I didn’t do a write-up of my favorite games of the year in 2018, not because I didn’t play good games that year but because none of them really excited me. With all due respect to Ping-GOTY-2018-2018 Unravel 2, it prooobably only topped that list because of my general apathy about games at the time. And because I hadn’t played Return of the Obra Dinn yet. Mostly the latter.
This year I feel the complete opposite. In fact, I may be more enthusiastic about this list’s top 5 than about my entire Top 10 Films list so far. Games are good. Specifically, independently made games available at an affordable price on multiple platforms are good. In any other year, any of my top 3 could be #1, and I’m so ready to gush about how good they are. It’s an excitement that I haven’t felt in a while.
Here are ten games I played this year that make me feel optimistic about continuing to play video games for yet another decade.
Jenny LeClue — Detectivu
Mografi / Adventure
Jenny LeClue may seem like an extremely straightforward puzzle game without any puzzles that also ends on a cliffhanger, and that’s because it is. The only reason I’ve committed to playing the sequel is to see through its use of the frame narrative. Jenny LeClue isn’t a story about Jenny LeClue, child detective. It’s a story about Arthur Finkelstein, author of the agonizingly long-running Jenny LeClue series of children’s books, as he faces pressure from his publisher to introduce actual danger and narrative stakes to the idyllic Andy-Hardy-esque village. The dissociation between Finkelstein’s sense of ownership of the world and the demands of the market take the form of arguments between narrator and protagonist, and I hope that the sequel expands on that element.
That said, this dynamic mostly plays out in the background and serves to supplement a somewhat intriguing mystery uncovered by Jenny and friends. I may not particularly like Jenny LeClue as a game, but I’ve come to care about the characters enough to want to know how their stories resolve.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
Nintendo / Action-Adventure
Modern Nintendo games are starting to remind me of Illumination’s animated movies, which is apt considering their upcoming collaboration. If I can say anything about, I dunno, The Secret Life of Pets, it’s that it is creatively devoid but excellently executed. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is full of enough charm to make you momentarily forget that there isn’t much there there. The animations are impressive, though not emotive, and the design of the hotel and its inhabitants is tantalizing if straightforward. And there’s certainly a lot to do, but for a completionist like myself it’s hard to shake the obligation to kick every trash can and vacuum every cobweb just in case there’s a single coin hidden there.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 is pretty. I’m not queuing to play it again, but I did enjoy the ride.
Touhou 17: Wily Beast and Weakest Creature
Team Shanghai Alice / Shooter
Mostly a prosaic entry in the series, WBaWC (the ugliest acronym?) stands out in my mind for one moment near the end. It is a moment where the game sacrifices its own difficulty for the sake of its narrative, and I cannot recall any other time a Touhou game has done that. It’s also a musical moment, and while I can’t say WBaWC has one of the stronger soundtracks of the series there are a few standout tracks that bring a unique intensity to TH17 and elevate the whole package to, hm, let’s say a mid-tier Touhou game. It’s better than 16, in my opinion, but not by much.
Youmu’s playable though so that’s a bonus.
Terry Cavanagh / Roguelike
I generally hate playing deck-building games, because I don’t find that style of strategizing particularly fun. Dicey Dungeons’s greatest accomplishment is tricking me into playing many hours before I realized it’s been a deck-building game all along. Dicey Dungeons starts with a simple premise — roll dice — and continually finds new ways to turn that into strategic gameplay. That a game made me reevaluate a genre I had completely written off is among the highest praise I can offer.
The Expression Amrilato
SukeraSparo, Mangagamer / Visual Novel
This actually originally released in 2017, but it only got an official English release this year, so it counts. The protagonist Rin Takatoo has been transported to another world that seems identical to her own, except everyone speaks a fictional language called Juliamo. The hook: Juliamo is actually the real-world constructed language Esperanto (plus some minor creative liberties). The Juliamo lessons Rin takes double as Esperanto lessons for the player, so as someone who finds enjoyment in language learning itself, this was made for me. Yes, you can skip the quizzes if you want.
It’s a cute story hindered only by some attempts at twists that muddy the logic of the world. I also wish it had done more with the Esperanto angle than it does. But if my biggest critique of a game is that it doesn’t do enough to teach me a different language, that’s probably okay.
Untitled Goose Game
House House, Panic Inc. / Stealth
First, I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the “Untitled” title, so from here on I will only use the game’s Japanese subtitle, “Here Comes the Mischievous Goose!”
