If you’re reading this, give yourself a pat on the back for making it through 2017. It hasn’t been easy; a lot of the time it has been an uphill slog. And signs are 2018 isn’t likely to get a whole lot better. But we’re eventually going to get there, together, and along the way we’re going to play a load of fantastic video games. Here are my personal highlights from this year.
Most Unique Game
Philosophy is something I like to imagine I know something about considering I did a degree in it, and Everything is a fascinating game examining the Buddhist-inspired philosophical outlook of British philosopher Alan Watts. With accompanying audio snippets of several lectures Watts gave, you explore a delightfully whimsical world where you can become more or less everything, from objects and animals to clouds, planets, germs and atoms. While I remain sceptical generally about much of Watts’ philosophy, the game was very successful in getting across the key messages of his vision in an engaging and lively fashion. I recommend especially if you want a peaceful game to help you unwind.
Most Atmospheric Game
Best Sequel (to System Shock 2)
Prey should not be called Prey. The correct title of Prey is System Shock 3, and everything about this game’s style, structure and gameplay draw direct influence from System Shock, and less directly from other immersive sims such as Deus Ex. It has absolutely nothing to do with the 2006 game called Prey. On its own merits, it is an expertly crafted action adventure, where you must rely on your various skills to survive the alien infestation aboard the Talos 1 space station. Despite the annoying enemies, the world design, characters and gameplay loop is top notch, only let down by slightly too much backtracking into the last third of the game. I hope we get a sequel to this Prey, and I hope we get it quicker than the time between the first “Prey” game and this one. You can read Eduardo’s review here (for a different view, as he didn’t like it as much as me!).
Best Action-Adventure Game
Best Standalone DLC
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Dishonored 2 was my Game of the Year in 2016, despite the technical issues that plagued the game at launch. Death of the Outsider is essentially a standalone DLC for Dishonored 2, set shortly after the finale. You take on the role of Billie Lurk (a side character from the original Dishonored DLC) and venture back to Karnaca to find your former assassin leader, Daud. As is becoming customary for Dishonored, the storyline takes a backstory when it comes to the general world-building and the general gameplay. Dishonored 2 already had incredible gameplay, and Death of the Outsider fine-tunes it even further to make the best-playing game yet. With some excellent levels and an interesting examination of the backstory the Outsider, Death of the Outsider is a fitting send-off for Dishonored 2. You can read my review here.
There are no other games quite like Scanner Sombre. Functionally it is an exploration game with very minimal interaction. But the unique thing about it is that it’s set in pitch blackness, and you must use a LIDAR scanner to slowly reveal the world around you. As a central mechanic it is very memorable, even if it means the gameplay is somewhat one note as a result. Also, the game is let down by a basically non-existent plot, but does have a good soundtrack to compensate. You can read my review here.
Best Short Game
Subsurface Circular is the definition of short but sweet. It won’t take you long to play through the story and there are no fail states, but you will remember your time riding the rails on the subsurface metro for a long time after you stop playing. It’s an interesting story of robots in a futuristic society, with mystery element thrown in for good measure. With an excellently streamlined, near text-adventure layout, great writing and a detailed world you only get tantalising glimpses of, Subsurface Circular is an easy recommendation if you’re looking for a great game to play through in an idle evening. You can read my review here.
Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is the “realest” game of 2017. The writing is absolutely incredible and despite the fact there is no voice acting at all, each of the main characters feels like a true person, not simply a two-dimensional character, represented as an animal. As Mae, you’ve dropped out of college and return to your hometown of Possum Springs, a town where industry has dried up and most people are trapped in dead end jobs, struggling for a future that isn’t materializing. Bea is trapped running the store her father owns and gets none of the credit, Gregg and Angus are trapped in boring jobs struggling to save enough money to move away. Mae is trapped in her own way, between being a kid and a proper adult, still living at home but wanting proper freedom, unsure what to do now she has dropped out of college. Despite all these hardships, all of the friends find time to get together, bond and strengthen their friendships, investigate mysteries and do crimes. Night in the Woods is an adventure game, but it’s also much more than that.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Edith Finch is the video game equivalent of an elegiac Wes Anderson film. It comprises numerous vignettes and short stories through the lives of the ill-fated Finch family, who seem doomed for misfortune to befall them even worse than the Baudelaire orphans in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The game is presented sombrely, and has many moments of genuine sadness and introspection, but it is also conversely peppered with humour and goodwill. This is especially evident considering some of the somewhat whimsical and almost magical ways the many members of the Finches meet their ends. What Remains of Edith Finch is short, but it doesn’t waste a second with filler.
2017’s 2016 Game of the Year
No Man’s Sky
The history of No Man’s Sky is a tale of such highs and lows it could easily fill a sizable non-fiction book. It generated so much hype prior to launch, thanks to its very impressive (and very misleading) trailer, but after launch in endured a harsh backlash due to the seemingly half-finished nature of the game and the serious lack of content relative to what was promised. Today, I can say that No Man’s Sky is a markedly improved game than it was in 2016, judging from a video Joseph Anderson did on it last year. I only played it this year, after the major Atlas Rises update had been released. For all its grand talk, No Man’s Sky is essentially a tourist simulator, and has no real objectives apart from exploration. It has various things you need to collect in order to continue to explore planets and visit other systems, but none of these are actually important in their own right. Most of the minute to minute gameplay is refilling meters, and while it has an infinite number of random quests and encounters, none of these are meaningful or memorable. I enjoy No Man’s Sky because of the sometimes gorgeous visuals, mostly relaxed atmosphere and the superb soundtrack, but I can still see why so many people were burned by it because it continues to act like it is something it’s not.
Gareth’s Game of the Year
What makes Stories Untold stand apart from your traditional adventure is that it is not a traditional adventure. Instead, it is a merger of text-adventure and point-and-click, masterfully strung together into four very different bite-size episodes. Stories Untold is an anthology adventure; each of the four episodes has a different central mechanic, such as performing scientific experiments and manning a radar station. There is an overarching narrative at work here but saying more would spoil a very satisfying reveal into the final act of the game. It also has some excellently emotive voice acting which sets the atmosphere perfectly. Stories Untold has the style of an 80’s sci-fi like Altered States merged with the gameplay of a well-crafted adventure. Also, the theme music for the game is 100% better than the theme music for Stranger Things.