My Favorite Games of 2017

It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2017 was among the best in history for video game releases. Hell, if it weren’t for Chrono Trigger and EarthBound both releasing in 1995, this year might have been the (personal) best year in my nearly thirty years of gaming. I love revisiting the memories I’ve had with games at the end of each year, but this year was particularly fun. Here are my Favorite Fifteen™ of this year.

15. Cosmic Star Heroine

This was another game ‘in the vein of Chrono Trigger’ that ended up not being very much like Chrono Trigger, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t deep, exactly, but it was easy to get into and had some fun characters and cute dialogue. I wouldn’t mind a steady flow of these kinds of simple, short, low-priced RPGs.

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14. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I don’t normally care for mobile games, but come on: it’s freaking Animal Crossing. While I would have loved for a more fully featured AC game, I still spend at least an hour playing this game every single day. Plus, its lack of depth gives me hope that Nintendo is still planning on a heftier game for the Switch. But as it is, it’s still got some of that classic Animal Crossing magic. Now, instead of decorating my basement to look like a creepy murder-hole, I do it with my camper. See? Magic.

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13. Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Star Trek: Bridge Crew is like a slice of my dream Star Trek game, which would be a BioWare-esque RPG where you actually go through your last year at Starfleet Academy, graduate, get your first starship and then begin your journey through the stars. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that game, because it seems like licensing costs prevent publishers from having the will to throw enough money at a studio to do the series justice, but this game is an exciting enough sliver. Giving commands from the captain’s chair is exciting, but when you’re in a really tight spot and you jump to the engineer’s station to reroute power, then shove the helmsman aside to jump to warp, and end up back in the captain’s chair to drop shields and go stealth? Pretty awesome.

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12. Star Wars Battlefront II

I was a little upset by how the whole microtransaction debacle prevented reviewers from judging this game from an objective critical distance, but after playing it for a while I could see why they couldn’t. It’s not the money part of it that was constantly nagging at me, distracting me from the game, it was the progression system. I’m still playing it, and it’s still hard to be excited about unlocking things because I know it’s going to take forever and I’ll probably stop playing before I get all of the things that I want. That aside, I can’t deny that I love playing the game – it’s hard not to, being such a big Star Wars fan and being able to fly Darth Maul’s Scimitar over a Separatist battleship, hop around Tattooine as a jumptrooper, or just stand around and exist as Rey. The gameplay is frantic and fun, and I smile almost every single time I’m playing as a droid and I drop a turret, only to hear my character say “good luck, turret!”

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11. Mass Effect Andromeda

While this wasn’t the leap ahead for the series that I was hoping, it was more Mass Effect, which I will probably never complain about. Jumping from planet to planet, navigating relationships with smugglers, traders, and pirates, and (most importantly) wooing a certain spunky, blue teammate, made this adventure worthwhile. I’d have loved for a better villain and more engrossing plot, but I sincerely hope that BioWare doesn’t completely abandon the series. I mean, unless they go back to single-player Knights of the Old Republic games. A fair trade, I’d say.

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10. Everybody’s Golf

More like Everybody’s Gold, am I right? Eh? Eh? No one? Anyway, I was totally shocked by how much I liked this game. I seem to go through phases with sports games, where I buy a new game in each genre every three or four years and get really into it, so I was about due. For me, golf games have to feel right. If the wind doesn’t affect the ball in a realistic way, or my ball bounces oddly, or slopes don’t change the trajectory of the roll like they should, the game just feels wrong. Everybody’s Golf feels very right, though, and I found myself spending a lot of my dwindling mid-semester free time playing hole after hole, hoping to unlock more courses to play with my friend. Good times were had by all.

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9. What Remains of Edith Finch

Between this and Gone Home, I’m starting to think I just have a thing for walking around big, empty houses and looking through people’s drawers. But what drew me into Gone Home, in part, was the relative mundanity of the house. It was so normal that I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like a family had really lived there. In What Remains of Edith Finch I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like Tim Burton’s grandmother had once married Dr. Seuss’s grandfather and this is where that family lived. These games are all about detail, about how every bookshelf and stray magazine subtly contributes to the narrative, and this game in particular had so much color and quirk in its nooks and crannies. The overt nod to classic Tales from the Crypt comics also made me way more excited than it should have.

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8. Assassin’s Creed Origins

I don’t know that any game, Assassin’s Creed or otherwise, will give me the same kind of wave-breaking, swash-buckling, booty-plundering thrill that Black Flag did, but Origins was its own kind of special. Yes, the pyramids and deserts and landscapes were beautiful, and the combat was (eventually) satisfying. But what this game did better than any other in the series (that I’ve played) was make its characters seem human and make me care about them. I found myself so impressed by how Bayek changed his demeanor and tone depending on who he was talking to that I plan on writing more on it at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it made him so much more believable and memorable than any other lead character in the series (sorry, Evie, love). That made every mission and story beat that much more meaningful and worthwhile, and I hope they carry that lesson into future games.

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7. Emily is Away Too

Man. Emily is Away Too made me feel more feels in a shorter span than probably any game on this list. I spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in my late teens, and a fair proportion of that time was spent flirting (very badly) with girls and wondering if they were flirting back. So this game was not only nostalgic in its interface, but it also did such a good job of capturing the kind of hesitant excitement that came with every winky emote or exchange of favorite bands. Where the first game, Emily is Away, took that and added a cruel twist, this game allows you to actually experience the joy of genuine connection, despite it being completely artificial. And I really loved that.

