AKA The Anime Awards
This is probably the second time in two years that I can say that it’s been a pretty good year for games and anime, if not necessarily a great year for everything else.
That might be true in the broader sense, but despite this more general similarity, the ends of 2016 and 2017 still feel like caps to altogether different years. Last year was full of anticipation and a bit of dread, particularly as long-in-the-making legends like Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, my personal pick of the year, showed up for real to confound or delight the expectations of people who’d been waiting the better part of a generation for them to come out.
This year, though, felt more like a louder, more confident, almost manic expression. Rather than looking forward to one thing or another, we were bombarded from angles both anticipated and unanticipated, as surprise hits and preordained blockbusters landed one after another, with barely any time between them.
I’ll admit, I barely even had enough time to form a decent impression of lots of this year’s best games and shows, much less finish or truly appreciate them. Let these silly personal highlights serve as a tip to the iceberg of good content that made up my 2017, and hope 2018 goes as well, ideally in a video game sense as well as a real-life sense.
The “Shot In The Back With A Silenced Shotgun” Award for Biggest Surprise of 2017
Winners: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Kemono Friends
It may not feel like a big surprise now to give PUBG some deserved recognition, now that everyone and their mother’s had a go at that chicken dinner, but the way it wrapped what felt like all of hardcore gaming (and then some) in its Battle Royale grip is still astonishing to me. PUBG was the game that got me playing again with some old high school friends, when the last time we gamed together was during the days of Counter-Strike’s reign over internet cafes. For us to be playing a title that is, in many ways, so much more “hardcore” a shooter than good ol’ CS (or “Counter” in our slang of the day) is another of BlueHole and Brendan Green’s minor miracles. And of course, the whole game relies on big surprises, be it the fateful shot from some distant hill that ends your scavenging or the up-close blast delivered by some jerk hiding in a bathroom, PUBG deals in jump-scares as effectively as any survival horror title.
It was a similar deal with Kemono Friends, an anime that has no right to be as endearing as it is. But people saw past the ugly CGI visuals and into its deeper heart, and as per director Tatsuki (who was recently, unceremoniously booted off the planned second season by publisher Kadokawa), to find some straight-up good sci-fi dressed in the cutesy quasi-furry character designs of Japari Park and its “Friends”. It was also a relentlessly positive show in spite of some Lost-grade mystery-box reveals, and exactly the kind of light entertainment that people (and some penguins) needed.
Runners-Up: Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and Land of the Lustrous
Among the Runners-Up, The New Colossus was less a surprise by its existence (it was natural to expect that MachineGames would try to escalate from the shocks of The New Order, but it did still manage to be bewilderingly forward and frank about…well, almost everything. To call it a shock factory would sound reductive, but as a player I felt almost as helpless as BJ himself during the game’s opening wheelchair sequence: Strapped in for a ride that was beyond my control or anticipation. I daren’t say more for fear of spoiling the whole shebang, but it never lets up. For non-manga readers like me Land of the Lustrous made a strong out-of-left-field impact thanks to its utterly out-there premise, centered around beings that are humanoid, genderless, sentient expressions of various types of gems, fighting strange aliens bent on harvesting them to use as jewelry. Its otherworldly vibe and surprisingly good CG visuals (CG anime are finally feeling less like a gamble and an actual viable choice), Land of the Lustrous shocked even jaded otaku inured to the medium’s penchant for tropes and recycled ideas.
The Towering Backlog Award for Best Media I Haven’t Gotten To Yet in 2017
Winners: Horizon: Zero Dawn and Made In Abyss
It’s been a busy year, OK? I haven’t played or watched a ton of stuff! Heck, I’ve even got 2015 items still in my backlog, and the fact that many of the year’s best games are absolute monsters in terms of content and scope hasn’t helped. That said, one can still go by buzz and a first set of impressions to call up a few potential favorites, and among games, I’m thinking I could really enjoy Horizon: Zero Dawn. I wasn’t as tired of huge open-world games as everyone else by the time Guerilla Games tossed Aloy into our laps, but her saga did get a bit of a raw deal when Breath of the Wild hit it like a meteor. Someday, perhaps if that DLC ever goes on sale, I’ll get back to it.
Meanwhile, it was by choice that I initially avoided Made In Abyss. Though I’ve definitely enjoyed it, I tend to preemptively punch out of entertainment that promises to get heavy, and I had heard stories about this saga of cutesy Ghibli-lookin’ kids going to explore a giant hole in the world, and I didn’t feel the need to feel bad. I sort of regret that now, but plan to correct as soon as I can.
