The worst way to talk about video games is also the most common: in summary. We do it out of necessity, because we need a shorthand, a quick sell. But mainstream games are large, unwieldy things that often tell not just one story, but many — a single vision cobbled together by countless developers then refracted through players who bend and break it to their own ends. What makes video games special, then, are specific, singular moments that can be hidden or in plain sight, in games both good and bad. In a given year there are too many of these small pleasures to cover with any sort of comprehensiveness, but here are some standouts from 2017.
Chasing God (Gorogoa)
Only one thing is known in Gorogoa, Jason Roberts’s compelling puzzle game/interactive art experiment: There’s something out there, a beautiful and horrifying force of supernatural creation or destruction. It’s not clear which. Through Gorogoa’s ingenious design — which has you rearranging tiles on a four-by-four board to manipulate scenes that span different times and settings, causing them to bleed into each other and lead to new scenes for you to manipulate — you follow a boy on a journey to find this monster, this god. The moment you fully grasp how it all comes together, how to lead this boy on his search for the god-creature hiding somewhere in this game, Gorogoa has you. And it won’t let go.
Falling Toward Lei Elgona (Gravity Rush 2)
There’s one beautiful trick to Gravity Rush 2: Falling, and how good it feels. As Kat, you play a girl with the power to control how gravity works for her: Hit a button, point in a direction, hit it again, and the direction is now “down,” and you’ll begin falling toward it. It never stops being a thrill: mild panic as you reorient yourself, followed by the grace of free-falling, and concluding in clumsy, cartoonish crashes to the earth. Much of the early part of the game takes you to Jirga Para Lhao, a vibrant city floating above the clouds, rich in culture and beautiful sights, but then you learn the secrets keeping it running: The greedy authoritarian aristocrats that reside in manors floating even higher in the sky, and the exploitation of the working class, living below cloud cover in the slums of Lei Elgona. The world of Gravity Rush 2 is built primarily in a way that’s fun to explore with Kat’s powers, but it’s also built to say something. Big-budget video games are rarely subtle, but when you first leap from the pleasure and commerce of Jirga Para Lhao and plummet from its blue skies down to the polluted air of the slums keeping it afloat, subtle doesn’t seem nearly as effective.
Leaving the Great Plateau (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)
Gentle is not a word often used to describe games. At least, not the sort of games that attempt to do what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does: present you with a vast, gorgeous open world for adventuring. But Breath of the Wild is gentle — serene in its approach to everything, from combat to exploration to just figuring out how to cook an omelette. It eases you into learning everything you need to know in its first area, The Great Plateau — a space that’s small enough that it isn’t overwhelming, but big enough to feel full of potential. Then, once you have the tools you need, the game gives you a glider, the one thing you need to get off the Plateau and out into the wider world. And a strange thing happens: That wide world, full of things to find and do? It’s not exhausting. It’s soothing. You feel your smallness as the ground rises up to meet you, and you are content to experience it in your own small ways.
Route B (Nier: Automata)
Maybe the most unusual thing to happen in a video game in 2017 is the message from “Square Enix PR” that displayed the moment you reached the end of Nier: Automata. “We highly recommend you play through again to witness the full Nier: Automata experience,” the message urged. But playing through again isn’t quite what you do. The story continues, but it revisits the same events from a different perspective, one that begins with a small robot — one of the hundreds you’ve destroyed by this point — trying to bring its dead friend back to life. It puts you in control of this robot, assigning you a task that is clearly futile, and makes you do it anyway. If that first fake-out ending — Route A, with its story of androids fighting machines on behalf of humanity (while grappling with the idea of humanity) — is an introduction to the ideas Nier plays with, the start of Route B is the beginning of their subversion. It signals that things are going to go to deeper, stranger places, and if you were willing to see the game through to its real ending, it leads to one of the most singular video game stories of the year.
Surviving (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds)
Arguably the biggest sensation in video games this year, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground is brutal in its simplicity, and instantly compelling. Inspired by Battle Royale, the game drops you from an airplane with 100 other players and nothing but the clothes on your back, and challenges you to be the last one standing. Playing a match is a rush of warring impulses as you alternate from fight to flight in an attempt to outlast your opponents. While victory is unquestionably the biggest rush the game can provide, what brings you back is the steady buzz you feel as the map shrinks and the number of players surviving steadily drops until you know it’s finally time for you to face someone else and see if you can last a little bit longer.
