Screenshot from Life is Strange 2. A teenager and a young boy stand at the edge of the grand canyon, watching the sun rise.
Image courtesy of Square Enix
Games

The Best Game of 2019 Was Devastating Because I’ve Lived It

Knowing that my experience with racism wasn't singular felt both comforting and terrifying.
December 24, 2019, 10:55pm

I’m writing these introductory paragraphs at my parent’s dining room table. It’s late, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person awake, an old wall clock ticking away the seconds the only sound. My parent’s Christmas tree sits unilluminated in the corner, various homemade ornaments representing me and my siblings hanging from its faux-pine branches. Traditionally, my ornaments would’ve been a small felt camera or a photo of one of my art pieces, but this year my mom made small bags of rupees, some potions, and a few non-specific game controllers.

Seeing those new ornaments really drove home just how much my life has changed in the last year. Earlier in the day, my mom asked me if I thought my various degrees in fine art helped me with my new job. I told her yes, that most of my formal training amounted to developing a critical lens that I was now turning to games, and that many of the technical skills in audio and video I had developed I was directly using day to day. What I didn’t mention was how worried I was two years ago that my choice of schooling would bar me from ever finding a job I would enjoy after I had decided that a fine art career was no longer for me.

Landing a job at Waypoint came as a complete surprise, and I want to thank the entire Waypoint crew, past and present, for making me feel welcome and supported as I found my way in an industry that was mostly foreign to me. That said, It has also been a tumultuous year. Waypoint was dramatically transformed, and between the structural changes at VICE and different team members moving on to new endeavors, the future seemed hazy at times.

Luckily, this almost overwhelming fog of uncertainty was punctured by rays of pure joy: Save Point, Lore Reasons, my first E3, and the recording of our GOTY podcasts to name just a few. With the support of my co-workers I wrote my first full review, and a few more after that. Given that this year has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, it makes sense that this list has a more emotional slant to it. In part to balance this out, I’ve included a few games as honorable mentions that may have made the top 10 in a different year.

Honorable mentions: Indivisible, Untitled Goose Game, Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, Ring Fit Adventure

Spoiler Warning: If you see a game you’re trying not to be spoiled on you should skip its entry.

10. A Short Hike

In an attempt to combat recency bias, I’ve placed A Short Hike at 10 on my list, but could probably argue that through its economy of language, it communicated a specific emotional state so powerfully that it should be way higher up. The game opens with a short cutscene of a car driving on a highway, with a mountainous environment in the background. With just a few well-written text boxes, it sets a mood and emotional stakes that made me want to reach the “end” as soon as possible. You play as Claire, a young adult bird, seemingly dragged out to a remote park by your aunt. You begin by complaining about the lack of cell service, and your aunt tells you there might be some at the top of the park’s tallest mountain. If you keep speaking with her, it’s eventually revealed that you’re waiting on a call from your mother, for foggy reasons. (If you play this game, absolutely make sure to speak with people until you get their last response twice!) This is ultimately your only real goal in the game, but the game presents you with a multitude of distractions along the way. Part of what’s so impactful is this feeling of anxiety that I felt, I knew that this call was probably important, but I didn’t know exactly how. And I expect the path you take to reach this goal might have a direct correlation to the way you personally deal with anything you’re anxiously anticipating in your life. Whether you rush to get it over with or find solace in distraction and letting things go, this game has options for you and plenty of great interactions with other characters along the way. The freedom to let that anxiety pass to the back of your mind until you’re prepared to confront it or to deal with it and then take your time to relax after the fact is where the strength in this game lies for me. It reminded me that there are many different yet equally valid paths to take in dealing with personal problems, and sometimes it’s ok to slow down.

9. Kingdom Hearts III

Recording Lore Reasons and investing myself back into the world of Kingdom Hearts turned out to be one of the highlights of my year. So even if Kingdom Hearts III left something to be desired, the fact that I could want more Kingdom Hearts at the end of it is why it makes it into my top ten. It being the final entry into the “Dark Seeker” saga, we see the culmination of many of the long-running plotlines that began way back in 2002. Ultimately, this tale of friendship overcoming the forces of evil left its mark through its willingness to be earnest in delivering its message, one of overwhelming optimism, hope, and trust in the people you love most.

8. Pokemon Sword and Shield

As a long-time Pokemon fan, I have been excited by the overall trajectory of the Pokemon games. Each entry felt just a tiny bit more complex, both in mechanics and plot. While I may have wished for faster iteration, there was still a sense of some forward progress with each entry, however slight it was. When we reached the generation that attempted (if clumsily) to contend with Pokemon’s central ethos of “catching them all,” I figured we’d get increasingly more interesting stories out of this franchise. When the games began allowing you to pet and feed your Pokemon, giving each species even more character and life, I figured that soon we’d have the level of immersion the series has always lacked, seemingly due to console limitations.

