Austin Walker's Top 10 Games of 2017
This year, games refined old ideas and introduced brand new ones. They also provided the fuel needed to power through the murk of 2017.
Header image courtesy of Sony. Header design by Janine Hawkins
This got long, so I’m not going to do a big intro about what a strange, frustrating year this has been. (Besides, I sort of already wrote that.)
Instead, let’s start on the games that didn’t make the cut, because I have so many runners up and honorable mentions, this year. It almost feels dishonest that Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, and Destiny 2 didn’t make this list, given the amount of time and energy we put into them as a site this year. Night in the Woods, Getting Over It, Tacoma, and Pyre all fascinated me, but I failed to find the time to finish them. Star Traders: Frontiers has captivated me in the last month, but it feels like that love is too fresh for real evaluation. And Gundam Versus. God, Gundam Versus.
But those games didn’t make the cut, because when I was being honest with myself about the year I’ve had and the games that have gotten me through it, the following ten needed to be the ones on the list.
10. Gravity Rush 2
Back in January, I was pretty high on Gravity Rush 2. I was taken by the game’s high-flying (high… floating?) adventure, its bright and colorful setting, and its charming heroine, Kat, who spends the game going from out-of-place exile to a character of great strength and self-knowledge. All of which is to say nothing of the game’s incredible soundtrack. (It has been a very good year for accordions in gaming, by the way.)
And then 2017 happened, and each new day pushed January further and further away. Normally, a game like Gravity Rush 2 misses my top 10 list for just this reason. Well not this time. Gravity Rush 2 deserves better. It was a bright light in a dark month (a theme that I’ll return to throughout this list, probably), but it was also a useful game for me, because it helped me to understand a pretty frustrating part of my own taste.
I’m on the record as not being a big 3D platforming fan. That isn’t a thing I take any joy in: I wish that I could get excited about a new Mario game coming out. “I just don’t like platformers, I guess,” I’ll say on a podcast or over a meal with a friend. “Why not?” they might ask, and I think that’s a fair question, and one that has been hard to answer. After all, I like it when other genres adopt high mobility ( Titanfall 2 remains one of my favorite games of the last few years), and as my love of Getting Over It suggests, it isn’t a distaste for a focus on skillful execution.
What my fondness for Gravity Rush 2 suggests is something I should’ve always known anyway: What I love is a certain style of semi-coherent game world. I can respect the level design in Mario games, but what I really want from 3D platformers is to move through places that feel like they have history, worlds that feel lived in. Gravity Rush 2 starts and ends with middling marks, but the bulk of the game lets me do just that.
9. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Okay, let me complicate that last entry: The Dishonored series has always excelled at letting players explore worlds that feel lived in and has always presented places that feel like they have a history. Yet I’ve never completed one. I’ve admired them from the distance, and even been influenced by them—the Marielda mini-season of my actual play podcast Friends at the Table carries a lot of Dishonored influence. But they’ve never been my games. Not until now.
And it comes down to this: Death of the Outsider lets me be incredibly petty. Yes, it’s a game about going after a godlike figure, but it’s also more grounded than any of the past Dishonored games I’ve played. Finally, I don’t have to play as a self-righteous member of noble class, seeking to re-establish a fraught status quo. I get to be Billie Lurk, angry and queer and clawing my way up from the societal cracks that the royal family failed to fill. And I get to be petty.
Because Death of the Outsider does away with the chaos meter that appeared in past games, I’m not discouraged from holding grudges against guards or incentivized to take the higher road—unless that high road makes it easier to get revenge on those who prey on the weak.
I don’t know what the future holds for immersive sims, but my hope is that Death of the Outsider’s brevity, focus, and freedom are the model for whatever’s to come.
8. Battle Chef Brigade
When I first saw early trailers for Battle Chef Brigade—a match-3 puzzle game with 2D action elements—I thought the concept looked great, but that the game itself looked unfinished. The art and animations felt incomplete and the combat looked physically inconsequential and unsatisfying. So when it launched late this year, it actually took me by surprise, because I assumed it still had a long way to go. That’s out already? Really?
