Dreadfully Distinct: A Year-End Review (Part 1)

To say that 2017 sucked is an Internet truism. Of course, 2017 sucked, just as 2016 sucked before and 2018 will suck after. Still, it’s worth considering that 2017 especially sucked, that it was the Empire Strikes Back of recent history. After all, we’re really starting to see the devastating effect of that warmer ocean waters climate change canary Al Gore warned us about in 2006. Donald Trump is in office, which means a man who bragged on open mike about sexually assaulting women has been canonized as an automaton in Disney’s Hall of Presidents, to say nothing of his galvanizing effect on America’s already unstable racists, xenophobes, and misogynists. Man, fuck him. If you’re worried about nuclear weapons, the future’s never looked brighter for their use. That is, of course, if you don’t perish in your pick of frequently available mass killings in the United States.

If I’m thankful for anything beyond good people who put up with me, it’s that human beings stronger than me are mounting serious resistance to the above threats in the form of activism, writing, and art. The year started with folks crowding airports, forcing federal courts to weigh in on Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban. There is so much righteousness in women shattering the silence about sexual assault and harassment at all levels of life, but it’s fucking repugnant that it’s taken this long for it to become a “story.” Here in Gainesville, just a couple weeks after Hurricane Irma leveled trees and caused devastation throughout the state, our community gathered to show five or six Nazi-sympathizers they weren’t welcome here. For fuck’s sake, men, let’s not any of this go the way of a typical news cycle.

People as strong as me are doing what they can (I hope), taking their antianxiety medication, and boosting these voices. That is the very least I can do (too little, which is my main regret this year). That’s the purpose of this first blog salvo leading into 2018, to talk about the things that affected me (and hopefully others) positively this year.

Before I begin, here is the best resistance I’ve mounted all year:

Games

I’ll start with games. In many respects, I feel most comfortable providing some semblance of commentary on games that came out this year. I owe this to the fact that I barely read or wrote in 2017, which is a travesty considering the humbling amount of good writing available to me. I did, however, play the fuck out of some video games. Here were some of my favorites, in no particular order. Some tonal transparency here—I would like to provide commentary as if my audience has little to no experience with video games.

Night in the Woods

When I said I didn’t read, I guess I wasn’t considering the amount of reading I did in narrative-focused games like Night in the Woods. While not quite a “walking simulator,” Night in the Woods eschews traditional gameplay mechanics in favor of interactive storytelling. There are some quaint minigames to be found (like the Guitar Hero-lite bass playing sequences and timing-based lightbulb smashing), but the focus is on college dropout Mae and her subsequent ennui as she tries to make sense of returning home to her rustbelt home of Possum Springs.

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Doing crimes with Gregg

I grew up in a town like Possum Springs in Northwest Indiana (a former powerhouse of U.S. steel production), and many of my first attempts at writing barely captured a third of what Night in the Woods presents in a single playthrough. Mae and her friends find themselves in the midst of an existential, financial, and mental crisis on both massive (increasingly disturbed sleep and visual hallucinations) and molecular scale (waiting up for your buddy as you walk because he has asthma or listening to an acquaintance’s corny poems). It was this attention to daily living that kept me invested, forcing Mae to wake up abruptly (mid-afternoon most days) to experience what little more of the day I had left—I’m not sure I’ve experienced a better mechanical metaphor for depression in a game.

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It isn’t all dread—Night in the Woods is a beautiful, romantic game, creating poignant scenes from a deceptively limited palette. If someone were to ask me for my game of the year, I would pick Night in the Woods just to seem cool, and I feel like Mae and her friends would understand.

