It feels like every year for the last few years, it’s been fairly easy to say, “This has been the best year in games!” With a market that’s filled to the brim with releases weekly, it’s no wonder that we see more great games coming out now than a decade or so ago. Amidst a sea of microtransactions, lootboxes, and games as services, developers have been crafting truly remarkable and innovative experiences, and it’s a great asset to look at these creative bits of design and learn from them. This isn’t a list of my favorite games of the year – that will be coming towards the end of December – but all of these games are ones I would wholeheartedly recommend.
Nier: Automata – chip system
Nier: Automata was not a game I expected to enjoy quite as much as I did. I had heard only good things about it, but for some reason it didn’t capture my interest initially. It took me a couple months after getting it in May to even really get into it, but once I did, I found a game that was designed from the ground up to immerse players in the role of futuristic military robots.
My favorite thing about the game is how everything revolves around the player’s control over androids. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the game where 2B, the main character of the first act of the story, becomes injured and must be rebooted by 9S, the sidekick of the first act and the main character of the second act. 9S talks to 2B, and his voicelines don’t come through, but his words read in subtitles on the screen. It isn’t until 9S reboots 2B’s audio systems that you can actually hear the voicelines. It’s little details like that that make this game so memorable to me.
This focus on immersing the player into controlling androids coalesces into what’s known as the chip system. Basically, the player can equip chips to the player character that give perks like more health, healing out of combat, more attack power, etc. However, aspects of the HUD like the minimap, player character health, quest markers, and the like also are tied to chips. These chips are attached to the player character by default, but at any time, the player can remove any or all of those chips in order to free up memory space for the chips that give perks. One player may struggle in combat and need to remove all HUD chips in order to make space for more offensive power chips, while a more skilled player may be fine with all of the HUD activated. The amount of player agency involved with something that we, as players, take for granted is incredibly satisfying. There’s genuinely impactful choices with the chips, and it leads to a lot of freedom that can allow players to find a good setup that works for them. I really hope other games decide to pick up this idea in the future.
Cuphead – parrying
What is there to say about Cuphead that hasn’t been said already? It is a gorgeous, challenging, well-crafted game that will undoubtedly pick up heaps of awards come the end of the year (as I edit this section, the game has already won a couple awards at The Game Awards, which proves my point.) It’s hard to really be upset at the game for succeeding in the face of other great indies. Even now as I still struggle through it, I feel an immense sense of accomplishment once I complete a boss fight.
My favorite thing about the game may be the boss designs, but the parry mechanic is something I think is integral to Cuphead‘s superb design and game feel. For those who have not played the game, anything on screen that is pink can be parried, meaning by pressing the jump button while hitting the pink object, the player will bounce off of the object and gain a boost in their super meter. This mechanic is built right into the game’s design from the beginning. Boss fight results grade your use of parries, and the mausoleum levels are built around only parrying. Players are highly incentivized to do it because of how much of a boost it gives to your super meter, but it never becomes a necessity during the boss fights, from what I’ve seen. It’s a very subtle and natural inclusion that expands the game beyond simply running, jumping, shooting, and avoiding attacks. It gives players an active role in countering the enemy. The system is also used in the run and gun levels to make for some unique challenges, like using parries to reach higher areas and to switch gravity. For the most part, the game expects the player to shoot the enemy while dodging attacks. Parrying is a very simple way to bridge that gap, allowing players to feel a visceral offensive connection to the boss that otherwise is lost, since all the damage the player deals is ranged. It’s an incredibly simple addition, but it makes all the difference when it comes to the game’s feel, which is something often overlooked but essential when elevating a game from good to great.
Pyre – liberation rites and dynamic story
*May contain slight spoilers for Pyre. I personally don’t think it’s a spoiler but as is the case with most games, it’s better to go in knowing nothing.*
Supergiant Games is easily my favorite indie developer out there. Every release of theirs impresses me beyond belief, with gorgeous art and music, fantastic and deep stories, and interesting gameplay, and Pyre is no exception. I ended up getting the Platinum trophy a week after the game’s release because I enjoyed it so much, and I Platinumed Transistor in two days and consider it my third favorite game of all time, in case you didn’t believe me.
For those who don’t know anything about Pyre, you play as a literate exile who helps a team of other exiles through divine Rites in hopes of somehow becoming free of the wasteland you’ve been sent to. The gameplay outside of the Rites runs through an Oregon Trail-like adventure game where you must make decisions and talk to your teammates as the story unfolds around you. During the Rites, the player controls three characters, each with their own unique traits, in a race to extinguish the enemy team’s pyre by dunking a magical orb into it. Sound simple? You get used to it.
