“2017: The Best Year in Gaming in a Decade.” That headline started popping up on my newsfeed weeks before I’d even gotten my Christmas lights out. And while I agree the releases have been pretty amazing (better than 2007? I’ll hold out on that one), what remains most memorable about this year is how often I saw the industry upended.
Nintendo ended last year the butt of the internet’s jokes both for its dying console and its horrendous mishandling of the NES Classic release. Now the company’s going into 2018 with two of this year’s most acclaimed titles under its belt, a console they can’t keep on the shelves, and an emerging (N)indie scene. Similarly, when Electronic Arts squashed production on its story-driven Star Wars game, news sites heralded the death of the single-player adventure. “Players have moved on!” “E-sports and MMOs are taking over!” journalists screamed. Meanwhile, single-player games from AAA and indie studios alike dominated award show after award show; I guess they hadn’t gotten the memo.
And based on some of this year’s other releases, it’s clear that conventions industry wide are evolving. Just to name a few, we saw a sports game set in a fantasy world, elaborately animated cups and “Where’s Waldo”-esque challenges and sequels released years after their predecessors only to find international success and acclaim. And that’s not including the nuclear blast of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds entrance onto the scene.
If the list below seems random, it’s because players are responding positively to this shift in diversity. I’m excited to see how the industry will respond come 2018, but for now, please enjoy our top games of the year…
The Hide-and-Go-Seek Award: Hidden Folks
I don’t play a lot of games anymore. Part of it is a time factor, assuredly – I can’t sink sixty hours into Mafia 3 or even give What Remains of Edith Finch its two sitting due. Hidden Folks manages that sweet spot for me, that kind of game I can pick up and play a round of while waiting for my partner to finish getting dressed to go out for the night. It has this sort of understated charm, like a handmade bauble waiting for you on a grandparents desk. It does not jerk or cry for your attention, it just waits with gentle animations and mouth sounds, for you to come back and play again.
You can read more about Hidden Folks from our writers here.
The Karaoke Killer Award: Yakuza 0
Yakuza movies are one of life’s most reliable pleasures, so it follows that Sega’s Yakuza 0, an 80s-set prequel to the preceding five games, is a relentlessly enjoyable confection. It streamlines the series’ Kinji Fukusaku-esque gangland intricacies, making room for more of the protagonists’ goofball masculinity and a surprisingly pointed indictment of capitalism, but at its heart, this is Yakuza joyously doing what Yakuza has always done: deftly balancing farce with brutality, cutting karaoke with killing. It’s also got the sharpest AAA script since The Witcher 3 and the direction to match – sight gags? In my videogame? It’s more likely than you think.
The Gloomy Gothic Castle Award: What Remains of Edith Finch
When I was in high school, I wrote a story about a boy who was in love with his cousin and ends up dying tragically when she hits him with her car. I wrote the story longhand in a spiral notebook and, when a friend read it, she told me that she was a bit upset with me when she realized that it wasn’t true. It was probably a better compliment than the story deserved.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a bit like that – the adolescent sense of being afraid of life and afraid of death and both petrified of and mesmerized by love, resulting in a fable rooted in something resembling the ordinary, but pushed by the force of its own magnificent fancy until it becomes a castle in a tree inhabited by ghosts. There’s no shortage of gothic fantasies in the world of videogames and the story of the Finch family never quite coalesces into a coherent or even terribly plausible statement about the psychological realities of inhabiting a particular time or place, or even the inescapable costs of carving out an identity inside and outside of a troubled family. Even worse, there’s a juvenile sense of distance quietly underlying the architecture of the game’s vignettes. Appearances aside, we’re almost never given direct access to the members of the Finch family, not even, as it turns out, Edith herself, the doomed pregnant teenager whose steps we follow through the mausoleum her family once inhabited.
And yet, adolescent or not, there is a messy, compelling heart beating vigorously somewhere beneath the floorboards of Giant Sparrow’s mad treehouse. I’m not sure that Edith ever really understands her family, and thus, neither do we, but I am far older than Edith, with children of my own, and I can’t say that I really understand my own family beyond the mythical, half-remembered stories that I tell myself again and again. What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t real, but it’s true. It may not be honest and plausible—that is, it may not be literary—but it is unerringly faithful to its peculiar emotional compass. It is a better game, perhaps, than we deserve.
You can read more about What Remains of Edith Finch from our writers here.
The Best Secret Sports Game Award: Pyre
Supergiant Games’s output has always reflected a distinct viewpoint. The videogames they have made are each unique, but all of them share an underlying passion for world building through writing, design and visual artistry. Supergiant makes videogames but they also work hard to create fully formed worlds for those games to exist within. Pyre feels like the culmination of that ethos. It is a game that is in love with words, patterning much of its design after the visual novel genre. Playing Pyre is as much about reading and speaking with other characters as it is about taking part in the sports-like game that makes up the “rites” which decide how your band of exiles will fare in their efforts for redemption.
Pyre presents a staggering amount of possibility for players. While the shape of the narrative is relatively static, the details are infinitely mutable. The world you create and build alongside your allies is what takes center stage, it’s world building as gameplay, and it’s a near perfect encapsulation of everything Supergiant Games does well. The most meaningful moments in Pyre aren’t those that take place during a skirmish with an opposing band of exiles. They’re the times when you sit down with your friends and talk about their lives. As they open up to you the world of Pyre opens up as well. Finding compassion, companionship, and comfort in the fellowship of others. It’s a distinctive accomplishment and a creation that could only come from Supergiant Games.
You can read more from our writers on Pyre here.
