Casey Malone is a professional comedian and game designer. You can follow him on Twitter.
2019! The big two-zero-one-niner! The year that never sleeps! The big apple! Ol’ faithful! Episode 2019: The Force Awakens!
2019 was a big year for me. I left my home of Boston and moved to sunny Los Angeles, California, where upon my arrival, the temperature dropped to a record low of 42 degrees and I couldn’t get internet set up for three weeks. I was cold, alone, and frankly a little bored. So, overwhelmed with my situation, I turned to a source of great comfort in my life. Something that’s brought me entertainment for as long as I can remember. That’s right, I’m talking about... da moviesh.
I’ve watched 155 movies in 2019 (and counting), and as you might expect, that cuts into the time I would have spent making the proverbial Marios when I was hanging out by myself. So, it’s natural, I think, that most of my favorite memories from this year weren’t of a game as a whole, but of specific times spent playing games with friends, people I love who are now about 3,000 miles away.
Before we get into it, let us indulge in the ritual of the Great Annual Disclaimer, a list of games I have heard nothing but praise for but haven’t actually played. Would these be on the list? I guess we’ll never know. I still want to play: Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Pokemon: Sword, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Outland, WHAT THE GOLF?, Neo Cab, and Overland.
With that out of the way, here are my 10 favorite games of 2019.
10. Baba Is You
As a Game Designer, my favorite part of the job is trying to solve a really tough design problem with my coworkers. Standing in front of a white board, sketching and erasing, realizing that the solution we had was not going to work because, oops, our engine isn’t built to do that. This new idea works perfectly, but wait, this totally breaks if the user quits in the middle of the tutorial.
Every single level of Baba Is You feels exactly like that. One of the best puzzle games in recent memory, each level is a non-stop sprint down blind alleys, wondering if a solution even exists at all, right before your brain spontaneously rearranges itself to show you the way out.
I could write a lot about how the visuals of this year’s Resident Evil 2 remake are simultaneously gorgeous and (intentionally) disgustingly repellent, about how updating the tank controls to a modern standard allowed me to experience a game that I felt too clumsy to play in 1998. But truly I love this game because about three weeks before I left Boston, a handful of friends and I shut ourselves away on a Sunday and played Resident Evil 2 until the sun set and we were all good and spooked.
I met these friends in my mid 20’s, doing exactly this kind of thing in their shitty two and a half bedroom apartment in Somerville, down the street from the world’s best karaoke dive bar. We didn’t get to have these kinds of afternoons as frequently in our mid 30’s, and I don’t know when I’ll get another one now that I live on the West Coast. But I’m grateful to Resident Evil 2 for the one I got.
I have no idea how long I’ll continue to like Death Stranding. I hear it’s roughly “a bajillion” hours of watching Norman Reedus grunt and stumble, and I’m about seven hours in. But right now? I love it.
Shortly after the game begins, you’re standing over the body of your dead mother, and a man in a skull mask says to you, “We need to rebuild this country. So take the first steps, Sam, and bring the president’s body to the incinerator.” Give me that Good! Bonkers! Kojima! Shit! But what I love about Death Stranding is that while the story is extreme Kojima, the gameplay feels… calmer. Thoughtful. Concerned with emotion in ways that the Metal Gear series wasn’t. There’s the not-at-all-veiled metaphor about “making connections,” and instead of murdering guards, I’ve spent most of my time soothing a crying baby.
My favorite part of Death Stranding is what I hate most in other games--just getting from place to place. I can’t play games like Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3 because so much of it is mindless traversal, going from one place to another by holding an analog stick down and following a path. As much as this sounds like some marketing nonsense, in Death Stranding I absolutely love that you make your own path. And that other players who have made that journey easier on you, and you do the same, until we’re all walking the same path. It’s a more ambitious and poetic theme than most games of Death Stranding’s scale even attempt. Will I still be as fond of it in 50 more hours? Who the hell knows.
