Bryant Francis (@rbryant2012) is a contributing editor at Gamasutra.
In 2017, I spent a lot of time producing our weekly interviews for the Gamasutra Twitch channel, meaning I tried out far more different games than usual, spoke to many more developers and got a broader look at the art and business of making games. That means for once, picking only ten games for this end-of-year list proved exceptionally difficult, since I felt like every game I played this year came with useful lessons and helpful insight about the way our industry works.
With that in mind, I tried to pick out the ten games that not only stood out on their own, but whose successes impacted my understanding of other games in their genre. But if you want a look at all the great games I got to try this year, don't miss our extensive library of broadcasts from Twitch.
The triumph of Horizon Zero Dawn is that for all its familiar open-world staples like escort missions, collectibles, and crafting, it successfully assembles those tropes into a holistic science fiction vision that bleeds into every moment you spend with the game. Aloy's deeply personal story about seeking out her mother becomes an exploratory fable about the people you meet while civilization falls apart, and consequently, the colorful cast of characters who are putting it back together.
Triple-A games rarely get a chance to let all their components work together in such harmony, and everything from the technical artistry to the creature programming comes together to make every inch of Horizon Zero Dawn a landmark piece of storytelling.
Breath of the Wild is a landmark game for Nintendo both because it shows the company moving to embrace a more organic, systems-driven formula, and because it shows how large console adventures can be reinvented with portable purpose. Thanks to Breath of the Wild, I've begun to think of my Switch as a portable adventure machine, whose sole purpose is to will me away to other worlds while I'm away from my home.
It's a game that manages to translate so many natural interactions while still preserving the spirit of a fantasy adventure, constantly peeling back new surprises and ways to interact with the world that possess pure pleasantness, from shield-surfing to mountain climbing and beyond. If Horizon Zero Dawn is the peak of what you fill an open-world game with, Breath of the Wild is a master-class in how you let players explore it.
Meanwhile, over on Talos 1, the mad scientists at Arkane have created the opposite of an open-world experience. They have crafted Prey, a densely-packed box filled with interlocking systems that make every combat sequence less a firefight and more a Rube-Goldberg machine that even encompasses the inner lives of every NPC you encounter. And why? Not just to stimulate a player's mind, but to use a rich, futuristic B-movie plot to constantly turn to the player and quiz them about their ethical preferences.
Unlike its Shock-y predecessors (or its gun-fixated forebearer), Prey isn't so much a power fantasy as it is a complex problem-solving machine that invites you to get in the heads of the characters you meet in order to survive this increasingly downward-spiraling situation.
But if we're going to talk about puzzles, we can't get through 2017 without talking about Opus Magnum, the latest magnum opus from the fine folks at Zachtronics Industries. It's not merely enough that they crafted an illuminating puzzle system. No, they had to go and strap it in with a small fantasy novel, a new alchemy-driven version of Solitaire, and a splendid gif tool that helps players celebrate their unusual pathways to success.
It's been a long time since a puzzle game took my interest so thoroughly, and I'm still poking away at its puzzles months after streaming. So if you haven't given yourself the chance yet, do your brain a favor and try out Opus Magnum now.
I'm going to be sad if Aer becomes another dire warning about releasing indie games on Steam, because it's such a treasure of a game it deserves more than to be than a niche indie title that didn't do well financially. Aer is the promise of academic game design, whose amazing flight system and amazing aesthetic first were birthed in a university paper. Until its last moments, it's an evocative game that launches players into the sky and rewards them when they come down to earth.
If we had a 'most unique and charming game of 2017' award at Gamasutra, it would be for Battle Chef Brigade, but we don't, so I have to just sing its praises here. Battle Chef Brigade is an excellent genre mash-up that sells its complexity by using top-tier voice acting and an amazing art style to make you never want to put it down. Its characters are relentlessly upbeat, its fiction is a sterling mix of game and fantasy logic, and it practically embodies its own comfort-food sensibilities as you play.
It has been a bitter, hard year to read the news. It is scary, as a Jewish writer, to see so many Americans shake hands with Nazis and White Supremacists and speculate if they have a place in our society.
It is thrilling beyond belief to see a game stand up and say "fuck that!"
The New Colossus builds on the successes of The New Order by doubling down on its characterization, going for the jugular on Nazi sympathizers, and overcharging its gonzo weirdness with such speed and fury you sometimes feel exhausted just thinking about it. It is a game that hands you two shotguns loaded with soul and fury and screams at you to let them loose on the evil all around you. And for every pounding step along the way, it gives you a quiet moment to process the implications of this dystopian world, and how people still find hope and life in the middle of it.
We talk a lot about knowing everything about a worthwhile life, or a meaningful death. But we don't, really.
What Remains of Edith Finch, the second title from Giant Sparrow, gets this. As the player explores the last moments of each member of the Finch family, they're handed different gameplay tools to experience those moments, following each family member through a ludicrous display of artful whimsy before they're either cut down or just vanish from the pages of history.
It's an amazing feat of technical wizardry that's only possible because of fine attention to detail and a constant consciousness about the sensitivity of the subject. It should be gawdy to see so many grim moments engineered for gamepad precision, but it always works. And in the end, a continued commitment to ambiguity does more to create emotional resonance than any hard answer about the Finches, and the result is a boundary-crossing game that stands out in 2017.
"WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!" isn't just the best thing you can see at the end of an hour-long match, it's a symbol for how oddly earnest and complex PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (aka PUBG) has turned out to be. As the classic first-person shooter has grown and morphed into games like the highly-polished Overwatch, PUBG's rough edges and emergent narratives create far more relatable, human moments in a multiplayer shooter to the point that I honestly feel it's comparable with single-player role-playing games.
Whether it's the unexpected grenade that shouldn't have made it into the house, a surprise encounter while combing through the ruins, or a Fury Road-worthy firefight along the bridge, PUBG isn't just a game about shooting other players, it's a broad platform of experiences birthed from its sizable map and shrinking play zone.
X-Wing Miniatures is not a video game, and it was not released in 2017. But I have played it more than any other game this year, so I want to talk about it.
It's easy to chalk up the success of X-Wing to its Star Wars license and the relative lack of competition from other dogfighting tabletop games, but the more time I spend with this game the more I see how strong the simulation experience is. Cinematic moments from the films have been condensed to very readable order-of-operations procedures, and however well you can fly these plastic ships, there are moments where the game slips away from you, its pilots feel alive, and the spontaneity and vividness of the films is realized before you on the board.
Because of that sense of simulation, and my lifelong fondness for the house that Lucasfilm built, X-Wing Miniatures has helped me grapple with some real emotional baggage from my childhood tabletop days. It's a safe space to let childlike excitement over Star Wars meld with adult planning and execution, by building a comfortable niche at the intersection of luck and planning that makes The Force feel as real in our world as it is in the fictional world.