Hello fellow travelers! I’m glad to see you that you made it to the year 2018. Before we continue further down this road – for who knows what darkness lies ahead? – let us pause and glance back at the year behind us.
What games are those that helped us along our path? Look carefully! Do you see them? Do you see how each is a meaningful part of the journey – this journey that we call life? Perhaps we had better camp here tonight. As you prepare the fire, let me warm you with stories of the games that touched my heart in 2017.
10. Star Wars Battlefront 2
Please, calm down. I know, I know, I am paid by the same company that created this monstrosity and I can see the profane word aching to spill from your lips – the one that begins with L and ends with boxes and sadness and an Internet full of anger.
I know that the weight of expectations and the pre-release reaction to Battlefront 2 has made it impossible to find a neutral jury for this game. But…have you played it? The campaign is not simply a collection of multiplayer games against bots with a weak thread flopping in between. Oh no! It thrusts the player into the role of multiple heroes of the Star Wars universe and has a fully-fledged, competently-written, and well-voiced story. It has character growth, appearances by all the right characters, and exciting and varied battles on land and in space. In short, it’s a mini Star Wars movie you get to play. What more do you want?
Oh, I’ll tell you what more you get. You get a free update that allows you join a massive battle on the salty planet of Crait the same day that you watched that beautiful scene in theaters in The Last Jedi. It felt incredible to be able to step into one of the best-looking scenes of the movie the next day at home.
9. Star Trek: Bridge Crew
I’ve had my PSVR headset now for about a year and I’ll be honest – I don’t put it on all that much. And Star Trek: Bridge Crew isn’t much to look at. Most of the game is fiddling around with buttons on a tablet while your captain, who you thought was a friendly coworker until moments ago, is yelling about how everyone is going to die.
Still, the experience of playing Bridge Crew with a few friends over the course of a few nights was exhilarating. The VR experience meant not only that I felt more like I was actually on a starship than any normal space game, but it also felt like I was in the same room as three other crewmates. Out of everything, the sense of a shared social space felt the most real. Sure, we looked nothing like our real-life selves, and all we could really do was wave and wag our fingers at each other, but I have not had an experience that felt as much like being a shared space with other people that wasn’t…well, literally being in a shared space with other people.
For as simple as the game actually is, Bridge Crew made me feel something new simply through its use of the technology, and that ain’t nothing.
Everything is silly and profound. It is overwhelming and accessible. It is pure play, though it can also play itself.
What I enjoy most about Everything is that it is a piece of interactive art that doesn’t fall into the trap of needing to be more. It is a rich canvas of content and behaviors and instead of sullying it by providing a thick layer of specific goals.
Other games may purport to allow the player to explore, but that exploration is always tinged with the bent of a narrative end, a gameplay reward, a progression in skill. How novel, how brave, to create such a vast world and to simply drop the player in it and let them truly explore it for nothing more than the wonder and joy and reward of exploration itself.
7. Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles
Perhaps you want a little more guidance to go with your exploration? Then consider Yonder.
When I first saw Yonder, it looked like a cutesy mishmash of Zelda and Stardew Valley and I wrote it off: not for me, no sirree. How wrong I was!
In a year when I looked to games for relaxation, I came to realize that few games build a sense of actual calm into them. Yonder manages it brilliantly. It is a game where you play an open-world adventure hero, but there are no monsters and the game unfolds at whatever pace you deem appropriate.
This is a game that looks at the things we love about games like Zelda (quests! skill-building! map progression!) and asks: what if we delivered all of that, but instead of requiring the hero to defeat a great evil, instilled them with a great kindness and a want to simply help, instead?
Yonder is refreshing and calming and easy like Sunday morning, which is exactly what I needed sometimes in 2017.
Shadowhand is on this list representing both itself and its spiritual predecessor – Regency Solitaire. I have a soft spot for what the gaming market has dubbed the “casual games” corner – hidden object games, match-3s, small puzzle games. While I think the label of casual is a bit misguided and demeaning, these games don’t often get a chance in the spotlight for a variety of reasons (most of them entrenched stupid assumptions, but let’s not go down that rabbithole today).
Regency Solitaire is a top-notch solitaire game with an English Regency romance story layered on top. I think you read that description and you’re either in or out, and I was in. It’s also a game made by a married couple in England, and I know that I shouldn’t care about the mom-and-pop nature of their operation, but I do.
So what happens if you play through Regency Solitaire, but you think to yourself: “that was all well and good, but I could do with some more inventory management and…murder.” That’s when Shadowhand steps out of the shadows and introduces itself.
It’s another top-notch solitaire game with even more going on and a swashbuckling tale attached. It’s got weapon stats and outfit customization. It has tougher solitaire battles against AI. It’s the kind of game that makes me wonder why everyone isn’t just making wonderful solitaire games with classic adventure storylines woven into them.
Ugh, Cuphead is so well put-together, it makes me jealous. The hand-drawn art, the wonderful animation cycles that provide both luscious visuals and great gameplay hints, the original soundtrack that somehow feels nostalgic the first time you hear it – it all works and works wonderfully.
Is it any wonder that my kids love watching me play Cuphead? There are times when I’m playing when I kind of wish I could set my controller down and just watch what’s happening.
Which I can’t, of course. Because I’d die. I die a lot in Cuphead and it’s OK I suppose. The gameplay is solid, but nothing I haven’t experienced before. The platforming frustrates me the most, but I’m really here for the wonderful package that challenging gameplay is delivered in.
