Jim Stormdancer has been making video games for twenty five years, but nobody noticed until he moved to the Bay Area and started making friends with game journalists. Since making Frog Fractions, he's told day jobs to screw off and is riding the making games train until the conductor realizes that he forgot to buy a ticket. You can find him on Twitter as @mogwai_poet, listen to the podcast he’s on at http://videogameshotdog.com/, and play his games on http://twinbeard.com/--except for Frog Fractions 2, which you’ve been playing your whole life.
Hey, folks! Here are ten games I loved in 2017, sorted from least to most obvious. Feel free to stop reading once you reach a game you’ve already heard enough about.
Freeways is a minimalist traffic planning game centered around intersection design, by the creator of Desert Golfing. You approach freeway planning one intersection at a time, looking at where people want to go, painting roads for them, running a test to see how well you did. As you progress, the level selector zooms out to show you a clockwork simulation of the city you’ve built.
It’s weird to put this on an end of year list, because of what’s missing. For example, there’s no way to erase a road, so if you don’t want to reset the whole level, you need to work around your mistakes. But as a package it still works -- it’s just polished enough to be amazing.
Oikospiel is a big, splattery mess of a game, a game that is constantly changing, a game made up of pieces sampled from other games, a game not afraid to throw you into a morass of undirected geometry and let you wander until you find the way forward--sometimes to a frustrating extent.
Resources like the Unity Asset Store have made games like this easy to make, relatively speaking. If you look at student games or itch.io, you’ll find a bunch of games that have the same mashup-of-unrelated-assets look as Oikospiel, but playing them, they usually feel like they were tossed off in a weekend or a week. Oikospiel takes that same design aesthetic, but stretches it out to a full length experience that actually feels thought through.
Data Wing is a genuinely free (in the sense of also being free from microtransactions) time-attack racer for mobile phones. It has writing that sneaks up on you, and racing controls that are simple, slick and inventive enough that they would feel right at home in the golden age of arcade.
Sometimes what you need from a game is just to pass time. You’re stressed out, you want a rote task that’ll make you feel good, and all your laundry is folded already. Some people go to the Diablo series for that hit of faux-productivity, but if, like me, you’re “so over” bashing goblins with a mace until treasure falls out, the SteamWorld Dig series provides the same thrill, except you’re bashing dirt and rocks instead.
West of Loathing (Asymmetric)
Here's the moment that sold me on West of Loathing: On the title screen, you can click to shoot at the scenery. A wanted sign, a tumbleweed, a fence, bottles, it all reacts appropriately. I tried shooting a cloud, and it didn't seem to react, and I was disappointed--until it blew apart three or four seconds later. The developers used realistic bullet travel time to make a gag funnier.
West of Loathing is the funniest game I’ve played in years. It’s also proof that your RPG doesn’t need to be 40 hours long to do convincing world-building and deep-running mysteries.
A note of disclosure: I record a weekly podcast with the folks who made this game. But also I guess I am friends, to a greater or lesser extent, with half the devs on this list? Indie games: a small industry!
On one hand, Getting Over It is about exploring the nuances of an unusual form of kinetic motion through interesting spaces, which makes it very much my jam. On the other hand, this game is also about exploring deeply-felt frustration and bitterness, which makes it very much not.
What puts it above most masocore platformers is Bennett Foddy’s voice. He talks to you throughout the game, discussing his design ethos and the game’s development, pointing out interesting aspects of the landscape, and consoling you when you fall. (On occasion, twisting the knife instead.)
Bennett was a philosophy professor before he started teaching game design, so he has really good words/ideas game, and I could listen to him talk all day. (He also has really good taste in public domain music.) Unfortunately, about a third of the way through the game, it started taking me so long to reach the part where he says the next thing that I would have forgotten the previous thing he said. I eventually gave up and listened to the whole commentary on Youtube instead. No regrets.
Night in the Woods is divisible pretty cleanly into two separate games. One of the games is a portrait of what it’s like to come back from college to an economically-dead small town, to find that you’re still basically a child and your friends are now adults with jobs. This part of the game is a tremendous success, with sharply drawn characters that reveal depth as you get to know them.
The other game is a weird ghost story plot that doesn’t really work except to the extent that it lets the protagonist drag her friends around and pretend she’s in a Scooby Doo episode. This part is where the entire plot happens. Luckily, it only takes up like a quarter of the playing time, and the rest of it is the characters that I loved having conversations with.
There’s something that happens as you get older, where you just, kinda, like things less. Sure, your taste gets more sophisticated and changes direction, but just in general, you’re less capable of loving the art you consume.
I’m 38. Like a lot of folks from my generation, I loved Deus Ex, loved it with every fiber of my being. After its sequel tanked, that kind of game fell out of favor for a long while. Long enough that when the industry came back to it, and I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I basically enjoyed it, and I assumed that’s as strong of an emotion I was capable of feeling. Same deal with the Dishonored series. It’s good, y’know? Not mind-blowing, but I’ll play the next one too.
Prey I loved with every fucking fiber of my being. It was weird to play this game back in May and realize Breath of the Wild had already been ousted as my favorite game of the year--it was even weirder a week later when Prey ousted Deus Ex as my favorite immersive sim.
It’s nice to know I’m still capable of loving something that much.
Mario Odyssey’s character controller is absolutely world-class, providing great-feeling reactivity over the entire learning curve. Somehow it's simultaneously accessible and also provides enormous capability for player expression, and a superhuman skill ceiling.
The pacing of reveals--reveals of art, of systems, of theming--is incredibly well-tuned while feeling completely naturalistic. The opening few hours of the game are a fire-hose of awesome stuff to look at and do, and even closing in on 100% completion, I was discovering new exciting things, big and small.
On top of all that, this is exactly the game for me. I grew up loving the 2D Mario games, but the series cemented itself in my canon with Mario 64, and to me, Mario will always be a series about exploring interesting places--where the platforming is not the focus, but just a fun thing to do while you poke at the spaces and the systems looking for secrets.
Skyward Sword to made me realize I didn’t like Zelda games any more, but it took Dark Souls to make me realize I hadn’t really loved one since the very first. The the mysterious, lonely, bleak world of the original Legend of Zelda is something the series has never even attempted to go back to until now.
They didn’t quite nail it. The openness is there, the willingness to let the player discover the game on their own terms, and I am incredibly grateful for that. But the solitude of the original game has been filled to bursting with the same overly-chatty-with-nothing-to-say NPCs of the rest of the series. And the dungeons, the part you used to look forward to in a Zelda game? Here, the Divine Beasts and their boss fights feel like their design was locked in when the team still thought they were making yet another Ocarina of Time.
There is one optional boss fight, at the top of a mountain, that feels genuinely of a piece with all the open world, climbing-and-paragliding, ridiculous improvisation you spend most of the game doing. I cling to that boss fight as the seed of what a Breath of the Wild sequel might blossom into, once the developers have figured out what’s good about their own game.
And here are a couple of bonus lists!