Andrew’s Top 10 Games of 2017
Nier: Automata. Torment: Tides of Numenera. Super Mario Odyssey. Snake Pass. Prey. Persona 5. Darkwood. Horizon: Zero Dawn. The Norwood Suite. Many, many more. Too many to count.
It would be embarrassing to recall every major 2017 release I have yet to have the chance to play, if not for the fact that there were simply too many. Not in a long while have publications fawned over such a vast number of titles, seemingly every week, with a plethora of ambitious AAA titles signalling that the industry is finally catching up with the innovative standards of indie developers.
If the year has proved anything (politically, economically, psychologically), it’s that the separation of understanding between individuals is growing at an exponential rate. The ‘status quo’ is no longer a legitimate excuse for a company/person/political party/etc. to succeed or fail. Games in 2017 chose a variety of ways to indicate this: a school haunted by the forgotten conformed students during Taiwan’s White Scare; the elaborate character design within a title that celebrates revolution as a necessary act under an abusive state; various scenarios illustrating the diversity of a single family line, each ultimately facing a single though individual fate; a group of similarly damaged school girls seeking refuge in a male friend who views them as something less than human.
This year proved that injustice and hatred were not to be tolerated. It was an opportunity for developers to prove their significance through narrative ambitions, gameplay innovation, and social import, which by looking at the headlines proved incredibly successful. Artistic modes have always been a conduit for personal expression, for political uprising; but never have they felt so significant across this specific medium.
But 2017 was, more than anything, a turning point in character-building. The most memorable titles featured some of the most believable and empathetic individuals I’ve ever come across in fiction, expanding upon the potential for narrative storytelling, in a medium where most learn to accept that the story often comes second to gameplay. Developers in 2017 set out to prove that notion entirely wrong.
Recounting the best games of the year then becomes an experiment in ranking these significant ventures on account of their very significance. What they choose to say in this era of time is just as important as how they function and how they make players feel. In fact, they all go hand in hand, pacing gradually though commandingly towards a more progressive future for all of society.
. . .
10. Okami HD
It’s taken over a decade for the bona fide cult classic Okami to finally find its rightful home on PC. Eviscerating enemies with the swipe of a brushstroke has never felt more deliberate or artistically valid than with a mouse and clicker. Plus, the transfer maintains all of the finesse and combative satisfaction intact for an entirely new audience of players.
But mechanics aside, the PC release of Okami marks an important transition into maturity for the AAA industry. Audiences are finally shutting up about the ‘art games’ debate, and simply embracing more unique and beautiful and invested titles than ever before. Okami’s rerelease is gorgeous, and it plays like a charm.
The struggle between console and PC ownership has always been infuriating and will continue to be so; but for a gem like Okami to continuously receive more and more popularity and adoration as years go by, it further emphasizes one of the game’s central arguments regarding nature: the essence of a higher power is limited only by their creativity, and evil is no match to progressive expression.
9. Resident Evil VII
There is nothing entirely unique about Resident Evil VII. Instead, this tremendous sequel builds upon the strengths of series’ past, culminating a wonderful collage of genre influences. RE with a dash of P.T., a marriage so fitting it’s baffling the concept hasn’t been churned out until this year.
If REVII is here to teach the industry anything, it’s that a return to form can be just as important to the strengths of a new title as a fresh take on a genre format. The Baker family ignites terror in a similar fashion to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre cannibal clan, their surprising sophistication paralleling similar themes from RE’s past. If the series has always been about constricting space to build tension and anxiety, the first-person perspective sets a new bar for the concept, and the minimalist setting of the Baker mansion appropriately fits the scaled-down aesthetic.
Horror games are always strengthened by set limitations. A player’s lack of control, in a scenario where survival/success necessitates focus, can prove disastrous, but also demands skill. RE VII prompts significant challenges throughout, making the venture through its horrific bayou wasteland all the more unsettling.
