This year has been a strange one. I went into it anticipating approximately nothing, and I’ve left it with some new all-time favorites. Most of the blockbuster releases this year did absolutely nothing for me, and the smaller, more intimate games really carried me through the year. As always, my game tastes tend toward the downer, the sad, and the melancholy, but I think this list bucks that trend in some interesting ways that I had not considered until I wrote everything down.
An interesting trend to note here, I think, is that there isn’t really a trend to be found. I didn’t dig deep into any specific genre, and I don’t think this was a year where one particular genre leapt forward and asserted itself as the kind of game that we have to look for. Instead, I think this was a year where games figured themselves out; genres became more solidified, franchises worked out the kinks, and games simply improved in the quiet-but-effective way that will pay dividends down the road. Anyway, here’s the list.
10. Kingdom Hearts 3
I have been fortunate to live in a time when the monoculture was on the wane. When I was a teenager, combing a combination of print magazines and used books and the early mass internet, I felt like I existed at a specific intersection of the leylines of lived life. I did not feel like I was a part of a culture, but instead I was assembled out of things that I had drawn toward me and that I was drawn toward. I yearned for expanded universes, the Stephen Kings and the _Sandman_s and _Final Fantasy_s and all the rest, because the very idea that all these unique and powerful stories could be connected spoke to a fragmented, made-up adolescent.
Kingdom Hearts was powerful at that moment because it pulled all kinds of weird shit together and did something beyond the sum of those parts. And I became a fan. Little did I know that shared universes, canonical reconfigurations, and a near-worship of lore continuity would go on the dominate the next 20 years of media production. Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t any stranger than Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, but I really enjoyed the closure in this volume. Well, “closure.”
9. Project Winter
This is a competitive survival game that staples together Werewolf and Don’t Starve in a wonderful, tragic, comedic package. A bunch of survivors in a wintry land are attempting to do some tasks to escape back to civilization, but there are betrayers there to kill them and stop their plans. That’s the game.
Best played with a bunch of people who know one another, there is nothing here but betrayal and blood on the snow. Most of my times going at this game have been with my friend Jack, who reveals his saboteur status by screeching and screaming. Often we can hear him out in the hinterlands and hills, wailing at god and firing crossbows at the unwary. It’s scary stuff. You could be having a time like this with your own friends.
8. Rise to Ruins
This game was in Steam Early Access for a number of years, but I think the full release finally came this year so I think it counts. Or even if it didn’t, I don’t care, because I lost a lot of hours to Rise to Ruins this year. A little Dwarf Fortress and a little tower defense game, Rise is about creating a little village and defending it against the constantly-expanding hell creatures who come for you. Eventually the evil creatures’ territory expands to rival your own, then it gets bigger than your own. You kick out to the world map, choose a new territory, and start sending refugees there. It’s that kind of game.
7. Disco Elysium
This game has stepped up to supplant Planescape: Torment as the game that “proves” video game stories can be good. We’re going to be hearing about it, and seeing comparisons to it, for a very long time. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It does the job, and it does it in a reasonable amount of time, but I think it is also worth considering that this game uses tried-and-true ways of delivering narrative to get to a plurality of tried-and-true stories. Chaos detectives and sad detectives and murder-solving ones are all well-trod terrain. It’s how it stitches it all together that is interesting.
6. Don’t Wake the Night
I wrote a lot about this game earlier this year, but the short of it here is that there is near-constant praise for innovation in story or morality in games when it fits into a familiar container. Implicitly, saying that Modern Warfare or Red Dead Redemption 2 is doing something new or fascinating always comes with the qualifier of “for this kind of game.” We’re very quick to give praise to something right down the middle of blockbuster video games that swerves just a tiny, little bit.
Don’t Wake the Night is a curveball. It is a game about stories, it requires you to listen to many different perspectives on an issue, and then asks you to intervene and live with your choice. It is contained. It is limited. It is a deeper exploration of the idea of what it means to intervene in someone else’s life than most games, which frankly often just transform that into “should I pull the trigger or not,” even when that trigger is a sword.
5. A Short Hike
If you haven’t played the game where you play a melancholy little bird who needs to travel to the top of a mountain to get cell reception so that she can talk to her mother on the phone then, well, you should go do that. A Short Hike is a quaint little thing that has basically everything I want in a game in 2019. Your bird gets different abilities, but you’re not forced into Metroidvania puzzle zones to use them. You can collect things, but doing the bare minimum to get to the top is simple and clear. It does not have the deep mechanics or obligatory time-wasting that seems to power so much of what a video game “has” to have right now. It is good.
4. American Fugitive
Travel around a rural berg stealing, hiding, disguising, and car thievin’ your way to the heart of a mystery: who framed you and sent you to prison? This game got functionally no press coverage, and it is a true shame. Imagine Grand Theft Auto III from an isometric perspective with a burglary mechanic and a disguise system. That would be cool, right? THAT GAME EXISTS!!! THIS IS THAT GAME!!! Play American Fugitive, please.
3. Dragon Quest Builders 2
Do you like creating little villages? Do you like doing a lot of monotonous work like gathering supplies, farming, and talking to people? Dragon Quest Builders 2 has annihilated every other game attempting to do these things from an orbital base of fun. I sunk a lot of hours into it earlier this year on PS4, and I’ve got it installed on PC right now so I can give it a go again.
While I cannot stand the monomythical Dragon Quest narrative in the mainline titles anymore, there’s something refreshing about that big Good and Evil thing as the backbone of a crafting game. I am not interested in questing to defeat the Dark Lord, but I am way into building to do so, and I had a lot of fun playing through this game. I don’t know. It’s good. It’s a good game and it feels good to craft things scaffolded by a very simple story that you can safely ignore from time to time. There you go.
2. Telling Lies
I’ve already written about this game, but nothing else has appeared this year to supplant it as an apex accomplishment within video game storytelling. And I specifically mean “storytelling,” the craft of plotting and making a narrative exciting for a player. The ripped-from-the-headlines abuse and horror that takes place would mean very little if not for the game’s willingness to make the player sit and stare as the dead, lying eyes of the people who drive the plot and its tragic conclusion. I mean, my god, what a game.
How could this not be my number one game of the year? Remedy have made a weird fiction game that leans into all the strange, out-of-sync storytelling that they’ve been perfecting since Max Payne. This is pitched right at me as if Sam Lake was sitting, gremlin-like, on my bookshelf for the past few years. I can’t help it.
It would be one thing if Control were a good game, or if it just had the shape or genre I like to see in stories, but the other thing is that it knits things together. The strangeness at the heart of the Remedy products, and especially my super favorite Alan Wake, is all getting knitted into a shared universe. And against the odds, against those Star Wars massiverses, Control is managing to keep itself pretty weird. Gameplay loops on itself and fake credits roll and Jesse Faden collapses in on herself in ways that other games could, but are not, going for. Control is my game of 2019 because it shows what people could be doing. It shows a pathway toward what I want more of: a realization that players will follow you down any road. So here’s to more weird roads (hopefully) in 2020.