The most amazing thing about the story is that it’s ever-changing. This is the most involved I’ve seen a branching narrative; it’s many leagues beyond what Telltale and Dontnod have done with their series of choose your own adventure games. The game is very intrinsically tied to its story, with choices changing relationships and stats not only with your own team, but other teams as well. Whether you win or lose a Rite, the story continues on and adjusts with characters reacting, learning, and remembering certain things. For instance, a certain character tells the player during a fight with a specific team that if they win the Rite with a difficulty modifier on, that enemy team will think their god has forsaken them and play worse for the rest of the playthrough. Supergiant are the kings of blending their narrative and gameplay choices together to form a cohesive, believable world. The best part is that not once during my playthrough did I notice the puzzle pieces snapping together. The writing in every situation felt natural and never let on that it was adapting to your choices. It’s a standard that all games with choices should strive for.
A good adaptive story isn’t enough to make this game hold a spot on this list, though. After a certain amount of Rites, the player will have the chance to perform a Liberation Rite, which allows a chosen member of your team to be liberated back to the free world. This introduces a difficult choice: giving up a player that helps you in gameplay in return for giving them what they want in the narrative. You can certainly keep a member of the team from being liberated and enjoy their presence and keep using them in battle, but at the end of the day, they want to be free and the player is given enough reason to help them. The weight behind this choice is immense, and it genuinely made it hard to choose who I would set free or if I’d even want to let anyone go at all. These characters grow and develop alongside you, and it easily ranks as one of my favorite design choices of the year.
Super Mario Odyssey – Cappy
It’s no secret that Super Mario Odyssey is a masterclass in game design, as every Mario game continues to innovate and impress. This series is expected to succeed, so it’s amazing that Nintendo continues to make players feel like they’ve reached the peak of what makes a great Mario game. Odyssey doesn’t do a whole lot of new things with the traditional Mario formula, and yet its few changes shake it up enough that the game shines as its own new identity for the classic plumber that I can’t imagine ever going away.
The obvious changes involve Cappy, Mario’s sentient hat. Cappy comes into play in two ways: he fundamentally changes the way Mario traverses the world, and he allows Mario an easy gateway into experimenting with un-Mario mechanics. In regards to the former, Mario has typically been given a pretty diverse moveset, allowing players to feel like everything they do is precise. It’s what makes the games feel so precise in a 3D space when compared to others in the genre. Odyssey blows all previous movesets for Mario out of the water, with a few new moves for Mario on his own like the roll, and a boatload of new techniques to learn that utilize Cappy. The hat can be used to attack enemies, to get coins and Moons from objects, and to jump on as another jump or bounce. Movement feels freer than ever before, and with the way that levels are built to be vertical and open, the player is encouraged to master new techniques to traverse the level. A guy took it upon himself to finish the entirety of the game without what the game considers to be jumping, which just goes to show that there’s a slew of versatility in Mario’s movement. I have countless numbers of people who have said that Odyssey is the game that makes them understand the fun that speedrunners have.
On the other hand, what I mean by “un-Mario mechanics” is that Mario’s moveset is ever-evolving, but it’s distinct and makes sense for his established character. Mario jumps, runs, and now throws a hat, but he doesn’t stretch his legs to new heights or have a way to climb walls with his hands. His moveset is diverse, but it limits the lengths to which the team can bring him. With the ability to possess objects, Nintendo removes this restriction on Mario’s moveset and is given free reign to experiment. Transformations like the bird whose beak can fling it up walls and Chain Chomps who can be pulled to slingshot into objects could be used as main mechanics in their own games, but Odyssey keeps the player on their toes with a reimagining of the typical Mario level formula every step of the way. Levels in 2D Mario games often introduce a mechanic or a power-up, use it in a lot of different ways, test the player, and then leave it behind. The possession mechanic allows Nintendo to do this across the many open-ended kingdoms, allowing specific moons or side rooms to utilize these transformations to their fullest. The transformations, combined with Mario’s newly-expanded moveset, make Odyssey a brilliant, freeing experience unlike any other in the series that should be played and understood by everyone looking to break into game design.
Danganronpa V3 – ending twist
*This part is the definition of a spoiler for Danganronpa V3. This series of games is fantastic and succeeds because of its stories and characters, so if you are at all interested in the games, do NOT read this section and skip to the end.*
The Danganronpa series has become one of my favorite finds in the last couple years, and is certainly my favorite visual novel series (I wrote about how visual novels like Danganronpa and Ace Attorney are the modern-day point-and-click adventure games, if you’d like to read about it here.) The games play on my love of mediums that depict a game of sorts and the suspense of mysteries, with a wacky and genuinely interesting cast of characters, and they also have the player feel more involved than other visual novels.
The series has previously held two main games, a spinoff game, and an anime series that closed the story of those games, so Danganronpa V3 was marketed as a completely separate story that fans and newcomers alike could enjoy. Going through the game, things seemed pretty normal for a Danganronpa game with lots of questions that are slowly answered, characters that make no sense but you end up loving, and deaths that were a spectacle above tragedy. As usual, the cast ends up looking for and finding a traitor among their ranks, but this is where V3 decides to turn the entire series on its head and point the camera back at the player.
