The Game Awards just happened, and though mostly meaningless, I was rooting for my favorite games of the year. Of the contestants, my pick was definitely Horizon Zero Dawn. Sadly, the award went to Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, but my opinions on that are for another time. Though I voted for Horizon Zero Dawn, and I did love that game, my top 3 choices were Prey, Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and Nier Automata. Spoiler warning for each of these, by the way.
Personally, I think that a title worthy of being called the Game of the Year should not just be the most popular game of the year, but something that adds something new to the industry, something that innovates. As much as I love Horizon Zero Dawn, it mostly just takes mechanics from other games and perfects them. There are so many games coming out every year, many of them are just reskinned versions of other games or they copy and paste all of their mechanics. The games that are brave enough to try something new should be the one’s recognized.
Prey is probably my favorite Bethesda game, or it might be Fallout New Vegas…it changes all the time. It was very refreshing to see a more contained game from Bethesda. I love that about Arkane. They are much more contained, but every square foot is used. In the open world games, I love exploring, but there is so much empty space. I was lucky to have started Prey without any knowledge of what the game was about or what I should expect. I had no idea that the beginning of the game was a simulation, or that any object could be a mimic, etc. Prey is, by far, my favorite horror game. Unlike many other horror games, Prey doesn’t rely on jump scares for it’s horror. While it does have some jump scares in the form of mimics you’re not expecting, Prey creates the basis of it’s horror through making you suspicious and on edge at all times. I love that it made me afraid of coffee cups and trash cans. I think this is much more effective horror. The further into the game I went, the less I trusted everything and everyone around me. January, December, Alex, even the past versions of Morgan were all untrustworthy. It’s a slow burn style of horror. The environmental design is excellent at not only showing the status of the space station (I absolutely love the coral that spreads across Talos I), but also at designing diverse encounters that require different tactics. The last thing I want to talk about with Prey is the wide array of weapons, powers, and tactics. The recycling grenade, gloo gun, mimic power, the gravity field power, etc were all so goofy and awesome. I loved using them and I’ve never seen anything like it. If I were to pick the biggest flaw, it would be that the player becomes very powerful and it makes the enemies fairly trivial, thus lowering the horror aspect.
Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice passed me by at first. I hadn’t heard much about it, and by the name, it sounded like some hack n slash Dynasty Warriors-style game. It was only about a month ago that someone recommended it to me. I instantly loved it from the opening cut scene. I really appreciate when media depicts mental illness well since I’ve struggled with mental health myself. I have never seen a better depiction of psychosis than Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice. My experience has never been nearly as bad as Senua’s, but there are elements in the game that ring true for me. I played this game with noise canceling headphones, and I was blown away by the sound design. The binaural audio made Senua’s voices feel real. I loved how the voices showed the doubt, encouragement, fear and danger in Senua’s heart. They not only showcase Senua’s illness, but also provide information in the combat, and hints for the puzzles. Speaking of the combat, many detractors find it repetitive and boring. I can see how people have that complaint, but personally, I found it simplistic but satisfying. I specifically enjoy combat systems with timing-based parry mechanics. Plus, the bosses were super cool and that doesn’t hurt. I think it’s important to remember, though, that Hellblade isn’t about the combat. The combat is just a way to represent Senua fighting against obstacles that her brain placed in front of her.
Hellblade’s mechanics are primarily puzzles. Most of them are “find the shape in the environment” puzzles. Many of the complaints I have seen talk about how they dislike these puzzles and they are just boring filler to make the game longer. Boring is a matter of opinion, but the puzzles actually fit perfectly into the game. One of the signs of psychosis is a need to find meaning where there is none: in others’ words in actions, in events that happen, or in the world around them. When the game locks a door behind runes that you must find in the environment, the door is not actually locked. It is simply locked for Senua. She is convinced that it is impossible to open that door until she has earned it. Senua has to find signs (runes) in the world around her to show her that she has earned it. It is a brilliant way to showcase this aspect of psychosis. Her brain is constantly creating obstacles and placing them in her way (something I can absolutely relate to). This game isn’t a fight against Hela, its a fight against herself and her guilt over her lover’s death. Everything she is doing is an avoiding facing her own illnesses. This is the darkness that encroaches across the screen when she is particularly vulnerable or scared.
