While my foremost passion remains poetry and literature, in the last couple of years I’ve gotten more and more into what video games can bring as both an artistic medium and on a purely entertainment basis. It was a big hobby of mine as a child, and coming back to it has been a lot of fun, and not only for nostalgia purposes (though certainly that’s part of it)—it’s been exciting to see how the form has grown over time.
And while 2017 was a banner year for awful crap overall (beating out 2016 for that honor, a trend that doesn’t look likely to end just yet), it was, as anyone in the games industry will tell you, one of the most remarkable years for gaming, ever. From historic franchises stepping up with major releases to out-of-nowhere games put out by tiny independent developers, the quality out there was crazy high—which made this list exceptionally difficult to narrow it down to.
Even still, like with my other lists this year (fiction and nonfiction books yesterday, and poetry tomorrow), I’m cheating a bit and choosing my top 15 instead of the traditional ten. Unlike the other lists, though, I’m ranking them in order of my favorites. It feels much more natural to do that with games than with books; I wonder if that’s because such a list or ranking would feel so much more like a personal statement about the creator, whereas since games need multiple, sometimes dozens or even hundreds, of people to create, it feels a little more impersonal? Who knows.
As always, this list may not be definitive—I don’t play games for a living, I have to sneak them into my spare time!—but these are the games that really knocked my socks off this year.
15. Tacoma (Fullbright, Xbox One/PC)
Thankfully, Fullbright didn’t just try to do “Gone Home in Space” with this one; if GH was an investigation of interior spaces, Tacoma widens the scope without losing its sharp eye. Commentary on everything from technology to climate change to socioeconomics and consumerism was a surprise for a game that is, on its surface, about exploring the lives and relationships of the six people stationed on a (now abandoned) space station—even more surprising is that it works.
The game has something to say without beating you over the head with it. And while some awkward pacing/mechanical issues make learning the ins and outs of the game a little less intuitive than it could have been, those complaints are very minor. Tacoma is a well-written, engaging story, it’s well voice-acted, and has layers upon layers for players who want to take the time to poke around the station and its ghostly inhabitants. You get what you put into Tacoma; you can do the bare minimum, see the immediate situation of these crewmembers, and then be done with your character’s mission—or you can spend the time to dig in and piece together more. This is a game that rewards curiosity and careful attention.
14. Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Deck Nine, PS4/Xbox One/PC)
A prequel to Life is Strange (which ranked very high on my list last year), Before the Storm earns its existence in a sea of often superfluous prequels and sequels by focusing on building out the characters and relationships that come to bear on the original, while still doing a great job to stand on its own.
Chloe was always more interesting than the more neutral, blank-slate Max of the original LiS. Getting the chance to walk in her shoes is instantly more interesting than being the likable if bland Max, and lets you explore being an angsty, lost teen in a way that feels genuine. Good for both new visitors to Arcadia Bay as well as newbies to the series, BtS takes the established formula, gives it a remix, a coat of polish, and undoes some of the more annoying quirks of the original (some being the operative word here; there are still a handful of glitches and unintended quirks to be found, and some of the animations can be cringeworthy, though overall steps are in the right direction here).
There are standout scenes—an in-game Dungeons and Dragons session in Episode 1 and a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the second, but the core of the story is the development of the relationship between Chloe and Rachel. The latter being almost a mythic, off-screen presence in the original series, Deck Nine had their work cut out for them making her a fully fleshed-out person, and they hit the nail on the head doing so while justifying the way she was portrayed originally.
Before the Storm features a quieter finale than the original LiS, which is probably what a lot of people wanted to begin with. It’s a satisfying conclusion as well—until the last 10-second post-credits clip that is so wildly unnecessary, out of place in this prequel (even if there is a reason in the broader LiS context), on-the-nose, and deflating. I won’t spoil, but I simply could have done without that quick moment—it doesn’t ruin the game, and overall it’s a small blip in a great series, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my disappointment with the final moments.