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6. Injustice 2

I played a lot of fighting games this year, but almost every single one disappointed me on some level. Injustice 2 was easily the exception, blowing away even its predecessor in depth, beauty, and fun. Every character was fun to play in this game, and for the first time in years I found myself looking forward to playing through each of their individual story/arcade modes. The main story mode was just as bizarre but immersive as the first game, but the cinematics were just gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeousness, the character models are stunning in this game, and I couldn’t stop taking screenshots of some of the many awesome characters, like Poison Ivy, Supergirl, and Scarecrow. I played many hours of this game and I still want to go back and play it as I write this. My only wish is that the next Injustice game brings DC’s Blackest Night storyline to the video game world. Zombie Batman versus Star Sapphire Wonder Woman? Yes. Please.

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5. Stardew Valley

“You have to play Stardew Valley,” my friend Tabitha said. Again. And again. For months. I’d put it off long enough, so its release on the Nintendo Switch (which is one reason I’m including it on this list, the other being that it was new to me in 2017) meant that I had run out of excuses. I downloaded it, and after a few hours of playing I thought “well, I guess it’s okay. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, though.” The fuss, Joey-from-a-few-months-ago, is what happens after those first few hours. Stardew Valley is not about the big moments, it’s not about a steady rise and fall of action and drama. It’s a slow, deliberate trek through a subtly touching and immersive town of weird, funny people who are both normal and completely odd. I spent over 170 hours playing Stardew Valley, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

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4. Resident Evil 7

As a Resident Evil fan from the very beginning, I’ve seen the series lose something about what made those first few games on the PlayStation special. I enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and 5, but both were a far cry from the cramped, claustrophobic mansion in the first Resident Evil or the empty and eerily quiet police station of its sequel. Resident Evil 7 captured that atmosphere again, and the fact that it did so in virtual reality is amazing. I wasn’t able to get past the nausea I experienced after the first twenty minutes or so (I didn’t try hard enough, honestly), so I didn’t get to experience it fully, but even without it I felt some of the same intimate terror that the early games evoked. I mentioned my odd penchant for big, old houses earlier, and the designers of this mansion did such a great job of giving each room its own unique brand of gross creepiness. Keeping the player in one general area makes developers put so much more care in the design of that space, and it almost always shows, as it does here. I know the game didn’t do as well financially as some had expected, but I hope that doesn’t dissuade Capcom from making future Resident Evil games in this same gloriously horrific vein.

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3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Simple yet elegant is how I might sum up Breath of the Wild. One of the things I pay attention to in open world games is how dense and varied the topography and foliage is, and at first glance this game might seem to be lacking in that department. But after you start travelling the plains, gliding from mountains, scurrying along cliffs, you begin to see how smoothly everything flows together. That tree is there for a reason. That cluster of rocks is not there by chance. That half-buried statue means something. This Hyrule is not thick with action and activity. It is empty. Lonely. But it has so much life.

Add that to the simple but versatile combat, the beautiful art style, and the low-demand high-reward narrative, and Breath of the Wild ended up being my favorite Zelda game of all time.

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2. Horizon Zero Dawn

Like other games on this list, Horizon Zero Dawn surprised me by how good it was. When Sony used the game as their showpiece for E3 2016, I thought “huh. It looks okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t get why cavepeople are fighting robot dinosaurs, and that seems like a bit of a gimmick, but it looks pretty, I suppose.” Once again, Joey-from-the-past, you were wrong. Breath of the Wild’s open world was indeed beautiful and visually poetic, but Horizon’s world was also gorgeous and extravagantly rich with not only life, but hidden relics of a forgotten world. I love both worlds, but I found myself pausing and just looking a lot more often in this game. I probably spent at least a few hours in photo mode, and that’s no exaggeration. Every moonbeam breaking through lush bushes, glowing machine eye bearing down on me, haze of fog hanging over a thick forest, had me captivated.

It wasn’t just the visuals of this game that won my heart, though. The characters, Aloy especially, were nuanced and subtle, believable and human. The voice acting was top-notch, the sci-fi storytelling was superb, the pacing managed to feel brisk despite being an open world game, and holy hell was the combat satisfying. When I began the game I felt intimidated by how deadly the machines seemed, especially the larger ones, but once I got a handle on dodging and aiming, I began to crave the challenge of a particularly ferocious robo-dino (or dino-robo?). I couldn’t survive by blindly button-mashing or hacking-and-slashing like in some other action RPGs, I had to think about my surroundings, my enemies’ weakness, the tools I had on hand, and the best weapon for the job. It was a deep but not impenetrable combat system, and it’s a big part of why the game became progressively more enjoyable as I ventured into new areas filled with ever-deadly machines. But I’ve said enough, I think. I loved this game. A lot.

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1. Persona 5

Speaking of loving a game a lot, though, hot freaking damn did I love Persona 5. I wrote a whole blog about it not long ago, so I’ll try and keep this short, but this is the kind of game that only comes along once in a great while for me. A game that I think about at random points every few days, without even realizing I’m doing it. I spent something like 360 hours playing it to completion almost three times and yet I sometimes find myself wanting to start it up again. If Atlus releases the screenshot restriction on PS4, in fact, I will almost certainly play it again this coming summer. I love the art style, the fast-paced combat, the characters, the humor, the world… I’m rambling. I probably can’t say it better than I already have in my previous blog, but this game is truly special to me. It’s objectively an incredible game, but subjectively it scratched some internal itch for me that makes it one of my favorite games of all time. I’m a broken record, I know. But I really do love it to death.

