Early in our relationship, my wife and I talked about having kids. It’d become clear, even though we’d yet to marry, this was going to be a lifelong engagement, and it made sense to get on the same page. We were. The thing about kids, perhaps more than anything, is how the time they devour. Time for you, time for friends, time for anything but them. But because we openly talked about having kids, even roughly the age we’d like to have them, it meant we were able to structure our lives accordingly. We lived our 20s to the fullest—eating too much, drinking too much, spending too much. (We didn’t have much to spend, so.) And so when the 30s rolled around, we were ready to let things go. I was ready to let go of my time.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating? Because it does suck. Your life is no longer wholly yours, and while I was “mentally” prepared for that, the reality of the situation is still tough, and is a daily struggle.
I was recently reading a message board thread called “Are game critics and game outlets too homogenous?” and my post in response was simply “Yes.” That’s the result of a lot of complicating factors—critics with similar backgrounds, preferencing games with big traffic potential, etc.—but it’s nonetheless true. I wish could spend more time with games, simply for the sake of spending time with them, but that’s rarely what drives a site’s bottom line.
I err towards playing games lots of people are talking about. A game that people are talking about means an article that people will, hopefully, later click on. This means I’m often playing big, commercial games, because it’s efficient use of time: I get to indulge in playing a video game, and it also might result in an article. It’s a skewed way to experience video games because it pushes me towards a very narrow slice of the medium, misrepresentative of what actually happened in the past year. It’s an approach with logic, but one that makes for a woefully incomplete understanding of the broader culture, and rarely follows my own heart.
The result of these complications is a woefully incomplete list. I have only played an hour of Disco Elysium, a game whose sharp, incisive writing hooked me within minutes. I am sure I will fall in love with it. I have only played 30 minutes of The Outer Wilds, a game adored by friends and colleagues I deeply trust. I am sure I will, eventually, also fall in love with it. I will not be surprised if both games show up on my “best of” list next year, but they are not here. One of my very favorite games, A Short Hike, only appeared on my list at the last second.
But that’s the nature of all lists, no? Limits. I’m constrained not by the resources of what to play, but when. The flipside may be your stumbling block. Lists are bullshit, but they’re fun bullshit because they force you to make completely arbitrary decisions. The process of making those arbitrary decisions is where the joy lies, because it forces you to confront your thoughts, feelings, and opinions and, when push comes to shove, draw a conclusion.
Shoot, this has been a depressing intro. It also betrays the spirit of my list, which is very much a collection of games that I liked—and often, loved—this year. I’ve heard from a lot of people that it was a “down” year for games, but I think more to the point, it was a year of extreme highs and lows. The stuff I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. The stuff I didn’t, I really didn’t. There were even moments where I ended up respecting a game more than anything else.
For me, this was video games in 2019.
10. Life Is Strange 2
There was reason to think Life Is Strange, faults and all, was lightning in a bottle, and not something that could (or should) be replicated. Max and Chloe’s relationship became instantly iconic, and people felt genuinely seen by their existence. I became even more skeptical after learning Life Is Strange 2, starting with The Adventures of Captain Spirit, would seemingly up the ante: child abuse, immigration, assimilation, Trump. Was this just a checklist now? No, thankfully. Life Is Strange 2 did not become a cultural phenomenon, but the journey of these two brothers was powerful and often did justice to its complex and nuanced subject matter. Everyone else may not remember you, Sean and Daniel, but I will.
A month or so ago, my wife and I were headed to an event at my daughter’s daycare. She was driving, and as we approached, it became clear that I was not going to finish this round of Grindstone. For whatever reason, Grindstone doesn’t save your progress mid-round, so my options were A) put the phone in my pocket and start from scratch later or B) find a way to keep playing. I, uh, told my wife I had to answer a work email and I’d meet her inside. The moment she left the car, I went on a hot streak, beat the level, and managed to catch up with my wife before she’d even made it inside. She was none the wiser, and I’m banking on her never reading this, but Grindstone is a game that made me lie to my family. Congratulations.
8. Resident Evil 2
Mr. X. Fuck you, Mr. X. Despite being known as a horror buff, the truth is that I don’t like to experience horror media alone. I watch every horror movie with my wife, and try to play most horror games on a stream. The rollercoaster of controlled anxiety that makes those experience largely disappears when I’m on my own, and it’s far less fun. The Mr. X section proved the stuff of nightmares, as a game where you’re typically allowed to be slow and methodical was upended by Jason Vorhees. The brilliance of Mr. X is not the inevitable one-on-one confrontation, it’s his footsteps. Is he around the corner? Is he above me? Below me? You don’t know. The only thing you know is the footsteps will, eventually, get louder. He’s coming.