The Runners-Up: pinity Original Sin 2 and The Ancient Magus’ Bride
For me, pinity Original Sin 2 is the “paralysis of choice” rendered as a whole damn videogame. Its reputation for say-anything, do-anything creativity has so frightened the shit out of me that I’m still shying away from booting it up, even if I *know* I’ll like what I find. The Ancient Magus’ Bride, on the other hand, has me paralyzed by reputation. Everyone I follow seems to love the manga *this* much, and has me promising to read it first, but since I don’t read much manga to begin with, I’ve ended up blocking myself off from just getting it over with and watching the anime, even while its story of a normal girl becoming the assistant (and fiance) of a magical dude that has a deer skull for a head sounds totally like my kind of thing.
The Stanley Special Prize for Most Meta Media of 2017
Winners: Danganronpa V3 and Re: Creators
This one goes out games and anime that couch a big part of their appeal in addressing the player or audience in some direct way, either through themes, mechanics, or plotting. It takes guts to risk deliberately subverting the audience’s expectations, and the works that can pull off that kind of gambit deserve recognition. There were actually a ton of games that played around with metastorytelling this year, from the mind-messing sound design of Hellblade to NieR Automata, but no game did the meta thing better in my mind than Danganronpa V3. I didn’t know what to expect from it, considering the rather conclusive endings to Danganronpa 2 and its Danganronpa 3 animated sequel, but I really didn’t expect Spike Chunsoft’s new outing to Monokuma’s stomping grounds to go the way it did. That the decision pided fan reactions only serves as icing on the cake. When critics talk about a work being “in conversation” with itself and/or its audience, Danganronpa V3 feels like a particularly vivid example of that quality.
Re: Creators, is basically what the Fate franchise would be if Fate were less about heroes and history and more about pop culture and the creative process. From the minds that messed us up with Fate/Zero comes a story that feels like a world-shattering collision between Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Image’s The Unwritten comic book series, the Fate franchise, and every fan wiki ever made. In it, fictional characters break into the real world to decide the fate of the fleshy “gods” that would dare create them. It’s also the only show I’ve seen where someone saves a life by going viral on social media.
Runners-Up: Echo and Animegataris
Animegataris isn’t so much a meta anime that messes with its viewers as it highly enjoyable in ways tangential to its core context. The story is about a normie highschooler starting an anime club to find out the name of an influential show from her childhood. That’s a decent enough cover industry-level insights into how anime is made and marketed, as well as a tone of well-done referential jokes. It’s not quite Shirobako (my pick of the year in 2015), but any show that can help me learn more about the medium I love while still being entertaining is strong in my book. And while Echo seemed to sell itself initially as something of a clever action game, it was really almost a horror game where players ended up “training” their own nemesis, as hostile clones of themselves would learn and use the same stealth-action murder techniques on the player with each iteration.
The “And Chill” Award for Comfiest Media of 2017
Winners: Persona 5 and Konosuba
In the year of our lord 2017, self-care is the thing. Doing what you need to to keep from going completely nuts has been both prerogative and priority for most folks, and sometimes that means playing a game or watching a show that’s less about expanding your horizons or challenging yourself than about sinking comfortably into something that just feels good for a bit.
Perhaps it might be galling to Atlus and P-Studio to hear this in light of their intentions, but 2017’s comfort game for me was Persona 5, a game that its creators could not have tried harder to make into a searing challenge for the ages. True, while its themes and plot for the most part are at a series peak for radical anger and raging against the machine that grownups built, the act of playing it, moving from day to day under the careful guidance of your cat, settles into a comfortably tense, absorbing pattern before long.
The reverse is true of Konosuba, a show that, on the surface, does not appear to try very hard at all, seemingly as one of the legions of anime series starring a milquetoast everyman teleported into an alternate world patterned after fantasy RPGs. The laughs begin when you realize it’s actually the inverse of those games’ classical heroes journey. Rather than growing more powerful and latching onto their noble purpose, the adventurers Kazuma, Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness are the very picture of “failing upward”, bumbling into absurd and stressful levels of success utterly unbefitting of their characters. The show is a riot, and features some of the best cry-faces this side of Claire Danes.
Runners-Up: Granblue Fantasy and Recovery of an MMO Junkie
The thing to remember about comfy things is that what’s comfortable isn’t always what’s good. This is true of Granblue Fantasy, a obscene gacha monster that makes the current furor in the over loot boxes seem laughably naive. At the same time, it’s got mind-blowing art, great music, a localization team that’s so extra it’s endearing, a setup so varied and broad that you’ll end up looking at every new JRPG story through the lens of “Did I see this done in a Granblue event before?”, even decent gameplay for what’s basically a hybrid of browser MMO and Progress Quest. If you’ve ever wanted to actually *feel good* while gambling for JPEGs, Granblue Fantasy is the game for you.