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There are two games that don’t qualify for me, because even though Mario Kart 8 DX is new to the Switch, it’s not new to me, and while Final Fantasy XV is new to me, it’s not new to any platform that I played it on (and it was released in 2016). But I mention them because I played a whole lot of both of them in 2017, making it an even more magical year for me as far as video games go.

And I still haven’t played everything 2017 had to offer, unfortunately. I need to finish Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I bought but haven’t gotten around to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and South Park: The Fractured but Whole, and I really want to check out Doki Doki Literature Club! 2017, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take part in it.

Just What I Needed: A Grand Start for Games in 2017

Wow, what is happening with 2017? I don’t remember a year as busy with big, great games before E3 even hit. Developers usually save their big hitters for the holiday season (or rush them out the door for the same season), and sometimes there’s the odd game or two that couldn’t quite make the holiday window and is pushed back to spring. But with games like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this year just seems… different. It’s like 2016 was so unbelievably shitty that some ethereal force that controls video game releases has blessed us with a year of bliss to make up for it. I can (and probably will) write some pretty extensive entries about each of the games I’ve played so far, but I am currently juggling lots of work and class stuff, so I just wanted to give some brief but semi-coherent thoughts about each. It’s been a great year – for games – so far.

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Resident Evil 7

Like many fans of the Resident Evil series, I’ve been  increasingly disappointed by the recent RE games, most notably the sixth installment. I didn’t dislike RE 5, like many people, though I will agree that I missed the creepy atmosphere that the best games in the series had once mastered. But RE 6 was bad, and Resident Evil: Revelations couldn’t wash the bitter taste from my mouth, as good as it was.

As many have said, RE7 is a wonderfully dark return to the earlier games’ quiet, grim, claustrophobic atmosphere. I kind of wonder if the choice to use just one or two locations (the mansion and lab of the first game, the police station and sewers of the second game) had something to do with being conservative with design elements and saving on memory. Either way, when developers know the player is going to spend a lot of time in one place, it forces them to design that place very carefully and results in an added sense of detail and realism, I think. It makes the space more memorable, if anything, especially if it’s designed creatively. That’s how I felt about the house in RE 7. Every room told its own story about the family that once used it. Every maggot and newspaper scrap and rusted knob made me feel like this house has been lived in, so even when I wasn’t being chased by a walking oil-slick, I was unnerved and made anxious by my surroundings. I loved it. The PlayStation VR headset did make me feel nauseous after about fifteen minutes, so I stopped using it because I didn’t want it to affect my experience with the game. I’ve since read confirmations that ‘getting your VR legs,’ like sea legs, is a real thing, so I plan on trying to condition myself to play VR games that involve lots of movement soon and maybe replaying the game again this summer.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn was a truly wonderful surprise, and I want to write about in great detail at some point. When I saw the trailer at Sony’s 2016 E3 presentation, I thought it looked kind of cool, but I was hesitant to be very excited about it. When the tag line for a game involves mashing two disparate genres or periods together, I generally cringe. I’ve seen too many movies and played too many games that meld styles or genres just for the novelty of doing so. So I don’t feel too bad about being cautious about a game that might be described as ‘cave people fighting robot dinosaurs.’

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But holy shit. However justified, my caution was ultimately unnecessary. Horizon is a beautiful game that is fun to play and satisfying to experience in terms of the narrative. Aloy is a wonderful character, the machines are superbly designed and animated, the world is lush and vibrant and feels natural, and the diversity of the supporting cast is inspiring. There were so many moments that made me feel powerful or capable, and I couldn’t help pausing frequently to take tons of screenshots – with the great built-in photo mode – of the sun cutting like blades through a dense tree line, or rain dappling a pond around me, or a hulking, screeching robo-tyrannosaur stomping through the grass next to where I’m hiding. I’ll include a few here, but I have a ton more that I might post at some point.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda has gotten tons of hate after its release, and much of it, in my opinion, is unfounded or overblown. I will say that it has its problems, especially in the first few hours or so. One complaint that I concede to is the fact that the game does little to inspire you in the first few hours. It kind of assumes that you’ll be excited about a journey to a new galaxy and the ability to explore a small part of it, but if you’re not, you’re out of luck. I wish they’d had an intro movie that showed the preparation that went on in the Milky Way before departure, the excitement and anxiety that was building, the haunting spirit of adventure into the unknown that would certainly have pervaded the shipyards and space stations. And then, after a celebratory launch… darkness and silence. Let it linger. Fade some stars in, but hold that darkness close so that the audience begins to feel the same loneliness and isolation of six hundred years sleeping in the absolute stillness of intergalactic space. Then blast us awake with an unrelenting siren. Create that sense of chaos and frantic confusion that you want us to feel after waking up and finding not hope and adventure, but fear and futility. Everything is falling apart. The ship is damaged. The crew is either still sleeping or bewildered. All of that hope and intrepidness is cracking under the weight of panic, and the lives of countless people across several species is at stake… and you have to fix it. That would have been a better way to start the game, I think, especially for players who aren’t automatically excited by being a starship captain in unknown space.

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I was one of those nerds who was excited and invested just by the premise, so it didn’t take me too long to find myself hooked, but I had some other issues with the first handful of hours. I had graphical issues, like facial clipping on almost every alien character model – eyes poking through eyelids, lips clipping through lips. Textures on characters, especially their suits, and ship walls and floors were muddy and had jagged lines, to the point where they looked worse than last-gen Mass Effect games. Oddly enough, even without a patch, this issue seems to have mostly cleared up for me. I’m around 45 hours in and characters and environments look a lot better. I don’t see any facial clipping and textures look a lot more crisp and clear. I wonder if it had something to do with how the game was loading its artifacts during the first playthrough.

