2017 has been a year huh? As political upheaval, cultural tumult, and a society debating about where to go next hangs heavy over all of our heads, the video game industry stepped up and produced one of the single finest years of art, wonder, and beauty the medium has ever seen.
As a debate raged about the quality or even the point of games having stories, 2017 saw a wave of stunning video games stride across the stage and deliver breathtaking, heartbreaking, and deeply moving and mature tales. Video games can craft stories, characters, and worlds unlike any other storytelling medium and 2017 seemed like the strongest signal yet of the unique strength and ability of games to do that most basic and yet fundamental of human things, tell a story, craft a narrative, and share powerful and important myths. I am incredibly proud of storytelling in games and I am even more excited to see where it goes from here.
Now to the games.
I played a lot of games in 2017 and while most of them weren’t top 10 worthy there were a few that I thought deserved special shoutouts for one reason or another.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Let’s get the biggest one out of the way first. Zelda won’t be on my top 10 list for 2017. This is for a variety of reasons but the biggest is simply that I haven’t played enough of it yet. I am at the time of writing this list only about 10 or 15 hours into Breath of the Wild. I haven’t even faced my first divine beast yet, I simply don’t think it’s fair to compare my early and incomplete experience in Zelda to everything else.
Having said that, I’m not sure if BotW would make my top 10 list anyway, I’m just not quite sure of my thoughts at this point, but I do recognize that it is definitely worthy of a shoutout here.
Friday the 13th
This game is actually awesome y’all. Throughout the year I heard various people talk of how much fun and enjoyment they got out of this broken, jankey, and goofy game and then during IP’s Extra Life stream I played for the first time and fell in love with this game. It handles tension, drama, and putting more and more pressure on players better than the vast majority of games in the horror genre. It is endlessly fun and exciting to play with some of my favorite moments of the year coming from this game, including a few during that IP stream.
Yet, it is broken and not perfect at all, and does numerous questionable things. I don’t feel right about putting this game on my actual list due to its many issues but rest assured Friday the 13th is great and it is definitely more fun than many of the games I have played this year.
I fell in love with Speedrunners during the summer drought of games and just played match after match after match. Fast, fluid, silly, and constantly with its tongue firmly planted in its check Speedrunners is without question the defining experience from the summer months for me. It is a game and a experience perfectly in sync with the breezy, fun, more lighthearted nature of summer. Just sit back, unwind, and run away with Speedrunners, it’s a joy.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
I have been fairly vocal in my criticisms and problems with Before the Storm, something I very much stand by. I still believe this three episode miniseries is a shadow of what the original LiS was. Its characters don’t seem as believable, and grounded, the city of Arcadia Bay isn’t given any new dimensions or sides to it, and the game doesn’t really explain or answer any of the questions you might have had about how we get to the events of the first LiS. Most importantly I still believe Chloe is a largely unlikeable protagonist and one who seems robbed of much of what made her shine in the original, the shadow of Max Caulfield looms large over the events of Before the Storm.
All of that said, and again it is all true, when Before the Storm does get it right, it gets it really right. Particularly in the second episode, far and away the best of the three episodes, Before the Storm manages to get close to some of the magic, wonder, and heart of Life is Strange. This is highlighted most strongly by the far and away highlight of the game, Chloes bond with Rachel Amber. Throughout the events of the first LiS everyone talks about and mentions Rachel, she is a looming presence who though you never meet yourself you can very much feel throughout the games runtime.
Finally getting to meet Rachel and truly understanding just what makes her so special, finally getting why everyone falls in love with her was a breathless experience at times. Again, going back to the second episode the scenes of Rachel and Chloe onstage together performing a scene from the Tempest ranks among the greatest moments from any Life is Strange game. Beautifully told, dramatic, constantly funny and real, and given how we know their story ends during the events of LiS, shockingly bittersweet and with a touch of melancholy throughout Rachel Amber and Chloe Prices tale together is Before the Storm at its most heartbreakingly and soul-fulfillingly best. For that alone it earned its spot in my honorable mentions.
This was by far the toughest choice to leave off my top 10 list for the year, honestly even as I write this I still have some reservations about it not making my top ten, but ultimately it doesn’t crack into my top 10 for the simple reason that I haven’t played nearly enough of the game. I am ONLY 25 or so hours into Persona and that simply isn’t close to enough to judge such a giant and sprawling game like this, no matter how absurd that may sound.
