In their Kickstarter campaign Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and Co. pitched Thimbleweed Park as “like an undiscovered classic LucasArts’ adventure game you’d never played before.” They succeeded.
Like most homages, Thimbleweed Park ($20 on Steam) works because it captures the spirit of those classic SCUMM adventures instead of the reality. The block of verbs in the lower-left corner, stunning pixel art, mind-bending puzzles—they conjure up memories of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and so on. But the verbs are more flexible than they were back in the day, the pixel art more complex, and the puzzles often more logical than anything from the “real” classics.
The story, setting, and humor are Thimbleweed’s true strengths though. The setup is simple enough: There’s been a murder in the titular town of Thimbleweed Park, and you’ve been left to unravel the mystery. Thimbleweed Park is a Twin Peaks-esque town full of odd and unnerving characters though, like a foul-mouthed clown trapped at the local carnival, or a woman who converted her pie shop to sell vacuum tubes. It’s wonderfully bizarre, and chock full of inside jokes for longtime SCUMM fans and regular jokes for the rest.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I could list a half-dozen things I don’t like about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus ($60 on Steam), starting with the lack of feedback when you’re being shot and ending with the final big fight (a slog). But at the end of the day, I just don’t care.
I loved 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Wolfenstein II gave me more of what I loved: The absurd swings between BJ Blazkowicz’s gravelly monologues one second and campy All American rah-rah patriotism the next, the Nazified alt-history takes on 1960s and 70s pop culture, a certain willingness to go for it, to come up with absurd set pieces and ideas and then stick with them. In The New Order that meant going to the moon. In The New Colossus, it’s...well, let’s just say an old dementia-riddled man provides some amazing entertainment.
So sure, there are a few parts where the pacing flags, a handful of arenas where the weaknesses of the shooting mechanics really get in the way.The New Colossus’s greatest sin is arriving in a post-Doom world, because the Doom reboot is one of the all-time great shooters. Wolfenstein II is not.
It’s one of the all-time great shooter stories though, tackling America’s strengths and its most dire social ills, with a side helping of (to quote Blazkowicz) “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.”
The biggest misconception about Nier: Automata ($60 on Steam) is that it has five endings. It doesn’t. It has one ending, and it is worth your while to reach it.
The confusion stems from terminology. Nier boasts of 26 different “endings,” with five “main endings.” Having played a few visual novels and RPGs in my time, I took this to mean that the player reaches an ending and then starts over from the beginning to attempt a new one. Nier’s endings are more like chapters though. After each “ending” the game continues on into new territory, into bits of the story you’ve never seen before.
What a story it is, too. Nier: Automata is the tale of 2B and 9S, two androids charged with removing a more dangerous robot presence from Earth and making it habitable for humans who long since fled to space once again. There are familiar themes here, with NieR exploring the usual “What does it mean to be human?” and so on, but it shines in the details—a stunning amusement park full of dancing robots, or another obsessed with Nietzsche and other philosophers, or a robot child who’s fled from its mother. Moments that stick with you, both these and others (more emotional) that I don’t want to ruin.
And it all culminates in a climax (the legendary “Ending E”) that no matter how much it’s been hyped will still likely manage to surprise you. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Divinity: Original Sin II
Writing up Divinity: Original Sin for 2014’s iteration of our Game of the Year list, I said it was “the game you’d get if isometric CRPGs had continued to innovate for the last 15 years instead of the genre almost disappearing.” With dozens of interlocking mechanics for players to explore, the joy of Original Sin came from asking “What happens if...?” questions—What happens if I cause it to rain on these fire elementals? Now what happens if I electrocute the puddle underneath them?—and then giggling with delight at the logical-but-still-somehow-surprising results. Surprising, if only because few games bother to implement those sorts of cause-and-effect relationships.
Divinity: Original Sin II ($45 on Steam) doubles down on those ideas, introducing wild new spells and abilities to the player’s repertoire. For instance, elven characters can eat body parts to attain a glimpse of a dead person’s memories, while undead can steal the faces of their enemies and wear them around Hannibal Lecter-style. You can even talk to ghosts.