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I realize that at this point I sound like so many of the game’s detractors, but it’s partially because these issues seem mostly present in the first stretch of the game, and partially because I expected better of BioWare. In general, I very much like the game. I wish I’d had the ability to create a better looking Joey Ryder (why can’t I have an actual beard, like in Dragon Age: Inquisition?), but I’m definitely invested in my character and am forming strong attachments to my team. I haven’t fallen for someone as hard as I did for Morrigan of Dragon Age or Bastila of Knights of the Old Republic, but I’m having fun being flirty with Peebee. She’s smart and cute and spunky, so I imagine she’ll end up being my main squeeze. I’ll have more to say when I’ve played more, but I’m enjoying it a lot and foresee at least a few dozen more hours of planetary hopping about.

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For as much hate as Mass Effect: Andromeda has gotten, I’m surprised at how little hate 1-2 Switch has gotten. Well, I don’t know if it deserves hate, exactly, but it deserves some criticism for its lack of depth and hefty price tag, I think. When it was first announced I was convinced it would be packed in with the system. When it wasn’t, I thought Nintendo would use the variable pricing of many Switch games and charge like $30-35 for it. When I saw that it was a full $50, I thought it might be a far more developed and fleshed-out game than I had originally envisioned. Nope. Just a collection of mini-games. Some of the mini-games are fun, sure, and it’s a great game to have to highlight the local multiplayer aspect of the system, but some of the mini-games don’t seem to work as well as they should, and some are just boring. You might have made the same claims about Wii Sports, but packing a game in with the system forgives many sins. I’m glad I have the game, and I look forward to playing with people who have never played it before, but I don’t expect to get much mileage out of it, and that makes $50 far too high of a price tag.

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I also have three 2017 games that I’m itching to play: Persona 5NieR: Automata, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve heard many great things about all three, most especially Breath of the Wild, which seems to be destined for a hundred Game of the Year awards. I have an exciting summer ahead of me, it seems.

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I’ve also just gotten around to playing a couple of 2016 games recently, so I’ll throw in some thoughts about those as well.

Street Fighter V

I have a spotty history with the Street Fighter series. Street Fighter II was one of my favorite SNES games, and I loved Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the original PlayStation, but many of the games in between just didn’t grab me. They often felt either too familiar or too new. I know, I know. Pick a side, right? When Street Fighter IV was announced, I thought the art style looked a little too goofy, but I figured I’d give the series another chance. After playing it, well, I still thought the art style was a little too goofy (I really hate when characters have gigantic feet, for one), but the fighting was pretty great. Street Fighter V keeps the art style, sadly, and the fighting is… mostly the same. I’m not a fighting game aficionado, though, so maybe I’m missing some nuanced mechanics or something. The new villain, Necalli, is terrible and I cringe every time he opens his mouth. I very much disliked how limited the roster was, especially because they make obtaining other characters a case of buying them as DLC or earning ranks in the online mode. Neither of those sat well with me. I was glad to have Chun-Li and Cammy, but I wished Akuma and Crimson Viper were in the core line-up. The story mode was weak until they added the free DLC version, which was actually pretty decent. I don’t know how often I’ll go back to the game, though. My crush on Chun-Li was once again reignited, though, and it inspired me to consider future short blog posts about various video game crushes I’ve had/have. But we’ll see.

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Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Fortune

My first instinct is to begin my discussion of this game with a sort of embarrassed apology, but two things: 1) I’m not writing this for anyone other than myself, and 2) I know that this instinct comes from how the culture that shaped me treats sexuality, which is to hide it and be ashamed of it. I fight against that urge every chance I get, for many reasons, but that’s for a different entry, perhaps. I understand that this game hypersexualizes its female characters, and there are some problematic issues with gender throughout it, but I enjoy it and I’m not ashamed of that.

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This is the game that I wanted to play when I bought the first Xtreme game, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, for the original Xbox. That entry and its sequel were, to me, too difficult, mostly because they imposed a time limit on how much you could get done before you’d have to start all over again. There was no way you could build up a collection of items and bathing suits because you could only make enough money to buy a handful of things before you had to start a new vacation and go back to not having anything. Xtreme 3 fixes that, allowing you to carry over all of your money and items to a new vacation, which makes getting rare or expensive swimsuits much easier. The mini-games feel balanced in this game, too, which is another definite improvement, specifically when it comes to the volleyball. It’s the core of the game and I never felt like it was very much fun or rewarding until this entry. The graphics seem a little lackluster for this generation, but they’re pretty good overall. And, speaking of video game crushes, I have a new one, thanks to this game. Momiji is the best. I’m actually considering getting the newer Ninja Gaiden games just to be able to play her in a cool combat role. I am in love. Don’t judge me, non-existent reader! But I digress.

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As I said, I may end up writing about these in more detail over the summer, but I am going to try and write a little about every game that I play from now on. I want to capture initial impressions and thoughts for later use. And I’ll have a lot to capture soon, it seems. Not a bad predicament to be in, I’d say.

Phoenix Down: Video Games and (My) Mental Health

I love video games. I probably don’t need to say that. I created a website to spew poorly organized, mediocre writing about the things, knowing that virtually no one will read it. That’s probably not something you do for a hobby you don’t care about. I don’t allow this love to identify me as a person. The older I get, the less I feel comfortable about calling myself something and allowing others to make assumptions about me based on those labels. But there are times when I realize just how much games mean to me. The loud, popular media narrative about video games often focuses on their potential to negatively affect people’s mental health. That wouldn’t be a surprise for people who follow the industry, and it would also not be much of a surprise to hear about the many (but less popular) articles, academic papers, and presentations about the potential for positive impact on people’s mental health.

