Ars Technica’s best video games of 2017

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Before we get on to the list, don't miss this year's Ars Technica Charity Drive sweepstakes. You can win one of nearly 100 prizes, including limited-edition gaming collectibles, all while helping out a good cause. Entries are due by January 4. Thanks in advance for your donation!

In recent years, it has become a cliché for us to say just how hard it is to narrow down an entire year of video games into a list of the 20 best titles everyone should play. That said, I'd still argue that 2017 was more ridiculously packed with quality releases than pretty much any year in the past decade. While single-player adventures dominated our rankings this year, the full list encompasses everything from traditional shooters and throwback platformers to indie puzzles and narratives, plus a few VR experiences for good measure.

Without further ado, our favorite games of 2017 are…

20. Cuphead

Studio MDHR, Xbox One/Windows


Judged purely for its gameplay, Cuphead is perhaps too much of a throwback to the 8-bit era. The game's practically unbroken series of boss fights each proceed in its own basic pattern every time, and Cuphead artificially extends its length through some unforgiving difficulty. Even on "easy" mode, it's the kind of game likely to appeal only to a certain kind of reflex-focused gaming masochist who enjoys throwing controllers.

But Cuphead still claws its way onto this year's must-play list almost exclusively because of its presentation. The screen-filling, hand-drawn bosses look like they were pulled directly from a 1930s cartoon, with expressive and lifelike animation that's literally like nothing we've ever seen in a video game before. The music and sound effects, too, capture the throwback feel of early animated film shorts in a way that seems like it shouldn't be interactive.

Even if you're not in the mood for a tough-as-nails, run-and-jump-and-shoot boss-rush experience, you owe it to yourself to watch some video of Cuphead being played well. Your childhood self will appreciate the artistry and technical wizardry of it, if nothing else.

-Kyle Orland

19. Statik: Institute of Retention

Tarsier Studios, PSVR


For all the pros and cons of virtual reality, one of its strongest features is its ability to make you feel trapped in a virtual world. You can't look over at your friend sitting next to you on the couch or bring up your phone for a quick Twitter break. It's just you and the fictional world encompassing your senses in every direction.

Statik leans into this feeling by literally trapping you in a seat in a sterile laboratory with a blurry-faced scientist guiding you through ill-defined tasks. With your hands trapped in a puzzle box, you have to fiddle with every single button on the PS4 controller to simply figure out what is possible in each unique box, then use careful observation of your surroundings to figure out just what's expected of you.

The puzzles themselves can be remarkably clever and are never so obtuse that the solution feels unreasonable once it's found. More than that, though, Statik does an amazing job of creating a creepy, horror-style atmosphere without relying on jump scares, grotesque imagery, or dim lighting. In VR, being trapped with only your own brain to rely on can be the scariest thing of all.

-Kyle Orland

18. RiME

Tequila Works, PC/PS4/Xbox One/Switch


If you had high hopes that RiME would emerge as a new face in the Zelda-like genre—owing to its childish hero and his animal friends—you may have been disappointed to learn it lands a little more firmly in the "walking simulator" camp. But as an entry in genres long trodden by Team Ico and Thatgamecompany, RiME launched with a surprising number of new game design ideas.

The game's greatest strength is how it leads players both visually and emotionally through a vague-yet-powerful story. It's easily one of the prettiest games released in 2017, in spite of the fact that its limited, simple geometry was built for the last generation of game consoles. Just a reminder, folks: you don't need more pixels, more HDR, or more tricks to build a game world worth gasping at.

RiME succeeds where last year's abstract, odd Abzû failed by understanding how to give weight to interactive moments. In RiME, players are given serious agency within a beautiful, confusing universe, and the game's successful tug-of-war between progress and loss is a serious game design milestone.

-Sam Machkovech

17. Night in the Woods

Infinite Fall/Finja, Windows/Mac/Linux/PS4/Xbox One/iOS/Android


I don't know if you've looked at the outside world in the year 2017, but it's not pretty. Night in the Woods imparts two messages that lots of people have been trying to get across for a while: things have been ugly for much, much longer than one year, and hanging out with your friends helps ease the pain.

College dropout Mae (who, like everyone else in the game, is a 2D talking animal) returns home to find her Rust Belt town in economic decay. It has been that way for years, of course, but distance has given her some perspective and a powerful need to reconnect with friends. Enter the gang at the center of Night in the Woods: Bea, Gregg, Angus, and the Simpsons-like cast of oddballs orbiting around them. Together they do crimes. Together they solve mysteries. Together they try to combat the everyday sadness that affects us all at one point or another by just being in each others' company.

Things get a little weirder than that, but the weird stuff isn't the real focus. Night in the Woods is a low-key adventure game in which characters, not puzzles or grand adventures, are the centerpiece. It's exactly the kind of thing to sit down and chill out with after a hard day of following each new disaster on social media. It might even remind you that you've got some friends of your own to help you get through the day.

-Steven Strom

16. Destiny 2

Bungie / Activision, PS4/XB1/PC


Declaring Destiny 2 one of the year's better games isn't difficult to do, at least within the vacuum of how much fun you can harvest from a few months of play. D2's planet selection, primary quests, and secondary "grind after you beat the game" content all expand upon the original game's promise of being fun even when you return to previously scoured lands. There's more plot, more emergent battling, more scale and depth, and more writing that actually makes a lick of sense.But the months since the primary game's launch have been pitifully slow and stagnant. More than 10 weeks went by without a single major "quality of life" patch to how the game works. Destiny 2's first-few-weeks bluster only lasted so long before players had questions. The new game was built from the ground up to allow quicker, more frequent updates to keep the game fresh, right? So how could Destiny 2 so quickly fail to put its money where its mouth was? Why were we running into a wall of boring weapons and boring rewards, even as the game's super-hard Raid content emerged?

All of this lowered Destiny 2 quite a bit on the Ars year-end list. Its final position is a recognition of the fun laid out thus far along with a massive, eyebrow-raise questioning how Bungie could screw up this honeymoon phase twice.

-Sam Machkovech

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