The First Liberation (Pyre)
In Pyre, you play an exile from a fantasy realm known as the Commonwealth, forced to wander a largely barren and hostile purgatory completely severed from the life you knew. You’re told there’s a way out, that you and the exiles you’ve befriended can earn your way back into the Commonwealth by participating in the Rites: a ceremony best described as a magic basketball game. Win enough Rites, and you’ll earn a shot at the Liberation Rite — only when you get to it, you find out there’s a cruel twist. The Liberation Rite will not free everyone on the winning team, just one. So, after spending several hours befriending and traveling with a small party of exiles, you must choose one person to be liberated. Win, and your party grows smaller, and winning future games more difficult. Lose, and your opponents send someone home, and you must struggle onward indeterminately until another Liberation Rite occurs. The First Liberation is where Pyre becomes a different game entirely, one where losing is more interesting than winning, and winning more complicated than you imagined.
The New Donk City Festival (Super Mario Odyssey)
New Donk City was the first sign that Super Mario Odyssey wasn’t going to be like any other Mario game. An entire level styled after a modern city occupied by regular-looking people — a truly bizarre sight compared to the squat, cartoony Mario — New Donk City was immediately ridiculous and irresistible, ergo, the perfect Mario world. Although players arrive in New Donk City roughly halfway through Odyssey, the end of New Donk City feels like a climax, a beautiful, joyous tribute to decades of Mario and the delights of video games. It’s impossible to play through without grinning.
Lewis Finch’s Story (What Remains of Edith Finch)
A game made up of other games, What Remains of Edith Finch is a collection of whimsical and macabre stories about a cursed family, and the untimely deaths its members met. Of those stories, the life and death of Lewis Finch is the game’s crowning achievement. Lewis is a young man struggling with depression who copes by conjuring up a fantasy world as he goes through the drudgery of his job at a cannery. Playing through it, you simultaneously control Lewis’s repetitive tasks on an assembly line and explore the increasingly elaborate fantasy he constructs. (It’s easier to do than you think it might be.) You don’t just play as Lewis Finch, you understand him as gameplay and narrative merge to paint a remarkably vivid picture of a character’s inner life, and tragic end.
Roswell (Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus)
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes place in an alternate 1960s Earth where Nazi Germany has won World War II and achieved world domination. In The New Colossus, the resistance — which has been chased out of Berlin — comes to America with the goal of inciting revolution. After a lengthy, brutal preamble, you’re sent to Roswell, New Mexico, on the day of a parade celebrating America’s Nazi occupation. In a game that mostly asks you to shoot Nazis, The New Colossus briefly makes you peacefully wander the bleakly vibrant streets of Roswell. You see movie theaters advertising Nazi propaganda, Klansmen fumbling their way through German, and newspaper clippings noting how quickly and willingly Americans caved to fascism. Roswell isn’t the peak of The New Colossus’ sharply observed satire, but it’s the start of a stretch that’s among the most satisfying in any game, taking players from New Mexico to Texas to Washington, D.C., in a breathless sequence of events where every hour is one of the biggest swings in video games.
Meeting Goro Majima (Yakuza 0)
There are two protagonists in Yakuza 0, an offbeat, colorful gangster drama set in ’80s Japan. The first is Kazuma Kiryu. He’s what you’d expect from a story like this — an ambitious foot soldier in the Dojima clan suddenly framed for murder and cast out of his criminal organization. The second, Goro Majima, is something else entirely. You meet Majima in a cabaret frequently attended by wealthy, powerful figures, one that’s suddenly upended when an unruly customer assaults a hostess. As the club’s manager, Majima is called in to handle the situation, and what follows is one of the most dazzling character introductions in a video game, one that has Majima trouncing the drunkard in question with nothing but excellent customer service and some really good footwork. In a game brimming with compelling and strange characters, Majima shines. It takes roughly two hours to meet him, but once you do, you’ll be glad you’re going to spend half of the game in his impeccable tuxedo.