In that aspect, Pokemon Sword and Shield is a great leap ahead for the series. Pokemon are now actually represented in tall grass, rather than being random encounters based on how many steps you’ve taken. They animated each species with its own set of mannerisms and demeanors, where some Pokemon will run when they catch sight of you, and others will rush you, ready to fight. The Wild Area, a large area filled with different biomes in the center of this game’s map, gives the world an even deeper sense of being a realistic ecosystem, with changing weather causing different Pokemon to appear, giving you more reason to re-visit areas you’ve already passed through while working through the campaign.

My biggest issue with the game is that campaign. There are many ways to make media for children that can appeal to adults as well, and while I think the narratives of these games hadn’t ever truly executed this very well, the mechanics had reached a level of complexity in the post-campaign that even I, longtime fan, had trouble keeping up with. In that way, Pokemon Sword and Shield’s paired down pool of Pokemon and mechanics felt like an appropriate decision to cut back a bit of the bloat. The issue is they also cut back on the complexity of the story. Moments where in previous games you’d be tasked with fighting through various grunts for shady organizations or taking on the mustache-twirling villain of the game, you’re instead told by the adults in the room to “not worry about it.” The main story is of your rise through the ranks of the Galar Pokemon league, where matches are played out in packed stadiums, the chanting of the crowd becoming a regular part of the game’s soundtrack. Off to the side, there exists what seems to be a mildly interesting look at climate change and the corporations that cause it, but the problem is that you’re always shuffled off to the next match while the adults “take care of it.” The only time you fully engage with this side story is at the very end when you swoop in to help the adults put the issue to bed where in past games you were very much the protagonist of every side plot, even though you played a kid/teen.

Despite these story issues, it’s on my list because the new additions still managed to make me excited and immerse me in the world of Pokemon. I’m just hoping the odd story decisions are indicative of Game Freak gaining their sea legs on a new console and that the next game will start to inch forward once again.

7. Baba is You

Baba is you is a complex game that is presented in a deceptively simple manner. An excellent puzzle game where the main mechanics allow the player to change the rules of the game. On a 2D plane, you’re presented with a series of objects, a small sheep called Baba, and a few simple phrases, like “BABA is YOU,” “WALL is STOP,” or “FLAG is WIN.” Your objective is to touch whatever is “Win”, and often times that object is blocked by other impassible objects. So then what you can move are the words, which act as the ruleset for each particular puzzle. Maybe you can make “WALL is YOU” so you can become the wall encircling the flag you need to touch to win, maybe you’ll be able to push “Stop” off the end of “WALL is STOP,” allowing you to walk through the barrier.

This game’s increasing difficulty and clever spin on game mechanics were enough to put it in contention for this list, but what pushed it onto the list are the times I was able to play along with a group of friends. There the game opened up and showed just how malleable the systems really were, as my friends came up with new and increasingly more astute solutions to levels I had finished long before. The ability to both be a great solo puzzle game but still have a complexity of design that allows for many different approaches made re-playing Baba is You with other people the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game in a long time, and it’s not even a multiplayer game.

6. Dicey Dungeons

This year saw the release of more than a few games in the deckbuilding roguelike genre, but Dicey Dungeons stuck out for me for its great visual design and innovative twist on the formula. You begin as the contestant on a game show where death seems to be the foregone conclusion, fighting for your chance at a wish that will grant you whatever your heart desires. The setup is played instantly for laughs as your starting character declares that the wish they’re willing to risk life and limb over is for “super strength and a monster truck.”

Dicey Dungeons has one of the more interesting takes on combat that a deckbuilding roguelike has had this year. Instead of the usual deck setup, the random element comes from rolling a set number of dice. Each piece of equipment has a slot where you can drag one of your die for various effects. For example, a simple sword might take the face value of the die and deal that much damage to your enemy or a poison dagger might deal that amount of damage but also apply a poison debuff if you use a 6. Equipment will sometimes have limited uses, or restrictions on the type of die (Max 3, Evens Only), which adds a good but manageable amount of depth to the combat. You also unlock separate classes that each have their own twists on the combat, ranging from fun extra abilities to challenging new ways to play. For example, the starting class, the warrior, has an ability that grants you 3 re-rolls of your dice, while a later class, the inventor, has you creating a new ability by consuming a piece of equipment after each fight.

All of these mechanics are presented in fun, brightly colored illustrations, with enemies like a loud bird that will drown out your attacks, or a flaming marshmallow that sets your dice on fire. All in all, Dicey Dungeons is a delightful game with an infectious sense of goofy joy that is more than welcome as a respite from our bleak reality.