And the truth is, it still has some rough edges: The game’s story feels either out of order or missing a chapter; the characters and levels often do have a certain unfinished, concept-art style to them; it’s currently missing a character that was promised as a Kickstarter goal.
But what is there captivated me for its entire length, a magical weekend of hunting, cooking, and investigating the mysteries of this memorable setting.
What surprised me most about Battle Chef Brigade—and where I think it makes a meaningful addendum to the world of puzzle games—is that the way it uses sub-objectives and ambiguous scoring to create a real feeling of surprise and success.Most other puzzle games that I can think of give you a single goal and let you always see how close you (and your opponent, if you have one) are to achieving that goal. But in Battle Chef Brigade, it all comes together in the final moments of a match.
You’ve received your goal (make a dish with red and green gems for one judge, one with blue and green for the other). You’ve hunted for your prey—remember, Austin, the key ingredient this time is Dragon! And you’ve used all the tools in your kitchen to work towards it—shout out to my vegetarian cookbook and my slow cooker, y’all the real MVPs.
Then you set the table for the judges, and the numbers start adding up. Did you blend the flavors equally? Did you remember to use enough of the special ingredient? How did your opponent do? Every match becomes a nail biter, and some—like a multi-part challenge that caps off one of the game’s best chapters—will stick with me for years to come.
7. Netrunner: Terminal Directive
An asymmetrical card game about cyberpunk hackers trying to stop megacorporations from advancing their terrible agendas, Android: Netrunner is like a home I can’t go back to. The core design is one of the most engrossing puzzles I’ve ever played, a blend of risk management, the extrapolation of hidden information, and careful economic planning. But I just can’t keep up with the game’s business model, which releases new fixed monthly card packs with major updates coming every season. I just can’t live that life anymore.
So, while the Terminal Directive expansion didn’t bring me back to my dystopian world, it did let me visit. It even offered a special twist: a persistent story.
Terminal Directive fits into the “Legacy” format pioneered by Risk Legacy, transforming a game known for one-off sessions into a long running campaign that sees the world (and the game rules) change as narrative events unfold through play. In Risk Legacy, that means the scorching of the earth and the arrival of terrifying new weapons. In Terminal Directive, which unfolds a technoir murder mystery over the course of about 7-12 games, persistence takes the form of new cards, special abilities, optional objectives, and special gameplay restrictions.
It’s an incredibly clever way to tell a story—imagine my opponent’s surprise when I first played a card representing a character who they thought was on their side—it’s also a great way to learn Netrunner. The optional rules that emerge through play are often designed as correctives to your play style.
One early spoiler, as an example: If you lose an early match as the “Runner” (that is, hacker), you’ll find yourself adding a new rule to your character sheet that requires you make at least one “run” at the corporation every turn. The fear of taking that risk is an incredibly common reason that new players struggle to play as a Runner, and Terminal Directive anticipates and answers it.
Terminal Directive might just be the best way to get into what I think is one of our decade’s best games. My only request? Fantasy Flight, please give me a digital version. Not just of Terminal Directive, but of Android: Netrunner in general. I’ll re-buy expansions I already own. I’ll pay a subscription fee. Just let me jump back on board. And hey, follow Blizzard’s lead and consider making some sort of single player content too!
6. No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rises
Here is part of what I wrote when the much-maligned No Man’s Sky appeared on my list last year:
If you told me I could take a break from writing this to play any game on my list right this second, it would be No Man's Sky. I can't deny that, nor can I deny that again and again this year, I snuck in an hour or two of play after 12 hour work days, a little stress reliever that was perfectly suited to my schedule.
In light of the numerous updates that No Man’s Sky added this year—and in light of the year we’ve had—this is even truer today than it was then. But Atlas Rises has lifted No Man’s Sky beyond tool of self-care (as welcome as such a tool is.)