13. Metroid: Samus Returns (MercurySteam/Nintendo EPD, 3DS)
Exactly what we’d been wanting for awhile, a new, solid Metroid platformer, with secrets, exploration, and power-ups galore. Surprisingly, combat is center stage here, and is the most fun it’s ever been in a 2D Metroid, in part due to new counter and angling mechanics but also due to the movement being faster and more fluid than before. Nothing groundbreaking here, but solid, reliable fun, and a fitting swan song (it would seem) to the 3DS.
12. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, PS4/PC)
With a researched, engrossing take on psychosis, historical depictions and views on mental illness, and Nordic lore, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a unique game that really pushes what the medium can do in the realm of experiential art.
It’s the first time I’ve ever found myself noting how well audio was used in a game—beyond background music and sound effects, noise in Hellblade is used in many novel ways, everything from puzzle solving to fighting a boss in the darkness, and importantly, surrounding the player (provided one is wearing headphones as recommended) with the cacophony of voices the titular character must push through on her way into literal Hell. These voices are the backbone of this resonant game, alternatingly worrying, screaming, goading, encouraging, sneering, questioning. They carry the player through what are otherwise bleak, lonely landscapes as the history of Senua, her lost lover (who she is hacking and slashing here way into hell to save—how good it is to see such a badass role fall to a woman, though credit where credit is due as to my knowledge Nordic countries had a history of woman warriors before most other peoples), and her illness unfolds.
It’s also one of the most visually-polished games I’ve ever played, which lends itself well to not only the atmosphere but also the challenges of the game, as attention to detail (and indeed, the larger themes of the story itself) comes down to perspective.
11. Splatoon 2 (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
Only Jet Set Radio has ever gotten more points in my book for straight-up coolness. The funny, charming world of Splatoon and its denizens makes for a lighthearted, fun coating around what is at its core a finely-tuned action title that blends shooting and platforming into a unique concoction that feels right in a way that only Nintendo can pull off. This second iteration of the franchise does everything the first did, just a little better, and adds a few new wrinkles; the Salmon Run horde mode is some of the most hectic fun I’ve had playing games in quite awhile.
10. Steamworld Dig 2 (Image & Form, Switch/PS4/PC/Mac/Vita)
Image & Form Games did a wonderful job with this one; a simple concept (take a left-to-right platformer, tilt it 90 degrees clockwise) that they expanded on since the first one, and really did just about everything right this time. Everything you do in the game feels good: there are platforming challenges that can be tough but not unfairly so, and the progression loops make the game very satisfying to play. Add some striking, bright visuals and a good sense of humor and you have a platformer that is just a plain blast to play.
9. Sonic Mania (PagodaWest Games/Headcannon, Switch/PS4/Xbox One/PC)
Way more fun than it has any right to be. The developers have somehow made a game that feels not like the originals did (go back and play them now, they’re clunkier than you think) but like how we remember them playing. Sonic Mania gets the balance of speed and exploration just right, and straddles the line between homage to earlier Sonic games and something new; its innovations are smart and accumulative, as they didn’t reinvent the wheel here but rather smoothed its edges.
8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (MachineGames, PS4/Xbox One/PC/Switch)
A smartly written game that does a lot to reflect the anxieties, vulnerabilities, and realities of America in 2017. While it definitely trades in over-the-top-ness (a handful of moments of this game come to mind that I won’t spoil here), the details of the game and its environment subtly do a lot of work indicting the complicity (particularly white complicity) we could reasonably expect in the hypothetical of a Nazi-controlled, post-WWII America.
You can rush through the game, blasting away at Nazis and their robot warriors (I said it was over the top) and get the top layer of the story, but spending some time poking around the details and interactions peppered throughout and you can see a lot more. For one example, wandering through the streets during a Nazi parade in Roswell you can follow two in-regalia klansmen out and about, and watch their interaction with a Nazi soldier. Turns out, more that just benefitting from a Nazi rule by default, the Klan was given power to oversee the transition of power in the “American Territories” after Germany won the war.
