by Jed Pressgrove
2017 had plenty of good games compared to the last few years. But don’t be thrown off by the hype: several of the biggest releases were very flawed (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Yakuza 0) or downright terrible (Resident Evil 7, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Xenoblade Chronicles 2). The gaming world still has incredibly low standards, and many critics can still be indistinguishable from fanboys, but as always, the games themselves represent a vibrant art form.
1. The Norwood Suite
Cosmo D’s 2015 game, Off-Peak, was an audiovisual and thematic revelation. No other independent first-person game — not Dear Esther, not Gone Home, not Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — had captured humanity in such provocative, comprehensible, and technically daring terms. Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape. It complicates the theme of art under capitalism; whereas Off-Peak focuses on the diversity and struggle of artists in an exploitative system, The Norwood Suite covers a wider range of expressive individuals, including corporate sellouts, leading figures who abuse other artists in the process of creating iconic works (as exemplified by Peter Norwood), and more. Last but not least, The Norwood Suite confirms its developer’s distinctiveness as a surrealist. Some fans of Cosmo D compare him to filmmaker David Lynch. That’s an oversimplification. Lynch, who often serves up ominous abstractions, has never so blatantly called attention to cultural joy, sacrifice, and problems through a surreal lens, nor can he fully explore the possibilities of music within space. Cosmo D, like the people he portrays, is his own artist.
2. Nier: Automata
With some of the most resonant images, songs, and dialogue of the year, director Yoko Taro presents the bigotry of androids in Nier: Automata as a reflection of our own othering, which has no political boundaries.
This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that “more” does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.
4. Little Red Lie
As the most cynical game of the year, Little Red Lie sometimes lays everything on too thick. At the same time, one would be lucky in 2017 to find more compelling writing, from a standpoint of form or unfiltered emotion, than Will O’Neill’s work in this game. Little Red Lie is an ominous statement on how individuals and society influence each other, but it also functions as a mirror. In highlighting all of the characters’ lies, which come in innumerable forms, the game asks us to take a longer look at our own words. The coda, which aggressively breaks the fourth wall, might feel like an accusation or an insult, yet I interpret it as a moral challenge, a chance to be honest with one’s self.
5. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.
6. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.
7. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
If Mario + Rabbids didn’t have a pointless story and so much inconsequential item collecting, it could have been the best turn-based game of the year. As it stands, movement within a tile-based system has never been this electrifying.
8. Super Mario Odyssey
There are two strange signs of Super Mario Odyssey’s greatness. First, the game manages to counteract its pandering nonsense — a photo mode, nostalgic and trite two-dimensional platforming segments, repetitive item collecting — with sheer ingenuity and humor. Second, we may never see another pop game that reveals the urge of so many different people to enslave, brand, and manipulate things for their own gain. Cappy is innocuously packaged as a friendly guide, but his popularity as a device for unbridled control speaks to a double-edged type of catharsis, where we see in each other a common dark thread.
Developer Supergiant Games goes beyond the norms of RPGs and sports games to show how sport connects and divides us. Unlike countless other games, Pyre sees potential for revolution, both personal and social, via nonviolent means. In today’s world, that’s a controversial idea, especially for those who only see sports as games.
10. Torment: Tides of Numenera
Yes, I would have preferred this sequel to the unforgettable Planescape: Torment to stand out more visually and to distance itself more from the numbers obsession of many RPGs. But you also won’t find many games in 2017, or any year, this concerned with exploring the philosophies and sentiments of beings who may make you uncomfortable. Tides of Numenera is a call for people to leave their echo chambers and bubbles, even while the ghosts of history live on in startlingly destructive ways.