Kris Graft (@krisgraft) is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra
I’ve been covering video games for a while now, and at the end of every year I make a bunch of lists. I always kind of dread the top games lists in particular, because it's always difficult, but in the end I always love it. It’s worthwhile for everyone to take a step back, look at the things that grabbed you over the past year, and examine why they commanded your attention.
In 2017, an utterly unique puzzle game broke my brain, then allowed me to put it all back together. Another game reinvigorated my enthusiasm for a franchise that’s been special to me since PlayStation 1. Another told me it was ok to take a ramen break. Also, I really liked Nintendo this year, apparently.
A common thread running through a lot of my picks is that my favorite games teach me how to speak with them. These games in some way did an astounding job of teaching me their language, and then allowing me to communicate in that language, within the game. When the player and the game are on the same page like that, there is so much opportunity for reward and surprise.
On a related note, as the year winds down, I want to thank our community for reading, commenting, and blogging. I learn so much from all of you, and am grateful that my daily routine allows me to engage with the creative people behind video games.
Here are my top 10 games of 2017:
Gorogoa by Buried Signal
I’m so glad this game sneaked into 2017, and that I was able to catch it before making this list. A puzzle in a pure form that also tells a story in a powerful way, Gorogoa had me wondering how developer Jason Roberts was able to conceive of such a game, let alone extract it from his brain and execute the idea flawlessly.
Gorogoa made me understand a new language when it comes to 2D spaces. It’s one of those designs we should be talking about when discussing “game literacy.” There was such an obvious conversation happening between me and the puzzle pieces that it was blowing my mind. Solutions were sometimes challenging to find, but they always made sense according to the rules that are established early on in the game. Gorogoa is one of the most brilliant intersections ever of artistic, design, and technical mastery, and everyone should experience it.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by Nintendo EPD
While I’ve always appreciated the Zelda series, and owned most Zelda games at one point or another, I can’t say that I’ve been a fan—none of the games really spoke to me. That changed with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
This game distills the formula of Western-made open world games into its purest form, focusing on exploration and surprise. There’s such an intrinsically rewarding feeling when you examine the map, notice an oddity in its contours, ride your horse to that point, and find something you didn’t expect. There are a lot of other aspects that I loved about BOTW, but that sense of satisfaction in pure adventure is what will stick with me for a while.
Metroid: Samus Returns by Mercury Steam, Nintendo EPD
This one surprised me. With the Switch gaining traction, people are pining for Metroid Prime 4, and Metroid: Samus Returns was viewed as an appetizer that would merely whet appetites as people waited for the Metroid main course.
But Metroid: Samus Returns is more than just franchise filler. Based on 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus, the game captures the elements we love about Metroid: exploration, discovery, and combat mastery. The game’s big maps are challenging enough to be fun, but friendly enough to avoid frustration. And the implementation of a timed melee attack that stuns enemies makes moment-to-moment enemy encounters satisfyingly arcade-y from beginning to end. Make no mistake: Metroid: Samus Returns is a Metroid game worthy of standing on its own.
Nex Machina by Housemarque
Nex Machina, aka “death machine,” is simply one of the best twin-stick shooters ever made, coming from a studio that has made some pretty noteworthy twin-stick shooters already. The game oozes 80s arcade nostalgia, with neon-pink skulls, killer alien-robot-things, and difficulty that ramps up to new levels of “are you kidding me?” Design-wise it’s purposely constrained, and yet it forces you to move, with stages evolving as you move through them, making them feel alive, organic, and out-to-get-you. Your eyes start to become trained not on the neon lasers homing in on you, but the blank spaces in between, and soon you start focusing your eyes through the screen. It’s wild stuff.
I could continue to rave about Nex Machina, but it’d only make me sad because the game just didn’t sell as much as it deserved. The developer, Housemarque, said it was done with coin-op-inspired games, and moving onto projects in genres that have a better chance of sustaining the studio. I’m just glad they were able to get Nex Machina out there before pulling the plug.