From what I’ve played I both like quite a bit about Persona 5 and also find myself confronting the fact that there may just be structural things about this series that I never really get totally on board with. When its good its wonderful, transporting me to a time and place within my own life with an ease and deft touch that leaves me smiling, yet when Persona stumbles it does so in awkward, cringe-inducing fashion that leaves me shaking my head and staring on in disbelief. At the end, I enjoy Persona but without knowing how the other 80 hours or so of the game shake out I don’t feel comfortable saying if the game has more moments like the latter or the former, thus it just misses out on my top 10.
Now, onto the best of the best of 2017.
10. Sonic Mania.
Sonic Mania is the greatest Sonic game ever made. Full stop, period. It is not perfect, of course not. It has pacing issues, some of the zones and acts are drags to get through and suck away much of the fun and joy of the experience, the difficulty will spike and plunge with seemingly no direction or reason for why. Yet, when it nails it, and rest assured Sonic Mania nails it a fair bit, it does something truly special and magical even in an incredible year for games like 2017. In short, when done right Sonic Mania produces something like Act 2 of the Chemical Plant Zone.
That act is a masterpiece of joyous realization of what Sonic can be at its best. Blasting past everything in sight, smashing into buttons and switches to fling the beloved blue hedgehog all across your screen in a kaleidoscopic of colors, sounds, and nostalgia fuelled warmth, it was as perfect and importantly fun as anything I played the entire year. With the music soaring to push you to go ever faster and faster and faster, to explore more, to blaze your path forward I found myself constantly laughing out loud in disbelief at the newest trick, surprise, and pure fun of it all. The climax of this is the wickedly clever and fan servicery boss fight for the act which is the culmination of among the best levels I’ve ever played in a platformer. From the opening seconds to the last I never stopped laughing and never ceased to have a big dumb smile plastered all across my face. It was an absolute joy.
Sonic Mania isn’t perfect, but damn if it ain’t headspinningly fun at times.
The very last game I played for consideration for my GOTY list for 2017 was the strange, beautiful, meditative, brilliant sports game Pyre. It constantly is changing between many hats, but ultimately what shines through brightest in Pyre is its remarkable story of the eight Scribes and the story of religion, belief, and mercy at its heart.
A lot has been said about how Pyre has a basketball style game at its heart, but at least for me the cleverest thing Pyre does is truly introduce a radically new and different game, it isn’t simply basketball with a few twists it is so much more than that. What Pyre ends up crafting in the end is a masterclass of all the best aspects of sport coming to life. Stress-filled last second moments that define the entire experience, crushing loss, soaring highs, people coming together to work towards something bigger than themselves, an ideal to strive for, falling short and trying once more. Sports are a microcosm of the human condition and perhaps nowhere is that shown more beautifully than in Pyre, with its sport wrapped around the tale of the Scribes and an ancient competition for one’s own freedom.
That final point opens up many interesting doors. Freedom. What does it mean, when is one really free? How does one reconcile achieving one’s own freedom when it comes at the cost of another, and importantly making that freedom, this second chance you’ve been given better, making it about more than just yourself.
Pyre’s greatest weakness and ultimately the reason it only rises to number nine on my list is its pacing and overall length. This is a game probably both too long and also far too short. I felt like I never had anywhere close to the time I wanted with each one of the characters, only truly getting to know a few and even then I wanted more time with them, I wanted more time and backstory on the Scribes, yet at the same time the game unquestionably drags during the middle act where things begin to feel very samey very quickly. Yet, that first tour through the Downside is something I will remember for long after I’ve finished Pyre and closed the book on 2017. The absurdist, dangerous, beautiful locales you visit, the larger than life and multi-layered foes you come across, the flawed, slightly broken, and purposeless band of misfits you bring together. All driving toward one reality, toward one purpose, toward one impossible dream.
Above all, Pyre at its heart is about that simple message the Scribes left the world all those years ago, a message so basic and complex and fundamental to humanity that it can be summed up in a single word, mercy. That is what makes Pyre such a singular and speical game, that is the message that carries through the years. Mercy.
