t stay with me for long once I’ve stopped playing it. But that isn’t exactly fair for it because I still had an absolute blast most of the time. I’d recommend it to you but if you have a Wii U or a Switch you probably already have this game and if you don’t have a Switch then I’m not sure I can ever recommend buying a console just for one game. But otherwise, if you already have the hardware, it’s a must buy. And I hope a lot of executives blindly absorb its central idea that sometimes, letting the player figure it out themselves is the way to go.

Winner: a tomato

If you follow me on Twitter or know me personally you already know what my game of the year is: it’s NieR: Automata, of course. And the reason for it is simple: it’s quite unlike anything I have ever played.

Let me clear up some simple things first. Mechanically, it’s a mix between a hack-and-slash and a bullet hell shoot ‘em up. Essentially, you control two entities at the same time: your character, and a support drone. The character hits things with swords and the drone fires with a machine gun. And they really are used at the same time, seamlessly together. Enemies’ ranged attacks are slow purple balls of death that your drone fire can destroy, so you end up always firing while slashing other things and holy hell it flows so well it’s honestly the best action gameplay I have ever come across.

But even though it feels nice to play, it’s not why I think it’s a GOTY. It’s because of what the game has to say, and more importantly, how it says it. In the far future, humanity is fighting a stalemate war against alien “machine lifeforms”, using androids as proxy. You play as 2B, a combat model which is assigned for support 9S, a “scanner” model designed for reconnaissance and cyber warfare. During a routine mission, they eventually uncover a piece of the truth which throws into doubt everything they believe. Or so they think.

The game has 26 endings, 21 of which are humorous nonstandard game overs, and the remaining five are the “real” endings. But calling them endings is a bit misleading because the game does not really “end” until ending E. Instead the game is split in three main “routes”: the first one is your first playthrough, at the end of which you will see ending A. Reload your file after that and you get the second route, which covers the same events as route A, but from a different perspective. The final route occurs chronologically after endings A and B. Whether you see ending C or D depend on one final choice you do at the end of that route, although you can use the chapter select function to reload your save file and try the other option without having to replay it all. And then you get ending E after seeing both C and D.

You might find that tedious, but honestly it’s a genius move! The world and plot is chock full of details, but they’re not thrown at you in one go, so you don’t choke on them. You are drip fed information over time, and every new bit recontextualises what you thought previously. And then, when you’re ready to move on, everything feels more meaningful because you’ve seen it from multiple sides. Speaking of meaning, NieR: Automata does not fuck around. Like, at all. It’s really a tragic story in multiple ways. It’s about loss, duty, love, and the futility of existence. And like Undertale, it uses its game mechanics to reinforce the themes that are presented. It looks great, sounds great, plays great, but most importantly feels great. Really, I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’m gonna have to say: trust me, play this. There isn’t anything like it. It’s far from perfect, but the sheer bravado with which it approaches everything makes it impossible to ignore.

So here’s to 2017. What a fucked up year.

Stay safe, and see you in 2018. I can’t promise any kind of schedule, but I’ll probably write about the upcoming Montreal DemoNight, in January.