Looking back at the games I loved in 2019, I find a common theme—struggle in the face of incomprehensible forces. My favorite protagonists found themselves set against worlds they only barely understood, struggling against forces so powerful that they could fully comprehend let alone overcome. Then there were the rare games that just let my brain wind down after a long day. When spending all day reporting on nuclear weapons or 3D printed weapons of mass destruction, sometimes you just want to shoot something in Destiny 2 while a podcast drones on in the background.
Video games are great for escaping from reality and I need that. But my favorite video games of 2019 were those that didn’t let me escape my anxieties and frustrations. They reflected them back at me, but also helped me process them. In the tortured protagonists of 2019, I found joy in failure and meaning beyond success.
Metro: Exodus is a first person shooter that actively discourages you from using your weapon. It’s an open world exploration game that punishes you for exploring and narrows its scope as the stories churns forward. Actions have consequences, decisions matter but not always to the larger world or the narrative.
In the game’s Mad Max inspired second area, I discovered a man who claimed to be the leader of the murderous faction ruling the wastes. He’d hidden himself in a cave near his kingdom and placed a body double on the throne out of fear of his enemies. I executed the man, but there were no story consequences for this. The only one who knew I had discovered him was me.
Much of Metro: Exodus is like this. Its ending is already written, the fates of its characters already decided long in advance of the players interaction. I struggled to make my mark, change the world, and achieve something close to moral good by the end of the story. But it didn’t matter. The decisions the game placed before me were inconsequential. It was a post-apocalyptic power fantasy about a character without power. In Metro: Exodus, destiny shapes our ends rough, hew them how we will.
'Super Mario Maker 2' screenshot courtesy of Nintendo
Super Mario Maker 2
I play video games for two reasons. The first is to engage in a young medium and experience the beauty of the stories and experiences it offers. The other is to drown out the incessant chatter of my poisoned brain. This year, no game made my brain shut the fuck up better than Super Mario Maker 2. I could through on a podcast, bad TV show, or dumb YouTube channel and let Mario destroy my thoughts like so many Goombas.
Pokemon Shield could have won here if I didn’t keep interrupting my meditation with incessant cutscenes. I’d be in the middle of a 45 minute long YouTube video reviewing a movie I’d never watch,when Hop would interrupt my reverie with his inane desires.
This never happened in Super Mario Maker 2. I could just loosen my brain, let my fingers run Mario through the familiar patterns, and allow the television to drone on, achieving something approaching rest.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Snake Eyes Shirafuji can go straight to hell. Otherwise, Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice is as close to perfection as video games are allowed to be in 2019. Sekiro is a shinobi in a world where death is broken. He can’t die, and that tragedy is poisoning everyone around him. His only hope is to overcome the game’s challenge and move toward a conclusion.
It sounds depressing, but Sekrio filled me with hope. Sekiro is a game about overcoming obstacles by any means necessary. Like any good Soulsborne game, Sekiro presented me with challenges that felt daunting and impossible. But with persistence, I was always able to overcome those challenges. There’s always hope, even in a world where my constant death was slowly poisoning everyone.
Speaking of a world where death is broken— Death Stranding.
[Spoilers ahead, by the way, because part of what makes this one of my games of the year is tied into its ending.]
'Death Stranding' screenshot courtesy of Sony
I understand why some people don’t like Death Stranding. It can be boring. It can be repetitive. The story often feels like a Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfiction. I get it. But like Metro and Sekrio, Death Stranding is a game about looking impossible odds in the face and deciding to continue on anyway.
Protagonist Sam Bridges is living in a world where extinction is preordained. The game’s antagonist isn’t a group or terrorists or a super villain, but a supernatural entity that’s the literal avatar of humanity’s extinction. It’s not that the odds are against Sam. There are no odds. Sam’s goals aren’t achievable.
In the face of that monumental mindfuck, Sam chooses to persist anyway. Defiance. Hope. Humans are at their best when we’re willing to spit in God’s eye and laugh about it. That’s what Death Stranding meant to me.
What will circumstances make you? What would you do with a little power and authority? Abuse it, try to help others, or just try to make it through your day without being crushed? In Disco Elysium, I was dumped into the body of a schlubby but brilliant but drug addicted detective in a fantasy world that felt like it was written by China Miéville.
It was up to me to decide what kind of man I’d be. I kicked the drugs, but I never looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t want to know what I looked like. I didn’t even want to know my name. My politics, or those of my character, evolved as I learned about Disco Elysium's complicated relationship between organized labor, power, and the police.
Revachol, the game’s setting, is the heart of a dying empire. Beholden to foreign powers my detective would never see or understand, I did the best I could with the life I was given.
That’s all any of us can do.