Aaron Stewart-Ahn is a filmmaker and writer. He most recently co-wrote the movie MANDY and published his first comics story, WORK NIGHTS, which ran in issue #1 of Image's THE NEW WORLD. He previously worked in games and animation. He is currently finishing a documentary about police brutality in NYC.
For the past year and a half my life has been mostly occupied with working on the movie MANDY and its release. As a result, most of my gaming has been done on portable systems. Panos, the movie's director and who I wrote the script with, gifted me a Switch sometime after we finished shooting and it's been a constant companion and enormously important part of my life I've been grateful for every day. Even at home, there's really a unique and inherent quality about how a game plays by having it small and in your hands, especially in that quiet moment before sleep. These choices reflect that, and are also what I got a chance to play this year, not just what was released in 2018, and also reflect a little bit how the notion of games has everted socially, culturally, and into all arts and physical reality.
A VR collaboration between iNK Stories and Starbreeze. Fascinating for its anthropological, fractal detail in simulating life on any regular day in a city in Syria, and then pushing into the horrors of war in a way (and I say this as someone who has worked on documentaries about social justice issues) that no other medium can. Reactions to this wildly varied amongst my friends but all were staggered by how emotional it is.
An imperfect game that falters the more you play it, but there are moments where you're driving on a sleepy country road after snow has fallen and dusk is just seeping into the air as a gradient of neons and pastels and your headlights bloom on and suddenly you're embedded in a perfect vivid memory of that very exact situation. Tellingly, the game is way more fun sticking to slower, pokier cars, turning off all the clutter and noise, and stripping the game down to its most basic: the most vivid and fun driving game in years.
8. Dead Cells
Addictive, compulsive, like learning to play a musical instrument. At its best it requires a hyper attenuated focus that leads to a pure state of flow, and the 2D perspective contributes to it; this is a bass guitar to Dark Souls' piano recital.
A concert in the enormously vast Armory space in Manhattan, nearly indescribable. A moving, epic, colossal, absurd reprise of the birth of the Internet, Rez, and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. Watching and listening to things can be a creative act, just like playing a game.
So dialed, so precise, so perfectly balanced and tuned it overwhelms me with how much pure design labor and thoughtful intent went into this. And each small victory was so rewarding.
5. Dragon Quest XI and VIII
Comfort food. Shepherd's Pie. Mac and Cheese. Bulgogi and Kimchi. So retrogressive to the point of absurdity (Dragon Quest VIII on the 3DS may even have more quality of life improvements over XI on the PS4) but that's exactly why it's so charming. I keep wondering why they're so pleasant to play, and I'm stupid because the answer is right there. They're pleasant. Perfect bedtime stories. Falling asleep regularly with Dragon Quest VIII in my hands on the 3DS wasn't an annoyance as much as a dream come true.
Strava is an app that tracks cyclists (and runners) via GPS. It has game-ified the sport in every way imaginable, with real competition over physical space leading to all sorts of real world ramifications, including negative ones. But in the same way that Forza Horizon 4 is at its best on backroads in poky little cars, so is Strava. And the resulting flyby videos never cease to amaze me, the best replay imaginable.
I played this game more than any other in 2018. I'm not adding any friends to my Switch so they can't see how many hours that ended up being. There's a certain limitless, baroque beauty in these epic created worlds that are increasingly harder to find in movies. There's so much imaginative invention, both stupid and profound, in every single pixel of this game. It made me dream of a time when sci-fi paperback novels' cover art could send you off into daydreams of your own for weeks. Tetsuya Takahashi is underrated, and the breezier, lighter, less Evangelion driven hilarity of this finally emerged as his most complete tokusatsu experience.
2. Yakuza 0
This is the real open world urban masterpiece. The '80s continue to be the richest period for open world games because their excess and aesthetics and violence are so entwined with the excesses of capitalism, and absurdity, so the jarring lunatic hilarity isn't dissonant to narrative or tone. And you know it all comes crashing down eventually. Most of all it's surprisingly humane; for all its chauvinism and issues it's a rare game that humanizes sex workers, small business owners, the working class, and hates corrupt assholes in power.
This year I started a friendship with someone who was extremely into this game. Over time, as we got to know each other, and we began to reveal our accumulated lifetime of backstories to each other, I discovered that she had lived through a tragic event that is the central crucible and traumatic memory for its main character, in her own life to quite exact measure. This game became a sort of secret mixtape (someone passes to you without any explanation) for me to experience some of that, and as such, was one of the most emotional experiences I had playing a game in several years and made me feel like I could understand another person just a little bit more.
Hopefully there will be more games in which I get to experience lives that aren't my own, beyond all the narrow conscriptions of my own identity, created and written by people who have lived those experiences. Games can be one of the most beautiful arts for empathy and shared experience, and that's a frontier, there are decades to come of where it can go with that.