2017 was another bountiful year for video games. One of the biggest success stories over the past several months has been the Nintendo Switch. A succession of well-received exclusives for the new platform, beginning with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” elevated the Kyoto-based company back into the spotlight. Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation 4 extended its dominance of the console space, reporting over 63 million units sold as of last June. Looking to make inroads into the burgeoning 4K market, Microsoft recently released the Xbox One X — the most technologically robust console of this generation. On a less sunny note, this year will also be remembered for the controversy attending the release of “Star Wars: Battlefront II.” The backlash over its microtransaction systems suggests that developers might have to be cautious about how they seed their games with incentives to encourage players to spend real-world money. On the other hand, the rising costs of blockbuster video game development could result in a gathering of momentum for the microtransaction trend. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in 2018. This year was also chock full of exciting titles. Here are the games that we could not stop thinking about:
What Remains of Edith Finch (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
|To think that a game about a family of cursed storytellers was initially conceived as a scuba simulator is to consider the byroads that the creative process can take. Yet throughout its development cycle, what became “What Remains of Edith Finch” was always intended to evoke sublime moments. In the game, players experience radiant episodes from the lives of the Finches that culminate in various tragedies. Each story introduces a new gameplay mechanic which makes the ensuing tale feel particularly unique. With a playtime equivalent to that of a long film Giant Sparrow’s masterpiece is a model of concision, narrative excellence and gameplay design.
Night in the Woods (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
One of the most emotionally expansive games this year tells the story of twenty-year old Mae, a college dropout who returns to her economically depressed hometown. Like those around her, Mae does her best to maintain an appearance of relative equanimity. As the days roll by the excitement in her life rises and falls rhythmically. She embarrasses herself at a party and has capers with her friends — happily committing “crimes”or acts of low-level mischief with her buddy Gregg — all the while fending off a sense of self-loathing. Though simple to play, “Night in the Woods” brilliantly leverages video games’ ability to woo players into following a routine to tell a story about what happens when routines collapse. It’s artfully silly, deep, humorous and humane.
Nier: Automata (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
“Nier: Automata” is designed to subvert expectations. This action RPG introduces narrative strands and gameplay systems that work together to change the player’s perception of its scope. With dazzling fluidity, the game morphs from a 3-D action game, to a sidescroller, to a twin-stick mech shooter, to a point and click text adventure while injecting, between its action sequences, philosophical parables on matters like the validity of free will. Don’t be surprised to see video game designers citing this in years to come as a touchstone work.
Persona 5 (PlayStation 4)
At the other end of the spectrum from the compact games on this list is this 100-plus hour RPG about a motley group of Japanese high school students that goes to class, hangs out, and acts as Phantom Thieves. This clandestine band of metaphysical warriors travels to spaces somewhere between dreams and reality where they battle the cognitive projections of crooks, scoundrels, and otherwise deluded individuals. The story cycles between frivolous and wisdom-soaked moments as nimbly as a concert musician might rehearse her scales. So much praise for such a seemingly odd game may sound a little dubious. And it’s true that this is not a game for everyone. But for those on the lookout for one of the most stylish, imaginatively-unfettered worlds the medium has to offer, “Persona 5” deserves a double take.
Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
This exuberant game follows Mario on another expedition to thwart Bowser’s underhanded plans for Princess Peach. In “Odyssey,” he gains the ability to toss his cap onto adversaries and “capture” their bodies, which grants him access to their unique capabilities. Stomping around as a mustachioed dinosaur, and plowing through obstacles as a football player are but a fraction of the things that Mario does in this game that whisks players into new activities like a host terrified of boring his guests.
The Tomorrow Children (PlayStation 4; no longer available)
This free-to-play game, from “Star Fox” creator Dylan Cuthbert’s Q-Games, was technically released at the end of 2016, but a series of updates helped it reach greatness in 2017. Set atop a miasmatic cloud that seems to have consumed a planet below, the game has players mining minerals, harvesting apples, and generating electricity to help rebuild civilization, one kitschy Soviet outpost at a time. The overarching goals are too big for one person, but the tranquil utopian atmosphere makes it easy to enjoy the smallness of each task. It’s a game that sees more in its workers than in their works. Sadly, the game’s servers were taken offline in November, but while they were running, “The Tomorrow Children” was a singular experience, and one of the best free-to-play games ever made.
Polybius (PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, PC)
The game takes its title from an urban legend about an FBI-funded arcade cabinet said to brainwash teenagers in the early 1980s, but its many subtle variations on moving and shooting have the opposite effect, leaving one’s mind refreshed rather than trapped in an obsessive spiral of mastery. It’s also a prefect use of VR, where 15 minutes feels just right.
Resident Evil VII (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, Xbox One)
On a flat screen “Resident Evil VII” is arguably the worst game in the series, but in a virtual reality headset it’s a masterpiece. The story traps players in a decaying bayou estate populated by the remnants of a mining family fast on its way to becoming zombies. It’s not the jump scares that unsettle, but the way the graphics themselves seem to molder into a flickering, pixilated mess in the low-resolution PSVR headset. You are trapped in a stuttering frame of a found-footage horror film, an all-encompassing contraption that only seems to mean its players harm.
Bob’s Game (PC and Mac)
It’s been an arduous decade for Robert Pelloni, who first began working on what would become “Bob’s Game” in the early 2000s. Originally conceived as a role-playing game set in a Midwestern suburb — which Pelloni hoped would be the biggest game ever made by a single person — “Bob’s Game” has finally been released as a deceptively straightforward puzzle game, a modernist mélange of “Tetris,” “Dr. Mario,” “Columns,” and “Lumines,” among others. The game types shift from one to another at unexpected intervals, leaving players feeling like they’ve been interrupted just as they’d started to figure everything out. It’s a beautiful effect in light of Pelloni’s many sacrifices and struggles during development. It’s a game, not of perfecting a plan, but constantly having to come up with a new one.
Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (PC and Mac)
There’s hardly a speck of cruelty or deceit in “Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator.” You play as a single dad who recently moved to a new part of town with your teen daughter, steering the game through a series of conversations with one of seven other single dads in the neighborhood. Each dad is drawn from social stereotype — the goth, the bear, the barista, the English teacher, the fitness junkie. The game overflows with a gentleness, which helps set up the enormity of the stakes, even when that’s rarely anything more, or less, serious than a kiss. It’s a game that captures the impossible feeling of wanting to be in love, and the startling fear of realizing you might already be.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.