Last year’s Foundation update added bases and a simple progression arc, and the first major update this year (Path Finder) honed that, adding new ships and ground vehicles and giving players more to do with their bases. But Atlas Rises goes further than that, adding a branching, narrative campaign, a simple faction reputation system, and procedurally generated missions.
The result is something that feels so clearly like the missing piece of the No Man’s Sky puzzle. I don’t simply mean that It Needed More Content. I mean that it blends together what already made No Man’s Sky so precious to me—the feeling of exploration, the insignificance of the self against the scale of real distance—with a narrative throughline that leans on these same things. The galaxy is vast and you are small. And yet, you insist on your importance. Why is that? And what might the universe have to say about that arrogance?
As I said back in August, Atlas Rises “offers a glimpse into the future of games [by blending] clever procgen, carefully handcrafted spaces, and a surprising variation of narrative pacing.” Before Atlas Rises I couldn’t quite see see how designers would use procedurally generated places to communicate stories. Now I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities.
Here's a theme found across my GOTY lists: How does a game push a genre forward? Even just in this list I argue that part of what makes Atlas Rises and Battle Chef Brigade so special is how they add to the toolbox of their respective genres. My old Giant Bomb defense of Invisible, Inc. was grounded in a similar argument about how it solves a classic dilemma of the roguelike
Unexplored does fits into that same mold, and it’s the game on this list that I wish more people had spent time with this year.
It’s a top-down, action roguelike that was brought to my attention by Waypoint freelancer Jack de Quidt earlier this year. “I am extremely clever,” he wrote, “and I have put together a flawless plan that will kill me in about ten or fifteen minutes.” Okay, I thought, I’m in. After all, part of my favorite thing about roguelikes is conceptualizing a perfect plan only to have it go to shit (and then to learn from that failure and do it all again).
But what elevates Unexplored is how, using “cyclical” generation, it builds levels that you sweep through in daring arcs instead of tiny jabs of inquiry. Then it layers twenty of those levels on top of each other and indexes them against each other, creating self-referential dungeons unlike anything I’ve seen in the genre. That sounds complicated, so here, let me explain it this way:
On floor 3, you find a scroll that says that St. Whoever was lost to the fire pits below. Okay, cool, sorry, St. Whoever. On floor 5, you solve a puzzle using a clue from a different floor, and as a reward, you retrieve a recipe for a fire resistance potion. Or do you hold on tight, because after all, you heard about those flame pits. Forty minutes later, facing an orcish champion on a narrow rock bridge, you are slammed with a gust of wind and a massive club, and you go flying off the side of the level, descending down into… yes, the flame pits. So, did you ever make that potion? And do you now have a better idea of how, exactly, St. Whoever found their end? If you’re me, then no you did not, and yes, you now very intimately do.
Unexplored does this sort of thing constantly, foreshadowing bosses (and their weaknesses), dropping keys and magical artifacts in one part of the dungeon to be used later. At its best, it does this in a way that tells little vignettes about past adventurers. And all of that is captured in an ending that is surprisingly heartfelt for a roguelike. Don’t just take my word for it, watch me play through a complete session above.
4. Heat Signature
Remember when I said that part of my favorite things about roguelikes was watching a plan fall apart? Heat Signature is a game about watching plans fall apart over, and over, and over again, and then pulling yourself back from the brink to try again. In that way, it’s feels like a real time, space-bound sequel to Invisible, Inc. Is there any wonder I love it?
3. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
Like everyone else, I have spoken so much about Battlegrounds this year, across podcasts, articles, livestreams, and twitter threads. To some degree, I’ve said all I can say about it already—but not in the way you might think.
I pay pretty close attention to what people think about Waypoint and what we do here. One recurring line of thought I saw this year was a very thoughtful concern that we were stuck playing Battlegrounds because it was good for numbers, because we were trying to grow our Twitch audience. These fans wanted us to do whatever we wanted with our streams, not follow the trends.