7. True Dungeon: The Abyssal Swamp
2019 was the first year I went to GenCon, the world’s largest tabletop gaming convention, and while I played a lot of impressive board games, the highlight was something called True Dungeon. Essentially, True Dungeon is a series of full-on fantasy RPG escape rooms, complete with gear, volunteers LARPing as NPCs, a shuffle-board based combat system, spell casting and puzzle solving. True Dungeon is so large that it sits under the football field where the Indianapolis Colts play, taking up the entirety of Lucas Oil Stadium’s basement.
True Dungeon has several different stories being run during the weekend of GenCon, but my favorite was The Abyssal Swamp. After my friends and I barely solved a puzzle involving hitting rocks with hammers in time, a volunteer playing a swamp hag roasted us mercilessly before vanishing behind a curtain. That curtain then pulled back to reveal she’d “transformed” into a ten foot tall animatronic witch for us to battle. Like I said before, “battle” consists of playing shuffle board, and as a volunteer sleepily wheeled out a shuffleboard for us, I remember simultaneously thinking “this is so so dumb” and “hell yeah, let’s go kick this witch’s ass.” That 50/50 mixture of irony and sincerity is the heart of True Dungeon and I can’t wait to experience it again.
Okay I don’t want to be a jerk about this but a hotel is not a mansion, I don’t care how many museums (?), movie studios (??) and pirate ships (???) it has in it. But as long as Gooigi’s there, I’ll explore whatever you tell me to.
5. Just One
Just One is a cooperative casual party game of flop sweat and wincing faces, as you watch your friend absolutely struggle to guess a secret word. See, they don’t know what the word is, but the rest of the players do. And to help them guess, you all wrote down just one (enh?) word on your little white boards. But here’s the trick--before you can show that poor, poor guessing player, you compare clues, and every duplicate clue is erased. So if you’re trying to get them to guess “Frankenstein” and five of you wrote “monster” and one of you wrote “doctor”, then five of those clues are thrown out and the guesser is stuck with just that one clue from your most pedantic friend.
That moment where you reveal your clues and realize JUST how badly you all screwed up? If I could, I would keep it in a jar and spread it on toast, it's so creamy and delicious. Even better is when there are only a couple answers left but without the common denominator they are absolutely garbage. “Colonel” and “gas?" Is it… bomb? Military? No, the secret word was “mustard” but four fools all wrote “condiment,” so those got erased. Writing clues turns into this Princess Bride double bluff of “Well, the clue is Batman, so Brie’s going to write Robin. So I’ll write Joker. Unless she’s thinking that and writes Joker. So I should write Robin.” Which goes around and around in your heads until all six of you write “Bruce” and the game is over.
A lot of these games are about my experiences with other people, but Control was one of the few games I played this year that was totally solitary, and was better for it. Exploring the Department of Control by myself, I got to take my time and read every corporate memo, every snide e-mail between coworkers I could find. I scoured the offices for any mostly-redacted case file about Altered Items I could get my hands on. I savored those bits of lore and story, to the point where I was actively disappointed when the game tried to reward my exploration with mods or crafting materials.
I enjoyed the world of Control so much more than actually playing it that I’d occasionally wonder if it should have been a book or a television show instead. But every time that thought came up, Remedy would deploy something brilliant, a set piece or puzzle that felt like they were pushing not just the story, but interactive storytelling as a medium, forward. The timing was uncanny, as if they just knew, somehow. As if they were in my head. As if they were in all our heads.
Magic: The Gathering, it’s a video game now baybeee! Which, by Game of the Year List Law, means major expansions are eligible for this kind of thing. And Throne of Eldraine is my favorite expansion in years.
Throne of Eldraine is the first time, maybe ever, that Magic has truly embraced its classic fairy tale roots. Since the beginning there’s been dragons and unicorns, but we haven’t had a set before where a Lovestruck Beast could try to fight a Gingerbrute wearing a Crystal Slipper, only to find the cookie man was too damned fast for him.
Let me tell you about my favorite two card interaction in Magic Arena - Sorcerer’s Broom and Witch’s Oven.
