Steve Gaynor is the co-founder of The Fullbright Company, the development studio behind the 2013 hit Gone Home, and 2017's Tacoma. Prior to that, he worked at 2K Marin as a level designer on BioShock 2, and served as lead designer and writer on the critically acclaimed Minerva's Den expansion. He's @fullbright on Twitter.
GOOD DAY EVERYONE. It is that time of year again, when we write the names of games in an order and describe why they’re good. Happy end of 2017! We survived this one, let’s hope we do as well next time around. Now, on with the gaming!
Please note that these are not the objective, definitive “best games” of 2017; these are ones I played that I wanted to put on a list. There were so many good games this year that I haven’t even gotten to Mario yet, and I’ve only done one Divine Beast in Zelda. But I played some other stuff! Here it is.
11. Resident Evil 7
Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4 are two of my favorite games of all time, but it’s been a while since the series really brought its A game. After spending years flailing to follow up the phenomenon that was Resident Evil 4, Capcom finally pulled it off with Resident Evil 7. This is the huge departure the series needed. It’s the first Resident Evil game where the viewpoint is entirely first-person, and despite being all-new territory, the developers carry it off with incredible confidence. First-person horror tropes a la Amnesia: The Dark Descent, mixed with classic Resident Evil mechanics, makes exploring the Baker household tense, exciting, and incredibly fresh feeling. The whole game falls down a bit once you leave the house and wander onto a big ship for inexplicable reasons, but up to that point, Resident Evil 7 delivers something truly surprising, and stands as one of the high points of the entire series.
Some games try to stand out by innovating in presentation, some in mechanics, some in story… Trackless is the rare game that feels practically unprecedented on all those levels. What strikes you first is the visuals: this is a first-person game exploring a 3D environment, but all the characters and props are 2D images, like in Doom or Duke Nukem 3D. But in Trackless, the 2D art is all hand-drawn, and seamlessly blends with the color palette and style of the world, creating a place that feels both incredibly present and ephemeral at once. You’ll explore ghostly cities, mysterious temples, and attend grand soirees, all on a journey to discover some sort of supposed enlightenment. Or, maybe just to exit through the gift shop. A short, focused, and singular experience in a year overstuffed with great games, Trackless is more than worth your time.
Night in the Woods is a gorgeous game, feeling both hand-crafted and incredibly polished at once--but what stands out to me, presentation aside, is how it so matter-of-factly and unapologetically addresses its themes. Night in the Woods is a story about people struggling with growing up, relating to others, managing mental illness, and the heartache of their hometown being slowly crushed to death under the weight of economic pressures they can’t hope to withstand. The animal-people in Night in the Woods talk to each other about religious faith (and the lack thereof), get too drunk and joke about sex and crime and old high school in-jokes, they patronize their parents and blame them for how they were raised and then go back to them for comfort. These individual stories feel so much like real people’s lives, and we have the privilege of being present for it. In 2017, a side-scrolling platformer starring a bunch of talking animals is the most deeply human video game story of the year.
I am such a fan of Supergiant. Their games are such unique, perfectly-crafted things, when I encounter them I am just in awe. The motion graphics alone; the look and feel of opening that massive tome and hearing the pages flap; the scritching of a quill pen and the tap-tapping on the Blackwagon floor; the constellations streaking together in the sky and the absolute overwhelming beauty of the audacious, near-abstract landscapes, bright and angular like cubism, like stained glass; the layers upon layers of writing, writing, writing; the utterly bizarre world; the endlessly intriguing characters; the dog mustache… fuck it, man. Games like Pyre are why games need to exist, and I am glad of it.
Some games are all about the love of what came before. 2017’s Prey, from its multi-deck space station setting to its winkingly-named “Looking Glass Device” that allows you to see into other places and times, is an unabashed homage to System Shock, BioShock, and the entire Looking Glass legacy to which Arkane owes so much. And guess what? I absolutely fucking loved it. If you’ve ever played System Shock 2 (or just heard the much-deserved hype) Prey is a slick, thoughtful, deeply considered, and deeply satisfying modern interpretation of that experience, through the lens of all the design innovations and improvements that have been discovered in the interim. If you love deep, systemic, immersive games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Dishonored, where "emergent gameplay: is more than a buzzword--and, in fact, defines the entire player experience--Prey is for you. Don’t miss it.
6. Yakuza 0
I am a gamer, but moreover I am a tourist. I love to play games to visit places I could never otherwise go, and Japan in the 1980s is one of those very places. I’ve loved the Yakuza series since playing the demo for its very first entry, and since then I've fallen completely in love with its vibrant, vivid, absurdist vision of Japanese urbanity. And Yakuza 0’s decision to push the game back 30 years does wonders. It’s not only a portal to a gonzo version of a foreign place, but also back to a nostalgic vision of an entirely different time. Right now, in theory, you could get on a plane and go anywhere in the world--but only media can take us to somewhere else in time, and Yakuza 0’s depiction of its very specific, lovingly-recreated place and time, in all its neon-drenched, analog glory, is one I’m so glad I get to experience.
