It’s a testament to the quality of 2017’s releases that despite the fact that I played more games this year than I ever have in one trip around the sun—at least 108 by my estimate—I’m writing this list with the nagging feeling that there are at least a dozen other titles that would have had a shot if only I had had time (and money) to play them.
So to Wolfenstein 2, Observer, Night in the Woods, Tacoma, Yakuza 0, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Doki Doki Literature Club, Butterfly Soup, Uncharted: Lost Legacy, Nioh, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Divinity Original Sin 2 — I’m sorry I didn’t have time for you. I’ll do better next year.
That anxiety, that Fear Of Missing Out, was painfully omnipresent in the first year of the Trump administration: fear of missing out on great games, yes, but also fear of taking a nap and missing out on the tweet that launched a nuclear catastrophe.
So as I write this list, I’m grateful for the dramatic irony of timing; that as living in the real world became more and more terrifying, hundreds of beautiful virtual ones were waiting to welcome us in.
10. Little Nightmares
Little Nightmares isn’t actually Inside-lite, but in a year that was positively flooded with great titles, it was convenient to dismiss Tarsier’s gem as a simple retread of (IMHO) last year’s best game and move on. For me, the comparison did the opposite. It enticed me. And what I found as I explored the Maw—the hulking and horrifying ocean liner that the player crept through, was that Little Nightmares’ horrors were unique, fresh and consistently evolving. Take, for example, my favorite level — a large kitchen, operated by two grotesque chefs. The player’s job is to avoid the twin cooks as they waddle around the squalid galley preparing a massive feast (for whom, I won’t spoil). If spotted, the chefs shriek and take off in pursuit. If they apprehend Six, she becomes an ingredient in the meal. Get caught by a big brass pot? The chefs plop Six into the soup. Nabbed near the fish? Six is stuffed into its gaping underbelly. Little Nightmares is packed with this kind of small, macabre touches, and they build a skin-crawling sense of setting as the game hurtles to its powerful finale. How can you not love a game that has the player grinding a hunk of meat into sausage in order to swing to safety on the end of a dangling tube steak?
9. NieR: Automata
I need to finish NieR: Automata. Okay, actually, I’ve finished it twice, but I still need to finish it finish it. This game had me under its spell during my first playthrough, as it introduced me to 2B and 9S, Adam and Eve, and clunky robots pantomiming sex and then combining Megazord-style to produce a goopy android Ken doll from their communal birth canal. But, the repetition is killing me. While NieR provides interesting hooks that tweak gameplay on subsequent playthroughs and adds scenes between familiar story beats, it isn’t different enough. And the combat—which involves hacking, slashing and firing endless energy rounds at bullet-sponge machines for minutes on end until they fall to pieces—does it for me less than just about any other game I played this year. So, why did NieR: Automata make my list at all? Because it goes interesting places and explores interesting ideas that I haven’t seen tackled in the AAA game space before (and does it as an incredible soundtrack undulates between orchestral swells and 8-bit bloops). I want more games like NieR. I just don’t want more games exactly like NieR.
Caveat: I’ve only played about 10 hours of Prey, and I’ve only just unlocked the alien powers that open up a suite of new abilities for protagonist Morgan Yu to play with. I’ve barely experienced the immersive sim goodness that being able to turn into a garbage can and roll around the environment provides. Basically, I’ve (at best) scratched the surface and I’ve heard that it falls apart in its last act. However, there were a lot of games that I didn’t finish in 2017, and this is one of the few that I’m actually longing to go back to. I love Talos I. I love discovering the bits of story sprinkled in the hundreds of emails spread across the space station. I love the feeling that Arkane’s sci-fi shooter —and another game slightly higher on this list— provides, of slowly unlocking a space and beginning to understand how its rooms fit together, growing in strength until you can make short work of the enemies that stand in your way. Exploration is most rewarding when it comes at a price, and in this case, venturing out may prove fatal. Talos I was enticing enough that I gladly took the risk, even when infuriating deaths (and worse, minute-long load times) were the consequence.
7. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Despite being the third (and possibly final) Dishonored game, Death of the Outsider was my introduction to Arkane’s flagship steampunk immersive sim series. Even without prior knowledge of protagonist Billie Lurk, her mentor Daud, or the godlike Outsider, I was invested in the world and interested in reading every bit of lore. I was also quite taken by Death of the Outsider’s striking UI and level-design. After investing 70+ hours into the stealth-heavy Horizon Zero Dawn, I wanted another hit of the sneak-and-stab dopamine. Death of the Outsider gave me that and more, providing options on top of options for every encounter (especially the third mission, the sprawling “Bank Job”). It also made me a fan. This may be the last game in the series, and that’s sad. But, I have two contracts left to complete.