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The tale is probably familiar and almost cliché to many video game fans: “video games saved my life,” the refrain goes. For people who don’t play games, or do and have little experience with mental health issues, it probably sounds trite or hyperbolic. And maybe in some cases it is. There are always people who exaggerate things because, well, I don’t really care why. It doesn’t matter. Some people might claim that something has saved their life every other week, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who claims it is lying or being hyperbolic. Some of the mistrust is probably due to the ambiguity surrounding the claim that anything other than the obvious (a medic giving you CPR, an injection of adrenaline, a deployed airbag, etc.) can save your life. It’s easy to point to something like bypass surgery and say that it saved your life, but mental health issues are far more nebulous. It’s much harder to definitively prove that a video game, or a therapy session, or a hug prevented someone from losing the will to live and giving up on life (literally, in terms of suicide, or figuratively, in terms of completely withdrawing from friends, family, work, etc.).

This is all just a longwinded introduction to talking about my recent experience with video games and mental health. Even though I’m not making the claim that video games saved my life, because I don’t know how close I was to being suicidal or in danger of serious social and professional withdrawal, I can say that last year (2016) was a very dark year for me. I was having internal crises in every aspect of my life. Success in one or more sector of my life usually gives me a sense of balance, or at least staves off the feeling of complete uselessness or self-loathing. I felt no such balance during that time. Every sector felt like it was collapsing, and I was struggling to feel optimistic about any of it.

It’s a far too complex story to share here, but I was engaged in a constantly escalating battle with my university’s housing and financial offices in the fall of 2015. I had clear evidence that they were at fault, but I had to go all the way to a neutral appeals panel – after months of fighting – to win my claim. ‘Winning’ meant that I could stay at the university, but I didn’t exactly feel welcomed anymore. No one fought for me. I was told more than once that no one at the university could help me or stand up for me because it would be acting against the university’s best interest (which didn’t make sense, because if the housing and finance offices had won I would have had to leave the university and they would have lost out on the money that they were trying to unjustly squeeze from me anyway).

So I began 2016 feeling less than enthused about my place of work – I teach here as well, as part of my grad student financial aid package – and academic study. Where I once felt like I was wanted and valued, I then felt like I was a troublemaker who would have been better off somewhere else. Combine this with my first issue with a grad professor who seemed to have a personal problem with me during the spring semester, financial problems from the fight with the school and having to move on such short notice (again, as a result of the fight with the school), and summer was not as fun as it should have been. I tutored seventh grade math over the summer, and that went relatively well, but it didn’t do much for my career so it felt like a bit of a hollow victory. The rest of the summer was a haze that I barely even remember now.

I dreaded starting school again in the fall, and I’d been experiencing some chest pains and breathing issues just before the semester started, but I had to wait for the official start of the semester to see a doctor because I have student insurance. I was feeling easily winded, sweating profusely from short walks, having moments of dizziness where I felt like I couldn’t stand, and my legs often just felt weak. Granted, I’d gained a lot of weight over the preceding months, but all of this was new to me and I was worried that I was having heart problems or had developed diabetes. I was at the doctor’s office every other week for most of the semester, being tested and trying various medications that had varying levels of non-success. Mentally and emotionally, I felt detached from most things. I dropped one of my classes early in the semester, and I was having trouble keeping up with one of the remaining two classes I was taking. The attendance in the classes I was teaching was lower than normal. I felt distant from my friends and family, and my relationship was suffering (more than it had been previously).

My doctor ended up diagnosing me with depression and anxiety, and said that I was having physical manifestations of the two – I was having frequent ‘panic attacks.’ The diagnosis didn’t really help like I thought it might. It made me feel worse, actually. How could I not handle my life? Surely I’d been under greater stress in the military. I’d been through divorce, uprooting my whole life, being asked to suddenly move out as a teenager – how could I have gotten to a point where I was physically breaking down because I couldn’t handle the mental and emotional pressure? By the time the semester ended and winter break approached, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t check my grades. I stopped checking my email. I avoided social commitments. I wished I was dead.

That sounds dramatic, but it was a thought that passed through my mind at least             once every couple of days. I didn’t want to kill myself, and I wasn’t fantasizing about dying or how my death would affect others – I just didn’t want to have to deal with my life and I didn’t see any reasonable way out of it. I didn’t want pity or people to think that I was overreacting, so I stayed pretty quiet about it.

Winter break was very busy and had its share of headaches, but ultimately I came out of it in a much better place. The various medications that I’d tried during the fall hadn’t helped, and most of the issues I had were either still around or poised to get worse in the coming months, but at some point I became angry about where I was in life and became determined to not let it defeat me. I live my life in Batman metaphors (I know, don’t we all?), so I couldn’t help but think about my situation as being similar to Bruce Wayne in Bane’s prison in The Dark Knight Rises. He ended up there because he felt lost and irrelevant, and as Bane points out, he’d wanted to die. I didn’t have a city that needed me, but I felt a similar kind of anger and determination to pull myself out of the hole I had gotten myself into, so I began my own journey out of darkness. And here I am. I still have a lot to deal with, but I feel strong enough to deal with it. Bring it, life.

