It’s the best time ever to be playing video games.
2017 may have been a difficult year in a number of ways, but it was triumph for game design. Some of the best games of this generation (arguably of all time) made their debut last year, and players were spoiled with more diversity across more platforms than any other time in history.
But all that top-heavy excellence means that there are titles that didn’t get the time in the spotlight they deserve, and who better to pluck them from obscurity than other game developers?
I reached out to devs in a number of different roles across the industry and asked them what overlooked games from 2017 they’d most like to highlight, and was rewarded with an excellent, diverse list of hidden gems.
A modern evolution of the text adventure, Bithell Games' Subsurface Circular is one of a vanguard of games that revitalized neglected genres in 2017.
“It’s been a great year for short narrative games, surprisingly so,” Romero says. “I don’t know that this game was overlooked, but I certainly think it could have gotten more attention than it did. For me, the single-scene, 'subway stop'-based narrative with an interactive and evolving storyline made for a compact, refreshing and fun experience."
Romero devoured the entire game on a train from Wales to England, and went from knowing absolutely nothing about the narrative to being completely immersed in its minimalist, provocative world of disenfranchised robot laborers.
“It’s something new for Bithell Games, I think, letting the writing take center stage where progressing the narrative is the mechanic," she adds. "Second, the writing at center stage is good writing - it’s entertaining, intriguing, has highs and lows and keeps me thinking. When I finished the game, I had a feeling similar to the feeling that I have when I finish a good short story. I was looking forward to more. I do hope that they follow Subsurface Circular up with another.”
As I was compiling this list, I noticed a trend towards smaller, more compact experiences that can be enjoyed in bite sized portions (say, between coding marathons, for instance), a testament to how time intensive development is but also to the quality of games outside of the triple-A arena. Derek Yu continued this trend with indie shooter Tormentor X Punisher, a cartoonish-if-bloody take on the genre that Smash TV popularized.
“Tormentor X Punisher deserves more love, in my opinion,” Yu says. “On the surface, it looks like a fairly simple top-down arena shooter, but underneath that is a clever and well-executed upgrade system based around discovering trick shots. The excessive tongue-in-cheek violence and profanity may not be to everyone's taste, but it does fit the action well - after a few upgrades you feel like an unstoppable death machine. And then some demon goblin or something gets behind you in the chaos and unceremoniously ends your life with a single blow.”
Perhaps appropriate for 2017, another theme across these recommendations was a grim, oppressive atmosphere, a darkness of tone that permeated a number of the nominees. Observer may be the most heavy-handed example, a game defined by its noir aesthetic and resigned, gravel voiced protagonist (a particularly gritty sounding Rutger Hauer), but Nina Freeman says she chose it more for its deft handling of cyberpunk tropes and its novel approach to storytelling than its bleak setting.
“I feel like I didn't see as many people talking about Observer as I would have expected after playing it,” Freeman says. “It really took me by surprise, and I've been thinking about it ever since. It's a cyberpunk horror game where you play as a detective investigating an apartment building. I was really impressed with its dedication to the cyberpunk theme — it really builds a world that could have been taken straight out of the famous cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. The apartment building is dirty and littered with decaying technology, and occupied by humans with an array of augmentations.”
Observer mixes diagetic gameplay mechanics with narrative exposition to unspool a tale of fatherhood, hopelessness, and redemption. According to Freeman, the way the cyberpunk milieu grounds every element of Observer was a big part of its appeal.
“Even your player-character makes use of neuromods as part of the gameplay. The neuromods reveal data about the environment depending on what mode you're in, and there's an interesting mechanic that involves injecting yourself in order to maintain these augmentations. Another major part of the game involves hacking into victims minds, and exploring their memories, in order to help you solve the mysteries that plague this apartment building. These memory sequences are focused vignettes that definitely stood out to me, because of their mix of game play with interesting cinematic techniques. Observer tries some great experimental narrative techniques and has all the elements that build a cohesive cyberpunk world.”
While some prognosticators were foretelling the crash of the digital collectible card game genre under a preponderance of new games, last year saw, if anything, an increase in momentum in the CCG space, a welcome outcome for Kitfox Games chief Tanya X. Short.