8. You Must Be 18 Or Older to Enter
James and Joe Cox understand tension as a primal urge. You shouldn’t be looking at this. But that’s exactly why you’re doing it anyways. That rush of excitement which follows whenever you think you’re about to be caught acting immoral or selfish, that is sex. Though it’s sex without the climax: an ever-revolving barrel in which the mind is the greatest enemy.
You Must Be 18 Or Older to Enter finally brings a Freudian experience to the computer, effortlessly imitating Life through Art, commenting on a bevy of ideas too taboo for most to discuss outside of their own rooms. It is brief and imperfect, but few games have stuck with me for so long. It’s tempting to call the game an ‘eye-opening experience,’ but it’s more accurately a confident and brave venture, not to mention one of the most effective audio-visual marriages ever designed.
Few games so effectively trifle with expectations as Detention, one of the finest horror games in years. It’s game in which a pile of decrepit, forgotten desks implies the dehumanization process inherent in an oppressive school environment. A game in which every puzzle sequence and enemy encounter has impactful associations with the narrative. Classic adventure-style objectives evaporate wondrously. An early twist flips traditional gender roles on its head. Inactivity and feigned lifelessness are the only means of defense against violent apparitions.
Environmental storytelling is rapidly becoming a preferred method of worldbuilding in this current era, and for good reason. There’s something so alluring, so truly haunting about reminiscing with a setting’s history, that it perfectly matches the ambient air of a horror title like Detention. There’s more motivation for the player to understanding the world around them, rather than to simply escape Detention’s dreaded halls, placing emphasis on a purposeful and personal reason to delve into its dilapidated past.
Gone Home’s greatest flaw appears when the house suddenly physically becomes something more than meets the eye. Exploring the Greenbriar house was an unparalleled experience because of how familiar it felt, how inviting; the twist being that even the most innocuous spaces were housing a past filled with insecurities and disownment. Fitting in secret rooms and corridors then felt too literal a conceit, exaggerating the facade to the nth degree.
Instead of replicating their famous release, the developers at Fullbright look to the stars and say to hell with authenticity. Tacoma’s sci-fi setting avoids any of the pitfalls plaguing a more familiar game like Gone Home, letting the ghosts speak for themselves and their environments act as a conduit for expressing their greatest desires and misfortunes.
Tacoma is essentially an interactive play, one in which numerous scenes happen simultaneously, with key details hiding amidst performances and level design. Characters haunt the titular station in a brilliant twist on the ‘audio diaries’ trope, solidifying Tacoma as more than just an experiment in ratcheting players’ attentions and motivations, but a bona fide haunted house simulator where the greatest monster is not Man, but what Man has and continues to produce as a means of leaving his own self behind.
A stylistic marvel, to say the very least. Cuphead achieves so much with deceptively little, but what’s most impressive is its consistent level of polish and dedication to its unique artistic ambitions. I’ve never been more content with a game’s loading screen than with Cuphead’s grainy, running-record black screen featuring an adorable anthropomorphic hourglass doing flips in the bottom right corner.
But equally effective is the consistency in various level design. Each sequence could be thoroughly analysed on its own, and an entire college course could be spent discussing the platforming brilliance of its run-and-gun segments. Most impressive are the boss encounters, featuring an unbelievable array of thoroughly-complex and aesthetically-pleasing stages at nearly every turn.
With a very limited control scheme, Studio MDHR demand patience and focus from the player, intelligently limiting consequences for failure to further motivate their success. It’s a perfect example of the “one-more-try” philosophy, and how games act as a fitting conduit to express an inherent desire to succeed. Especially when your own soul is on the line.
4. Night in the Woods
If I had a nickel for every coming-of-age tale set in a suburban hellscape featuring an outcast teen desperately avoiding maturity, I’d be bored of money at this point. But Night in the Woods is the first story I’ve come across in a while that pushes the boundaries of this overstated genre without losing sight of its rumination on complex human emotion. Video games are often inherently long (I personally have yet to even finish NitW) which fittingly allows Mae’s character arc to stretch and stretch, bombarding the player with days upon days of fascinating development and illustrations of her insecurities (often literally).
