Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.
Well, 2017 was a hell of a year, wasn’t it? So I took solace in games, and you can occasionally even watch me doing so, via my Twitch channel. I play solely on console, so please take all these recommendations with a PS4-sized grain of salt. Anyway, my favorite murdery stress relief games last year were the following, in reverse order. I play more, note — Skyrim Special Edition is a favorite — but I wanted to confine this to games that were all released in or near 2017.
5. Aven Colony
Sim City in space, basically, with slightly higher stakes than the possibility of triggering an economic depression. As the governor of a colony on the “habitable-ish” planet Aven, your job is to build thriving cities, solve the mystery of a lost civilization, and keep your colonists alive. The latter has to be done despite attacks of splinter terrorist groups, bizarre weather phenomena, and your people’s pesky tendency to go on strike when the air quality gets too poor. It’s genuinely challenging the first time through — let’s just not talk about how many times I lost hundreds of people to building-eating alien blobs — but it doesn’t have much replay value. Once you figure out the game’s tricks, it becomes a little too easy. Fortunately it’s an indie game that’s less than $20 if you catch it on sale, so you won’t feel like you wasted much money!
4. Persona 5
I’ve been playing the Shin Megami Tensei series for a while now; the Persona games are one of several spinoffs from the Megaten series. Persona 3 remains my favorite of this series, but this latest installment ends up being surprisingly relevant. We follow our mostly-silent protagonist, a slouchy teenage boy who ends up getting into trouble when he tries to help a woman being assaulted. He saves her, but for his good Samaritan impulse he ends up arrested, disowned by his parents, and kicked out of school. As part of his probation, he moves into the attic of a crusty old cafe owner. He also has to start over at a different school, where there’s a lot of shady stuff going on — including teachers sexually harassing students, coaches breaking athletes’ legs when they won’t toe the line (!), the principal covering it all up on behalf of a vast political conspiracy, and worse. Fortunately, the protagonist and some of his new friends — all outcasts and rebels like himself — discover that they have the ability to “steal hearts” via a mysterious Jungian dream world. With this magical ability, our protagonist might be able to change the world, instead of just grimly enduring its corruption.
It’s a fine message… which is badly undermined by the series’ outright homophobia and transphobia. This (and misogyny! and racism!) is something Atlus has unfortunately developed an ugly reputation for. And yet despite this, they handled the sexual harassment plotline in this game without excuses or victim-blaming. Two steps forward, two steps back.
So in the spirit of “it’s ok to like (and criticize the hell out of) problematic things,” I’m only tentatively recommending this game. I completely understand if some of y’all really just don’t want to endure this kind of ugliness in what is supposed to be entertainment. Still, in the balance I enjoyed Persona 5, so I’m listing it here. I’m also going to hope that Atlus gets over its bigoted bullshit soon, because I’d really like to be able to recommend these games without caveats one day.
3. Assassin’s Creed: Origins
Although I own Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2, I never really got into them before this latest incarnation — which is actually a chronological prequel to the whole series. Set in Ptolemaic-era ancient Egypt, the story follows Bayek, last of the fabled Medjai warriors/priests who served the pharaohs, on a quest for revenge after the death of his son. Aaaaaaand that’s about it for plot complexity or character development: stalk and kill the members of an evil conspiracy, help people along the way, lather rinse repeat. There’s a nice side-element of the game in which you sometimes get to play as Aya, Bayek’s equally badass wife, but it’s infrequent. And along the way, you get to meet Cleopatra, and help stab Julius Caesar to death! Awesome.
This is a rare open world game that actually manages to remain interesting despite questfest-o-rama. That’s entirely because the setting — a beautifully detailed and massive map encompassing Upper and Lower Egypt — is just breathtaking to look at. The game knows it, too: there’s a cool feature called Photo Mode, where you can basically take selfies of your character along the shores of the Mediterranean, atop desert dunes, and even (of course) while perched on top of the Pyramids. I’m no Egyptologist, but I also think it’s pretty historically accurate, and for once is a respectful treatment of this historical period and its racial complexity.
It’s not wholly realistic. There’s a whole thing about ancient time-traveling precursors having high-tech devices under some of the tombs. Also, Bayek can easily slaughter his way through an entire Roman garrison without a scratch, assuming you play right. These things don’t break the immersion too much, though, so overall, it’s fun.
2. Nier: Automata
In the year 11,000+, humankind fights a proxy war against alien invaders, with both sides using robots to fight their battles. The humans’ androids look exactly like they were designed by horny techbros, but there is something weirdly empowering in seeing a society of hardened soldiers (and their support boytoys) fighting battles in full Gothloli costume and six-inch heels. The aliens’ non-humanoid machines are supposed to just be mindless cannon fodder, but it quickly becomes clear that this is just propaganda; everybody’s got complex emergent artificial intelligence up in this joint. The machine intelligences produce some humanoid robots of their own, male to their enemies’ female. For those of us who, as kids, made our Barbie dolls wage war against the Kens, this is vindication at last.
(Note: none of the androids have genitalia. Their genders are self-chosen and performative, and there’s at least one noticeably non-binary character… although the English translation renders Pascal a “he.” Apart from this, the Nier series’ handling of gender might make a nice antidote for the Persona games’ transphobia. [No, that is not “a Japanese thing.”])
It gets weird, tho. Really, really weird. Like, the robot orgy — yes, I’m serious, and there’s no doubt about what you’re seeing — isn’t the weirdest thing you’re going to encounter. So consider this both a warning and an endorsement: Nier: Automata seems like a stock open world questfest on the surface, but stick with it and you’ll uncover a lovely cyberpunk/postapocalyptic mindblower that does some truly daring things with narrative and gameplay tropes. And if you get through all of it and buy the DLC, you get to fight a boss battle against Square Enix’s CEO. Why? Because that’s how these games roll.
1. Mafia 3
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are that this is my #1 game. Before this year, I didn’t think I liked stealth games, and I had absolutely no interest in the Mafia series. I don’t even like “The Godfather.” But this game set in a 1960s-era faux New Orleans (“New Bordeaux”) really just impressed the hell out of me on a storytelling level. The game follows Lincoln Clay, a young black man with a much darker nature than his amiable personality suggests, who goes on a quest for vengeance after his adoptive family is murdered. What follows is a stunningly nuanced and unflinching tale of black survival in the Civil Rights Era, aspirational whiteness and its damaging effects on Italian and Irish families, and all the ways in which intersections of race and class and ethnicity and gender and sexuality combine to make already-difficult struggles that much harder.
Also, the game is just amazing to look at and listen to. My father, who isn’t a gamer but who is a 74-year-old black man who grew up in the Deep South, keeps exclaiming over how realistic New Bordeaux feels, compared against his memories. I actually convinced him to try a video game for the first time because of this… although he quickly drove a truck into a bayou and killed all the characters right out of the gate. Just goes to show that when games step outside the comfort zone of cishet grizzled white guy protagonists, they broaden their appeal to new audiences. Dad’s gonna try again.
Skip the DLCs; they’re all right gameplay-wise, but they lack the core narrative’s intelligence. Check out this playlist on Spotify, though, for a good approximation of the game’s atmosphere. This one is definitely worth your time.
Aaaaand, that’s it! Happy New Year, and happy gaming!