Puyo Puyo Tetris by Sonic Team
Yes, this game originally came out in 2014, but I make no apologies for including it here. Puyo Puyo Tetris is best on Nintendo Switch, and I couldn’t stop playing it this year. The portability and built-in multiplayer capabilities of the console mean that you be that person and break it out at the bar, or jump into a multiplayer competitive online game from anywhere with a wi-fi connection.
new favorite game is called 'getting my ass handed to me in online puyo puyo tetris' pic.twitter.com/CLXPxsnaf4— kris graft (@krisgraft) May 8, 2017
I don’t think I need to explain the merits of Tetris—it’s probably the best video game ever made. And while I’m not exactly great at Puyo Puyo, the way the game handles mixed competition is well-done. It’s just good and I love it and I have 100 hours into it with 800 online matches in total. I’m kind of terrible, but I love it dearly, and that shows how much sheer fun is in playing the game, and not (necessarily) in winning or losing.
Prey by Arkane Studios
You’re stuck on a giant space station infested with shape-shifting aliens and your only chance of survival is to fuse alien genetics with your own, to become a hybrid human-alien...thing. My favorite “immersive sim” of all time, Prey does an incredible job of teaching the player what they can do with the systems at hand, then enabling and encouraging players to do those things.
That's Why We Prey (sorry again) https://t.co/9Z2ytlFSRL— kris graft (@krisgraft) May 12, 2017
The accompanying level design lends itself to experimentation, and the way it manages gating is such that players feel like they’re cheating or breaking the game, which just adds to the fun of it. It’s like an improvised jazz solo version of a Metroidvania. And yeah, you can morph into a coffee cup.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard by Capcom
Even through the not-so-great iterations of the Resident Evil franchise, I still remained faithful that the series would return to form at some point. Resident Evil 7 marks that point. It’s certainly an aesthetic departure in many ways from main entries in the franchise, but more than any of the other Resident Evil-shaped games of recent, it captured the feeling I had when I played the first one on a knobbed CRT television set on a gray PlayStation in my basement.
PRELIM REVIEW:— kris graft (@krisgraft) January 24, 2017
outlast + deliverance + a season of a&e's hoarders = resident evil 7's first 2.5 hours
Resident Evil 7 understands the use of down-time, how that can tell a story, and how it can build an enormous amount of tension, just as much as it appreciates the rush of fight or flight scenarios. The use of light and dark, quiet and loud, familiarity and uncertainty all contribute to a terribly dynamic, terribly frightening take on Resident Evil, with superb results.
Splatoon 2 by Nintendo EPD
I didn’t get into the Splatoon series until it came to the Nintendo Switch this year, and I’m so glad that I finally did. Splatoon 2 is such a nice change from the bloody headshots and alien sniping of other online multiplayer games, while still scratching the same itch in my brain. The world of Splatoon 2 is just a nice place to be.
That’s a large part of it. Yes, the game modes are fun, the various leveling and upgrade systems are hooky, and the moment-to-moment splatting is some of the most satisfying game-feel that I experienced this year. But the colorful world full of squid kids and their pals drew me in unexpectedly, serving as a sort of refuge from darker places in video games and elsewhere.
What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow
I didn’t know what to expect of What Remains of Edith Finch when I first started playing. But what I ended up experiencing was the year’s best example of narrative and mechanical harmony. Essentially a collection of short stories with a single thread bringing them all together, Edith Finch’s design gives careful consideration to the way people control video games, and how those control methods can be part of the storytelling experience.
It’s difficult to talk about specific examples, because I think going in totally blind (like I did) is the best way to play. But suffice to say, Edith Finch is just the right amount of foreboding, makes your brain do weird things, and is a masterclass in storytelling through game mechanics.
Yakuza 0 by Sega
Like a lot of people, the Yakuza series has hovered just below my radar for a long time. It really wasn’t until social media, where people could share all the cool, weird things that happen in this series, that I had to reevaluate my life and subsequently punch myself for not getting into Yakuza sooner.
Yakuza 0, for me, possesses zero ludonarrative dissonance. It’s basically a hyper-accurate “If Kris Graft Were an Actual Yakuza Simulator 2017.” Part of this is because so much of the game’s open world quest design derives from what I’d call “welcome distractions.” You run into people and situations that are so weird and compelling, your motivation to help them overtakes the motivation you have for any main questline, and you go on a tiny, satisfying adventure.
The main storyline is full of real estate intrigue, and the intersection of the game’s two protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima is actually pretty well done for an open world game. There’s just so much charm and heart here, not to mention it’s one of the few games anymore that truly feels like a “Sega game.” It’s wonderful.
starting to think that the best, most relatable open world game protagonist is just a person who has the attn span of a butterfly, easily distracted by anything.— kris graft (@krisgraft) November 14, 2017
so yes, kazuma kiryu. pic.twitter.com/n6jzuU9LIE