On the opposite end is Recovery of an MMO Junkie, a sweet little one-off show that’s about as safe as one could ever imagine, meaning it’s also comfortable and heartwarming to watch. It’s basically an 11-episode stretch of the best part of any rom-com: the meet-cute. It stars Moriko, this year’s most wholesome 30-something, living out the ultimate romantic MMO fantasy, where the cutie she falls for in-game also happens to be her cutie neighbor. It’s pure saccharine goodness, and not even a character who, in any more realistic show, would be a walking red-flag, is enough to bring it down.
The Based Saberface Award for Best Fate Product of 2017
Winners: Fate/Grand Order and Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel -presage flower-
It shouldn’t be weird to me at this point, but it’s still super weird to know that Fate is actually really popular. It’s about as close to mainstream an otaku property can get without actually being mainstream, and now today’s youths are the ones that call Pokemon “old”, and instead debate the virtues of the *second* mecha version of a half-dragon, wannabe teen-idol, superpowered reincarnation of one of history’s most prolific murderers. Mecha Eli-chan Mk. II will not be denied, and she has Fate/Grand Order to thank for it. The only problem, of course, is that Fate/Grand Order is everything hateful about gacha games expressed in a single system. It’s miserly, cruel, kind of busted, expensive, and probably criminal. You shouldn’t play it. It’s too late for me.
If you shouldn’t play FGO (seriously, don’t!), you should at least give your monies to a proper Fate product like Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel I. presage flower. Studio ufotable have outdone themselves with the first part of their filmic trilogy covering what is arguably the most interesting of Fate/Stay Night’s three routes. Rather than the incoherence and sprawl of the Fate and Unlimited Blade Works TV series, Fate devotees get a feature film showcasing Ufotable’s typically lavish production values, as well as a few interesting creative choices that may have deeper ramifications for interpreting the story later on.
Runners-Up: Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star (Switch) and Fate/Apocrypha
Fate/Extella gets the runner-up nod this year, because it came out on the Switch in 2017, making it the other Fate game of the year. That said, it made a decent show of things, despite having some questionable narrative twists that incensed some fans of Fate/Extra. As a fan of Nero, though, I got my jollies, at least, and am looking forward to the feature-film conclusion to the Fate/Extra saga this year. Fate/Apocrypha, though, might just be a lot of people’s first exposure to any Fate at all, being a standalone spinoff series that…well, chucks a lot of core Fate tropes in favor of connecting a series of sweet battles between anime versions of historical/mythical figures. It’s imminently watchable, available on Netflix, and easy to get into, but pales in comparison to the source material. Try it sometime!
Actual Best of 2017
Winners: NieR Automata and My Hero Academia
What can I say at this point about NieR Automata that hasn’t been gushed out already? Almost nothing, except to remark that it’s very “2017”that two of the most human stories of the year are a game about sad robots and a show about sad rocks (Land of the Lustrous). Still my game of the year, though!
What’s not sad, though, is My Hero Academia. In a year when I once more fell out of love with most superhero comics after a bunch of damp-squib events and questionable behavior by the companies and people in charge of superhero storytelling, the saga of Deku and his classmates seemed to get the aspirational core of superheroes in a way that the properties that bear the genre standard can’t seem to articulate nowadays. Things seem primed to get darker in the announced third season, but at the moment I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Runners-Up: Yakuza 0 and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
I’d be putting Persona 5 here, but it’s a shame that Atlus couldn’t seem to bring it together and give the game a localization job worthy of its stature. Instead a lot of the energy and life that should’ve gone into P5 seems to have ended up in Yakuza 0, and to be honest, I’m OK with that*. This really seems to be the game that made Yakuza click with a larger group of people outside the weebs and nerds that powered through Yakuza on the PS2, and I’m super glad it did well enough to bring over the Kiwami remakes. Now, if Sega could be kind enough to make Yakuza 3 through 5 available on PC or PS Now so I don’t have to haul my PS3 out of storage, that’d be great!
A strong contender for comfiest media, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid would be cute enough if it were just about a dragon that’s a maid, but it’s also a heartwearming family show about an exhausted programmer, her disastrously gay girlfriend, and their adorable child, friends, and neighbors. The warmth of it shines through even the somewhat-iffy levels of fan service, making it an easy watch at a time when watching challenging stuff felt more like a luxury than a necessity.
And that’s my year in gaming and anime! There’s plenty I didn’t see, play or finish seeing or playing, so barring some kind of disaster (fingers crossed), I’ll likely have an even crazier backlog come 2018’s personal listings, but that’s a story yet to be told. Thanks for putting up with all this, and I’ll see you next year!