Among the inordinate number of truly superb games released in 2017 were some hotly-anticipated (by me, anyway) follow-ups to indie games of past years. Some were sequels. Others were sophomore efforts. Whichever the case, 2017 was a very good year for promising indie developers releasing something new after a couple years of silence (or, heck, three or four or five years of silence), and having that new release not disappoint. Below the fold are my six favorite releases that followed up on the promise of something a developer made before.
(The Whale Husband, released January 23)
I was a big fan of Jesse “The Whale Husband” Barksdale’s first game, The Static Speaks My Name (2015). Its weird, dark humor was so thoroughly infused within the nooks and crannies of its spaces that it made for a good free alternative to Gone Home when teaching the concept of environmental storytelling. Barksdale stayed on my radar based on the strength of Static, and Bucket Detective doesn’t disappoint.
In terms of graphical presentation, Bucket Detective is miles ahead of the extremely lo-fi Static, although there’s still no mistaking it for anything but a game cobbled together from pre-made Unity assets. Despite the obvious budgetary limitations on display, however, the game remains thoroughly suffused by Barksdale’s pitch-black brand of absurdist humor. Once you’ve gotten past the basic setup of our selfish, moronic player-character doing odd jobs for an apocalyptic cult, the game misses no opportunity to inject humor into absolutely everything. There are laugh-out-loud moments tucked into journal entries, laugh-out-loud moments relating to gameplay objectives … I even guffawed a few times at nothing more than the way I was asked to guide my player-character through virtual space, which is quite an accomplishment.
With its bigger budget, Bucket Detective tells more of its story through the form of voice-acted audio recordings, which unfortunately robs it of some of the extraordinarily precise and economical environmental storytelling that Static showed. It’s still well-realized, though, another showcase of just how well Barksdale can suffuse virtual spaces with his dark, weird perspective.
What Remains of Edith Finch
(Giant Sparrow, released April 24)
Giant Sparrow’s debut game The Unfinished Swan (2012) contained a bunch of gameplay experiments. Some were brilliant, some less so, but they were all stuck together into a visually cohesive but not-always-smooth end product.
Giant Sparrow proves to have matured in the intervening years. Edith Finch shows them to be just as much in love with experimentation, while also getting bolder, more self-assured in the cornucopia of mechanics they offer up. I already lauded it and named it one of my highest-recommended games of the decade. I don’t have much to add here, other than to say that it’s another worthy entry on the roster of sophomore efforts & notable follow-ups we got from exciting studios in 2017.
The Dream Machine, Chapter Six
(The Sleeping Machine, released May 11)
This isn’t so much a “follow-up” as it is a “long-in-development game finally finished” situation. But still: If you’re fond of traditional point-and-click graphic adventure games with ambitious world-building and an extraordinary (and extraordinarily time-consuming) visual style, now is a great time to purchase The Dream Machine, the final chapter of which was finally released in May. As I said before, it is surprisingly funny, in addition to being gorgeous.
The Dream Machine is available for Windows and macOS on Steam. You can also pay money to access a browser-based version on the game’s site. I wouldn’t do that, however. The game is built in Flash and, in addition to already being a pain to run at the current moment, browser-based Flash is not long for this world.
(The Fullbright Company, released August 1)
Four years after Gone Home, Fullbright offered up their long-awaited follow-up in the form of Tacoma. Tacoma is an ambitious piece of science fiction across multiple registers, blending together insightful speculation about political trends (the nation-state has weakened as AI has strengthened, corporations control education and attempt to lock people’s career paths into their branded ecosystems) and plausible space station architecture with a Star Trek-like commitment to illustrating an ethnically diverse future. (The lengths Fullbright goes to diversify its characters is commendable, but at times it feels as if they’re going to sprain themselves as they try to single-handedly make up for the sea of straight white male protagonists elsewhere in gaming. Breath, Fullbright, breath! You can’t do this all yourself!)