Sonic Mania

Sonic Mania is as good of an argument for the hybrid studio/auteur theory as you’ll find in video games. Whereas Disney has made a habit of wrangling young “indie” directors and giving them multimillion-dollar franchises, market testing every single creative decision before it’s committed to film, Sega gave its most lucrative brand to a Sonic fan named Christian Whitehead and his team of programmers. The result is the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made. Period. Whitehead’s team clearly interrogated every mechanic in Sonic’s 25-year history and dispensed with the bullshit. Every minute of every level is packed with surprise and, for the first time, Sonic’s speed feels vital. Couple that with the fact that every song sounds like it was written by Bell Biv Devoe trapped in a room with a MIDI sequencer, and you’ve yourself one hell of a game.

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Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus was probably the most cathartic big-budget game to come out this year. Somehow a series that has been more than 25 years about killing Nazis drew the ire of 2017’s white nationalists and their sympathizers. I am typically wary of brand participation in the political arena (the Papa Johns v. Pizza Hut Franchise Wars on Twitter were a cringe-worthy spectacle), but I have to say something was refreshing about Bethesda’s doubling down on the core message of their Wolfenstein reboots: Nazis are not fucking welcome. It would have been easier and perhaps safer for the publisher to hide behind the alternate history of the game’s narrative and reassert that these were World War II-era Nazis you’re killing. Instead, we have this beautiful mess of a game that is trying to say something about the political zeitgeist, but it all comes off a bit like someone stumbling up to you drunk at a party, prefacing everything they say with “real talk.”

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It’s commendable that a pregnant woman affiliated with the Black Panthers (Grace Walker) assumes leadership of your Nazi-killing comrades, but I guess B.J. still had to be front and center for most of the game’s advertisements? It’s not lost on anyone that your family (they really are a family) of Nazi slayers is a relatively well-characterized microcosm of the type people Hitler wanted to erase from the earth, so why can’t we spend more time with them, building on those relationships? It kills me that there is A FUCKING BIRTHDAY PARTY ON A STOLEN NAZI U-BOAT, but how am I supposed to reconcile this campy tone with the bleak portrayal of Nazi ghettos in this alternate history’s New Orleans? Wolfenstein 2 ultimately begs more questions about its ethos than it answers, but it certainly seems more well-meaning than the upcoming Far Cry 5.

 

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B.J.’s birthday party

 

Mario Odyssey & The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

So much has been said about these games in an effort pit them against each other in the Game of the Year conversation, but they belong together. Their design languages share so much in common: the abandonment of linearity, emergent narrative, and the encouragement of experimentation and play. When I play these games, I can’t help but imagine the Zelda and Mario teams at Nintendo HQ sharing ideas over lunch. Somewhere nearby a poster asks, “Is it fun?”

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I’ll admit I initially feared Breath of the Wild would present a beautiful, but ultimately tiring world to explore. Open-world gaming in recent years has felt bloated, full of arcane crafting schemas and point A to point B objectives. Sure, Skyrim took you to a mountain pass, but what did you do when you got there?

When you consider that Breath of the Wild tried to answer that question for every square inch of its world map, the result is staggering. The game’s toolset is uniquely positioned to provide seemingly limitless ways to approach an objective. Two players can talk about the same section of the map in entirely different terms.

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Just months later, Mario Odyssey refines the ideas Breath of the Wild piloted. Embracing the openish-world gameplay of Mario 64 while giving Mario a Kafkaesque possession ability that practically ensures no two players’ experiences are exactly the same. Mario’s movement kit has long been the gold standard for platforming games, slowly and meticulously refined over 36 years. In Mario Odyssey, Nintendo explodes the ability set of its most valuable humanoid (I’m certainly not going to call him a person after this game). They’ve done this, however, while remaining relatively confident that no objective is rendered impossible (save for those fucking footraces).

In many ways, the real story of Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild is that Nintendo took its sweet time, even while pressured by the demands of a previous market failure, and created two of the best video games of all time in the same year. They did this by doubling down on player freedom and redefining the rules of large-scale, open-world play. In a year where other large studios are trying to figure out the sweet spot in their loot box pricing or releasing bug-riddled early access games, Nintendo has demonstrated that experimentation and polish are not necessarily at odds.

 

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