The Smells Like Teen Spirit Award: Persona 5
When I was a teen, I never understood style. I didn’t get why my peers would try so hard to only wear certain clothes or listen to certain music. But then, I also didn’t see the ways they had to fight to be seen the way they wanted. Or, more importantly, to see themselves the way the wanted to.
Persona 5 understands the truth at the heart of the angsty, awkward self-expression I dismissed: style is rebellion. The Phantom Thieves of Persona 5 are a group of teenage outcasts, constantly told by the powerful that they don’t fit in. They come of age rejecting this devaluing notion using style. Their rebellion is against the idea that the powerful define who we are, what we’re worth, or what we’re capable of.
Persona 5’s gorgeous anime aesthetic unites narrative, theme, and gameplay to make you a part of its story in a way few games – or media – can. Persona 5 made me want to “wake up, get up, get out there,” and steal back the self-determination we all possess. Preferably while wearing a cool leather jacket. I can’t think of a more worthwhile experience to have in 2017.
You can read more about Persona 5 from our writers here.
The Best Philosophical Argument Masquerading as a Killer Android: Nier Automata
In Nier: Automata‘s opening monologue, our android protagonist 2B expresses her desire to meet God and kill Him. It’s a deliberate thesis statement in a genre obsessed with solving all the world’s problems through deicide and, despite its early bombast, Nier is far more interested in the vacuum left by god’s absence. While its escalating proxy-war between androids and robots soars to ever more ludicrous heights of anime melodrama, the core plot is merely a matrix holding together a series of bittersweet, personal character arcs, vignettes and philosophical explorations of the search for meaning and purpose in a ruined and indifferent world.
A stark contrast to 2017’s trend of major publishers being terrified of their games having something to say, Yoko Taro and his team at Platinum have crafted a provocative, thematically consistent meditation on what it means to be human. Nier doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but instead offers guidance to find your own meaning in the spaces between bullet-hell chaos, robotic cults and beating a sentient oilrig to death with its own chainsaw arm.
Best Nazi-Punching/Killing Simulator: Wolfenstein 2
2017 is a weird year because when making a best of list, it is almost impossible for me to remember that this Excellent Game belongs – because it feels like something we all lived through instead of being escapist entertainment. Obviously, I don’t goddamned mean that we all got attacked by fire breathing robot Nazi dogs, but in the Year of Punching Nazis, a game that allows us to Punch Said Nazis feels like we are, rather than leading a parallel universe revolution, actually fulfilling part of our normal societal contract. Also, there’s a really funny monkey. Like the best monkey side-kick since Friends. Could we be any more justified in mass-murder? We could not.
You can read more about Wolfenstein 2 from our writers here.
Best Game With Mario In It: Super Mario Odyssey
Even as the owner of a Switch, I underestimated Nintendo. I figured Super Mario Odyssey would be a fun little diversion, but its cap-driven combat would wear on me quickly like the water cannon in Super Mario Sunshine. Instead, what I got was a deep platformer. Challenging, but not ridiculously so. Large detailed worlds to explore. Physics and controls that actually make sense. And the best Mario game since Mario 64, one that completely justified my purchase of the Switch. It may not break new ground in terms of Mario games, but there’s something very comfortable about slipping into a Mario game this good again, even long after I’ve already beaten Bowser.
You can read more from our writers on Super Mario Odyssey here.
Best Game With Link In It: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
There is beauty, not just in an artfully curated experience, but one where everything moves and fits together, grinding along like an impossibly large and complex clock. Wandering the Hyrulean hills of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I hear echoes of ticking gears in every interaction. Knocking an apple off a tree, I watch it roll into a bakoblin, who jumps up and kicks over the torch in his camp, which sets alight an explosive barrel which launches him and his whole posse gracefully through the air. It’s a world of outrageous possibility, spread over a sprawling landscape with hundreds of secrets to stumble upon over and over again.
When I finally put the game down, after defeating Gannon or finding the last temple, or whatever, I don’t feel exhausted, or drained, the way I do after completing the crushing chore-fest that is your average open-world game. I feel joy, pleasure at getting to visit a magical place; an adventure out of a childhood daydream, and a brief respite from the starkness of everyday life. Breath of the Wild is great because its cheer is as infectious and authentic as you’re likely to find in any piece of media produced by teams of hundreds of people. It’s great because it doesn’t approach its audience with snide marketing pitches promising that “you can climb that mountain.” Its endless scenarios don’t feel tailor-made or theatrical, they don’t feel brittle or cobbled together.
Where most games strain, unsuccessfully, to contain player interaction, Breath of the Wild seems infinitely capable of absorbing every whim and fancy you might have – every stray arrow or kinetically launched boulder. Like a truly successful toy, it can be banged around and dented from use, but will still function, still manage an earnest metallic smile through chipped ceramic and faded paint. Its core may be a bit hollow but its surface is so intricate and meticulously designed while remaining steadfast in its vision, that it’s easy to look past its emotional flatness, and enjoy its shallow dream for as long as you want.
You can read more about Breath of the Wild from our writers here.
Best Videogame of 2017: Night in the Woods
Even with anthropomorphic animals as protagonists, Night in the Woods manages to nail human emotions that videogames could never get right. It flawlessly communicates:
How it feels to have an argument with a loved one.
How it feels when you FINALLY get a Taco Bell in your small town.
How it feels when someone tells you they love you, but your brain tells you otherwise.
How it feels when it seems that nobody gives a damn about people like you – not society, not the economy, not your friends, not your family.
As someone who knows what it’s like to be a struggling young adult in rural Pennsylvania, Night in the Woods gave me catharsis that I couldn’t find anywhere else. A lot of folks find something to relate to in this game. I hope it gives you the catharsis you need, too.
You can read more about Night in the Woods from our writers here.