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'Eliza' screenshot courtesy of Zachtronics
Games

The Best Game of 2019 Is About a Mental Health App

'Eliza,' and nine other games worth your time from this year.
December 23, 2019, 3:00pm

Upfront, I’ll confess to a major bias in this personal game of the year list. I gravitated strongly to games that gave me satisfying arcs in a smaller time frame. In past years I’ve been more mesmerized by enormous worlds and sprawling stories, but this year I found it harder to get into and stay interested in long-form games.

I don’t think that’s evidence of a real shift in personal taste or a comment on the types of games that came out this year, but a product of how odd this year was. Did you know we recorded eight podcasts about Jane Austen TV and film adaptations earlier this year? Remember that time I fell in love with and then incredibly out-of-love with Evangelion?

Much of this year was marked by a combination of “get while the getting is good” indulgence in passion projects and frantic preparation for major changes and, frankly, losses. Knowing that Waypoint would cease operation as an independent vertical was tough. Going through the practical changes of saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, and having to learn what this job meant as part of the broader Vice, made it much, much harder to lose myself in games. At times I felt like the truth was starker: that I’d lost games, both as an escape and as an interest. I’d sit down at my computer or TV and before I even reached the main menu, I was dwelling on all “what ifs” and “what nows” that attend major work and life changes.

I think it wasn’t until this fall that it began to feel like life was in a new chapter, rather than mired in the lengthy conclusion to an old one. A lot of games I loved this year are games that I played fairly late, and while some of that is probably down to recency bias, I think it has more to do with the fact that sometime in November, I wasn’t so quick to start catastrophizing in every moment of idleness. I was able to stay in the moment, to invest thought in the problems of play rather than work. And just like that, I started to love the work again.

I like to think Waypoint is still around, a spectre haunting the discourse. But it’s not for me to say.

10. Ghost Recon Breakpoint

When Breakpoint is good, it is great. Moments like the assault on a mansion in the middle of snow-covered mountains, or a painstaking raid on some massive research campus, or an isolated and well-defended communications tower, were among my favorites of this year. I wish it wasn’t such a product of the Ubisoft Open World Monoculture, and I wish it had pushed to add more friction from things like fatigue and and traversal, but it still gave me some incredibly tense, unforgettable gunfights.

9. Mutant Year Zero

This came out at the tail end of last year but I still adore it. So many games have tried to mimic XCOM, but Mutant Year Zero only wants to borrow parts of XCOM to make for a beautiful and sadly evocative narrative tactics game. It remains one of my favorites games I’ve played in the last year.

8. Unity of Command 2

Even after my review, I’m still lost to this game and enjoying its devilishly constructed scenarios and the trade-offs it puts before me. This is probably the best wargame to come out this year, and is certainly the only one I’d recommend to people who aren’t deep into the genre.

7. Telling Lies

This forensic investigation of multiple lives converging around a central disaster is brilliant. If it was just a great game about the act of reconstruction, it'd still be a huge success. But Telling Lies is also a great piece of crime fiction, maybe one of the best that games have produced. It's a dark tragedy about police infiltration of activist spaces, and the forms violence can take.

This isn't a one-trick game where, once you see what the outline of the story is, you've "solved" it.. The broad outlines of the narrative are quickly and easily discovered. What's brutal and fascinating about Telling Lies is the way you start to reconstruct the disaster and locate more tragedies within it. It's a game about studying the ripple-effects of major decisions and events rather than the events themselves.

6. F1 2019

Last year's edition narrowly missed my top 10, but the incredible improvements to the AI make this an undeniable favorite for mine for this year.

5. Death Stranding

Believe me, I know what a curious and flawed game this is. But I loved its sense of purpose, its singular focus on the feeling of laboring, traversing difficult terrain encumbered by both the weight of cargo and of responsibility. It's a beautiful game, and if it eventually suffers from the ham-handed sensibilities of Hideo Kojima, it gets out of its own way long enough to let you inhabit its sparse, bleak landscape and form your own relationship to it.

4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

If only the tactics game were better here. I think this game has such essential things to say about its characters and the way the personal and political intersect. But my God does the act of playing through its battles go from slightly tedious to nearly excruciating. This would probably have been by favorite game this year if it hadn't started actively repelling me. Still, it's a mark of how good its narrative is, how great its characters are, that it still finishes this high.

It's split structure does a wonderful job of making its key characters sympathetic or at least understandable, while also highlighting all the violence and exploitation that the status quo tries to conceal. While Fire Emblem: Three Houses has some undeniable villains, I think the most powerful observation it makes is that heroic characters can look at the same set of circumstances, the same set of problems, and find themselves at daggers-drawn because of the things that inform their perspective, and the things that it never even occurs to them that other people might feel.

3. Total War: Three Kingdoms

This might be the best game in this series. It's certainly the most imaginative I've seen from this series almost since its inception. But I think what I appreciate the most about it is that it doesn't let me stick to tried-and-true methods. Its armies are intentionally unbalanced, and much of playing this game is about learning the right tactics to employ that maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, because it is the rare strategy game that makes it impossible to have everything you want.

So many games end up sabotaging themselves by giving you a toolkit that is too extensive, so that you always have exactly what you would want or need immediately at hand. They remove tension from your decisions because the "right" thing to do is always so obvious and clear. Three Kingdoms is a game full of uncomfortable matchups that force you to improvise your way through battle after battle, which is exactly what a Total War game should feel like. Add to that the best diplomacy system in the series' history and you have something that might finally have delivered a strategy and tactics game that lives up to its own spectacle.

2. Control

What a delightful game. It came along at the exact right moment, and had just the right mix of charm and eeriness. It's emblematic of everything I've loved about Remedy over the years, but is a more coherent and cohesive experience than just about anything they've made since Max Payne 2. Plus, I think I'm now obligated to express my love and desire to serve the Board.

I also think Control speaks to me as one of the most entertaining games about impostor syndrome I've played. I suspect there are a lot of people who came of age around or in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis who are suddenly finding themselves with, actual careers and responsibilities after years of hustling from one transient gig to the next. The slightly perplexed, deeply determined way that Jesse greets the bizarre problems that are suddenly hers to solve struck a deep chord with me. Jesse is someone who is basically just playing along until she can get what she wants out of a bad situation, and then by the end she realizes it's not act anymore, that she's both a perfect fit for this role and that she's become this role. There's something hopeful in that story, but also cautionary.

1. Eliza

Inevitably this remains my favorite. How could it not be? It's a game entirely about labor, capital, mental health, and responsibility. It's also a game that presses hard on all these concepts, and demolishes all the easy escapes from tough questions that it could have given itself.

I think what I appreciate the most is the way it shows how the personal is connected to the structural. You meet a lot of people struggling with their lives, their careers, even their conception of the self. And these are real, universal struggles that are part of the human condition. But Eliza also sees how this moment in history, the values of an increasingly stratified society in thrall to the notion of technological disruption and problem-solving, pours gasoline on just about every one of those issues. Eliza has some insightful things to say about both the value and limitations of the therapy many of us receive, but I think it's sharpest insight is that despair, anxiety, and anger are not so much signs of poor mental health as rational responses to a bleak landscape of diminished opportunity and precarity. By the end of Eliza, I was convinced that anything that made therapy more widely available to people who need it would be a good thing. I was also convinced that a lack of access to therapy is not the chief problem that needs solving in this world.