Here Comes the Mischievous Goose! plays like a Looney Tunes story, a comparison I probably make because of the procedurally generated cartoon soundtrack. With only a vague list of errands and an anserine grudge, the player disrupts a sleepy English hamlet, a clockwork world that invites comparions to the recent Hitman games. It’s the Goose itself that really elevates the game into something greater. The Goose is a magnetic force on screen, like a movie star in a Hollywood drama. It’s fun to look at and to simply control, a character made to be remixed and shared on Twitter.
The eventual payoff to the narrative plays like a punchline to a 3 hour joke, so while some criticize Here Comes the Mischievous Goose! for being too short, I would instead argue it is perfectly to scale.
Arika, Nintendo / Battle Royale
Once in high school I played Tetris DS on the bus during a school trip. I managed to survive marathon mode well past 200 lines. My friend watching said it was the most impressive Tetris play he had ever seen. He had not played Tetris 99.
The turnaround from “Battle Royale with Tetris” as a self-contained joke to a fully realized, engaging take on a classic still blows my mind a little. I used to think I was good at Tetris, but Tetris 99 taught me that I was never really trying. And it taught me that Tetris is much more fun when you actually try.
Baba Is You
Developer Is Hempuli / Genre Is Puzzle
The most obvious comparison to make with Baba Is You is The Witness (my GOTY 2016 2016). Both games are about their own rules, literally in Baba’s case. Both games make you feel like a god damn genius for every solve. And both games take their premise just one step further than you might expect going in.
The game is smart about providing multiple paths forward so getting stuck at one puzzle doesn’t mean game over. Yet despite that I will gladly spend upwards of twenty minutes staring at the layout lost in thought — by which I mean banging out the same incorrect solution over and over — and still feel it was time enjoyed. I don’t mind. Baba Is Cute.
Mobius Digital, Annapurna Interactive / Space Exploration
Outer Wilds is a game about archaeology, inevitability, spacetime, and accidentally flying into the Sun because you weren’t paying attention to the autopilot. It’s about unlocking the secrets of the universe, even though they really don’t matter when you think about it. It’s about… friendship? Yeah, it can be about friendship.
You play as a novice space explorer. You wake up on launch day, eager to discover the solar system, and 22 minutes later you are dead. Then you wake up on launch day, eager to discover the solar system, and die after 22 minutes. Repeat. Outer Wilds evokes the uneasy feeling of serenity from watching ultimate destruction and the urgency of wanting to do something about it. Whatever tone that middle ground is, it nails it.
The game has a sense of humor that can only come from imminent annihilation. It also has a sense of hope, borne from the same, that culminates in what may be one of the best ending sequences I have ever seen in a video game. It is a beautiful, imaginative mystery that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Game of the Year
Sayonara Wild Hearts
Simogo, Annapurna Interactive / Rhythm
It has taken all my strength not to constantly ramble about Sayonara Wild Hearts on Twitter, and instead I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain my feelings toward it. I’ll start by throwing out this totally premature opinion that’s been cooking in my head for a few weeks:
Sayonara Wild Hearts might be the best video game ever made.
It is pure mastery of craft. A spectacle of hypnotic animation and inspired level design. A triumph of pacing, both on stage-to-stage and moment-to-moment levels. It knows exactly when to go hard and when to rest. It knows at any given moment the best new trick to pull out. There is not a single off note from start to finish. All this in service of a story told through electronic music that might make this game the first video game musical of its kind, or at least the first unambiguously successful one.
And now that it’s out there, thinking back on it, the emotion I most associate with Sayonara Wild Hearts other than the pure joy of the experience is relief. Relief that it exists. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this game to be made, and now that it has, video games can finally begin. We have reached the starting line.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is the future of video games as an artistic medium. I need it to be. If it isn’t, then what am I playing them for anyway?
As a film lover I have long wondered how the heck Annapurna makes money and it seems that mystery has fully expanded into the video game realm. Whatever they’re doing I hope they can keep doing it for a long time.
A couple other games I want to shout out:
- BOX BOY! + BOX GIRL!: Box Boy being on the list is always a sure sign that I didn’t play many games, so I’m weirdly glad this didn’t make it. It’s more Box Boy, it’s cute, and it’s probably much more fun in multiplayer. I wouldn’t know.
- Draugen: A wonderfully crafted narrative adventure game. I kind of hate the direction the story goes in by the end, but I want to keep supporting Red Thread Games, so I won’t not recommend it.
- Kind Words: Anonymously vent about what’s bothering you, get anonymous responses from strangers. An inherently depressing experience given the concept, but I would bet this has done the most Capital-G Good of any game this year.
- Touhou Cannonball: Help I’m stuck, it’s not even fun.
I’m looking at the games calendar for next year and the first release I’m interested in is a port of a Wii U game nobody bought.
Ah well. I’m sure something will come up. I only need to waste time until March 20, 2020, when video games will end.