This is an unnumbered, “soft” ranking of my favourite games of 2017. Since 2017 was a fantastic year for games, I also included a 2nd list (in no particular order) of games that didn’t quite make the cut, but probably would have made it into my favourites in most other years.
Let’s start with my favourite game of 2017, which has pretty much been set in stone since March:
Breath of the Wild
BotW came as a big surprise to me. The Zelda games, specifically Ocarina of Time, may have been my favourite games as a kid, but I lost interest in the series in my teens and hadn’t played a single new entry since The Wind Waker. So I wasn’t particularly interested in BotW until the first reviews rolled in, which described a game that sounded like it was made with me in mind. I played more than 100 hours in a single month, something I probably hadn’t done since my teenager days.
Hours played certainly isn’t an indicator of quality, as many games built on addicting loops illustrate, but it wasn’t the compulsion of levelling up or collecting loot that kept me hooked. There’s simply a kind of magic to BotW that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced since, say, OoT or Baldur’s Gate 2. From the very opening, in which Link emerges from his cave to a vista of Hyrule expanding below him, BotW conjures one intensely memorable moment after the other. One of my favourite moments was a remarkably simple thing. I was climbing the Duelling Peaks early in the game when I saw something enormous move in the margins of the screen. It was an ethereal dragon (Farosh, as I found out hours later) flying over Lake Hylia far off in the distance, and I just stood there, mesmerised. To me, these fleeting moments perfectly encapsulate why BotW succeeds as an open world game where so many before it failed.
Find more of my thoughts about BotW here, plus some pretty screenshots:
I encountered quite a few people on Twitter who expressed the jaded opinion that Prey is derivative. Another sci-fi game set in a space station. Just another Bioshock clone. I think nothing could be further from the truth (and it really is besides the point that I think that there can never be too many space stations). Forget Bioshock. Prey picks up where System Shock 2 left off, and, seeing as no game ever really tried to expand on SS2’s enormous potentials, this is a special thing indeed, as far as I’m concerned. Prey strikes a great balance between conservatively improving on what already worked in SS2 and still finding plenty of room for clever experiments and ambitious, even subversive tweaks to the formula. The fact that 2017 delivered a more than worthy successor to one of the most ambitious and shamefully neglected first-person games ever made already elevates 2017 over most other years.
I liked and admired Supergiant’s previous games (especially Transistor), but neither of them managed to really excite me. And at first, the same seemed to be true for Pyre. Beautiful art and soundtrack, loveable characters and an innovative fighting system; it would be enough for most games. But after perhaps 8 hours or so, at which point I suspected the game was about to end, it did the exact opposite and opened up, gradually revealing its true ambition and scope. It was a wonderful realisation that caught me completely off guard. Slowly, everything comes together and Pyre becomes far more than the sum of its (beautiful) parts. By the time it ended, I had become hopelessly entangled in this world with its strange rules and its tragic and loveable inhabitants.
Mythology and ‘lore’ tend to be an encyclopaedic pursuit in video games, something universal that exists largely outside and independently of individual minds. In Hellblade, mythology becomes personal and subjective while losing nothing of its overwhelming, awesome scope. Senua’s psychological torments become mythologised; in other words, she uses the Norse myths as told to her by Druth to make sense of her personal struggles. Hellblade has been rightly praised for its nuanced portrayal of mental illness and psychosis, but I feel its unique angle on mythology and history is just as worthy of discussion. For a game basically about surviving battle challenges and solving environmental puzzles, those are some surprisingly ambitious and difficult themes to tackle, and Hellblade does it with aplomb.
Super Mario Odyssey
A confession: I’ve never been a big Super Mario fan. I have an actual dislike for the revered 2D titles of the series, and even though I’ve enjoyed Galaxy and 3D World, up until a few months ago my favourite Mario game was probably Mario Kart 8. That changed with Odyssey, a game that’s more about exploration and experimentation (something I love) than platforming challenges (something I hate). As a result, Odyssey has become the first platformer that I’ve been able to enjoy without reservations. I’ve even learned to love (and partially master) Mario’s expressive move set, which makes exploration an absolute joy. After more than 900 power moons (probably as close as I’ve ever gotten to 100%ing any game), I’ve decided to call it quits, but I still sometimes daydream of diving onto Cappy to jump from one rooftop to another in New Donk City.
