In 2017 I managed to fit in a decent amount of games, films and TV shows. This year I haven’t had much time for films or TV. A whirlwind summer prepping for and getting married saw my time limited. I have caught a few like Netflix’s third season of Daredevil and Avengers Infinity War. Neither of them really had an impressive impact on me as much as many of the video games I’ve played. More often than not (after the wedding) my wife would want to watch something on ITV player that I wasn’t interested in. As luck would have it the app isn’t available on the PS4. Several evenings a week became both of us doing our own thing, in the same room with some light discussion in between on what we were enjoying. I’ve found myself then with more time to game. I have the ability to do it in the comfort of my lounge on the PS4, on my phone and on the PC via my steam link.
My top three this year, for the purposes of what follows, are all video games. To mix it up I want to talk about a range of games that have had the most impact on me this year. Conveniently these three games have been a major AAA title, a widely available indie and a mobile game. These three games feature in my top 5 for this year but that lists fluctuates dependent on the mood I’m in, except for one.
Red Dead Redemption 2
OK, we’ll start with the big boy (and best boy Arthur Morgan) and the game that is firmly my favourite this year. RDR2 has divided people almost as much as Brexit, just with less racism. I’m not sure it’s as clear cut as loving or hating it. A lot of people just seem indifferent but it’s certainly created a lot of conversation around it. There’s a lot to unpack from this game and as I’m just here to tell you why I love it I’ll breeze over some of the issues and concentrate on what I love. For me RDR2 hit the spots I wanted it to and made me appreciate a pace of game I didn’t know I needed. Everything feels deliberate and well crafted. The narrative and missions start slow and whilst I thought it would ramp up I realised it wasn’t really going to when expected. This slow nature allowed me to appreciate what it had to offer. I found myself just wandering the world taking it in. Often this was whilst hunting or meeting strangers. Stranger missions are one of the best things in RDR2. They felt natural and took me in some interesting places, to locations I wouldn’t necessarily have discovered. That’s another thing I love about this game, the unexpected and the unplanned.
After the pace of recently played games like Doom, Spider-Man and Mafia 3 the slower nature of RDR2 was ideal for me as the evenings darkened. I could take everything in and I never felt pushed to rush through. A lot of games have a sense of urgency to them but then allow you to just saunter around. I felt RDR2 contained its urgency to certain sections of the game and specific missions. When the world is open to explore I didn’t have the feeling I should be doing something else. Some of this is due to the writing which I found compelling throughout. Arthur, Dutch and Sadie are standout characters but many of the Van Der Linde gang are believable in their motivations. They’re also exceptionally well acted. Whilst others have criticised the bad boy realises he could be better arc I found the tone of the game and the story to compliment each other. The combination of writing, voice acting and overall tone endeared me to Arthur to the point that I cried when roaming the world after finishing the game. I wont spoil anything but it does bring about a sense of reflection I haven’t experienced from an entertainment product for a while.
Celeste does so much more than most 2D platformers. In fact it is one of the best platformers I’ve ever played. It’s got tight controls, an engaging story and a wonderful visual style. It’s an experience that eases you in and builds on its difficulty, not through mastering new abilities but through environmental changes as you progress.
Madeline’s journey up Mount Celeste started as a very artistic, brilliantly soundtracked experience. I was instantly hit by how responsive the controls were and the simplicity of the basic platforming. The limited move set, jump and dash, allowed me to complete each room in a certain way and, I think, it’s best seen as a platforming puzzle rather than a multipath platformer. The rooms also hide secrets, Strawberries you can collect, or hidden rooms with cassette tapes. These are much harder to obtain than just getting to the next room. The challenge presented is optional and whilst I felt frustrated at this extra level of difficulty I knew it was my issue and not the game. I knew what to do, it was just a case of timing (I’m getting old).
The story touches on issues around self worth, anxiety, depression and the ability to overcome. The mountain itself a physical depiction of Madeline’s experiences through her journey. Her feelings are well realised throughout and the entire tone of the game and its construction make her story central. As this story unfolded so too did the environmental differences in each level. One level would introduce wind. Another, clouds which let you bounce to jump higher. Each level eases you in to the new situation then ramps up the challenge. The final ascent is some fantastic platforming. Whilst the game is challenging it is balanced really well including excellent checkpoint placement. I never felt unduly punished for a mistake or failure by being put back a long way; which is a big part of what makes the experience enjoyable rather than frustrating.
I’d happily have Celeste removed from my memory so I can experience it again. Not many games make me feel that way. Celeste is one. Florence is another.
Florence is a sweet tale of a young woman’s life and her first love. It’s a heartfelt story which drew me in instantly. Florence, going through the motions of getting up and heading to work seems to need something more. She meets a young man, Krish, and you experience how their relationship unfolds. Its a fantastic take on an interactive story as you move it along using some basic but well used touch screen inputs.
The story and the feeling you get from it are the things to take away from Florence. The controls, however, are the thing I’m perhaps most impressed with. The simplicity of tapping musical notes to move closer to the origin of the sound or piecing together conversation bubbles to depict the flow of that conversation are used wonderfully. I was drawn in and felt invested in two beautifully drawn characters who say nothing. The controls are intuitive and I never felt they were overused. The game is a great length for both the amount of different control schemes used and for the story. This is the best mobile game I’ve ever played and it fits the platform perfectly.
The final things to touch on are the art style and music. Both are used excellently to support and enhance the story. A tonal shift can help to convey a level of sadness or anger a musical refrain to lighten the mood. It’s such a well put together experience and one that will stay with me for years.
These three games were among many that I loved this year. We’ve had wonderful games in a huge variety of genres that are all unique and interesting in their own way. I’ll finish here by listing my top ten as I think about them now starting with number 1; Red Dead Redemption 2, Celeste, Florence, God of War, Mutant Year Zero, Spider-Man, Return of the Obra Dinn, Moonlighter, Minit and finally Behind Every Great One.