6. Dream Daddy
During a recent episode of Steve Gaynor’s “Tone Control” podcast, Dream Daddy art director and co-writer Leighton Gray told her host that her hit visual novel was intended to be a romantic comedy — that she and writing partner Vernon Shaw could have made a serious examination of what it means to be queer with all its scary societal implications, but instead opted to make something light, sweet, funny and visionary — a lofty word, but I mean it in the sense that Dream Daddy paints a picture of a world where being queer isn’t even a topic of conversation. Dream Daddy’s characters don’t have to explain themselves, they just are. Despite the suspension of disbelief required to believe the “eight hot queer dads in one cul-de-sac” setup, the core is grounded in the very believable relationship between the player character and his daughter, Amanda. They were my favorite characters of 2017, and it wasn’t even close.
5. Resident Evil VII
I love slowly unlocking an area, learning its shortcuts, finding a key shaped like a mythical creature and thinking “A-ha! I know exactly where this key goes!” And I love being scared. RE7 did both and did both extremely well.
4. What Remains of Edith Finch
I don’t want to ruin Lewis’s story, but the fish cannery vignette elevated What Remains of Edith Finch above most of 2017’s releases and gave it an important place in the history of games. I’ll just say that it’s incredible, it’s important and, more than anything else on this list, it points to the strange and wonderful future that games can have if strange and wonderful studios like Giant Sparrow are leading the way.
3. Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey is pure fun. Throughout the course of my 12-hour playthrough of the main campaign, I never once felt frustrated (until, that is, my bleary-eyed battle against Bowser in the game’s final minutes). Instead, Super Mario Odyssey allowed me to relax and enjoy myself completely. I knew that in every world there would be dozens of activities to do, most with a Power Moon waiting as a reward. While Mario’s latest rarely challenged me (although there are plenty of patience-testing trials awaiting in the endgame) instead, it provided a perfect loop — explore, do something fun, collect a Power Moon, repeat. And that was all I needed.
2. Horizon Zero Dawn
I played Horizon Zero Dawn in chunks, tackling it in pieces the way its bow-wielding heroine, Aloy, picks apart a heavily armored snapmaw. I dove in for 20 hour stretches at a time—overriding tallnecks to clear the mist from the beautiful (and practical) 3D topographical map, stealthily taking out bandit camps headshot by headshot, and exploring the gleaming dungeon factories to unlock the ability to override more of Horizon’s stunningly realized, whirring mechanical dinosaurs—and then left unceremoniously to tackle a game for review or to play another of 2017’s incredible releases. The downside was that, while many critics praised Guerilla Games’ first non-FPS outing for its painstakingly detailed, surprisingly cogent far-future story, I often lost the thread due to these lengthy stints away. The upside was that, when Guerilla dropped Horizon’s excellent DLC, The Frozen Wilds, in November, I was still exploring its world and jumped in seamlessly. So, my Horizon experience ended on a high note, buoyed by the quality of life improvements Guerilla made for Aloy’s expedition to the north. Horizon was excellent before, but with massively improved facial capture, terrific side quests, the game’s best bandit camp and one of the most fully realized settings I’ve ever seen in a videogame, Horizon was elevated to lofty territory—the only game this year that gave my #1 a run for its money. Nothing I played this year was as entertaining on a minute-to-minute basis as Horizon. From the moment I unlocked the perk that allows Aloy to silently dispatch enemies and return to the tall grass unnoticed I was hooked — stealth has rarely felt this taut and exhilarating. That said, very few experiences come close to the bombastic joy of overriding a pair of ram-like Tramplers and sending them in to combat a massive flame-spitting robot bear in a hectic, AI-driven Pokemon battle. Play this game.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
From the moment Link emerges from a century-long sleep in the Shrine of Resurrection and stands looking out at a massive, verdant open world, it’s clear that the long-running Legend of Zelda franchise is doing the same thing — it’s shaking off the constraints that have bound Nintendo’s flagship series for decades and stands on the threshold of possibility. That feeling— that anything was possible— permeated the majority of my 100+ hours with this game, but for this list, I want to distill it down to one moment.
As I was preparing to tackle my first Divine Beast, I caught a wild horse, rode it to a nearby stable, and then got to work preparing for the journey, cooking up a dozen meals over a fire pit near the stable. Once I had my inventory sufficiently filled, I saddled up and began riding in the direction of Wasteland Tower, the obelisk I would need to conquer in order to unlock the portion of the map containing the Divine Beast. This moment— of preparing for and setting off on an adventure— brought home the feeling of exploration that the Legend of Zelda series has always been lauded for in a new way. Thanks to the sense of scale and the amount of time that I knew it would take me to reach my destination, setting off for this adventure actually felt like setting off on a real-life journey.
Later in my travels, I discovered the heads of a half-dozen building-sized statues that were visible over some mist. Each statue was standing on a pedestal, and each pedestal had a ball-shaped divot and spheres with matching symbols. My roommate, Clay, spent over 60 hours with this game on his initial playthrough and never encountered those massive statues. The same thing, with different areas, has happened to me plenty — Breath of the Wild’s world, like our own, contains areas most of us will likely never see. It is near endlessly replayable, because wherever you go, there will be something to do, and something to see. Breath of the Wild served a similar function for my 2017.
This year in games was as bursting with excellence as BOTW’s world is with secrets to find. But, Zelda, for me, was the ring of stone statues standing in the wilderness. You could easily miss it. But don’t.
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