8. Night in the Woods
Perhaps the most complicated game on my list, if only for the seemingly opposite reasons I enjoyed it as opposed to everyone else. So let’s talk about those reasons. Night in the Woods was beautiful to me because of the melancholic, tragic narrative at its heart. Possum Springs is a town at the end of its rope and unlike what we are predisposed to think it is a town that won’t get better. It is doomed. It will just shrink and fall apart piece by piece day by day until there is nothing left.
This feeds into the young heroine at the heart of things, Mae Borowski. Mae is troubled, she is haunted by events we only hear about. She is decidedly broken in some ways, spiraling further and further away, descending into a darkness, into a depression staggering in how it slowly but absolutely sucks away at everything within her. Night in the Woods has no time for happy endings and doesn’t pretend that it will give us one. Perhaps the most shocking thing during my time with the game is how my expectations went from how are we going to save the day and help Mae to move on from the past, to simply I hope Mae is still standing at the end, I hope there is still some light. In its most poignet and standout moments Night in the Woods delivers breathtaking and illuminating scenes between its various characters, notable not just for how raw and often difficult they are but also for how movingly true they are to the doubts, fears, and depression that naturally would come along with being in their shoes, that comes with being at the end of something.
Night in the Woods is unlike anything else I’ve played this year. As someone who is a powerful optimist and always fulfilled with hope and belief in tomorrow, Night in the Woods walked by to stop and say sometimes there isn’t a larger point, sometimes there is no point at all, its all senseless loss and grief and despair and things getting worse with ABSOLUTELY no reason at all to think they will get better. It is a very bleak game at times, it is a slightly nihilistic game at times, yet it is a game aimed directly at my heart with its wondrously realized midwest setting, with its small town that feels so real and so alive and so much like my own. It is a game where there is simply no reason at all to hope. And yet, still Possum Springs hopes, even as the world seems to spin away, even as the storm clouds darken, and even as most know things will get worse. They hope, sometimes that’s enough, sometimes you just need to hold onto that most human of emotions and hope and believe and carry on from there. Because who knows, maybe tomorrow the sun might just peek its way through the clouds and shine a path forward. Maybe it won’t. Either way we hope.
7. Yakuza Kiwami
What a brilliant, absurdist, and out of nowhere title this game was for me. I had always been interested by the Yakuza series but had never played one when I was given this game to review for the site. What I proceeded to discover was that all of my expectations were blown to total shreds and that Yakuza Kiwami far from being a Japanese knock-off of the Grand Theft Auto series, is actually a spectacular Shakespearean inspired epic of betrayal, redemption, and family.
Yakuza is wild, very very Japanese and absurdist, and most importantly a remarkably intimate and personal tale of two brothers in arms being ripped apart. Tragic, soaring, and constantly with both its tongue in its cheek and its heart on its sleeve Kiwami proceed to stagger me. The intimate city you find yourself in both seemed towering and endless at first glance and also one that became like home to me. The characters, many of whom were easy to fit stereotypes of basic heroes or villains, evolved and grew into complex, layered, deeply emotional individuals who constantly avoided easy description.
Yet, tying it all together was the fighting system at the heart of the game. In many ways it was both the high and low of the game. There are easily far too many random encounters when out walking around and exploring the city, so much so that it actively served to turn me away from digging around the city more and discovering its many nooks and crannies. Yet, when done right as in the moment I discussed prominently in my IP review for the game, when you take on an entire building full of baddies, it was a perfect cocktail of gameplay, story, and fast, fluid, and dynamic fighting coming together to create something truly special and wonderous. A mixture of John Wick, the Raid, and the Matrix it was an exceptional and jaw-dropping series of moments spread across multiple floors and areas of a giant abandoned building. Cracking skulls, breaking jaws, and smashing open doors it was a visceral and extravagantly over the top sequence but one that may well have been the highlight of the year for me up to that point.
Yakuza doesn’t always hit those heights, not at all. Its middle act is ploding and overly long, some characters do simply stay those same stereotypes and it does feel like you are repeating yourself at times over and over again during the middle third of the game. Yet, the highs and emotional notes this silly, cartoony, and utterly ridiculous game was able to reach truly were Shakespearian and left me shocked and in awe at the sheer audacity and operatic nature with which it played out its incredible tale. It might be a remake of a decade old PS2 game but Yakuza Kiwami would unquestionably be the biggest surprise of the year for me if not for one other game, but we will get to that.
