Katherine Cross (@Quinnae_Moon) is a contributor at Gamasutra.
I just participated in a titanic ranking of 500 videogames, and the comment thread perfectly illustrates why I find ranking games to be a generally fruitless exercise.
Such lists are fun, and should only ever be treated as such; alas, that’s not the world we live in. Thus, as is my tradition in this column, I’m going to give you ten games that I liked this year, in no particular order.
Also, as per usual, I want to de-emphasize the biggest triple-A games (we had a bumper crop this year of some fantastic ones, but they will, therefore, get their due in other spaces--including in the lists of my colleagues!)
Thus, while Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, or Horizon: Zero Dawn did indeed break new ground and provide sublime experiences, I know they’ll get their richly deserved props elsewhere.
Please do not yell at me or threaten my family because I didn’t include them. We good? Good.
So I know what I just said, but I think NieR deserves recognition precisely because of how it bridged the divide between AAA production values and indie sensibility, with a breathtaking and heartbreaking narrative that could only be spun in a game.
There’s no question that NieR moved people, and it did so precisely because it was unafraid of realizing its weird and slightly surreal ambitions. It united rank and file players with pretentious critics like me in marveling at the expressiveness of the controls or the rich semiotics of certain scenes.
This game spoke to a wide variety of players through enchanting worldbuilding and lush characterization that--in spite of pacing problems--showed just what videogames are capable of as an art form.
Speaking of games about feelings, Tacoma blew me away. The most remarkable thing about that, however, was that it was a rather delayed reaction.
When I finished my first playthrough I felt satisfied and generally warm towards the game, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece. Then I went about my life only for the characters to intrude upon my thoughts, and one domino-fall of a realization after another about everything that happened aboard that space station. I went “oh shit” more than once.
The game, then, is a slow burn. It needs time to settle in, and when it does, it’ll never leave. Through enormously creative voice acting and nigh-on empathic writing, the game succeeded at giving me characters I’ll remember forever. It also explored new territory in the “walking simulator” sub-genre by giving physicality to conversations.
Just barely making it over the line for 2017, this charming game mercilessly exploits our desire to anthropomorphize our robotic assistants and makes memorable characters of them.
AI sapience is a theme almost as old as sci-fi itself, but using interactivity and creative focus, Robot House produced a game with something uniquely timely to add to the conversation.
In the process it makes a profound statement about the nature of emotion, and like the best sci-fi in this subject, uses AI to reflect on the nature of humanity. Not bad for a game whose core mechanic involves sucking bolognese off the floor.
I know, I know. But hear me out. This game suffered mightily from an undeniably botched development process, with a production schedule and engine implementation that prevented BioWare Montreal from getting the best out of their otherwise talented stable of devs. There’s zero question about that. It shows in the final product.
And yet, what emerged is a testament to the love, blood, sweat, and tears of devs laboring under intensely adverse conditions. This game debuted as both playable and memorable (for the right reasons). Call it a beautiful mess.
I’m not just giving it an A for effort, however; the final product was a decent game that was burdened both by impossible expectations and runaway bad press stemming from its initially awkward character animations. It prejudiced judgment against the game so severely that it led to a vicious backlash which has, perhaps, killed Mass Effect for good.
Andromeda wasn’t just trying to recapture lost glory, there were elements that hinted at a new and interesting direction for the series. Given polish, and a development schedule that respects the time and effort of devs, the next installment could’ve seen this new series hit its stride, not unlike its predecessor. Instead, because we are so ruthless in punishing imperfection in the AAA space, we may never know--and that’s a tragedy.
Andromeda was 2017’s most fabulous mess, with charming characters, a crackling pulp sci-fi story, and fun mechanics (whatever else one may say, the Nomad is no Mako). Our industry--and its vast fandom--need to make space for flawed gems. Games that play it safe, after all, will never meet the lofty expectations that sundered Andromeda.
For my money, games deserve recognition not just on their own merits, but for the ripple effects of their cultural impact. Cuphead’s visuals are remarkable all on their own, a vision that combines animation nostalgia with interactivity to fantastic effect.
By itself, that is commendable: it’s a pure vision pursued to completion. But Cuphead made it on my list because of the conversations it started--about the troubled history behind its 1920s animation style, about the role of difficulty in games--and how it demonstrated the ways a single game can be culturally instructive to its players.
A good cultural product is, often as not, a bit of a firestarter, and Cuphead is both beautiful and terrible in that regard.
In the universe of unique visual styles, Night in the Woods certainly deserves more than its share of praise. Animator Scott Benson’s sensibility has made for uniquely beautiful cartoons that have a dark edge to them, and Night in the Woods is a triumph in part because of this.
But it’s the story that propels the thing, a haunting affair that sensitively explores issues of class, mental health, and coming-of-age in our time. Its story about the quiet desperation of a small town hollowed out by the “new economy” is both timely and essential, and it adds to a growing list of games (like Starmaid Games’ Cibele) that go beyond facile portrayals of teens to tell a much more meaningful story about their lives.
The rupture between its cute aesthetics and its terror produces a frisson almost unique among games that came out in 2017. Taken as a whole, it’s become one of the greats.
Pixel nostalgia has reached a point of dreary saturation that it might be easy to ignore any titles that use it now. But Thimbleweed is that rare example of nostalgia that firmly, and consciously dwells in the present day.
The point is not to relive a never-happened videogame history, but to reinvent the best of the old for the 21st century. Thimbleweed Park--which dips into 80s nostalgia, pixel nostalgia, and Lucasarts nostalgia--set out to recreate the adventure games of old for the latest generation of gamers, and it actually works fantastically.
The key, as always, lies in refusing the temptations of your childhood memory and soberly assessing what worked and what didn’t in your favorite games. A spooky murder mystery that gently ribs at The X-Files makes for a wonderful driving narrative that, like Night in the Woods, tours a small town that is resolute in the face of a rapidly changing world.
Once again, I think it’s important to credit games for starting conversations, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice kicked off more than a few--particularly about mental health.
This is something video games have long struggled with: how to portray mental illness without reducing it to a gag or a mechanic that expresses nothing more than mocking, stereotype-laden disdain?
Hellblade, which is already a richly detailed, beautiful experience on its own, suggests an (imperfect) answer. Where that answer has proven insufficient, the debate around the game suggests how developers can go farther and do better still; the game runs the risk of valorising mental illness and treating it as a superpower.
For all that, it stakes a bold claim and demands an answer--and it did so while demonstrating an alternative to the AAA economy of game dev that too many of us take for granted. Strong production values emerged from a small team, and were sold for a $30 price point. That, too, is worth marking. And imitating.
Visual novels and dating games don’t get the respect they deserve. Luckily, the inherently depraved environment of social media cares little for respectability, and this adorable dating game about, well, dads, spread through explosive word of mouth.
Dream Daddy, an openly queer, story driven game touched more than its share of hearts and provided a much needed, alternative vision of masculinity in a year laden with its very worst expressions. There are a metric ton of games starring male characters, but precious few that explore, with sympathy and insight, what it means to be a man.
Dream Daddy actually manages to do that without seeming to try, and in the process becomes charming, relatable, and, yes, memeable.
This game is a delightful abomination, and that’s all I have to say.