But it’s Original Sin II’s story that demonstrates the most improvement. In broad strokes it’s the same “Stop the ultimate evil, save the world” tale as many other RPGs. Larian’s hallmark mechanics-first approach is woven in though, with every quest, every dialogue, every interaction modified by your character’s unique traits—race, class, upbringing, and so on. The system works even better if you play as one of the five preset “Origin” characters, which have fully realized backstories that cast you as, for a character with a demon living in her head, or the last member of a long-forgotten race.
Divinity: Original Sin II is better in every way than its predecessor, and likely the closest runner-up to GOTY 2017. It’s also up there with The Witcher 3 as one of the best RPGs this decade, with only a buggy and lackluster final chapter (80-plus hours in) detracting somewhat from the experience.
Game of the Year: What Remains of Edith Finch
I played What Remains of Edith Finch ($20 on Steam) in April. For the last eight months I’ve been trying and failing to write a review, to put into words how this game made me feel. Here we are in December and I’m still struggling, albeit now with a deadline.
Even recounting the basics feels like an insurmountable task. Edith Finch shares much of its DNA with the so-called “Walking Simulator” genre, especially in its early stages. You play as the titular Edith, and you’ve arrived back at the Finch family home about a decade after leaving. The Finch home is an architectural anomaly, a reserved-looking mansion with towers and spires seemingly fastened on the edges at random.
There’s a reason, though. Central to Edith Finch is a gimmick: Every time a member of the Finch family dies, their room in the house is sealed off, a time capsule forever preserved in the state that person left it. In other games you might explore these rooms, come to your conclusions about the inhabitants, and leave. In Edith Finch though, each room is the gateway to a short (often 2 to 5 minute) vignette capturing the final moments of the family member in question.
Here’s where Edith Finch starts to diverge from its “walking simulator” roots, because the core criticism of those games is that they’re light on mechanics, right? It’s in the name—you just walk.
But in Edith Finch, every vignette seizes on different ideas to tell its story. A father out on a hunting trip with his daughter is told through the Polaroids he left behind, and as the player you control the camera. Another recounts the story of a teenage film star through one of her comic book adaptations, with you controlling the action in each comic frame. In another, you just enjoy your time on a rope swing.
It’s an incredible design accomplishment, a combination of narration and visual metaphor turning these small and highly stylized stories into a web of character arcs. On and on it goes, through something like two-dozen family members. Noting where the stories intersect you start to build out a mythology—you begin to understand why one retreated to the basement, why another got divorced.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a story about stories, but without the unbearable self-congratulatory tone those often take. It’s also a story about death, but one that treats it merely as an inevitability and a fact of life without becoming morbid or maudlin. There are heavy moments, but there’s also humor, absurdity, wisdom, childlike wonder. It’s as complicated as the human experience can be, drawn out over four generations of the American Dream.
There were plenty of great games in 2017. It was hard to put together this list. But I don’t think any says as much or will remain so achingly relevant in a decade as What Remains of Edith Finch.
Honorable Mention: Playerunknown's Battlegrounds
There was a lot of discussion around the internet this year about whether Early Access games deserve to be on Game of the Year lists—discussion that’s now moot, because Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds ($30 on Steam) released to 1.0 this week.
For the record, our official stance is: No, they don’t. But it’s fine if you disagree. It’s all a bit arbitrary. The bigger discussion, I think, is whether PUBG should be in contention for Game of the Year at all. Personally I don’t think so—even at 1.0, the game is still pretty damn buggy at times, and lacks quite a bit of polish.
There's no denying PUBG has had an impact though. Fortnite is the first of presumably many knock-offs, and everything from Call of Duty to Counter-Strike is now rumored to be planning a Battle Royale mode. In less than a year the shooter landscape has completely changed.
And despite its flaws, PUBG is still one hell of a game. Whether you spend your time pulling off motorcycle stunts or cowering in a shed with a shotgun pointed at the door, there’s a tension to each PUBG session that’s unmatched in other competitive games. That’s what ultimately lands it on this list, even if I still think it needs another 6-12 months in active development before fulfilling its potential.