I don’t usually enjoy gangster stories or games that routinely dish out long cut scenes or reams of non-interactive, static dialogue. And yet, I somehow fell in love with Yakuza 0, so much so that it became hard for me to acknowledge its many flaws, from its awkward controls to its problematic depiction of women. I find it hard to explain why Yakuza 0 works so well. It’s extremely silly and often genuinely, laugh-out-loud hilarious, but much of its frequently tragic plot is presented with complete earnestness. It’s a game about literally beating cash out of random thugs in the streets, but also expects you to delve into real estate management and complicated Yakuza politics. It’s a game about tough men and the ethical hellscape they create, but its cool macho protagonists display a naive, genuine kindness that’s completely disarming and heart-warming. It sounds like a mess, and perhaps it is. But if it is, it's the most beautiful mess I’ve ever seen.
Night in the Woods
I neglected this game for months, suspecting that it wasn’t for me. How wrong I was. NitW doesn’t work perfectly; the repetition of daily routines can become a tad too, well, repetitive, and the ending feels a bit rushed and messy. But in those many moments in which it does work, it creates moments that aren’t just memorable because they’re curious and entertaining, but because they feel profound and truthful. Just like in our daily experiences, banality and transcendence, joy and suffering, community and loneliness, signal and noise, meaning and nonsense exist alongside each other, often in confusing and contradictory tangles. The constant clash between opposites like these produces sharp edges that penetrate deeply, and NitW seems to understand that unlike any other game.
Does this game belong on this list? I still can’t tell if this is my secret favourite game of 2017 or my most hated. I feel like I’ve barely scratched its surface and don’t know if I’m ever going to see it to its end, but I can’t deny that it has burnt itself into my brain like few other games in the last months or even years. And I feel like I should be able to call it a masterpiece, that I should adore it. It isn’t just its ambition that’s awe-inspiring either. So much here works beautifully, from the believable simulation of a bizarre ecosystem with its hunter-prey interaction to the many ways the player gets to interact with these systems. There are echoes of games like Metroid or Dark Souls, but Rain World is by and large its own peculiar flavour. And yet, that taste is a bit too bitter for me to stomach. Rain World is an excessively cruel game, and while suffering and struggle do have their place, I’m often dreading the thought of slipping back into the slug cat’s frail skin. Still: I feel like this should belong on this list.
More games that deserve love:
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Its intricate bank job that stretches across multiple levels is one of my favourite missions in any immersive sim or stealth game.
One of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played, but alas, it is very short indeed.
Has its fair share of weaknesses, but its palimpsest-like apartment complex where ruin and high-tech overlap is one of my favourite virtual places in recent memory, and one of my favourite cyberpunk settings in any game.
Not as good as Gone Home, and Prey has the more interesting space station as far as I’m concerned. And yet, Tacoma’s novel approach to the old trope of uncovering the past events of a deserted place is a resounding success.
The best Metroidvania games since, well, Hollow Knight. Its tight little ecosystems are full of surprises and possibilities.
Mario and Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Generally speaking, I prefer aliens and sci-fi dystopias to colourful cartoon worlds, but there’s no denying that Kingdom Battle is just as good as the XCOM games.
One of those rare point and click adventure games in which I solved the majority of the puzzles all by myself.
Its supernatural horror ultimately is an exploration of political atrocities and the devastating effects of oppressive systems on the bodies and souls of those who are caught within them.
What Remains of Edith Finch
I didn’t love it as much as some, but I still agree it's a great game. A heartrending experience that deserves a place on this list for its inventiveness alone.
Divinity Original Sin 2
I often found OS2 intensely frustrating to play, but it’s still a delight in many ways, from the flexibility of its emergent systems and its whimsical writing, to its beautiful environments and creative quests.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
I’m not sure how I feel about this one. It’s without a doubt a brilliant RPG in many ways, but only rarely did it inspire, thrill or touch me the way the original Torment did (and still does), and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after a 2nd playthrough.