10 amazing games you may've overlooked this year

Whether you're after a last-minute gift or something to ease the boredom, these provocative indies have plenty to offer.

2017 sure has been a lot, huh? Not just in a distressing geopolitical sense, but also for what’s really important: goddamn, market fresh, grade-A video-space-games. It turns out, there were a lot of them this year, so much so that it became probably more difficult than ever as someone on a budget to make sense of what was worth my time and what maybe wasn’t so much. It didn’t help that many of this game’s best were lengthy, sprawling triple-A epics, from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Super Mario Odyssey and NieR: Automata. Inevitably, some stuff just got lost in the shuffle.

So let’s take a look backward at some hidden gem releases you shouldn’t pass on from 2017!

Detention

It’s hard to disagree that of the handful of neat 3D horror games which released this year, Resident Evil 7 stood out amongst the pack, especially in VR. But it’s the hand-drawn Silent Hill-inspired Detention which left me the most unnerved and beguiled. Detention is set in Taiwan during the White Terror of the 1960’s. The troubled historicity of China’s martial interventionism of the Taiwanese looms like a specter over this intimate window into one high school girl’s struggles. Over the course of a few short hours, we scour the remnants of a hellish flip of protagonist Ray’s Greenwood High School, which is seemingly vacated due to the threat of an incoming typhoon. In place of students are assortments of nightmarish ghouls ripped from Taiwanese and Chinese legends, each of whom must be dealt with via methods from folklore heritage: look away from one apparition so it won’t notice you, or drop a lure to distract another.

Traditional adventure game-style puzzles surprisingly help frame this story of familial strife, lecherous teacher-student romance, death, and worldly anxieties into a gorgeously illustrated, cohesive whole. Evocative and memorable, Detention easily deserves a place in the admittedly narrow psychological horror game pantheon alongside the ineffable Silent Hill 2.

Known Unknowns

This recently completed episodic narrative by Birdland creator Brendan Patrick Hennessey is one of the most memorable interactive fiction works I’ve played in years. It’s a slice-of-life high school story mixed with some obtuse yet compelling supernatural elements which blend together well. You are Nadia Nazari, the president of the school newspaper club which only consists of yourself and your best friend Kaz. Nadia and Kaz have been best friends for years, but Nadia has a troublesome relationship with Kaz’s sister Anja, who hates her for reasons unknown (eh? eh???). Nadia has a middle-of-the-road boyfriend in Allen, and it’s kinda rocky, to tell the truth. There’s Jayden, who’s obviously had a thing for Nadia for a while now but she’s taken so, look, it’s never going to happen so he needs to stop being weird about it. Annette thinks she’s a witch, and that’s cool. Miles is chill, but a huge booknerd (who reads at a party?) Man, that was so cool when Olivia tried to start a fight with those jock dudes. The teacher does bad dad puns, and there’s a ghost (probably). And I want to go drinking with all these people.

Observer

Observer by Layers of Fear developer Bloober Team follows in the footsteps of the studio’s developmental forebears in Frictional Games. Both studios have traded in high-fantasy horror for more subdued and philosophical sci-fi, but where 2015’s stunning SOMA went nautical, Observer instead leans heavily in the cyberpunk direction of things. The techno-dystopic looks of body-horror landmarks like System Shock 2, Blame! and Videodrome merge here with the film-noir of Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown and, yes, Blade Runner (the protagonist Dan is even voiced — comically—by Rutger Hauer, he of Roy Batty fame) to synthesize an aesthetic experience unlike anything I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Observer’s narrative is a spotty cliché at best and a mess at worst— the protagonist’s son has gone missing with only a single voice message for you to go on, corporations do bad stuff to the little man; you know the drill. And yes, you have to run and hide from a few monsters in sequences which make up some of the worst implementation of this routine I’ve yet seen. But I was willing to get lost in that labyrinthine apartment complex for hours, scouring patiently for the next mind-jacking or dimension-hopping headtrip that made the experience worth it.

The Tower at Tortenna

Full disclosure: a writer and editor I’ve worked with worked on this one. The point’s a bit moot, though: The Tower at Tortenna is a short, free walking simulator where you walk along the rooftops and inside the homes of a lost civilization at the mythical tower Tortenna. You’ll read cryptic letters from a scholar who lived here during times past, ponder the meanings of arcane fonts and sigils, and gawk at the gorgeous views.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because it largely is; The Tower at Tortenna is, well, one of those. But a strong art direction which brings to mind everything from Chirico to the sun-soaked buildings of Madrid to Myst means I kind of can’t not recommend it. There’s a warm, invisible beating heart here which welcomes you to stay and listen to the winds as they drift by.

The Norwood Suite

Oh, The Norwood Suite. New York jazz musician and game designer Cosmo D first lured me in with the free, excellent Off-Peak, which sees you exploring a train station filled with wacky, anachronistic denizens going about their day. The Norwood Suite is Off-Peak’s close cousin. It’s a mystery drama steeped in the lives of the fabled Norwood Suite hotel’s patrons, a place once inhabited by piano savant Peter Norwood. Unlike ostensibly similar games like Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch, The Norwood Suite tells a story happening in medias res; DJ Bogart’s regular party is popping downstairs, meanwhile the impending meeting between the Modulo Corporation and the hotel’s owner Nadia threatens to convert this anachronistically preserved monument turned weirdo lodging business into a server farm.

