Three of 2017’s Best Indie Games Handled Grief with Maturity and Grace

2017 was a tough year for a variety of different reasons, as the positive events throughout the year seemed more difficult to focus upon due to the constant onslaught of more troubling news items. While very few of 2017’s titles were actually created within the same year they released in, there seemed to be a surprising trend of specific games, specifically indies, that attempted to address more serious and hard-to-tackle themes that ended up releasing during the past twelve months. One motif that kept appearing again and again was grief, as developers have become more fully able to capture the complex and varied emotions that are associated with this inevitable and heavy subject. In 2017, three games in particular encapsulated the concept of grief through the usage of well-written stories, unique gameplay mechanics and engrossing performances.

The following piece contains spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch, Rime and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

Back in April, The Unfinished Swan developer Giant Sparrow released their second title, What Remains of Edith Finch, a tale of a young girl returning to her family home and discovering the stories of the family members that were housed within over the years. While the nature of having every member of the Finch family not only perish, but do so in darkly comedic ways could have easily become corny, the brilliant writing and narration provided by the titular character and the supporting cast helps keep the game in focus, grounding the story by returning players to the Finch mansion and allowing them to reflect and explore before diving into the next vignette. The carefully detailed nature of each room and the unique ways that players interact with each family member’s story help push this game to another level, but the key ways that Giant Sparrow handled the overwhelming amount of player-caused deaths helped prove that grief can not only be an obstacle, but also a lesson, helping those who are suffering come to terms with their reality and their future ahead.

The following month, the developmentally troubled journey of Rime came to a conclusion with its long-awaited release, as the adventures of a young boy on a mysterious island turned into an emotional pilgrimage that surprised many who played it. The main surprise came from the game’s final twist, which revealed that this entire anecdote was the symbolization of a father’s attempts at coming to terms with the passing of his son, with each of the game’s five chapters representing the five stages of dealing with grief. While the less-than-subtle nature of the game’s level naming could be seen as a little too simplified, the ways that each level represents those emotions are well executed, with “Anger” featuring an antagonistic creature, adding a stressful element to the puzzle-solving, and “Depression” forcing the player to part ways with their helpful fox guide in order to embrace the reality of their situation. As a result, Rime’s ending hits hard, simultaneously dropping a wave of emotions on the players while encouraging a second playthrough to fully grasp the understated mechanics that served multiple purposes within the title.

August saw the release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory’s hybrid indie-AAA title that follows Senua as she traverses through Helheim to revive her lost love. While the title has received significant (and well-deserved) praise for its thoroughly researched take on psychosis and its personification via Senua, much of this medical condition is rooted in the grief the protagonist feels for the role she played in her lover’s death. Much of what makes Senua’s character so believable and intriguing is her performance as performed and voiced by Melina Juergens, who does a spectacular job at capturing the subtleties and weight that seem like a perfect fit for the trials and tribulations that the protagonist endures. Senua is so focused on her quest that she continually throws herself into perilous situations, assuming that her ultimate death is all but guaranteed regardless of the outcome. In the end, Senua not only comes to terms with the fate of her relationship, but her own ability to push onwards and pursue a life outside of her sole fixation on accomplishing the impossible, providing another example of a 2017 indie title that treats grief with the respect it deserves.