6. Emily is Away Too
A beautiful, moving, and eerily relatable tale of first love, friendships, and growing up. Set to the almost literal soundtrack of my highschool years, Emily is Away Too was one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of the year for me and in no way fell short. Capturing much of the excitement, fear, and magic of high school and love in general I found myself shockingly quickly caught up in the tale of Emily and Evelyn. Successes shared, sparks kindled, and dreams dashed felt so right and raw after so many years and chapters of my own life and all the growth that had come with it.
I will never forget the feelings of joy and happiness during the fourth chapter of the game. When everything just clicked, when the world simply stopped, at a standstill for me and Evelyn, this was our moment, our time we’d always treasure together, it was a love coming to blossom.
I’ll just as surely never forget the stunned, broken silence that hung over me after the games raw and brutal finale. As the pieces of what once was slipped right through my own fingers. As All my Friends by LCD Soundsystem played I sat there and flashed back across the years of my own life, of my own romantic journey of incandescent highs and backbreaking lows. I sat and watched and experienced that absurd and ridiculous and crazy whirlwind of emotions that I had felt so many times before, but never from a game and I reflected on it all. I reflected on how this silly little game had just shown me something of myself, and I never forgot. I never will.
What a gem.
5. Super Mario Odyssey.
It’s just fun you know? There’s something to it, even with my many gripes about how this is the least bold, or risky, or revolutionary Mario game in at least twenty years Mario Odyssey still stood tall as an experience of such unadulterated joy and magic that I couldn’t help but fall in love as I played.
I really do think that this Mario game is perhaps the weakest of any 3D Mario game, even some of the non 3D ones, yet it is just so full of heart and joy and pure nostalgia. New Donk City is a very VERY close contender for being my moment of the year, it just gets it, it understands that after three decades of Mario and twenty plus years of 3D Mario that we have grown up with the iconic plumber. Previous Mario games had nostalgic little touches and homages to the past, and in a great many cases they were brilliant and wonderful, the Galaxy games did some special stuff in particular, but never before have we got anything like Odyssey.
I once described this as a perfect ending to the series in a lot of ways, it’s not the ending of course, not even close I’m sure, but it’s so full of nods to the past, of what’s come before as well as clever and in many cases lovely evolutions of certain characters, one in particular that I couldn’t help but find myself smiling and smirking throughout the entire experience. This is the game that I got a Switch for, this is the game that I laughed, smiled, and just let myself enjoy it all more than any other in 2017. In a year of great storytelling in the industry Mario came along and did what Mario does best, he just brought joy and laughter to the hearts of so many.
4. Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon is an epic in every sense of that word. The sheer scale of its world, the immense grand nature of its constantly evolving story, and the complex, messy individuals at its heart lend Horizon an epicness unmatched by nearly anything else in 2017. It is a brilliant work of gameplay and narrative working in wonderful harmony. It is quite simply staggering what Guerilla has created here.
The only real negative I can throw against the game is one against Aloy, who thoroughly ran the gamut in terms of my thoughts and feelings on her. I stand by those critiques of her I made when first playing, yet I also think that over time both playing the game and as the months have gone by they have seemed to be chiseled away until what is left standing is a towering achievement in storytelling, one that constantly threw off your expectations, ideas, and theories as to what was going to happen next and instead delivered a breathtaking, thoughtful, and brilliant story wrapped in classic mythological elements, grand tragedy, and fully realized emotion. Horizon’s final act is an incredible series of moments and threads coming together to fully realize the games massive ambitions, the way it pulls it off and the final beautiful image it leaves you with has remained with me all these months later.
Oh. Also you get to fight robo dinosaurs and that’s maybe the most exthrilliating, fluid, and wonderously crafted gameplay mechanics I’ve found this year.
3. Resident Evil 7
The fact that there is a Resident Evil game, really a horror game in general not just on my top ten list but featured prominently in my top three is among the years biggest surprises for me.
Yet, Resident Evil 7 simply put is unlike anything else I have ever played. RE7 just nailed every aspect of what it was going for. Its Southern gothic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired family, and suffocating, atmospheric nature formed a visegrape upon me any time I entered into the Baker residence, that left me struggling for breath and with waves of tension, heart gripping fear, and paranoid glances behind me very quickly coming to define the experience.
