Benjamin Schwartz reviews three under-the-radar games from 2017 that you may have missed in the euphoria of titles like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.
The chaos and uncertainty of 2017 is finally behind us, leaving us only the chaos and uncertainty of 2018 to look forward to. Yet, before we each pursue our own methods of erasing the events of the previous year from our brains, I feel compelled to share with you a few of the best games of the last year that you probably didn’t know existed. Thus, without further ado, let us jump into some of the hidden gems of gaming in 2017.
Doki Doki Literature Club
I hesitate to include this on the list because of all the games here. This game is the most likely – were you to boot up Steam to check it out – to make you turn on your heel and say ‘NOPE, I’m good’. This is because Doki Doki Literature Club is from that generally mistrusted, and frankly terrifying genre: the anime visual novel.
Wait! Stop running away, I implore you. Believe me, I had the same reaction at first. Doki Doki isn’t just any visual novel, you see. Admittedly it seems so at first: the game follows your unnamed, faceless (and male) character’s experience as he joins a rather small, all-female school literature club, and is primarily focused on your interactions and relationships with the other members. However, the story or plot of the game is actually relatively unimportant; while interesting, it ultimately isn’t the real reason to play it. Far more important than where the game is going is how it chooses to get there.
It’s one of those games that’s willing to experiment with the medium and try new and interesting ideas. The game delights in messing with you in a variety of ways, and its ideas are executed well enough that it’s worth the circa four hours required to complete the game. As it progresses, and as all of the barely-concealed sexual tension threatens to boil over, the game begins to further push the boundaries of what you expect. The game does get a touch uncomfortable at times, perhaps even explicitly creepy, in part because of how often I felt like each scene was barely a panel away from drifting into full-on rule 34 territory (which it fortunately never does), but it’s always in service of the particular tone the game is trying to go for. That said, certain sections, particularly one that touches on mental health, may be a bit heavy for some people. If, however, you’re able to persevere, you’ll find a game well worth your time. To give away anything more would be to risk spoiling too much; suffice to say that it’s 100% free on Steam, so if you’re bored in the lead up to term, or just interested in something that finds new ways to use and twist the medium of games, check out Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s unlikely to be quite what you expect.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
When Hellblade swooped onto the scene, it garnered quite a lot of attention. Much of the discussion was concerned with its business model, pricing, and its unique position within the industry, seeming to exist outside of the current paradigm where every noteworthy release belongs to either the ‘indie’ or ‘triple-A’ camp. These were indeed aspects worth talking about; it was refreshing to see a game with such scope and production value not being shackled by the demands of industry publishers, who seem perennially risk-averse and determined to squeeze each customer for every penny, consequences be damned. But what I felt was more impressive was not just that Hellblade was based on under-utilised Norse and Celtic mythology, but that it was willing to dive head-first into something few games even attempt: a frank depiction of mental illness.
You see, in Hellblade, you play as Senua, a Pictish warrior who suffers from psychosis, as she undertakes a quest into Hel itself to rescue the soul of her dead lover. And Senua’s psychosis is no throw-away feature of her character; it’s front and centre of the entire experience. Playing this game in the dark with a pair of high quality headphones really demonstrates this, with voices that whisper and murmur incessantly, surrounding you and constantly berating you. Some help, some hinder, some are just… there.
Alongside the voices, Senua deals with delusions and illusions alike. Indeed, the game places a strong emphasis on perception as a mechanic, with illusions often being a feature of puzzles. Another recurring challenge combines perception with perspective, and involves finding the shapes of Nordic runes in the world itself. These can be occasionally frustrating, requiring you to wander around until you find the elements of the rune in the branches of a tree or the debris of a burnt house. However, such challenges serve the game quite well; it’s a beautiful game that brings to life a set of mythology and lore that we rarely get to truly explore in gaming, and having a mechanic based around wandering around drinking in the beauty around you feels well considered.
In terms of negatives, some aspects of the gameplay can at times feel less charming. Combat can feel clunky and confusing, camera movement is often awkward and slow, and character movement itself sometimes feel anything but smooth and precise. These issues even tragically compound others: unlockable dialogue can be walked away from, requiring you to stay still and consider how long it’ll take for Senua to amble to the next point of interest afterwards, and on those occasions when you just can’t quite find the last rune hiding in the world around you, it can be easy to grow frustrated.
Do not, however, let this criticism discourage you from trying it out: a case can even be made for some aspects of the occasionally awkward gameplay being intentional, with things like the close and slow camera perhaps being designed to disempower Senua and reflect her paranoia. Either way, none of it comes close to ruining the things you’d be playing the game for, namely the depiction of mental illness interwoven brilliantly with a beautiful and rarely seen setting. Give Hellblade a shot if anything I’ve said sounds interesting to you – it’s a good game and one worth supporting.
Night in the Woods
Finally, we come to Night in the Woods, which may be one of my favourite games from the last few years, and one that I found deeply impactful. The game follows Mae Borowski, a young college dropout who returns to her hometown to find that life has moved on without her, and follows her attempts to reconnect with her friends, her hometown and herself, all as she does everything in her power to avoid having to actually confront any of the change that surrounds her. Gameplay, such that it is, takes a variety of forms, shifting between basic platforming, exploring, and a variety of minigames. The real meat of the game, however, lies in talking to people and interacting with Mae’s friends. The game is phenomenally written, managing to make each character convincing and relatable, and each and every one feels fully realised in their own charming way. In fact, Night in the Woods positively oozes charm. The stylised art direction is instantly appealing, and as a result it’s an absolute joy to look at, from the way the characters look to the way they move to the wonderful detail in the world around them. This extends to the music too, which is fantastic almost across the board.
But for all that it’s pleasant to look at and listen to and is generally ‘fun’ to play, Night in the Woods is not a happy game. The game revolves around Mae and her relationships, and as the game progresses and as you grow attached to the characters, it becomes increasingly clear that each and every one is deeply conflicted in their own entirely believable way. Mental illness, poverty, and abuse are just some of the things tackled, directly and indirectly. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful: chances are, you already know some of the characters, and some of the issues they face. You’ll recognise them from your own life and relationships, and many of the situations Mae finds herself in feel uncomfortably accurately realised at times. The subject matter would be easy to mishandle, but the excellent writing allows everything to constantly feel real enough that the emotional blows really land.
Thematically, the idea of change is front and centre. The characters are largely defined by how they react to change and deal with it, and everything about the game comes back to this theme: a town that’s changed, a world that’s changing, characters who have changed and those who refuse to. Though the game does go in somewhat of an interesting and unexpected direction later on, everything still ties back into this theme, and as a result of way the game chooses to tackle its ideas, what you end up with is a curious twist on the coming-of-age trope.
We have hundreds of works of art that are about turning into an adult. The ‘coming-of-age’ story format is about as old as they get, and remains universally relatable and compelling. Night in the Woods weaves its themes of change into a story about growing up and becoming an adult, but presents this story in a unique way. It portrays growing up and the transition into adulthood not as some event, brought about by personal growth and active change like most such stories, but as an almost existentially terrifying fact of life that the characters must simply weather without breaking down. In the context of this story, adulthood becomes not a status one can obtain, but a state for which the transition to must be endured, and ultimately Night in the Woods is a story of people trying to hold on while doing just that. It’s powerful, emotionally resonant and touching, even if its themes don’t feel specifically relevant to you. Ultimately, Night in the Woods might be the best game I played all year, and you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
Yes, that means I think it’s better than both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Fight me.