So where do video games play into all of this? Did video games play a role in causing my mental health issues or pulling me out of it? Those are hard questions to answer and I’m not going to try and argue for either, but I do want to lay my gaming experience alongside my mental health issues and see what comes up. The reason I’m even thinking about it, honestly, is because I had pretty much given up on playing video games until the spring before all of this started. That spring, around a year and a half ago, I decided to make room in my life for games again, regardless of how hectic and busy it might seem at times. Prior to that, I’d basically given up on gaming completely during school months, but I was increasingly resentful about feeling guilty over wanting to do something that I enjoyed because of perceived professional pressure (say that three times fast). So I wanted to change that, and have been pretty good about keeping my promise to myself throughout all of my health issues.

I don’t think I ever let my game playing get too out of hand, to the point where I was missing out on important work stuff, so I don’t think it was a direct contributor to the decline in my mental health. It seems more likely, if anything, that I was perhaps avoiding having to face some of my issues by doing one of the only fun things I had access to, which was playing games. That could also be considered a positive thing, though, if you consider it a coping mechanism. I might have engaged in some other kind of avoidance, though, like YouTube binges or aimless Internet browsing, if I hadn’t played games. I thought, during the summer, at the center of that storm, that having more than a month to play video games and relax would recharge me and pull me out of what I thought was a temporary funk. I had no such luck, which means that video games aren’t necessarily like a medication that you can take regularly to get well. At least, they weren’t for me at that time.

Something happened when I started playing Final Fantasy XV over this past winter break, though. It was somewhere in the middle of my playthrough that I began to feel differently about my future and my ability to overcome my recent mental blocks and anxiety issues. I don’t necessarily think it was the game itself, but it felt like it had to be a part of it. It was the kind of game that I looked forward to playing, that I would think about when I wasn’t playing, that I would wish I could dream about every night. It wasn’t just a distraction, or something to keep my mind from drifting to stressful topics, it genuinely brought me happiness and filled my brain with positive chemicals and hormones. It was the kind of game that made me remember just how deep my love for video games runs, and what they bring to my life.

Let me just reiterate that I’m not claiming that Final Fantasy XV or video games ‘saved my life’ or in any way solved any of my major life problems. In fact, I still have many of those problems to face as of this writing. But with my love of video games rekindled at a pitch that I haven’t experienced in some time, I can’t deny that video games are playing at least a relevant part in how I see the near future. Will I love every game as much as I did Final Fantasy XV? Probably not. But with high quality games like Resident Evil 7, which I’m playing now, and Horizon Zero Dawn, which I just got in the mail today and getting almost universal praise, I have joyous experiences to look forward to. Even if the rest of my life crumbles around me, I’ll have something. And that means so much.

My Gaming Radar: 2017

First, I should say that this is not necessarily just a list of unreleased games that I’m excited about playing in 2017. The stack of games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet is bigger than my bank account, so my immediate gaming future will be spent catching up on some of those, and I begin my list with those that I actually plan on playing in the next few months. I couldn’t hope to get through the entire stack, even if I had several months off (sorry, copy of Secret of Evermore that I’ve had for almost twenty years!), so I’m just going with recent-ish purchases.

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Aside from that, yeah, these are some games that I am very excited about and are scheduled to be released in 2017. It’s a long-ish list already, so I’m excluding games that I’m only passively interested in (sorry, Ni no Kuni II, I still have to finish your predecessor), games that I’ve already played in some form (like Final Fantasy XII or Dragon Quest VIII), games that I’ve started and am still playing (The Division, Rock Band 4, GTA V, etc.) and games that are only rumored to be coming out (like, well, half of the games for Nintendo’s Switch). I’ll conclude with games that I want to see announced this year, because if anyone reads this and gets that far they deserve to be rewarded with even more text to half-read and zero-enjoy. You’re welcome!

Final Fantasy XV

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This game was in development for so long that I hadn’t even thought about it in years. Real, literal years. But when I got an email about pre-ordering it, an old familiar excitement rushed through me. Final Fantasy games have changed a lot over the years, but I haven’t hated any of them, even if some are less memorable than others. And some, like XII, are high up on my favorite-games-of-all-time list, so I am very excited to play this one. I’d been waiting for winter break to start it because playing narratively immersive games is hard for me during the busy semester, so I should get to it before I’m out of time and up to my neck in all kinds of work again. I know very little about it, because I tend to avoid reading previews and reviews on games that I am very excited about, to avoid getting too hyped or running into spoilers, but it looks gorgeous from the few screenshots and videos I’ve seen. I just hope the combat is fun, like it was in XII.

Life is Strange

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This game seems pretty easy to consume in small chunks, so I will likely save this for the middle of the semester, when I can guiltily sneak in only 20-30 minutes of gaming every few days (if I’m lucky). I’ve heard lots of good things about it, and I have very much enjoyed other recent games that have more of a focus on narrative than mechanics. It also came up in a presentation I attended, about using video games in literature courses, so I am curious to play it with that in mind and see how I might fit it into my own future courses.

The Last Guardian

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Okay, full disclosure: I own both Team Ico’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus but I have yet to beat either of them. Or, well, play either of them for more than five or ten minutes. But I will! Some day. Some distant, distant day. I am determined to break that habit with The Last Guardian, which I never thought I’d see released at all. I enjoy big, mainstream games as much as the next person, but sometimes I need these smaller, quirky games to remind me of the vast spectrum of what video games have come to be. Also, that bird-dog better not fucking die, man. I’m telling you right now, Team Ico, despite the game already being complete!