Witch’s Oven is from Hansel & Gretel, and it’s pretty simple--you put a creature in, something called a “Food Token” comes out. Sorcerer’s Broom is an Artifact Creature referencing the classic Disney film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which Jay Baruschel learns magic from Nicolas Cage. Sorcerer’s Broom is a pain for an opponent get rid of. You can pay some resources and, ta-da, another broom appears. But what happens, friends, if you start putting brooms into the oven? That’s right: an endless supply of brooms and Casey Malone’s Famous Broom Pie.
Beating my opponents with my brooms while feasting on their delicious straw was one of my favorite moments from the dozens of hours I’ve spent drafting Throne of Eldraine. And building new decks with my friends on our private #Magic slack to find surprising interactions was a tremendous source of joy for me this year.
I also got to be on the Giant Beastcast for the first time this year, and if you go back and listen to it, you’ll hear me describe in detail the mechanics of Slay The Spire, a roguelike deckbuilding game that is, frankly, good as hell. You should listen to that, because I’m not going to talk much more about the game here. What I am going to talk about is my favorite video game related thing that happened this year, maybe ever.
This summer I spent a week relaxing at Sandy Island, a YMCA family camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, with my girlfriend and her family. I was a newcomer, but what I learned is that a lot of people who had been coming for 30 years were also considered newcomers. There were generations of families who’d come to Sandy Island for something like 80 years. My girlfriend had been going since she was six months old! It was an incredible experience in one of the most scenic parts of the country, reading, swimming, playing cards and line dancing. Okay, that last part was less incredible for me, but it made everyone else very happy.
One day, my girlfriend’s brother, Nick, sees their mother, Ruth, looking for something to do. This is the moment he’s been waiting for all week. He takes out his Switch, and in a voice that I can only describe as TOO casual, says, “Hey mom, why don’t you give this game a try?” and puts Slay the Spire in her hands. Ruth gives it a sort of half suspicious glance for maybe 10 seconds before starting the game. She then plays it, unmoving, for four hours.
Remember, though, that this is a YMCA family camp. There is no TV or internet on this island. And it’s full of children who have not seen a screen, let alone a Nintendo Switch, for at least a week, an eternity in kid time. As Ruth sat there playing Slay the Spire, one by one, they gathered around her as she accidentally Pied Piper’ed the children of the island. None of them had played a roguelike before, or a deckbuilder. But they were mesmerized and I watched as the two, then three, then eventually five of them sussed out the game together, this casual collaboration born out of a love for games.
You could argue that any game would have captured their imagination. But I think the magic of watching someone play a platformer or a kart racer would have worn off pretty quickly. But the complexity, replayability, and accessibility of Slay the Spire alchemized with the situation into this one magic moment I’ll remember forever.
(Photo Credit: Brieana Garner)
I know we’ve been singing this song for a long time now, but 2019 sucked ass! There’s no way around it, we’re on the brink of a dystopian hellscape where the world is on fire, and in America our elected officials are, on a whole, quite bad! Even the media landscape has gotten so divisive that I can’t talk to my best friends about Star Wars without one of us having an aneurysm.
So maybe this is very stupid, but I cannot tell you how much hope it gave me when we all came together, as a people, and decided to be a horrible, horrible goose. A li’l stinker in the tradition of Bart Simpson and Dennis the Menace, the (un)titular Goose of Untitled Goose Game has an effortless charm coupled with a deep sense of mischief that seemingly appealed to everyone. For weeks, we made goose goofs and goose gifs, together. I played Untitled Goose Game alone, then I played it again with friends. On a cabin trip we cheered each other on as we came together to harmlessly mess with some poor gardener’s stuff. I was sent videos of people I miss very dearly bursting into fits of laughter as they forced a nearsighted child to buy back his own toys. There was just so much collective joy in it. And in a year where I was feeling globally anxious and locally lonely, that was exactly what I needed. Thank you, horrible goose. Now stay the fuck away from me, you’ve got that look in your eye that tells me you’re looking to start some shit.
P.S. The game of the decade is Spelunky, I will be taking no further questions at this time, happy new year!