The Most Artistic Games of 2017
We’re back with wave two of our Best of 2017 awards coverage. Whereas last week we highlighted the winners of our Industry Awards, this week we’re paying attention to the most artistic games of last year.
From beautiful vistas and enchanting tunes to gripping tales and complex characters, storytelling and presentation have an immeasurable impact on modern games. Gone are the days of Pong and simple text adventures: today’s games use visuals, music, and narrative to blur the lines between interactive and cinematic media. While there are plenty of games that thrive without entering the “games are art” discussion—Call of Duty and FIFA are doing just fine—those who do push the envelope push what’s possible for gaming as a whole. And that, in our humble opinions, is worth celebrating.
If you need to catch up on the list of nominations, you can find them here. Otherwise, here are the winners of our Storytelling and Presentation Awards.
Best Narrative (Winner) – What Remains of Edith Finch
2017 was a year that saw outcasts leave home, thieves mend hearts, and after-school clubs take a turn for the macabre. Yet it was a nostalgic visit home after many years that ended up winning our hearts as Best Narrative of the year.
What Remains of Edith Finch doesn’t share the scale of games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Persona 5, nor does it contain the same shock value of Doki Doki Literature Club. To the contrary, Edith Finch seems banal by comparison; I can almost hear critics shouting, “It’s just a walking simulator.” But Edith Finch is anything but ordinary.
Edith Finch offers a glimpse into a family history plagued with death and loss, giving posthumous voice to the members of the Finch lineage. The Finch house is filled to the brim with stories ranging from whimsical and outlandish to gloomy and bleak. In one room, you’re chopping fish and dreaming of being a king; in the next you’re reliving a Freddy Krueger nightmare scenario through vivid comic panels. Each vignette is wholly unique, ranging in tone and mood and complemented by excellent voice-overs by members of the Finch family.
Gameplay becomes a powerful vehicle for conveying these short stories, whether it be swinging from a swing set, playing with toys in a bathtub, or taking photos on a camping trip. While each of these scenes might seem typical at first, almost every one is tragic in some way. The benign quickly turns to the unreal, and the viewer may even question the validity and truth behind the death of Edith Finch’s family.
It’s this crux of What Remains of Edith Finch—the questioning of truth vs. fiction, luck vs. fate—that makes its narrative so powerful. In the coziness of the Finch estate comes raw, unfiltered emotion. Under its tall ceilings remain questions that may forever stay unanswered. Through its dusty window panes shine glimmers of light and hope for a family that has suffered so much.
What Remains of Edith Finch may not have been the biggest or most popular game of 2017, but its story will remain with me longer than that of anything else I played this year.
Best New Character (Winner) – Aloy (Horizon: Zero Dawn)
In a year where female voices have rung so clearly and powerfully in the face of injustice, there’s no better pick for Best New Character of 2017 than Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Born as a pariah of her tribe, Aloy is brought up by fellow outcast Rost. Raised from infancy to young adulthood by her adoptive father, Aloy decides to enter the Nora tribe’s “Proving” ceremony to learn more about her biological mother. After an unexpected end to the ceremony, Aloy finds her world turned upside down and only further motivated to find “the truth.”
Aloy wins our Best New Character award for numerous reasons. Aside from the courageousness she shows throughout the events of Horizon, Aloy represents unyielding strength and perseverance in the face of adversity. For years, she was rejected and abhorred due to her lack of biological parents. She was ostracized from the only community she had, and yet, when her people needed her, she was there for them.
It’s this compassion—this ability to listen, forgive, empower, and uplift—that catapults Aloy into video game stardom. Her strength is undeniable (who else in this game do you see taking down massive hulking machines on their own?) and yet her willpower is somehow even stronger.
In a year stifled by inequality and sexual misconduct, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a character like Aloy—if not for badass cosplay material, for what she represents to young girls and women in gaming circles across the globe.
Best Performance (Winner) – Ashly Burch as Aloy (Horizon: Zero Dawn)
Horizon: Zero Dawn relies heavily on its story to explain the state of the world in which it takes place. Without a solid story, the game would have been a nonsensical, albeit beautiful, mishmash of dinosaurs, tribalism, religious fervor, modern architecture, and rampant future technology. Thankfully, Horizon delivers in providing a narrative that weaves the game’s various pieces of lore together in a thrilling and rewarding way. But it doesn’t end there, because solid stories are driven forward by strong protagonists, and strong protagonists need amazing performances. Guerrilla Games hit it out of the park in this regard.