The thing is that what we wanted to be doing was playing as much Battlegrounds as possible. Our morning streams brought me so, so much joy, not only because they were a way for me to finally learn what it felt like to get better at a competitive game, not only because it was a key part of bringing our livestream producer Natalie Watson onto the team, not only because it led to fan art and fun in-jokes, but because I just fucking love playing Battlegrounds.
In the time since I’ve been writing professionally about games, I’ve never played a game as much as I have Battlegrounds, and no game has organically bubbled up into so many conversations. All of those conversations—about its design, its cultural impact, the contexts of its release, its meaning-making—they’re not arguments for Battlegrounds quality, but they’re evidence of what an important, unshakeable place it has held in my life this year.
2. Nier: Automata
Real talk, I thought Nier: Automata was going to come in at like… 4, maybe 5 on my list. And then we recorded this past Monday’s podcast. Towards the end of the podcast, at about minute 51:30, I found myself making a case for the game’s emotional and philosophical core of the game: “[Everything] ends up being this second layer conversation that isn’t just ‘are robots people,’ it’s ‘what the fuck are people?’”
I don’t think that’s a perfect argument for why Nier: Automata is great. But I do think that in 2017, a year perfectly suited to lingering on humanity’s cruelty, our separation from one another, and our struggle to define ourselves against that cruelty and separation.
“So much of this game is about that feeling of being Alone,” I said. And I don’t just mean in the lowercase ‘a’ sense."
It’s a game that says, fundamentally, in the world, in the universe, none of us can connect. None of us can ever really reach out and touch another person. At all points that connection is mediated by language or by technology or by physical distance. Or by the words we refuse to say to one another because we are scared, or by the words we are compelled to say to one another because of loyalty or because of anger.
That all connection is impossible. And, also, it is all we can fucking do to connect to each other. It’s the only thing we can’t stop trying to do, is trying to find that deep human connection. Whether we are born as human or stumble into being it, that is the thing that makes us people: Trying to connect. And the biggest tragedies are when we fail to.
On that podcast I found myself breathless and near tears in recalling the game and what it meant to me. It couldn’t be number 1, not this year. But in 2017, it couldn’t be any lower than this.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I’ve written at length about why Breath of the Wild works as a game, and I think those words are still my words now. So, instead, here is how I am going to use this space: I don’t know that I would’ve gotten through this year without Breath of the Wild.
For once, I don’t mean that because it provided an outlet for self-care or because it offered insight into a current dilemma. Instead, Breath of the Wild built up a (much needed) well of hope and determination in me.
I hopped off the plane at JFK late, like 10, 10:30. I was returning from Los Angeles where I saw one of my very best friends marry the love of his life. I’d spent the week among friends, pushing off the news with a guilty heart. I knew the year would be long and that I’d need all the brightness I could find. But even as I walked through the airport and started to catch up on the news I missed, I could feel myself starting to fade. So, instead of heading home, I called an audible.
I got to the office extremely late. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you off the rest of the week” my boss asked. I asked her the same, it was 11:30, 12:00 by the time I’d gotten there. “Ah, um, Nintendo. Nintendo sent a package?” She gave me a confused look.
I was home 30 minutes later, and in Hyrule 10 after that. That night vanished, and so did the day after that, and the whole weekend that followed.
I am a pretty firm skeptic, but the time I spent with Breath of the Wild felt alchemical somehow. The way the light of the game’s horizons struck me, the way the notes form Kass’ accordion floated over the hills, the way the land of Hyrule guided me from place to place.
It all hit me just so. Throughout my the game, I was moved, and not only to tears, but towards a sort of gibbous joy, bent towards happiness and fulfillment in a way I’d never felt from a game (or other piece of media) before.
Breath of the Wild raised the bottom of my heart so that I could push through everything that would follow this year. It was a safety net and a foundation, a glowing world of possibility, a picture of hope in the face of ruin.
All of that is to say that that my time with Breath of the Wild did vanish. It became part of me. It hasn’t left yet, and I hope it never does.