Which is enough? Maybe? There are moments when I hate it, but maybe I just hate it for being so beautiful and I’m just a spiteful little man.
I played through Gorogoa in the corner of a rental house while on Christmas vacation, ensorcelled by its story, its cleverness, its casual manner in which it winked at me, confident in its charm.
I challenge anyone to sit down in front of Gorogoa and not be captured in its spell. The puzzles reward just the right ratio of cautious experimentation and reasoned logic. The vibrant art serves both to draw ones eye to important puzzle hints but also as a vehicle for a narrative exploration of the world.
I didn’t expect a game that I played on December 23rd to make it onto to this list, but Gorogoa defies expectations. It’s short, but fills every moment with purpose and ingenuity. But let’s not hold its length against it, shall we? You get a wonderful experience, and as Val Lewton might say, it’s all over in 70 minutes.
3. What Remains of Edith Finch
Edith Finch is a magical game.
It takes a story that revolves around family, death, curses, and identity and instead of simply allowing the exploration of the Finch manor to tell the story, plunges the player into vignettes that feel surprising yet emotionally true.
The game uses writing and text masterfully, relying on journals to relive memories while also populating the world with words, showing that the written word can inject itself into the living world of the Finches.
The level/environment design of the Finch house is perfect, providing a single narrative path while somehow fooling the player into feeling free. Playing through Edith Finch is like living life – pushing to understand, finding meaning in chaos, deciding what pieces of the past you’re going to carry into the future.
Like I said, magic.
2. Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods has been in development for much longer than a year, but it is nearly impossible to play it in 2017 without being affected by the politics of the moment. In a year which was filled with various writings and media that promised answers on understanding the America we don’t see – from the insistence of the Times that Nazis are people too, to Conversations with People Who Hate Me, to S-Town – it can feel like it’s all a bit much.
But here’s the thing – Night in the Woods is one of the best versions of all of those. By playing as a troubled teen (cat) whose personal issues are magnified by the hometown you’ve returned to, Night in the Woods allows you to experience the slow, tragic consequences of industrial collapse through conversations with friends, family, and townsfolk. It’s a game which is full of stories, but waits for you to find them instead of aggressively pushing them in your face.
The best games teach us about ourselves, about being human, and perhaps it’s ironic that this game full of anthropomorphic animals manages to be so truly human in its storytelling. There are lessons here – about what friendship means, about what home means, about making assumptions about others, about right and wrong and good and evil. This isn’t just about a snarky teen cat encountering vague Gothic horrors in the woods, though you do get to spend a night in the woods, so the title checks out.
What a wonderful year of games! In a year that gave us Edith Finch and Night in the Woods, I’m not sure I can honestly tell you why Pyre struck me so sharply and what exactly it does that made my heart quiver and my breath quicken.
I have an odd history with Supergiant Games. I liked Bastion but got tired of the combat long before finishing it, and I churned out of Transistor after only an hour or so. But Pyre! Pyre I played. I played it cover to cover, hungry for the drawling adventure story of the Nightwings. I soaked in the beautifully imagined purgatory that I was stuck in, got to know my fellow outcasts, and nervously undertook the rites to better our fates.
Pyre is two games, of course. It is a visual novel where the characters and world are cared for and fleshed out, where choices matter but not in the typical branching way, where an epic tale that can result in the entire world being turned upside down is taking place. It’s a slow burn of a story, but one that ended with me being emotionally attached to almost every character that I got to spend time with. Guiding them to the ending of their story – seeing where everyone ended up – would have been reward enough.
But there’s also a mystical sports game that you play from time to time, where these characters you’ve traveled with take their different abilities and attempt to “dunk” an “orb” into a “pyre.” I’ve heard it described as NBA Jam, but slow, which is somewhat accurate. In that slowness, however, where others may find frustration, I find a flow and just enough strategy to turn a game of chaotic attrition into one of meaningful placement.
The fact that these two distinct modes just work for me, that they layer and feed into each other at a pace that enhances both experiences, means the game feels like it was designed for me. I would play either of the games within Pyre fully and without reservation, and the fact that I get to do both simultaneously is a treat and why I consider Pyre my 2017 game of the year.
Well, it looks like the fire is roaring now, friend. Let’s warm ourselves a bit longer before I take first watch. Feel free to doze off now if you’re tired, but here are a few more tidbits I have from the memories of this past year.
- My subscription to the Humble Monthly is usually a fairly good value proposition on its own, but I’m also very happy to also support the Humble Originals, which helped give us such fun, unique games as Getting Over It, 2000 to 1: A Space Felony, and Keyboard Sports.
- I enjoyed cute puzzle game Cosmic Express, which goes from fun little alien transport to blindingly challenging in a matter of hours, but what wonderful hours they are!
- I only played a little bit of Horizon Zero Dawn, but I liked what I played and I know that friends that played more seemed to really dig it, so maybe check that out, too.
- All 3 games I mentioned last year that I had good feelings about but hadn’t played were good! They were INSIDE, Abzu, and Firewatch.
- Here are three 2017 games I didn’t get to, but I have good feelings about: Tacoma, West of Loathing, Opus Magnum.
- Here are three 2017 games I played that I liked, but just not enough to make the list: Necrosphere, The Sexy Brutale, Nex Machina.
- I should probably get around to playing Breath of the Wild at some point, eh?
- If you want to come at me in Pyre, let me know. I’ll set it up.