This is the greatest horror story I’ve ever experienced, yet it is so much more than that. The first act of RE7 is very damn near flawless in how it executes its vision and establishes terror and unease as the only emotions allowed and truly makes you only concerned with the basic act of survival. As the game expands and you move to the larger Baker area some steam is lost and some of the tight, driven narrative thrust is removed. That said, step by terrifying step making your way through the home of Jack and Marguerite Baker, discovering the secrets and ugly truth of what’s happened is as haunting and unforgivingly intense as anything I’ve experienced in 20 plus years of consuming “scary stories”. The nature of Resident Evil 7 and the terrifying feelings it created in me will be seared into me for some time to come.
2. What Remains of Edith Finch
You may have noticed that for many of the games on this list I have mostly steered away from talking about the games on a technical or mechanical standpoint and instead focused on the feelings, emotions, and lasting impression left by the various different titles. The game that was one of the original root causes of this was What Remains of Edith Finch. I mean hell, my review of the game for IP almost entirely avoided talking about what the game does and instead focused on the feelings and images it conjures up in you.
Edith Finch is remarkable. It is a brilliant piece of atmospheric and environmental storytelling. It is filled with rich, complex, flawed, and above all tragic characters. It sets its sights on tragedy, family, destiny, and the dreamer in us all and proceeds to knock each one of these themes out of the park. It is a dark and at times depressed journey, yet it is also one that is stunning to watch unfold and retell the stories of the various members of the Finch family.
Lewis’s vignette in particular is among the most staggering experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game, marrying the absurdist, almost cartoony world of Edith Finch with a breathtakingly beautiful, nuanced, and moving depiction of mental illness, depression, and not being able to live in the real world any longer. It serves as a profound commentary on issues usually glossed over and should be regarded as a MUST PLAY for everyone. Full of heart, empathy, and understanding it shows the monotony of daily life and slowly falling away from the traumas and hardships of reality. I sat in stunned silence after finishing.
What Remains of Edith Finch and the number one game on this list are both masterful and brilliant stories, but they are also stories that are unquestionably strengthened and bettered by being video games. They are stories that really only work in this medium and the unique and singular way it can deliver a narrative. As I mentioned in my introduction for this top ten list and as I mentioned in my review of the game, in a year in which some openly called into question the merits and whether games would be better without stories, Edith Finch casually and with purpose walked across the grand stage and delivered an emphatic and unequivocal answer that yes, video games very much can tell special, one of a kind, never to be forgotten stories and we should all take notice of that.
2017 Game of the Year: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterpiece. It is an extraordinary piece of art. One overfilling with passion, raw fragile human emotion, and a disturbing, dark, tragic young heroine who knows how this story ends and yet holds out against the demons for just a little while longer nonetheless.
When I finished Hellblade I texted IP Editor- in- Chief Alex O’Neill my immediate and instant thoughts, I’d like to share them with you.
Hellblade is why video games exist. To tell these stories, to build a world like this, to quite literally in Senua’s case place you in the mind of a human, a real, flawed human. To tell the stories that other art forms can’t. To reveal the cracked and frayed humanity within us all. Hellblade is staggering, it is harrowing, it is the most intimate and epic of tales, nothing larger or smaller than simply the battle for a soul, the battle of one broken womens scared mind, fighting against itself. It is among the most powerful, thoughtful, empathic, and masterful experiences I’ve ever come across. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is why video games exist. To tell Senua’s story and the story of so many like her. To keep a faint light of hope as darkness closes all around you and to hopefully, hopefully see that faint flicker spread.
Hellblade is one of the greatest pieces of art I have ever encountered, it touched me and personally affected me in a way few things ever have before. Hellblade changed me, deeply, personally, and intimately. It is without question my Game of the Year, in fact it’s so much more than that to me. I was without words journeying through Senua’s story, I had my eyes opened wide, I learned, and I grew. It taught me of sacrifice, greatness, and love. I could pick one hundred moments to discuss from this game. I could discuss how a certain segment during Hellblade is among the finest things I’ve ever come across in video games, I could discuss how that same segment ranks only below the Last of Us, my favorite piece of art of all-time, in terms of weight, emotional release, and soul cleansing power.
Instead, I will just simply say Hellblade, what a game, what a towering achievement and what a meditation on humanity and the light and darkness inside us all.