Despite a plethora of dull sequels, 2017 has been a strong year for video games. The best of them offered a reminder of the medium’s capacity to challenge and surprise. Hardware helped. In the last 12 months, we’ve had Nintendo’s portable console, Switch, which blurs the distinctions between couchbound and mobile play; and Microsoft’s Xbox One X, which gives us a super-powered vision of gaming’s hi-res future. But it was the ideas that really counted. From the featherlight pleasures of a perfect Nintendo platformer to the grim realities of emigration and war, here are ten of the most interesting and ambitious games in a crowded year.
10. Mario Odyssey (Switch, above)
Maybe it’s because I grew up playing Sonic, but I must confess an intense dislike for Nintendo’s longstanding plumber mascot, with his straining overalls, his bushy moustache, his mad blue eyes and inarticulate squeals. It’s my misfortune, then, that the games in which he features are works of genius – and this latest outing, for the Switch console, is no exception. Like so many Nintendo productions, “Mario Odyssey” is an all-ages fairground ride, mixing superb animation and tight controls with game design of huge imaginative precision. This time Mario has a 3D open world to explore, a cap that lets him possess other creatures in the game and a princess who, for once, may not be happy to play the damsel in distress. It’s childlike but far from childish, it’s bursting with positivity, surprise and invention, and it’s a delight.
9. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PC, PS4)
Not many video games devote themselves seriously to exploring issues in mental health (murderous cackling villains and games set in scary lunatic asylums don’t count) and still fewer attempt to do so via a swordfighting game set in the eighth century featuring a psychotic Pict with PTSD. That’s what “Hellblade” attempts, however, with astonishing success. The player controls Senua, a young woman (brilliantly voiced by Melina Juergens) who arrives at the gates of the Viking Hell to free her dead lover’s spirit and finds herself facing the demons of her past in concrete form. The graphics are chilling and evocative, the action sequences brief and serviceable, but what sticks in the mind are an unusually sensitive portrait of mental illness from the inside – the self-doubt, the bargaining, the chorus of mocking voices – and an acute sense of a vanished historical moment. Unlike many games, this one has the power to haunt.
8. Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)
This lavish sci-fi adventure for PlayStation is one of the best-looking games of this or any other year: I still boot it up occasionally just to wander around and stare at the virtual sublimity of its foaming cataracts, its waving grass, its hazy sunsets through skeletal ruins. But the game’s invention goes deeper than that. Set in the far future, where humans inhabit a peculiar techno-Stone Age society and robot dinosaurs stalk the earth, it tells a well-above-average story through the eyes of its protagonist Aloy, an agile huntress uncovering the grim narrative of the Earth’s downfall. The game’s basic elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played an open-world adventure in the past few years (“Assassin’s Creed”, “Far Cry”, “Watch_Dogs”): you steer an avatar through a huge open landscape while exploring, crafting, hunting and sneaking your way to completion. But the deft combat, lavish visuals and strong characters make of these parts an unusually harmonious and memorable whole.
7. What Remains of Edith Finch (PC/Mac, Xbox One, PS4)
Low on interactivity but crammed with intelligence and humour, this strange work of interactive magical realism casts the player as one of the Finches, “America’s most unfortunate family”. Since their arrival on the shores of Washington State in a floating house in the Thirties, the Finches have been dogged by catastrophe, with family member after family member stricken from the book of life in escalatingly demented ways: bathtub drowning, swing accident, unfriendly deer, unexpected locomotive. Over the years, the family home grows into a teetering castle of tacked-on storeys and baroque remodellings, run through with secret passageways and mysteriously locked doors; and it’s this house that players explore, entering the mad minds of the vanished Finches in flashbacks that bend the form and interactions of the game itself. The fiction is delightfully told, with a stealthily grim narrative to piece together behind its quirky effervescence, and the twists and turns of gameplay provide real surprises. It’ll be on game-design syllabuses one day, I bet.
6. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)
Sony’s long-running flagship series for its PlayStation console appeared to reach an end with its fourth instalment last year, in which its winking hero Nathan Drake hung up his adventuring hat for good. Not before time, I thought then – but that was in advance of this slick and witty follow-up, which recasts the standard “Uncharted” tropes (lost cities, arcane relics, daring escapes, hails of gunfire) with two buoyant and convincing female leads doing the globetrotting and adventuring for a change. The walk-shoot-run rhythm of “Uncharted” will never set the world on fire, but its gorgeous animation, witty script and endearing characters are the closest that games come to popcorn Hollywood blockbusterdom, and its new protagonists Chloe and Nadine are the most interesting thing to happen to the franchise in years.
5. Stories Untold (PC)
One of a small but growing school of games that simulate the clunk of analogue equipment for their effects (see the moderately recent “Her Story”, “Duskers” and “TIS-100” for other examples of the form), “Stories Untold” is a sequence of linked horror vignettes that does a startlingly efficient job of freaking the player out. In one, you control a mysterious laboratory setup (X-rays, oscilloscopes, whirring drills) which you’re encouraged to use, one by one, on a mysterious “artefact” for analysis. In another, you twiddle at the dials of a radio set while something highly disturbing goes down on the other end. Retro-styled, confidently manipulative and clever as anything, this game might have proceeded from the same shadowy psychic universe as “Stranger Things”.
4. Prey (PC/PS4/Xbox One)
Cruelly overlooked on release, this is a game whose deep intelligence comes not from its average narrative but from the extraordinary quality of its environmental storytelling and level design. As the survivor of a mysterious experiment on board a deserted space station, the player makes their way through an intricate warren of once-occupied environments – research lab, living quarters, vaulted lobbies, lush gardens – while dodging the shapeshifting Typhons, nightmarish creatures that have taken control of the place. Paying not-so-covert homage to the “System Shock” games, two Nineties sneak-em-ups of unparallelled cyberpunk creepiness, this is a delight in which players must find their own creative solutions to open-ended situational problems. Also, any game in which you can turn yourself into a coffee cup and boot yourself through a tiny gap in a wall deserves a place on the best-of list.
3. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PC/Xbox One)
This wildly popular indie shooter (20m copies sold this year) has a terrible single-mindedness about it: it’s morally bankrupt, of course, but you have to admire its purity. The premise is simple: up to a hundred players are parachuted in to a vast landscape, then forced to scavenge weapons and kill each other while a contracting circle of play forces them into ever-closer proximity. There’s no story or fancy killstreaks or other videogame frippery – just gorgeous terrain, the rising bodycount, the dwindling space and the ticking clock – and yet I don’t think I’ve ever played a game so sickeningly tense. When this gets off PC and onto consoles it’ll be even more of a whopper.
2. Bury Me, My Love (iOS/Android)
The only mobile game on this list, and the only game I’ve played this year that engages directly with the gruesome state of the world in 2017, this quietly devastating effort from a French studio was inspired by a newspaper article that printed the WhatsApp conversations between a Syrian refugee and her husband. In “Bury Me, My Love” – the name derives, apparently, from a Syrian idiom wishing that your interlocutor may outlive you – you play as Majid, whose wife Nour decides to flee Syria for Europe while he stays behind. In a sequence of messages and responses (which arrive, over days, in real time on your telephone) you track her across borders, in and out of conflict zones, refugee camps and the clutches of smugglers and gangsters. It’s strong stuff – emotional, engaging, tearful and thought-provoking. And, incidentally, a useful reminder that there can be more to the medium than escapist fun.
1. Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
Open-world games have become ten a penny in the past few years, to the point that they are less likely to arouse excitement than a rather doomy fatigue. But Nintendo have reinvigorated the format. This new instalment in the long-running Zelda series offers an effortless vision of an open world that is as deep or as shallow as the player sees fit; a kingdom of glorious vistas and undiscovered corners that you can sink into with equal ease for half an hour or half a year. From the start, players can go anywhere, do anything and, thanks to the Switch’s portability, do it all as time and opportunity allow. What’s more, the world is underpinned with a physical and elemental logic – fire burns, objects have weight, round things roll downhill – that enables the most joyfully lateral kind of puzzle solving. No exaggeration, I think it’s one of the greatest video games of all time.