“My two most overlooked faves were (weirdly enough) both thiefy card games,” Short says. “Earlier in the year, I was surprised and delighted by the innovative design in Card Thief on iOS, which had a bit of a bewildering learning curve at first, but once I got into it, it was all I played for a few weeks. The art and style of it really makes you feel like you're a stealthy genius using mechanics no other game has. Card Thief takes the elements it needs from roguelikes and solitaire games and uses them all together beautifully in a way that lets the player fill in the gaps with their own little narrative of thieving.”
Then along came Shadowhand, the CCG-meets-RPG from Grey Alien Games, another game that leans into solitaire-style mechanics, but “wraps them lovingly in the picaresque tale of a noblewoman-turned-notorious-bandit, with RPG stats and equipment on top. It's become one of my favorite ways to unwind in the evenings, like a glass of red wine turned into a game.”
“Let Them Come caught my eye via a real sweet-looking gif that was doing the rounds on Twitter,” Heald admits. “It looked like a good quick fire game that was inspired by Aliens/Starship Troopers. It screamed old school arcade style action. What's so good about the game is its out and out simplicity: you're a gunner, sat on a turret and all you have to do is shoot incoming aliens.”
Let Them Come cherry picks concepts from side scrolling shooters like Shoot Many Robots and throws them into a blender with horde-mode survival and the Alien movies, and the result is a frenetic, roguelike festival of white-knuckled xenos murder.
“What mixes it up is the sheer variety of weapons and tactics you have to learn to keep going,” Heald told me, explaining that a lot of the appeal was Let Them Come’s upgrade loop. Players spend the currency they earn from mowing down waves of enemies on unlocking new types of ammunition or special abilities, enhancements that are mandatory to contend with increasingly challenging and numerous alien attackers.
One of the most visually interesting games on this list, Little Nightmares looks like a Scandinavian child’s nightmare, a colorized Limbo or Inside with outsized furniture and menacing, vile adults. Timo Ullman says it was largely the atmosphere that attracted him to Tarsier Studio’s dark, surreal world.
“An awesome game with a spooky look and feel that’s made even spookier by the sound design. The aural element adds so much to the experience, it’s so dark and moody. And it’s filled with amazing characters. There are so many ways to describe Little Nightmares: eerie, dark, grotesque – and really great.”
They say you can’t go home again, but Night in the Woods argues that sometimes the best stories happen when you do. For Mandy Lowry, it was a perfect tonic when she needed a break from some of 2017’s uneven major studio fare.
“While I've enjoyed playing Mass Effect: Andromeda and a few other triple-A titles,” Lowry explained, “Night in the Woods was the one game that I was really sucked into this year. I was very sick earlier in the year and I wanted to play something that was a bit more mellow than Breath of the Wild, but that could still keep my interest. The mystery of the direction and the real-world issues that it touched on made Night in the Woods one of my favorites.”
Night in the Woods casts you as Mae, a college dropout (and anthropomorphized cat) returning to her hometown to try to sort out where her life goes next. The way the game layers mystery and narrative, with its derelict coal mining backwater, its insinuation of supernatural elements, and its cast of believable, relatable characters, was a powerful hook for Lowry.
“The protagonist is fighting depression and trying to find herself, but also stumbles upon some weird events in her town that others haven't noticed. Throughout the game you meet interesting town folk and catch up with old friends, and the gameplay changes slightly based on your current mission. The story was intriguing to me and the mystery of where the story was going kept me intrigued. I'd definitely recommend this indie title, especially if you're into more abstract games.”
Rounding out the list, Caveblazers is another title that lends itself well to picking up and playing in staccato bursts, but for Thom Glunt it turned out to be a much longer-term engagement.
“I’ve spent over 100 hours in Caveblazers to date,” Glunt told me. “It’s a highly repayable platformer-roguelike with great game feel and a nice difficulty curve. I was an avid Spelunky player but it’s taken its place for the time being (until Spelunky 2 is released) — the game has high-highs and low-lows with a real asshole of an end boss, but it features some clever items that exploit its systems well.”
The Spelunky comparison is apt — Caveblazers is a game that wears its influence on its sleeve. But it’s not just a knock-off; Caveblazers manages to distinguish itself with its lightning pace and clever upgrade system. For Glunt, it’s a great way to escape, or to burn a couple of spare minutes between other tasks.
“I play it at least once a day to unwind or for something to do during my check-in calls with our team. I do feel that the game has a weird disconnect between it’s sound design and it’s aesthetic but I’ll chalk that up to difference in taste (realistic sounds accompanying stylized pixel art). It’s still a damn good game and a steal at full price.“