I want to quickly talk about a few shorter things I appreciate. First of all, the game is beautiful. It displays the same sad, lonely, and rugged beauty of Senua herself. She is beautiful but her life has taken it’s toll on her. Her eyes are constantly shifting, suspicious and afraid. Her hair and face paint showing her Pictish heritage. Her body is covered in scars and wounds that mirror her mental state. Next I want to praise Melina Juergens’ performance. She had me transfixed. Her facial movements and voice acting perfectly displays her pain, fear and anger. I am so happy that she got the award for Best Performance. She deserves it. Lastly, I love their depiction of Norse mythology. So many adaptations stick to the lighter parts like Thor, Odin, Asgard the glittering realm of the gods, etc, but there is so much more. Much of Norse mythology is dark, gritty, and violent. I love that Hellblade displayed this side of it.
Nier Automata is a game that I was initially hesitant about. It had a lot of elements that I usually don’t like in other games. Bullet hell and hack n slash mechanics specifically put me off of it. A friend of mine bought the game and loved it. He convinced me to give the demo a try. I enjoyed it a lot; enough to buy it for myself. I first want to say that the music in this game is incredible and absolutely deserving of the Game Award for Best Soundtrack. Just like Prey, this game has a very contained open world. The world is small but full. I do wish that the world was full of more diverse enemies, though. It’s amazing to me that this game managed to create a complete story with five fleshed out characters: 2B, 9S, A2, Adam, and Eve. Each character has such depth. It’s especially amazing that they managed to give 2B, a terse and mostly silent android, a fleshed out character through her actions and the words of those around her. Our perception of 2B started as a strictly professional and efficient soldier who suppresses emotions to accomplish the mission. As we learn more about her, even after her death (something I’m salty about, by the way), we see that she cares a lot about 9S, but she has had to bury her feelings in order to be able to kill 9S again and again. 9S goes from innocent and excited to have company to bitter, heartbroken and reckless. Each other character has similar development. I want to quickly mention how expertly they showed that robots are not as simple as YorHa says. Though fighting them is the same, the robots from the factory, the castle, the amusement park, etc are all so different.
It was brave of Nier Automata to tell the story the way they did. I wonder how many people got the credits for Ending A and then put the game away because they assumed it was over. Normally, I would dislike a game that makes you repeat large sections, but the differences in play style as 9S as well as the new perspective and quests makes it alright, for me at least. I don’t think I have ever seen a game pull off storytelling from multiple perspectives this well before. Normally it feels fractured and breaks immersion and any sense of urgency. Another thing that really impressed me about Nier Automata was the creative camera work. Most of the game is from a third person camera view, but depending on the location, the game will fluidly switch you to a 2D or a top down view. It could happen several times each level. The last thing I want to mention about Nier is the chip customization. This concept isn’t new (Transistor does this the best, in my opinion), but the one thing I haven’t seen is the ability to remove sections of the UI to add more memory for other chips (kinda like you’re an android, right?). This isn’t a huge thing, but it’s a detail that adds some flavor that I like. If I had to pick my least favorite thing about this game it would be 9S’ hacking mini game. I can’t stand it. Objectively I think the biggest flaw is how little enemy variety there is.
I loved all three of these games. These stood out to me this year. They stepped outside of the comfort zone for video games these days. I think that they really distinguished themselves, even if they were small in scale. They don’t try to appeal to every gamer or pretend to be something they are not. Larger games such as Breath of the Wild or Horizon Zero Dawn are awesome and expansive and fantastic in the moment, but eventually the excitement diminishes. I find that games like Prey, Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and Nier Automata are the ones that stay in my mind for years. They are special. If I had to choose one of the three, I would probably say that Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice is my Game of the Year. I will never forget playing this game and I will probably never see another game like it. It is special and deserves recognition.