Paper Mario: Color Splash

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Now we’re getting into the games that I will probably have to save for summer break, but I am still very excited about games like Paper Mario: Color Splash. The Paper Mario series has followed the Nintendo tradition of refining and perfecting a solid formula rather than reworking and trying to revolutionize new entries. The upside to this is that you end up with some of the best games on any platform, but sometimes it can feel tiring after a while (lookin’ at you, Animal Crossing). It’s somewhere between the two for me, with regards to Paper Mario, so I’m both expecting a high quality, thoughtful experience with Color Splash and hoping for something different enough to make it feel like a very new and different game. But the cute style and odd humor will win me over, either way. Paper Peach is still on my list of tattoos that I might get eventually.

Dead Rising 3

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The first Dead Rising game was, I thought, flawed but fun, and the second improved a bit on my main area of complaint (the whole ticking time-bomb structure). Even if I don’t get into the story or characters in this third entry, I’ve always loved exploring the detailed environments and the many ways with which to dispatch the undead. The previous entries did an impressive job with the last gen hardware, considering how good the games looked and how many objects were on screen at once, so I am excited to see how the Xbox One’s horsepower lends itself to creating an even more chaotic and inspiring world.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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I don’t have much to say about this one. I’ve enjoyed most of the Call of Duty games and I get around to playing them when I can get them for pretty cheap (I don’t play online so I never feel very rushed). I expect that this will be a solid, fun, short experience.

Halo 4

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Man, I loved Halo 3. I played it online, a lot, and I had tons of fun with the video editor. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to buying the fourth game, and I don’t expect I’ll get online with it this time around (having the right set of friends being into a game at the same time helps, I think), but I anticipate some epic, cinematic science-fiction battles.

Battlefield 1

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I have a lot of FPSs to catch up on, it seems. Battlefield 1 looks gorgeous and I’m curious to see how they handle the World War I setting. Like many people, I picture that war as being very slow and bleak, but the videos of Battlefield 1 make it look very fast and flashy. For as much cynicism that this  disparity had generated early in the game’s development, it sure has gotten a lot of good press post-release. So I might try and get to this before summer, if I can.

Titanfall

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I never bought into the hype for this game, but it looked good enough to buy at a hefty Black Friday discount, so I’ll play it before I forget about it and it’s doomed to the probably-won’t-play-for-years pile.

Street Fighter V

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Fighting games are super easy to play casually, so I’ll probably play this game (and the next entry)  sporadically throughout the semester. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Street Fighter IV, so I expect this one to be at least as good.

Mortal Kombat X

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I don’t remember the last time I played a Mortal Kombat game regularly, but with fairly strong buzz and a roster of DLC characters that include some of my favorite cinematic villains, I couldn’t pass this one up. Even if I don’t get into it half as much as I did with the first few MK games all those years ago, it will be nice to revisit the characters (and have a current MK game laying around for social gaming gatherings).

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

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Oh, man. Ever since Dragon Quest VIII enthralled and enchanted me over ten years ago, I have been waiting anxiously for another Dragon Quest experience like it. With no proper sequels released on home consoles, I made do with the Nintendo DS remakes, which were great, don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t have the same vastness and sense of exploration that VIII did. I don’t expect Fragments of the Forgotten Past will satisfy that sense, but I love the series so much that I will eat it up anyway. It will at least keep me satisfied until…

Dragon Quest XI

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Okay, so, very little has been released about this entry in the series, leading me to doubt it will be out in 2017, but that’s what it’s listed as so I’ll hold out hope. And my hopes are high, given that this will be the first single player game in the main series to be released in the US since, well, VIII. And the few screenshots that I’ve seen look absolutely stunning. I hope they maintain the old-school RPG gameplay, which is a staple of the series, and don’t try anything too revolutionary. Still, just seeing a new Dragon Quest world rendered with the power of the PlayStation 4 is going to make waiting hard. But I will, and I’ll probably self-impose a blackout on reading any press about it, starting — now.

Resident Evil 7

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Resident Evil 7 comes out just two weeks after the semester starts, which means… well, it means I’m going to have to play fast to make it through it before I get too busy. Waiting is not much of an option. Not only am I a big Resident Evil fan, but this game looks like it goes back to the series’ horror roots in the best way. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to play it in VR or not yet. The screen tearing and jaggies in the “Kitchen” demo worry me a bit, as does the fact that some VR games make me nauseous after a while. I’ll probably start out in VR and see how it feels. The graphics and lighting in the regular demo are spectacular, though, and I can’t wait to see where the biological agents come into play, as so far they’re playing the whole ‘inbred, rural serial killer’ thing up, but that is almost certainly a front. Like the mansion in the first game, I’m sure there is some underground or off-site facility where mutant/zombie stuff happens. As disappointed as I was that Silent Hills was cancelled, I like that Capcom seems to be embracing the same kind of tone and style for this new Resident Evil.

Outlast 2

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Another embarrassing admission: I still haven’t beaten the first Outlast game. I died a few times in a row when I got to the basement, and I just wasn’t equipped to deal with that level of repeated tension and anxiety, so I put it aside. I’ll have to get back to it, because as a horror fan I loved the premise and atmosphere, and the sequel looks so great. The cornfield setting is especially exciting for me, because I live and go to school in a city surrounded by corn. I’m even trying to think of a way to bring it into the classroom, too, since my students will be well acquainted with corn field and their creepiness, so we can analyze setting and its effect on different audiences.