You know what’s really nice? When a game can just make you laugh and feel good. Dream Daddy is everything pretty and inviting: gorgeous art, hunky daddies, a precocious, precious daughter, and all presented with an enormous amount of heart and good humor. I’m not a visual novel player normally, but Dream Daddy won me over with its good looks and catchy tunes-- and once it’s got your attention, it pulls you in and introduces you to a cast of characters with complex inner lives, facing real issues that demand empathy and compassion. Despite initially being presented as archetypes, there are no one-note characters here, but a group of complex individuals that you’ll get to know with a depth few games attempt. And did I mention it’s fucking funny? So pull up a seat, put on your reading glasses, and date some dang dads.
(Self-promotion time: if you liked Dream Daddy and would like to hear an in-depth interview with one of its co-creators, I invite you to listen to the first episode of the second season of my game developer interview podcast Tone Control, where I speak to Leighton Gray about daddies, art school, and what it’s like releasing a massive hit game at the ripe old age of 19.)
4. Packing Up
I love games that can create a unique feeling, a new experience, out of something totally familiar. Games like Nina Freeman’s how do you Do It?, for instance, that take something specific from our own lives and say something universal through that shared experience. Or, since we’re talking about my favorite games of 2017, 2017’s Packing Up the Rest of Your Stuff on the Last Day at Your Old Apartment (just “Packing Up” for short) by Turnfollow. Packing Up is a game that takes Resident Evil 4’s “inventory Tetris” mechanic and turns it into a personal method of telling a story, giving the player little bits of detail and insight just through the objects and artifacts they pick up and pack away. Understated, thoughtful, and a joy to play, Packing Up takes a familiar snapshot from our own lives--those last moments before you leave a place that’s built up meaning, memories, and associations over years--and turns it into something melancholic, beautiful, and well worth playing.
Like I said, I’m not much of a visual novel player. And yet, here’s the second full-on visual novel in my top five games of the year. Butterfly soup is equal parts deeply personal and incredibly fucking funny. Creator Brianna Lei has a wonderful ear for dialogue, especially weird jokes and hilarious turns of phrase, and it made me fall in love with the characters in Butterfly Soup right away, and love them even more as I got to know them. In a way, Butterfly Soup is a game created for one person, out of the obsessions of that one person--but through the intense specificity of Brianna Lei’s creation, we’re introduced to a group of characters and a place and time that feel amazingly full and real. Butterfly Soup is a brilliant, funny, heartfelt work of creativity and soul. By the time I finished, my face hurt from smiling so much. It’s an experience that I’m just grateful exists.
Like so many people, I put over a hundred hours into this, and I never even got good. I ran over enemy men with buggies, hid in bushes, and got my dome blasted off while attempting to do a good job. But moreover, I made good friends, mostly while we were fucking around looking for better helmets and more ammo in empty houses, just waiting to hear pops off in the distance signaling our swiftly-approaching demise. PUBG has the ebb and flow of a classic MMO experience like World of Warcraft, where as much or more of the enjoyment comes during those extended periods of quiet and anticipation, where in-jokes are born and long, lazy discussions are had, than in the action-packed moments they lead up to. That leisurely rhythm of searching and hiding, punctuated by sudden inescapable death gives us time to get to know each other and grow closer, then share in the surprise as we all get sniped out of a boat and pathetically sink to the bottom while continuing to laugh our asses off. Nice work, PlayerUnknown, wherever you are.
Is Wolf II the best game of 2017? Maybe, maybe not. But it is the most 2017 game of 2017-- which is to say, tragically, bafflingly, it is a game about white supremacists running America. But, on the upside, it is about the people of America, the oppressed, the downtrodden, those most vulnerable, rising up and turning the tide. Last year, I awarded my #1 slot to The Last Guardian for being a game of compassion, friendship, and understanding at a time when we desperately needed it. This year, Wolfenstein II is a game of resistance, rebellion, and righteous fury in a year where we had to stop feeling sad and start fighting back. Wolfenstein II has one simple message: fuck Nazis. There aren't two sides. Fascism must be destroyed, and there is no one to do it but us. Wolfenstein II allowed us to play out that rage and catharsis in all its overblown, cartoonish glory, and by God did we ever need it. Here’s hoping that whatever ends up being the game of 2018 celebrates our ability to take the complexity of feeling we’ve been building, the hope and worry, anger and disbelief, passion and yearning, and use it to turn this world into something better.