Ashly Burch is the winner of The Punished Backlog’s Best Performance award because, let’s face it, her portrayal of Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn produced one of the most endearing and iconic new characters in recent memory. Aloy’s demeanor—one of unyielding curiosity, compassion, and confidence—was well represented by Burch’s calmness and the remarkable subtlety of her sarcasm and charm. Her tone conveys weight throughout the game (especially toward the end), reflecting the burden of knowledge and leadership that is slowly laid upon Aloy’s shoulders in a way that felt natural and complimented the pacing of the game.
In addition to being an award-winning writer for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, Burch’s previous voice work includes voice acting as both Tiny Tina in the Borderlands series and Chloe Price in Life is Strange—two wildly different but unforgettably charismatic characters. It’s no surprise then, that her work as Aloy went on to win Burch more awards, including this one.
Best Visuals (Winner) – Cuphead
Despite the plethora of beautifully detailed games with highly rendered graphics that released in 2017, no other game is most deserving of our Best Visuals award than Cuphead. Taking its art direction back to the 1930s, Cuphead does an immaculate job at paying homage to classic cartoons such as Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop, Steamboat Willie, and countless others.
Cuphead’s boss-centric game design paves the way for the game’s unique cartoonish art style. Whether it be the handcrafted boss models and animations, the intricate watercolor backgrounds, or the added cherry-on-top of Studio MDHR perfectly recreating the classic film-grain effect (complete with audio crackles in the game’s soundtrack), Cuphead is the perfect emulation of a 1930s cartoon.
The characters in Cuphead are literally a work of art, in the sense that they were first hand-drawn on paper before being digitally inked and inserted into the game, emulating the work done by Disney and Fleischer studios in their cartoons in an attempt to recreate their authenticity. Each boss has its own unique design in both gameplay and visual aesthetic that leaves the player wanting to see the next curveball between phase transitions.
Although the game itself is at times extremely frustrating (to the point of almost punching a hole in your monitor), Cuphead’s unique art style and authentic character and boss design earns it The Punished Backlog’s Best Visuals award of 2017.
Best Soundtrack (Winner) – Persona 5
What is there to say about Persona 5’s phenomenal soundtrack I haven’t already said in our favorite soundtracks article? While this category was contentious (Super Mario Odyssey and NieR: Automata were close runner-ups), Persona 5 stands above them all as having the definitive auditory companion to one of 2017’s largest games.
But this is more than just “a catchy soundtrack.” Persona 5’s soundtrack sounds fresh eighty hours in when you’re cruising through the game’s final, main palace. It sounds just as good 130 hours in as you travel around Shibuya in New Game Plus. Each song powerfully delivers its respective themes and tones, tackling issues of identity, rebellion, and good ol’ fashioned teenage angst in a meaningful and effective way. Simply put, as narratively important as each song is, they bump.
While Persona 5 seldom employs the grand, orchestral tones that NieR: Automata heavily relies on, Lyn Inaizumi creates pop hits that would top any chart, with or without the backing gameplay. While I can’t speak much to writing symphonies, I can say—with confidence—the bass lines in literally any song of P5’s OST stand out by any metric (Jazz, Rock, Metal, it’s all here). The guitar in “Life Will Change” shreds in a way that’ll make Avenged Sevenfold blush. Stellar keyboards match remarkable vocals. A quick YouTube search proves that even the music for the game’s menus (its very stylish menus) get covered to no end. What’s more, the battle system sneakily incorporates musical cues—scoring those phenomenal battle cards to the tune of the triumphant (and heavily memed) chorus of “Last Surprise.”
As good as 2017’s soundtracks have been, Persona 5 delivers something that cannot be matched. It’s emotional. It’s catchy. It fits the game’s aesthetic perfectly. It’s a musical masterpiece. It’s our soundtrack of the year.
Congratulations to all of our winners. Agree with our choices? Disagree? Make your voices heard by commenting below!
Be sure to check back in the coming days for the next round of our Best of 2017 coverage: Platform Awards!
Author: David Silbert
David is the creator and editor of The Punished Backlog. A recent Penn graduate, David enjoys gaming and writing. Now, he’s combining his passions and doing both at the same time, all from the comfort of his French apartment!
Follow him on Twitter at @David_Silbert to keep up to date with all things The Punished Backlog.