Story, visuals, and sound alike are unified here by a keen musical sense and shot through a helping of post-capitalist critique. You’ll walk from a fairly standard hotel hallway into a miniaturized tableau of a cityscape, through a secret twisting corridor which makes up the ventricles of this building’s beating heart, and out some other comparatively ordinary room. It’s befuddling, zany, rich, and essential.

Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup did something for me that most other games cannot: it’s been over two weeks and I can remember most of its main characters names, personalities, and anxieties. Akarsha, Noelle, Min, and Diya are each so distinct apart yet are electrified by the way they bounce off of each other. This is a queer love story which spans several days and years with some of the sharpest, funniest writing all year, grounded in author Brianna Lei’s deft understanding of the ways in which children and teens alike communicate and live with each other. They tuck away their pain, sorrow, and embarrassment behind terrible puns and cruel pranks. They build facades, throwing themselves into chat clients to escape from the strains of parental and societal expectation. With a toss of a one-liner like a crack of a whip, they blossom from cocoons in brilliant displays of unbridled gauche.

Dujanah

Dujanah is best described as an abstract claypunk adventure where you play a woman living in a nondescript Muslim country looking for her child and husband in a world inhabited by spider people, mechs, and the US military. Dujanah is rough, but in the ways Twin Peaks: The Return’s “Part 8” or Problem Attic or Black Origami are rough; by shying away from notions of accessibility, polish and refinement with surprising wit, developer Jack King-Spooner makes naked and transparent the darkness shrouding this game’s world. It’s one painted by anxieties over America’s endless occupancy of Afghanistan, one which doesn’t forget in its impressionistic array of aesthetic micro-universes that regular people try and live regular ongoing lives marred by everyday problems while constantly beneath death’s microscope.

There is also a minigame wherein you play a shoot-em-up as an armadillo named ‘Harmadillo’ and that’s completely rad, irony be damned.

Rain World

I must admit, this one’s on my pile of shame. I first played Rain World upon its release on the PS4, which is important to note because the Rain World which launched back in March is much different than the Rain World one would download and play today. I’ve mixed feelings about this; Rain World is a notoriously difficult and obtuse game which many, myself included, bounced off of because of how bizarre its whole thing is, so a nudge toward accessibility isn’t necessarily something I balk at. But the experience of playing Rain World in a dark room for the first time in its original shape was the closest I’ve gotten to my first time trying to crack the Demon’s Souls nut back in 2011.

Rain World might be crueler than the Souls series: it’s a 2D game about exploring an alien world a la Super Metroid, except if you’re not in one of its safe annexes when the rain washes away your slugcat protagonist and one of its many adversaries, you lose all progress made from after your previous safe zone visit. This constant push and pull is made all the more unbearable when you just watch a video of the damn thing: Rain World is gorgeously illustrated and animated, lifting with reckless abandon from the ruins of Tsutomu Nihei’s cyberhell manga, Samurai Jack, and the disquieting worlds of Fumito Ueda and synthesizing its own thing from these constituent parts. I want to see more of it, and I’ll side-eye anyone who doesn’t feel the same.

Arc Symphony

Arc Symphony made me nostalgic for a time and place I wasn’t a part of, even if it ultimately is critical of the virtues of its era. You are scouring through the remnants of a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to discussing a fictional JRPG called ‘Arc Symphony’, a Final Fantasy-like developed by a Squaresoft stand-in. Discussions of story beats, weapons, skill trees and stats initially paint Arc Symphony as a naïve nostalgia piece, but the power politics of internet spaces inevitably rear their ugly head as arguments spiral in all directions. Things get toxic in an instant. Arc Symphony ends too quickly to fully explore its subject matter, a complaint I’ve held about all of Sophia Park’s work up to this point. But it manages to show how maybe the keys to solving the internet’s discourse problem can’t be found by just clicking another link or surfing through another file directory, eyes catatonic and faces screen-lit in a scrolling stupor.

Everything is going to be OK

Even after reading developer Natalie Lawhead’s statement about her game Everything is going to be OK, it’s still an experience which left me scratching my head. I have no idea what to make of this one, but maybe that’s what led me to its vicinity in the first place. This is a series of vignettes (marked ‘pages’) that the player can choose to navigate through of their own volition, each of which portray comic-book style characters squealing and waxing sad over gif-style looping backgrounds, each beaten down and bruised by visual dithering and data crunch. These are played with a mouse, and react to your actions in ways surprising and perplexing. In one, you draw a blob monster in an MS Paint facsimile program and save it to your actual computer; another has you screaming as others compliment your artistic abilities while bemoaning their lack of capitalistic potential. In one, two women friends at once pressure you into a relationship with a man because it’s what you do while at the same time warning of the dangers of men. There’s something here behind this opaque noise worth trying to crack, I just don’t where to start yet.

Disclosure: Detention, The Norwood Suite, and Everything is going to be OK all featured as awards finalists at this year's IndieCade Festival, for which Zam editor Kris Ligman served as a jury committee member. Kris had no input into the selection process or content of this article. Besides fixing typos, because, well, editor.