7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
No game this year made me feel more alive than Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and there’s a game later on this list that made me do planks for the first time. There is no way to play Sekiro but in the moment. It demands attention, and punishes breaking it. The elation I felt after beating bosses in Sekiro, the primal screams that erupted from my body, are unforgettable. But every time, after every Shinobi Execution, I felt exhausted—and not in a good way. Playing a Souls game is like climbing a mountain, except the mountain keeps getting taller along the way. Normally, I find this motivating. With Sekiro, I wanted to turn the game off. The satisfaction was there, but the elation didn’t linger. Instead, I sighed, hoping it would be over. I still have a saved game sitting at the final boss. I know I can beat them, but I don’t want to. I’ve already proven myself, and so I walked away.
The Oldest House. The Oldest House. The Oldest House! Some developers are simply operating at your specific frequency, and Remedy has always been like that with me. I’ll even sit here and defend Quantum Break, folks. But Control is something else, the perfect culmination of the little quirky ingredients that make Remedy games—when they work, and even when they don’t—special. All I want to do is spend more time in that world, and I’m so glad I’ll get to.
5. A Short Hike
There is a single word to describe my experience of playing A Short Hike: joy. I knew nothing about A Short Hike before I started playing, and within minutes, I was shouting to an empty house about how much fun I was having. It’s a game without stakes beyond climbing a mountain, the plot pressures we associate with driving motivation in nearly any other game, and yet A Short Hike has some of the most emotionally grounded storytelling I witnessed this year. I played many games for dozens of hours this year, stories with ample opportunities to give real depth and pathos to their worlds, and A Short Hike did more in two hours than most.
4. Super Mario Maker 2
I spent a lot of time struggling where to slot Super Mario Maker 2, a game I gave a glowing review earlier this year, only to sour on over time. There’s probably no game I spent more time with in 2019. According to my Switch, it says I’ve played Mario Maker 2 f_or “80 hours or more,” which honestly feels a little low. My chief concern with _Mario Maker 2, a game I praised largely because it brought the already-brilliant Mario Maker to a better platform, was what Nintendo would do after launch. For much of this year, it was nothing. They ignored the community, and pretended it didn’t exist. Designers dropped out left and right, and creativity was stagnating. Then, at the last second, they dropped a massive update that included two brilliant features: the addition of playable Link, with game-changing new mechanics that open the door to a new way of thinking about Mario Maker, and Ninji Speedruns, which is the first time Nintendo has openly recognized a core part of Mario culture and found a way to bring new people into it. If this is the future of Mario Maker, sign me up. But I’m still skeptical.
There was a period of time I was mulling saying “screw it,” and making Valfaris my favorite game of the year. It very well might be the kind of game I look back with some hindsight and go “You know, the game that stuck with me the most? Valfaris.” It’s just a tremendous, perfect little action game. It looks badass, it plays badass, it sounds badass. Not to compare everything to Dark Souls—then again, this is Waypoint—but looking at the way I regularly bounced off Sekiro, exhausted by its demands, I felt the complete opposite with Valfaris. I responded to the game’s escalating challenges, especially the absurd bosses, with a steely glare. Every time I put another grotesque enemy down, I stared at the screen and yelled “NEXT.”
2. Sayonara Wild Hearts
I listen to a lot of the same music over and over—I’m not adventurous. So it says something when Spotify delivered a list of what I’d spend 2019 listening to and the top of the list was the soundtrack to Sayonara Wild Hearts. It’s a game that hasn’t left my mind, or my ears, since I originally finished it. Sayonara Wild Hearts excels in various forms, some completely independent of holding a controller: as a game, as a sensory experience, as pure music. Pop music makes me feel happy. Video games, often, make me feel happy. Sayonara Wild Hearts mashed up those two things together and came away with something wholly new, and is the rare game I want to replay.
1. Ring Fit Adventure
When we say games can be transformative experiences, what do we mean? Transformative to whom and to what? But I can safely say playing Ring Fit Adventure for the last several months has been precisely that: transformative. When we think of exercise and fitness, what comes to mind? The Rock? Every schlubby dude who magically transforms for a new Marvel movie? It’s unhealthy. Despite being skinny, I’ve harbored shame and embarrassment about my body, feeling weak and powerless. I’ve always wanted to improve, but never known how to go about it, or who to ask for help_. Ring Fit Adventure_ gave me what I’d been missing: control. It handed over the keys to improvement without judgement or disappointment, suggesting that altering your body doesn’t have to come from a place of despair. It can be done with a smile, alongside the hard work. Ring Fit Adventure is a game that understands bodies, and specifically, that most of us don’t understand ours. It’s a game that offers a set of tools that’ll outlast whatever time I spend with Ring Fit Adventure itself. For that, I’m grateful.