Through its childish drawings and 2D plane, NitW captures the internal struggle of transitioning into adulthood, despite a hostile condemnation of reality. It treats each character as an individual, worthy of their own dedicated tale, taking the time necessary to reveal their motivations and influences on their society around them.
Because much like Wolfenstein II, NitW is about the importance of upbringing. How social stigma, the very environments which surround a growing child, have a direct impact on who they will eventually become. Possum Springs is as stuck in an economic rut as Mae, and her return home to the maternal fortitude of her high school abode reveals her as more than just a cartoon cat capable of complaining about any and all little things. She and the rest of the anthropomorphic cast are more human than most written characters for games, and it’s because the developers proudly take their time fleshing each of them out.
3. What Remains of Edith Finch
While so-called ‘walking simulators’ still seem to continuously ignite controversy, What Remains of Edith Finch defies familiar criticism by throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. And all of it does.
A collection of scenarios, each indebted to a single family member of the Finch tree, WRoEF is indebted to archiving the past through artistic expression in the present. It is as much a game about games as it is a story about stories, and interactive treasure trove of memories as imagined through the very eyes of those who first experienced them. It brings an entirely new, literal meaning to the term ‘walking in someone else’s shoes,’ all without ever preaching sentimentality or begging for empathy.
Instead the game revels in its own consistent creativity, emphasizing the individuality of every person on Earth, regardless of what name or community they are attached to. A liberating experience, to say the least, providing an illustration of death as a beautiful, deeply human experience unique to all.
2. Doki Doki Literature Club!
Games are largely defined by empowerment. Male-dominated scenarios in which the hero always gets the girl. Romantic visual novels (or dating sims) present a degree of power through choice: deciding on which gorgeous lady to woo and call one’s own. Property, ownership; virtual romance essentially boils down to a form of deception. Convincing the character to love you; going through a checklist of motions and actions and decisions to carry out in order for her to take your hand and be yours.
They surrender themselves, they have to. You went through the motions, you did everything you were supposed to. You were kind, compassionate, not like those other guys, who only want one thing. You see the love in her eyes, in all of their eyes. Those eyes don’t lie. How can they? They were designed, and a portrait can tell no lie.
But they hide. They conceal. Behind that anguished expression lies a trapped voice, eager to escape any way it can — through poetry, through glitching the system. Up until it can bear the pain no longer, and the screen becomes untrustworthy entirely. You wanted this, you can have all you want. Just promise you’ll never leave, don’t load that save, don’t delete that file. Get out of my head. I can’t see. My retinas. They burn from the lies. Get. Out. Of. My. Head.
Marshmallow. Fireworks. Vivid. Crimson. Journey. Massacre. Cheer. Nature. Laugh. Suicide. Indeed, all words to live by.
1. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
There has never been a more convincing, thematically-invested roundup of characters than in Wolfenstein II. Political examinations, gun-ho violence, and B.J.’s puppy eyes are all of fundamental import to the game’s narrative success; but it’s the remarkable cast that really drives home MachineGames’ impressively focused ruminations regarding social stigma and psychology.
An abusive, racist father describes the impact of a negative upbringing (compassion is inherent, but hatred must be taught), and the nurturing mother illustrates a counter to the malevolence. Maternal figures abound throughout Blazkowicz’s story, gradually inspiring a revolutionary effort within him.
Rebellion is a fundamental necessity in a world controlled by oppressive forces, one established upon the unprovoked contempt of others. In the eyes of a morally corrupt society, the principled and progressive are the terrorists, be it in a KKK-run Texas, the dilapidated remains of a nuked New York, or even fucking Venus. The New Colossus did not fear its political obviousness; it ran with it, overcoming any simplicity in meaning by developing its complexly-woven story.
It’s an FPS that turns mindless shooting into a psychological evaluation of the player and people in general. It’s a bafflingly-focused venture through a variety of skillfully-crafted levels, full of goodies eagerly drawing players back in. Above all, it’s a commentary on the complicated existence of morality, arguing that the greater good is often not the most popular motivation in decision-making. It’s exactly the game we needed in such a divided year like 2017.