In some of 2017’s biggest AAA games, we explored far-off worlds, fought all sorts of battles and stepped into the shoes of radically different people. In fact, this was one of the best years in big-budget games since 2007, the previous high-water mark for diverse and influential titles arriving all at once.
A key part of what makes this year special lies not with the games we’ve all heard of, but the ones that managed to resist obscurity. This year, as with any other, it’s worth recognizing smaller games that managed to leave as strong of an impression as Zelda or Destiny with much less. But this year in particular, games created by small teams captured just as much of our attention.
In 2017, we were most taken by how so many indie developers confronted a wide range of ideas and feelings — from a cute dog fighting its way to its owner, to a group of girls exploring their marginalized identities. After this year’s steady stream of titles full of heart, humor and even horror, indie games’ emotional resonance no longer feels abnormal. It feels integral.
Below, Jeff Ramos and Allegra Frank compiled six of their favorite indie games of the year, each one dealing with a range of different emotions that tested their morality, mortality and anxieties.
What makes horror scary, at least for me, is the fear of the unknown. A handful of indie games I played this year took a simple horror premise — like traveling through a dungeon filled with monsters or appeasing the desires of an old god — and partnered it with the unknowable nature of randomness. Each of these games have their own rogue-like elements, making every new trip through them a cocktail of unforeseen horrors.
FIDEL DUNGEON RESCUE
Puzzle games aren’t often a genre you’d associate with horror — or adorable puppies — but Fidel Dungeon Rescue manages to marry those ideas into one of the most charming and addictive games this year. The creepy elements in this game, from spiders to dragons, won’t make you leap from your seat, but successfully navigating a cute dog through deadly dungeons still might make your heart race.
You guide your brave puppy through a series of randomly generated, grid-based dungeons. As it traces a path through each level, its long leash trails behind, creating an impassable barrier on each tile it occupies. Certain enemies can only be defeated at certain angles or after certain conditions have been met, which means each step you take has to be carefully considered. Thankfully, you can reverse your steps, which will let you tackle the level differently and will even give you back any life you lost. You can even escape death if you lose all your health by making it to the exit before a ghost travels up your leash towards you.
But try as you might, you won’t always be able to escape death. You will die a lot in this game. Which is fine since Fidel Dungeon Rescue begs for repeat playthroughs. With time and experience, you’ll find yourself creatively figuring out how to get deeper into the game's many levels.
THE SHROUDED ISLE
Speaking of unlikely genre pairings, you’d be surprised to learn that a horror/resource management game was yet another one of my favorites this year. On paper, the mechanics of the game seem pretty banal, but the idea of managing relationships in the service of an old god was an oddly satisfying, morbid test of my moral fiber. That’s why I loved The Shrouded Isle so much.
The game’s simplistic mechanics belie a much darker tone that hangs over the whole game: You must carefully choose five advisors from the various families in your secluded village each season, task them with duties that will keep them faithfully ignorant of the outside world, discover which have unforgivable vices and choose one to sacrifice to your god at the end of the season. Your decisions on when to hold book burnings, secret investigations or exile marooned strangers determines your standings between your villagers and the dark god you all serve. While at the core, The Shrouded Isle is just a finely tuned relationship management sim, each passing season in the game forces tougher and tougher decisions into your lap.
At first you’ll agonize over determining someone’s damnation because of their simple, human vices. But as the seasons go by, you’ll feel even worse when you can’t find any unforgivable sins and you must choose to end someone’s life because of the most petty of transgressions, like being curious or flirtatious. The sense of dread the game manages to pull off with uncomplicated mechanics and a two color palette is impressive, considering how more polished games struggle to match that feeling with far more.
WORLD OF HORROR
When it comes to horror, no one beats my favorite comic book artist, Junji Ito. So I was surprised to find an indie title this year that took his aesthetic and paired it classic adventure game design. I was immediately hooked the first time I booted up World of Horror.
In each playthrough, you’ll be fighting against the dark influence of an old god as you try to solve one of the many mysterious horrors plaguing a small, Japanese town. Designed to be played multiple times, each run changes depending on what nemesis you choose, which character you decide to play, as well as other modifiers. As you navigate each area of the town looking for clues, you’ll encounter a random mix of vile creatures, weirdos, mishaps and more. These assorted elements cobbled together make each playthrough feel like its own unique horror vignette.
There are so many different variables inside of World of Horror that it’s easy to find yourself running through multiple games in a single play session. The repeated trips hardly get stale as you struggle to get farther into the game to unlock endings, new characters and more. I love how the game’s 1-bit style is a throwback to classic Macintosh games. It feels like a totally appropriate vehicle to make it feel like you’re playing an actual Junji Ito video game, which is something I’ve always dreamed about.