It’s good when a game, like any piece of art, has something to say; that’s a given, but games moreso than any medium are often excused from this aspect (no doubt because they can still provide quite a bit of entertainment value otherwise). Especially in 2017, given what we’ve seen start to form in the last couple years, a lot of the little things in Wolfenstein II ring true or at least set off warning bells for those paying attention.
As for the rest of the game, the mechanics of progression feel fine, moving and climbing and shooting is acceptable (not the best out there now but far from the worst), but the big thing hampering the game is a handful of level layouts that are abysmal. I’m talking maddeningly vague, poorly thought out environments that more than once I spent quite a bit of time running around in trying to find how to move on, only to realize an easy-to-miss door or opening was somewhere where I needed to backtrack to a little bit. Outside of that though, a lot to enjoy here. You get the insane stunts and high-octane, hellishly masculine action (although the game should be given credit for a roster of pretty badass women in the mix) one might look for in a big-budget, no-brain action flick—the cutscenes are well constructed, as a cinematic quality pervades many scenes and the dialogue is well above average—plus enough smart, intricate world-building and socially aware moments to lodge in your brain for some time, and for good reason.
7. Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, PS4/Xbox One/PC/Mobile)
With writing that can pull off spot-on humor and genuine empathy, Night in the Woods has maybe the most realized, fleshed out characters I’ve come across in a game, and certainly in a relatively short one. The themes of NitW—small town working class America, ennui, purpose, religion, mental illness, omnipresent debt—all perfectly, deftly capture a particular moment in our culture, a culture that can’t help but be largely defined by the economic realities surrounding it.
I adored these characters and the brief but meaningful adventures we as players are given with them. The dialogue is whip-smart and the visuals are gorgeous. But most of all, the willingness of the game to delve into serious, deep topics without getting preachy or losing the game’s sardonic edge is a huge achievement, and is a big part of what makes it so memorable.
6. Resident Evil 7 (Capcom, PS4/Xbox One/PC)
Extremely well executed. Unsettling, terrifying, exciting. The first person perspective really helps sell the horror, and the pacing of both the game’s mechanics/action and narrative are pitch-perfect. The ending boss is a little underwhelming and the penultimate act off-campus drags a little bit, but that’s really all I can think of to conceivably hold against this game. It’s original, detailed, and fully realized. Probably the best horror game I’ve ever played.
5. Kentucky Route Zero (Acts I – IV) (Cardboard Computer, PC)
(Okay, so this one didn’t come out in 2017—the five-part series put out installment number four in 2016, and the final chapter is slated for 2018, but I did play it for the first time this year, so I’m counting it.)
I can’t get over how weird, poignant, and haunting this game is. The narrative moves further into the surreal and deepens throughout the acts, calling into question narrator reliability, memory, imagination, and space; and it does so with poetry that moves at your touch as you explore the debt of living from a number of angles.
KRZ has some of the most stunning settings I’ve seen, and it pulls them off with a somewhat minimal visual style that cleverly plays with detail and symbolism (indeed, a number of elements of magical realism, and also allusions to authors like Márquez and Beckett are scattered throughout). The ways of moving, even in the overworld, disrupt expectations and, like the rest of the game, regularly delightful and invite reflection and rumination. I’m surprised at nearly every turn.
4. Cuphead (StudioMDHR, Xbox One/PC)
Come for some of the most stunning, hand-drawn animation you’ve ever seen, stay for the challenge that both respects your time and makes progress and failure both feel natural and rewarding. The product of a small team spending years getting this thing right, it’s fantastic to see such a passion project nailed so squarely and then receive a fittingly warm welcome. Even as a player who does not normally go for the run-and-gun style games, Cuphead had me hooked late into the evening, wanting to take just one or two more runs at a boss because I can feel myself getting closer and closer to surmounting its unique challenge.
3. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
Super Mario Odyssey is comprised of one thousand little moments of joy, so carefully placed around these expertly-designed environments that what would be a chore for nearly any other game (collecting those thousand little tokens) is a genuine pleasure and drives the game onward.
Plenty of new ideas added to the Mario series here, and plenty of homages to the history of that series, but in both cases even the very basic movements in this game, traversing landscapes and overcoming enemies, is immensely fun. It’s hard to find a single flaw in the game that isn’t just nitpicky; it’s that well done.
1 (Tie). What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, PS4/Xbox One/PC)
What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative game that takes everything generally working for the genre—namely, engrossing stories and well-realized aesthetics—and ups the ante with constant surprises that take every shape the medium will allow, including the very way the player interacts with (controls) the game.
The game relishes language, and it shows in both visual representation and crisp, engaging writing. Telling not just one story, but a bouquet of them that all converge at the nexus of a shared bloodline, Edith Finch is not afraid to linger in quiet moments, let the details of the game and the house do some of the lifting And that house is packed with items and dialogue to fill out these characters’ storylines—this really is the natural successor to Gone Home in fulfilling the promise of a genre that that game helped define.
But the game is also not afraid to be bombastic, stylish, and loud; and when these moments hit they resonate through the quiet moments outside of the memories that are the game’s “levels”: essentially, playable short stories.
Indeed, it’s these stories, each told in a unique tone and play style, that delivers the heavy blows of the game’s emotional thrust, and—without spoiling any, because really, there’s genuine pleasure in discovering them as they happen—they are genuinely surprising even though you know what’s going to happen to the characters, since you’re replaying the last day of each of these characters’ lives. This sense of surprise permeates the game and makes it a moving and memorable experience that feels like it’s living up to the artistic potential of the medium. It’s going to be a long time before I stop thinking about this game.
1 (Tie). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
Honestly, I’m not sure what I can say about this game that hasn’t already been said a million times on the internet about how spectacular and delightful this game is. Even for folks who don’t count themselves “gamers,” knowledge of this game has almost certainly permeated your consciousness through cultural/social media osmosis. In part, that’s due to Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, hitting the right note—being able to play the same games on your TV as in a handheld (and swapping seamlessly between the two) has people falling back in to the hobby, and has led to the console selling like mad. Breath of the Wild is a perfect example of the kind of deep, thorough game that is now suddenly more accessible via the platform’s unique properties.
But mostly, it’s because Breath of the Wild is a lovingly built toolbox-and-permission-slip-all-at-once for players: it drops you in its universe and says, “Figure it out.” And it’s a joy to do so, to discover all the ways you can manipulate the world around you and interact with just about everything to achieve your goals in any way you see fit, as well as to simply explore the world Nintendo created here. There is a mind-boggling amount of things to do in this version of Hyrule, and almost none of it is traditional filler (“Collect a bunch of these to inflate the game time!”). It’s an open world you actually want to poke around in, play in with your interesting abilities and the learn about the way the world interacts with itself—it really does feel like the land in this game is breathing, alive, and that the player can tap into just a little bit of this raw power.
From the first time you climb a mountain, just to see if you can and that it’s not a piece of set dressing, and look out at Hyrule to decide your next move, the sheer amount of possibility that you can feel at your fingertips is intoxicating. Breath of the Wild is challenging when it needs to be, and the more rewarding for it: though you’ll have to work for it, every question you ask the game—”Can I do this?” “What if I…” “I wonder if…”—comes back as a joyous “Yes.”
Anatomy, A Normal Lost Phone, Dear Esther, Destiny 2, Little Nightmares, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Oxenfree, Rime, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment
Games that might’ve made the list if I had gotten around to them:
Battle Chef Brigade, Gorgoa, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, Prey