Sophia Park is a local Toronto game developer and co-director of Dames Making Games. In 2017 she created and released Forgotten, Arc Symphony, and Localhost. The latter two releases have been covered in articles on the site. She is currently working with her team at Aether Interactive on a 2018 release.
If you’re like me, you’ve read dozens of “game of the year” lists. Not just this year. Every year. Me, I’m not sure why I do it, but I do it incessantly. Even when I know they probably hold our medium back and uphold a nonstop release schedule as a tool of the industry, I still listen, write, think about them.
But this time, let’s do something different. I want to talk about which pieces of interactive media were most evocative of the year. I don’t care for the usual pastoral, almost fascistic fantasy of a “golden age” that we can restore after “defeating the enemy.” I don’t believe that mods being given the budget and space to be developed into influential full experiences are new or particular to 2017 — in fact, Valve’s been doing it for almost twenty years.
So what are the most notable, most accomplished, “most 2017” games?
It’s been rare to find interactive media willing to go “all in” on specializing itself to the exhibition device. There’s exceptions, of course; Nintendo practices a love of “console specificity” for their products that does or doesn’t work every generation.
However, I believe we’re starting to see games that can realize the inherent interaction models of one specific exhibition device — the history of the interactions on one device — and contextualise all their interactions likewise. Enter Kingsway.
The desktop metaphor of the modern personal computer was designed to acclimatize the human brain to working with a pointer and bitmap display; you can find everything open, splayed out in layers, as if you were arranging documents on a physical desktop. This is an interaction model that has been trained into billions of humans for literal decades.
Kingsway recognizes this interaction model as something intuitive and transplants it into another genre’s mechanics and generic syntax. In the next few years, this will become less ‘gimmick’ and more common practice; it makes use of pre-existing player knowledge in the same way that genre and narrative tropes do. It’s pre-trained interaction with information processing contexts already provided. What more do you need?
Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire
Did you know this expansion came out in 2017? The game itself barely made a blip outside of the usual round of MMORPG press venues; this is, of course, a tragedy, because Path of Fire is a beautiful and intriguing work. It follows up on story threads now over ten years old and knows that there are people who have been watching for ten years, paying that anticipation off with an amazing score, a story of satisfying depth and agency.
Yes, yes, Sophia Park’s a big Guild Wars nerd. I can’t help that — everyone has a friend who’s the anchor abroad, reporting in on what’s going on in some other world. And in turn, that news becomes more and more relegated.
A lot of MMORPGs had releases in 2017, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t aware of that. Elder Scrolls Online released the Morrowind expansion. Final Fantasy XIV? Stormblood expansion. EVE Online released the Lifeblood expansion. Everquest II even had the Planes of Prophecy expansion.
With shows like Recovery of an MMO Junkie positioning MMORPGs as the recuperative sanctuary of society’s unproductive caste, it’s important to be aware of this silent, still burgeoning industry. It’s only getting bigger, and it will continue to become a refuge as our economy transitions toward basic income — an inevitability, of course. And in the meantime, with the pressures of capitalism squeezing people out younger and younger, there will always be MMOs waiting.
Mass Effect: Andromeda
I don’t care if it sacrifices everything you held dear about your power fantasy trilogy. Mass Effect: Andromeda is the game that historians will point back to as an epitome of the era.
Why? Well, let’s start with the production. Andromeda was a victim of the pressures of the industry: the majority of the game was completed in about a year and a half. Given an design-first strategy, the story had to form itself around exploration and resource cultivation, and with the writing team striving to justify it late in production, it instead became about irrational, pervasive escape: an inescapably colonialist fantasy that video games has yet to really grow out of due to the way we often frame the ‘pleasure’ of gaming: endless collection, endless consumption, endless growth, endless violence.
Mass Effect: Andromeda was set up to be a blockbuster product; the industry en masse expected as such, and initial news coverage played into this narrative. What makes it notable, what makes it more than “Dragon Age: Inquisition, in space,” is that it broke this script with its rawness and optimism given the constraints involved, and given the story they had to tell.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is the second child who was expected to be as accomplished as the first, and it failed at that goal because there weren’t the resources or tools available to meet the standards by three games that only actually exist in cultural memory, nor was there the element of surprise that Mass Effect got the first time around: instead, the triumph of that first trilogy arrived before Andromeda did. Mass Effect: Andromeda is shorter in person; its nose is a little crooked; and what’s worse, it doesn’t even have the same goals or ambitions. It’s nothing you wanted; it’s nothing that our nonstop, capitalist consumption system promised of itself. But it also has a wonderful mind of its own worth taking on its own merits.
Okay, Sophia. You’re really souring me on this game. What’s the actual pitch?
The writing done in that year in a half, the writing in the corners of the world, the stories that were formed under that pressure, are ideologically and thematically unpolished. That is to say, the creative direction let loose these stories in this universe in ways that never quite cohere together. In return, we get a primordial goo of 2017 anxieties:
Ryder ends up being a plural being, sharing her body with an AI with root access to her biological functions. Nobody is okay with this nor do they understand her or how to talk to her.
This plural existence is challenged and re-established constantly.
I think this investigation of artificial intelligence is worth playing through, because it’s not meant to be a game about it, exactly. It’s not Nier. But it’s found its way into this game anyway, after the first Mass Effect trilogy spent its time asking you to judge all synthetic life. Instead, you are synthetic life; you are organic life. You are multiple beings, somehow. And for your ragtag exploration team, that’s a scary thing to deal with.
Combine that with the production schedule representing the impending collapse of the way we produce, sell and understand consuming our own medium, and you have the game of 2017, the game that most represents what 2017 was about.