In the game’s world, the original previously-mentioned Danganronpa series of games and anime is a huge hit across the globe, and a company decided to form to make real Danganronpa scenarios for everyone around the world to watch. People signed up to be on the show, and had their entire personalities and abilities changed to fit their new personas. The V3 in the title did not refer to it being the third game in the series, but was actually indication that it was the 53rd iteration of the series in the game’s world. The game uses this meta twist as a way to really bring into question the entire series and its appeal. Is it morally okay to find delight in the stylistic murder of teenagers, even if they are fake? Is this thirst for more Danganronpa media healthy and even possible to satiate? It’s an absolutely brilliant turn of events that I have seen only once or twice in any form of entertainment, and upon first playing this ending, I felt disappointed with a “cop-out” ending, but the more I’ve thought about it since I finished the game, the more I’ve realized how brilliant it was for the team to do this. The end of the game has the characters finding a way to end Danganronpa for good and escaping into the real world, but even if this is the end of the real Danganronpa series, I’m still very satisfied with how it went out.
Clearly, I have a lot to say about these great examples of game design, but I also have a few quick words about a couple other pieces of design, which I’ll do here.
Prey – GLOO Cannon
I found Prey to be the easily most underrated game of the year. Arkane’s release came and went with very little fanfare beyond the game-breaking bug found in the PC version upon release, and I personally found it to be an incredibly entertaining experience. The game easily fits into my love for open sim games like Bioshock and Dishonored, and easily mashes it into a gorgeous space station setting.
The game’s GLOO Cannon is a multi-tool that can be used for both combat and exploration. The gun can freeze and weaken enemies in order to make it easier to take them down, but it also creates masses of glue on any surface that it hits, allowing the player to block off corridors and create a staircase up walls. The gun is a little hard to aim in combat against faster foes, but the freedom it allows when exploring the levels and avoiding enemies feels really innovative and smart to use.
Opus Magnum – open-ended puzzles
The puzzle game that genuinely shocked me the most with how fun it was happened to be Opus Magnum, a game where you create machines to synthesize materials using mechanical arms. The brilliant bit of design happens to be the entire basis of the game, as it lends itself to open-ended solutions to the puzzles.
The puzzles involve getting certain elemental orbs into certain spots, but beyond that, it’s up to the player to make a machine that completes the job. They have to use the given orb creation spots and goal spots somewhere in their machine, but otherwise they can use as many arms, tracks, and parts as they’d like to create the machine. Machines are graded on the cost of the machine’s parts, the space they take up, and how fast they get the job done, but as long as the job is completed, the player may advance. Finishing a level shows how your machine ranks against others in those three areas, giving incentive to try again and find a more optimal solution. Crazy solutions to puzzles have been posted online, which are what drew me into the game. Having these levels be open-ended isn’t really that innovative, but it’s very nice to see a puzzle game adopt this idea because it allows multiple points of view on the same problem, rather than funneling all players into the same mindset.
Hollow Knight – SOUL and combat healing
Hollow Knight is the 2nd place rock star of the indie scene this year. The game was released to a huge amount of praise and was seen as a standard for indie Metroidvania games, but Cuphead‘s universal acclaim has unfortunately overshadowed Hollow Knight‘s success. However, fans have not forgotten about the game, and neither did I!
Hollow Knight is often said to take inspiration from the Dark Souls and Bloodborne series of From Software games, and looking at the game’s focus on exploration, timing-based hack-and-slash combat, currency dropping upon death, and dark atmosphere, it’s easy to see why. However, one of my favorite aspects of the game is its healing and spell resource, funnily-enough named SOUL. On the top-left of the screen is a reservoir of white liquid that is used to cast spells and to heal. Healing cannot happen any other way beyond stopping to consume some SOUL in exchange for health (you can use potion items too, but the point I’m trying to make is that enemies don’t drop health.) This can be challenging in the heat of a battle, but Team Cherry does a great job of incentivizing getting back into the fight by having the player gain SOUL when they land melee blows on enemies. This creates a risk-reward system where the player must balance their health and SOUL wisely during combat, while enticing them to get back into the fray and land some blows in hopes of gaining enough SOUL to heal again. It reminds me of Bloodborne‘s Regain System which allows a player to heal some of the damage lost from an attack by landing blows quickly after the hit, and I think it’s a very novel approach to health, which we don’t see too often.
It’s really hard to boil down the hundreds of games released this year into a couple bits and pieces from a few of the best, but I still have learned a lot from even writing this post, so I hope any aspiring designers or just people interested in game design of any type will be able to learn something or find a game they want to research more. Here’s hoping that 2018, with its packed line-up of great looking games, has more bits of good game design to look forward to.