The 2017 Indie Game of the Year
Contrary to what some folks may believe, indie isn't a genre. That's why selecting the very top indie game of the year is often a pretty big undertaking. There are so many types of indie games released every year, some obtaining more notoriety than others, that low-key releases often get overlooked even if they deserve recognition.
We got a lot of great indie games in 2017, all spanning various genres and providing players with unique experiences. There were action-packed shooters, throwback platformers, and emotional narratives. Before we get to the Indie Game of the Year, let's take a look at some of the other titles that deserve their share of praise.
Variety. That's one of the key components of indie game development. Another is ingenuity. Developer Messhof Games took the ingenious concept of Nidhogg and created Nidhogg 2, a game that's just as fun as the original. While some purists may call it a more casual experience than its predecessor, a more fitting term might be inviting. The second game is more approachable than the first, yes, but it's still a riot, and it's definitely a satisfying, raucous good time.
In 2017, we were graced with not one, but two titles from Housemarque Games. Nex Machina delivered intense and addictive top-down arcade insanity while Matterfall was a more straightforward action-platformer. Both games are great, both games are stylish, and both games are a hell of a lot of fun.
Every year, we hear the term “Souls-like” used to describe punishing gaming experiences. What we don't hear as often is “Zelda-like.” Songbringer from Wizard Fu Games takes the overworld and progression formulas of the older 8-bit and 16-bit Zelda titles and wraps them up in a funky, sci-fi world that's as offbeat as it is humorous. The game uses your save file name, or “seed” as it's referred to, and builds a procedurally-generated world based on that seed to create a unique set of dungeons for you to explore. It's really, really fun.
Cuphead has been one of the most talked about indie games since it was revealed back in 2014. When it finally launched at the end of September, it proved to be worth all of the pre-release hubbub. Studio MDHR created a polished throwback to both classic cartoons of the 1930s and hard-as-hell shooters of the 1980s.
Though definitely a tough little game, Cuphead isn't impossibly difficult. It's the type of game that requires a bit of patience, because as you play, the game teaches you how to survive its devilish cartoon world. You'll die within 15 or 20 seconds on your first run through a level, but on your second try, you'll last 30 or 40 seconds. This gameplay loop lasts for the entirety of Cuphead, resulting in immense satisfaction when you finally best that intimidating boss battle.
One of the most enjoyable games of 2017, Cuphead is also one of the best-looking releases of the year. Its early era Disney-influenced animations are a thing of beauty. Visually, there's really nothing quite like it. And while the charming graphics may contrast the brutal mayhem, Cuphead is most definitely worth playing by anyone with a penchant for good, wholesome cartoon adventures.
This is one that may have flown under a lot of folks' radars. Splasher is undoubtedly worth a play, though, as it's one of the best (and most underrated) platformers of the year. Developed by Splashteam, which consists of developers who worked on the recent Rayman games, Splasher employs the tricky platforming of games like Super Meat Boy and throws in a paint gun that allows you to run along ceilings and walls, create bouncy surfaces, and trigger moving platforms.
Splasher is nowhere near as difficult as something like Cuphead, but it's fiendish in its own right, and mastering its mechanics and gameplay is both highly entertaining and challenging. This is the type of game that platformer fans should play without hesitation.
Runner-Up: Let Them Come
Let Them Come is a great example of a simple idea gradually turning into something more and more entertaining. A single-screen shooter, the game locks your character — a gritty space marine type — on the left side of the screen and then sends wave after wave of grotesque alien monstrosities from the right. Armed with a turret to start, you earn currency as you shoot the onslaught of baddies that can then be used to purchase various upgrades ranging from rapid fire bullets to black hole grenades.
Though the game isn't a roguelike, the uphill battle you engage in makes progression pretty tough. The upgrades you purchase, however, provide a fighting chance. So even if you die during one particularly dastardly wave, there's still hope that you'll earn enough cash to upgrade your armor or turret in a meaningful capacity.
One of the game's most addictive features is its random bonuses, which are triggered after filling up a combo meter. Gun down aliens, fill the meter, and you can then choose one of three randomized rewards that include unlimited special ammo for a short period, explosive kill shots, and so on.
If there's one problem with Let Them Come, it's that the game isn't available on the Switch, 3DS, or Vita, because this game would make a perfect companion to take with you on the go. So with that said, hey, Tuatara Games, port this game to handhelds, yeah?
Runner-Up: Monument Valley 2
Ustwo Games' Monument Valley 2 was a hair away from winning this year's coveted Indie Game of the Year award. While the game may not have won the top honor, it's still worth mentioning that this is, without a doubt, one of the best designed indies of 2017.
Monument Valley 2 revisits the wonderful gameplay of the previous title and adds new kinds of M. C. Escher-esque puzzles. Almost every puzzle in the game is a genuine head-scratcher, but you'll never feel lost or irritated. That's part of the reason why this is such a strong puzzler. Its brilliant worlds, all decorated in lovely architecture and beautiful colors, aren't easy, but they never leave you feeling bewildered or irritated. You're always encouraged to press on, and if you ever get stuck, further observation of your surroundings will yield the solution to that specific brain teaser.
While Monument Valley had you playing as a single mysterious character, the sequel puts you in the role of a parent guiding her child through various structures. The two are separated and their journeys take them to different lands, only to meet once more, both older and wiser. The plot is as minimalistic as the visuals and sound, but it's just as impactful as both of those things. Ustwo wanted to tell a story about caring for someone, saying a difficult goodbye, and being reunited. The story succeeded in telling that heartfelt story with no text, just brilliant puzzles and gorgeous levels.
Winner: Night in the Woods
If last year's Indie Game of the Year winner Oxenfree is any indication, it's clear that now more than ever, video games can tell incredible stories. Like Oxenfree, Night in the Woods from Infinite Fall follows a group of younger characters — in this case 20-year-old anthropomorphic animals. The game takes you on an eight-hour journey of self-discovery, friendship, philosophical ponderings, and even a bit of supernatural strangeness.
In Night in the Woods, you play as Mae, a young cat who's back in her home town and living with her parents after dropping out of school. At first, Mae appears to be misguided and unmotivated. As you play through the game, however, you begin to peel away the layers of Mae's internal and external worlds and begin to see that her issues are much more rooted in mental health.
Mae's friends are an interesting bunch, too, and it isn't long before you're trying to cement old friendships and rebuild lost bonds, even if it proves to be difficult and painful at first. Night in the Woods takes a while to get going, but like a good book or film, it tells its story boldly and brilliantly, touching on aspects of the human emotion and the human mind that video games often gloss over or just outright ignore.
The writing in Night in the Woods is sharp and clever, with countless funny moments and just as many heart-wrenching situations. Engaging in a bit of debauchery as Mae and co. have knife fights and break light bulbs is great. But then dealing with the harsh reality of life after dropping out of college and being unemployed — which has Mae's parents and friends worried about her and doubting her potential — makes for a series of uncomfortable confrontations that are incredibly realistic.
To call Infinite Fall's story-based project one of the best video game narratives of the year is certainly accurate. And ultimately, it's that touching story of relationships, depression, fear, and curiosity that propels Night in the Woods as the best indie game of 2017.
Congratulations to Night in the Woods for winning Indie Game of the Year for 2017!
Check out our full 2017 award list for more.