The thing I seek out most from everything I consume — games, movies, TV shows, even food — is feeling. That’s a vague, broad term, but to me, it represents something incredibly specific. I want to have a connection to the media I engage with that extends beyond the simple, “Hey, that was fun and good and I enjoyed it!” I want my takeaway to be something bigger. And in indie games, I find that emotional connection I long for, moreso than most other works. Maybe it’s because they’re small, or vulnerable, or personal experiences made interactive. Whatever the case may be, these are three of the indies that moved me most this year.
Bury Me, My Love
It’s interesting that more mobile games don’t use the basic premise of Bury Me, My Love, a game that forced me to surrender control to my cell phone. Nour and Majd are a young couple torn apart by the Syrian refugee crisis, as Nour leaves the country and her spouse behind in search of safety. As Nour travels across borders, she updates Majd as much as possible over text. Playing from Majd’s perspective, I was left to support my wife from afar and pray that she makes the right choices to ensure her own survival.
Young love thwarted by outside factors is already an easy way to get me choked up. It’s how the game uses texting that really separates from those few other titles that do replicate the smartphone interface. Nour and Majd are savvy and smart, peppering in just enough emojis and texting shorthand as to make their messages read naturally. Bury Me, My Love’s default option then takes that verisimilitude a step further for something really interesting: Majd receives Nour’s messages in real time.
That means that, if I suggested that she try to rush out of one city to make it to another by nightfall it could be hours until I heard from Nour again. In the best case scenario, Nour would reply quickly and sign off for the night with a reassuring message. In the worst case, she would promise to give Majd a status update quickly ... only for me to receive a notification that she’d responded a full day later. Bury Me, My Love capitalizes on the anxiety of a text message alert and constructs an entire narrative out of it. You better believe it turned me into an emotional mess.
A hilarious visual novel about four smart-mouthed teenage girls might not strike everyone as the best example of the indie scene’s heart. They’re snarky, silly and happier to talk anime and Disney movies than their teenage angst.
This contributes to why Butterfly Soup one of the most cheerful games I’ve ever played, for sure. But that’s also in large part due to how its heavier moments break through the humor — subtly and softly.
The game is set in 2008 and stars four Asian-American, Bay-Area girls, each one exploring and coming to terms with a different part of who they are. This isn’t a tortured process, though; despite their core issues revolving around things like sexuality and gender identity, abuse, racism and family expectations, the Butterfly Soup cast keeps things optimistic on the surface. That spoke volumes for me, a person who lives in the real world, where it’s much harder to undercut the frustrations of a secret crush with a hilarious cover of “My Heart Will Go On” on a recorder.
To see a diverse cast in a video game is something that I’ll continue to be touched by and champion. The girls of Butterfly Soup are more than that, though; they are inspiringly smart, talented and self-possessed. The weight of the world around them — the game uses the real-life events of California’s Proposition 8 to juxtapose the stress of liking other girls — does not encourage them to deny any part of themselves, as would be a reasonable defense mechanism. At any time when I anticipated a dramatic conversation to turn into waterworks in-game, instead, Butterfly Soup broke into some pop culture-referencing joke for levity. This surprising contrast felt like a comfort and helped me get attached to the cast. Maybe they didn’t cry, but I loved them so much that I’d do the crying for them.
Far From Noise
A deer stands next to a car as it teeters on the edge of a cliff.
“Your soul is free to follow the flow of the ocean’s tide,” the deer says.
“Free?” the car responds. “My car is balancing on a cliff face.”
This is a standard moment in Far From Noise, a game about mortality that’s both philosophical and funny. As the unseen driver trapped inside of the car, players select a series of dialogue options that convey a sense of dread beneath forced optimism. “Things aren’t so bad!” one line may read. The next: “Things are very, very bad.”
Far From Noise isn’t a puzzle game about how to make it out of the car alive. That becomes clear early on, maybe as soon as that talking deer shows up to spout words of wisdom. Instead, it’s a game that tricked me into thinking about my own life and, at the same time, fear of death. I’m the kind of person who starts to panic at the simple mention of my own death and its plausibility. And Far From Noise distills that tender space I’m afraid of into a visual novel.
The humor helps to mask the seriousness of a situation like this — of getting into a car accident that leaves you in a hopeless spot. Death is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it grim. Far From Noise isn’t grim, and it isn’t hopeless. Instead, it left me to wrestle with some really tough thoughts and still have a good time doing so.
If you’re curious about what everyone else at Polygon enjoyed the most this year, check our Game of the Year 2017 hub.