5. Control

Control is a masterclass in world-building and style. You play as Jesse Faden, the newly appointed Director of the Federal Bureau of Control, a government agency meant to contain and study various supernatural phenomena. The FBC is under attack by one such enemy coming from within, and it’s up to you to fight back this threat while also attempting to find your brother, whom the Bureau took long ago. What sets Control apart is just how dense it is, with bits of additional material that are so interesting and genuinely funny that I spent way too many hours making sure I had picked up every single piece of lore available before moving the story forward. Paired with excellent visual design and solid gameplay, the world of Control feels rich and constantly surprising. The supernatural-by-way-of-the-mundane setting is also fertile ground for exploring the absurdity of our current political climate. As complete newcomer Jesse, you’re thrown from problem to problem, each new threat giving just a bit more insight to the truth of the Bureau. To me, Jesse’s situation reflected the exact type of rapid adaptation we need to make to contend with the ever-escalating ridiculousness and dead-serious danger of our new normal in the United States. Fighting the supernatural threats coming from within the FBC reminded me of one of the fundamental truths of surviving in the U.S.: more often than not the threats we’re facing aren’t external, they’ve been coming from inside the house the whole time.

4. Destiny 2: Shadowkeep

I know, I know. It’s probably hard to take this entry seriously given how much of an obvious mark I am for Destiny. However it may look, I can honestly say that Shadowkeep is the strongest Destiny 2 has ever been. Between totally new and returning mechanics, Bungie snuck in a story, told week over week, that I would argue is one of their best to date. It finally feels like this game has reached a point in their story where characters are taking center stage as the driving force of their narrative, rather than focusing on the big bad of the month. It still has its fair amount of grind, but I’ve been much more willing to go through with it when there’s a cool gun and some interesting characterization at the end of it.

3. Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds can be loosely described as a space exploration game, where you’re following the trails of previous explorers. It takes place in a clockwork solar system where events happen on a loop and celestial bodies revolve around a sun in real time. This intricate physics playground is enough to catch my interest, but it’s the opening moments that so skillfully establish a set of stakes and emotional investment that earned it a spot on my list. I don’t want to spoil it here, even with my previous spoiler warnings, not because the opening has some twist to it, but because I feel like I would be robbing people of an experience that was one of the most impactful for me this year. And it only needed 22 minutes to do that.

2. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

As a fan of From Soft’s “Souls-borne” games that also had a casual interest in Japanese history and myth, it seemed obvious that I would enjoy Sekiro. What surprised me is just how hard I fell into this game’s combat. The new posture system allowed for a style of play that felt always active in a way other Souls-borne games hadn’t to me. Even if you weren’t “attacking,” your blocks and parries would still do posture damage, meaning that every moment of active gameplay is some form of telegraphed forward progress during combat.

The posture system was also true of enemies of all different types, meaning that while different bosses required different approaches, you could rely on parrying without wondering if some monstrous enemy would completely ignore your feeble attempt to stay it’s hand. There was also an immensely satisfying approach to stealth, where with enough experimentation a repeatable path could be found through almost any area. Coupled to the classic “bonfire” system, this enemy arrangement made it feel like you were mastering each new space you came to through a slowly acquired but satisfyingly earned knowledge - one that didn’t rely on any numbers going up, just through a kinetic memory of all your previous attempts.

Alongside these excellent mechanics, From Soft decided to take a more straight forward attempt at storytelling with this game. They end up telling a striking tale of family, cycles of violence, and the immense effect that people in power have on the lives of average people. Funnily enough, this game became a flashpoint for a discussion around accessibility, difficulty, and the different ways those two concerns weren’t being addressed by From Soft. Their design decisions affect which people can even attempt to enjoy their games, and hopefully they’ll take a page from the young noble in Sekiro and break the cycle of discourse by allowing for more inclusive and accessible options in the future.

1. Life is Strange 2 - The Full Season

When I put the first part of this episodic game on my GOTY list last year, I was cautiously optimistic. The first episode resonated with me so strongly on a personal level because I’m a first-generation immigrant and the eldest of four. It got a lot right about what it feels like to be watched in a public space, and the assumptions other people will make about you based on the complexion of your skin. I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep this up for 4 more episodes; that the overall message would be diluted by diversions and side plot.

Fortunately, my worries were completely unfounded, and Don’t Nod delivered on a touching and devastating story of two brothers trying their best to survive in a society that is hostile at every turn. You play as Sean, a teenaged Mexican-American, and his kid brother Daniel, as they run from the law after a cop guns down their father in front of them. During this ensuing incident, it’s revealed that Daniel has telekinetic powers and he accidentally kills the cop that murdered his father. What follows is their harrowing journey to Mexico, where they plan on starting a new life in their father’s hometown. As real-life immigrants are detained and murdered every day, it would be easy to make a game that falls short of the horrifying realities of immigrants in the United States for fear of scaring off players. Don’t Nod has instead decided to hold this particular mirror up to society fully, directly confronting the deeply embedded racism and bigotry that is ever-present in the minds of marginalized groups all over the U.S.

Alongside these harsh realities, they also manage to tell a heart-wrenching story about family, with choices that influence not only your own character’s trajectory but also the influence you have over Daniel and his worldview. The choices I made led to a brutal, depressing, and true to life conclusion that left me in tears, leaving the characters in a situation that too many people of color living in the U.S. have had to endure. I only hope more people play it.