Tacoma follows the same basic two-pronged approach of Gone Home. When it comes to the major story beats, Fullbright hits players over the head. Crucial plot points are voice-acted (and, this time around, motion-captured), so that we don’t miss a thing. Along the edges, though, there are plenty of supporting details, left hidden for those players with the patience for additional environmental investigation and interpretation. I’m not sure if there’s anything in Tacoma that requires the amount of patient hermeneutic pondering of the Terry Greenbriar/Oscar Maran relationship of Gone Home. But if you’re willing to explore, to track down keys and PIN numbers, to trace story threads across multiple notes and conversations, you can flesh out quite a bit beyond the game’s voice-acted parts. The characters of Natali Kuroshenko and Sareh Hasmadi especially benefit from this fleshing out, as environmental details reveal more about their professional histories, personal losses, and how each of these tie into their philosophies regarding AI rights.
I’m of two minds about Tacoma. On the one hand, I can’t deny that it displays a polish and level of storytelling competence that games like Cradle (Flying Café for Semianimals, 2015) and Event (Ocelot Society, 2016)—to name two other ambitious science fiction adventure games that appeared in the interim between Gone Home and Tacoma—lack. At the same time, though, Tacoma plays it rather safe. Sure, the action is staged with aplomb. But Tacoma doesn’t contain anything as mechanically creative as Event‘s natural-language interface, or as far-out Cradle‘s weird worldbuilding. Fullbright undoubtedly hold the crown when it comes to the production value of story-based adventure games. But their sophomore effort made me realize how glad I was that other studios have sprung up in their wake, making scruffier, weirder things.
The Norwood Suite
(Cosmo D, released October 2)
Cosmo D’s debut Off-Peak (2015) hit my perfect adventure-gaming sweet spot. It steadfastly refused to over-think its puzzle design. Fetch quests simply provided you the impetus to pull you deeper into this strange world’s architecture. It reminded me of a bunch of other games I already loved, while always providing its own twist. It had the delightful alien jazz vibe of Bernband (Tom van den Boogaart, 2014), but added more structure. It modeled the stress-free intrinsic rewards of Botanicula (Amanita Design, 2012), while expanding exploration into three dimensions. It had the grin-inducing excesses of style that graced Jazzpunk (Necrophone Games, 2014), while dropping that game’s grimace-inducing puns.
The Norwood Suite is the full-meal follow-up to Off-Peak‘s intoxicating apéritif. With astonishing confidence, it expands all of Off-Peak‘s strengths, without diluting them one bit. Architecturally, The Norwood Hotel is like something out of a beloved children’s pop-up book, all secret passages and hidden residents with suspicious agendas, navigated via a series of fetch quests that pile up generously without ever once feeling overwhelming. Audiovisually, the hotel expands Off-Peak‘s distinctive blend of garish pop surrealism and woozy electro-jazz soundtrack. The air is as thick with kitsch as it is with intrigue, and the resulting environment is utterly distinct. Well worth a visit.
(Freebird Games, released December 14)
Kan Gao teased a direct sequel to To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) in that game’s closing moments. After a six-year wait, Gao made the questionable decision of releasing his long-awaited sequel under an unassuming title in the middle of December, after most of the critics who would be following a game of this sort had already begun posting their year-end “best-of” lists. It’s almost as if Gao wanted to deliberately bury the game … which is odd, because it is absolutely a worthy follow-up to its much-beloved predecessor.
Finding Paradise likely won’t soil as many hankies as To the Moon, which is a tough act to follow. And, if anything, playing Finding Paradise leaves one even in awe of To the Moon. For as much as it’s remembered as a tearjerker, To the Moon was actually much more than that: it also built a world quite masterfully, setting up a technology and a suite of characters that can form a solid chassis for a continuing series of stories, each with their own specific blend of humor, wistfulness, and techno-babble. Finding Paradise isn’t quite as sad as To the Moon, but it’s also not trying to be. It’s tweaking the formula, telling a story that leans more on riddles and mysteries than on emotional catharsis, however much it treads similar ground. Overall, it shows the breadth of the types of stories Gao is now positioned to tell, as he extends this series forward through however many entries he has envisioned. He has built and exceptionally solid foundation for storytelling, and it would be a shame if people’s memories of the emotional rollercoaster of To the Moon cast a shadow over their appreciation of the new and different places he is taking these underlying conceits.
Which is to say: a worthy follow-up, in a year that has been exceptionally full of them.