Horizon Zero Dawn

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I don’t know much about the plot for Horizon Zero Dawn, other than it’s a sort of post–post-apocalyptic reclamation scenario (right? I might be remembering incorrectly). But the video they showed at E3, and the screenshots that I’ve seen have been stunning. I’m all about large, colorful, luscious landscapes, and this game looks to have that in spades. I’m all for new female lead characters, too, so I’m hoping she is cool and memorable.

Ace Combat 7

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I’m cautiously optimistic about Ace Combat 7Ace Combat 4 is one of my favorite games of all time, but since then the series has disappointed me to various degrees, with the last game I tried playing (Assault Horizon) being the worst of them. Having said that, 7  probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it weren’t for the fact that it’s going to be fully compatible with the PlayStation VR. Will I get sick and want to have a real barf bag handy in my virtual cockpit? Maybe. But it just might be worth it. I just want the controls to return to the days of the fourth and fifth games in the series. Please. Pretty please.

Red Dead Redemption 2

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Rockstar is so secretive about their games that I can’t even predict whether this will really be released this year or pushed back to spring 2018, but it seems slightly more likely that the former will actually happen. I loved Red Dead Redemption far more than I’d expected to, and Rockstar went so far above and beyond with Grand Theft Auto V that my hopes are apologetically high for the sequel. I’m hoping it’s set up like GTA V in that there is a fully fleshed-out single player campaign and then a vast and full-featured open-world multi-player mode as well. I’m ready to ride or die either way.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew

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Okay, so the screenshots released for this game aren’t exactly inspiring. In fact, they look pretty generic and, well, crappy. BUT! Star Trek! In virtual reality! I won’t be too worried about the graphics being sub-par (I might even welcome it, in VR) if they get the gameplay and simulation parts right. My favorite Star Trek game is the SNES version of Star Trek: Starfleet Academy – Starship Bridge Simulator. I loved being in the role of a cadet making their way through the academy and, eventually, getting my own ship and rank. This game sounds like it could potentially be a spiritual successor to that game, so I am hyped for it. I’m not sure it will start in the academy, but I hope so. Either way, I’m definitely excited to give this a shot. It might be a dud, but at the very least it will be a neat novelty game for the VR.

Mass Effect Andromeda

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Is this the game I’m looking forward to most this year? Maybe. Probably. Maybe. The Mass Effect series is among my favorites, and this game looks pretty spectacular so far. The only thing keeping me from being more certain about its status is the cast of characters. The other Mass Effect sequels had the benefit of returning, beloved characters. I’m sure BioWare will conjure up yet another complex and lovable/hateable (in a good way) crew, but I don’t know anything about them at this point, so… I’m purposefully being wary. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed. Anyway, I hope away missions to planets makes a return, like the Mako missions in the first game. It would be even better if it were expanded on and you could land on any terrestrial planet. With games like No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous it seems like an obvious direction to take, but once again I’m not going to get too hopeful. Regardless, I love BioWare and I love Mass Effect, so my life and free time are theirs once this comes out.

Nintendo Switch

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Aside from what Nintendo showed at E3, I haven’t heard much about the gaming line-up for the Switch, so I don’t have much to go off of. There’s supposed to be a new Mario game ready for or near launch, duh. And there will eventually be a new Mario Kart, Mario Party, Metroid, etc. I’ve never been big into mobile gaming, so that part of the design is passively interesting at best for me. I am also a little disappointed (but not surprised) that the core system is not likely to be much more powerful than last-gen consoles. But, at the end of the day, it’s a new Nintendo console that will have new Nintendo games… gimme dat.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Okay, one last shameful confession before we wind things down: I bought The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess with my Wii at launch. I was super excited for the series’ return to darker and more realistic visuals. I played it for an hour or so and then didn’t touch it again for four or five years. At that point I felt dumb and guilty for never having given it a chance, especially given how much people seemed to like it. So I picked it up, played for seven or eight hours… and stopped. Again. I can’t let that happen again, so I am determined to play the shit out of Breath of the Wild, which looks colorful and fun and pretty wonderful so far.

NES Classic Edition

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I have been trying to get one of these since it launched. It seems Nintendo is up to its old tricks, limiting stock and using the resulting madness to fuel sales for months. It works, of course, but I wanted one before it was the ‘it’ thing to grab. I have many of the games loaded on it, but for those that I don’t, and just to have a slightly up-res version of the NES with classic controllers, I want one. Badly.

Other Wishes

Very briefly, here are some non-obvious games I’d love to see announced or released this year. First up is Bully 2. It’s not that I loved the original more than any game ever, but I did very much enjoy the world and characters, and the fact that a sequel seems like a given and seems to constantly be rumored to be coming, I want it more and more every year. Maybe this year.

Second is Mother 3. After Nintendo’s surprise release of EarthBound Beginnings for the Virtual Console, my hopes for a US release of Mother 3 went from ‘never gonna happen’ to ‘any day now’ instantly. I was so sure they would have announced it last year, on the tenth anniversary of the Japanese version’s release. I lost some hope when it wasn’t, but it still seems like it has to happen at some point… I really hope it’s this year.

What else would be cool? A new Knights of the Old Republic game, thought it seems highly unlikely. A Star Wars VR game. A remake of Final Fantasy VIII, which seems highly likely (but not for another few years, probably). A new, real, huge Animal Crossing. A new Civilization Revolution would be nice, but is doubtful. And, of course, a Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross sequel or remake, as unlikely as it is.

Even without these dream games, 2017 is already shaping up to be a pretty decent year for video games. I look forward to E3 in the spring and how that might change things. Until then, I have an endless stack of games to get to.