I used to be so good at these. Every game of the year season I made sure to be armed to the teeth with knowledge on all the most important games of the year. The biggest blockbusters, the latest harvest of farm-to-table indie darlings. Even a few annualized sporty numbers. But those days are long gone my friends.
I’ve played pretty much every contender this year but these days if a game doesn’t grab me I bounce off faster than a pig on a trampoline. I don’t think it’s a lack of patience, I reckon I just don’t have the time to waste these days. Not just running Noclip and teaching my daughter how to tear her books apart, but massive chunks of my TV time is spent playing games for our documentaries. This year I enjoyed dozens of hours of titles we covered in on Noclip. Games like Astroneer, The Walking Dead, Hitman 2, Celeste & FTL. But nobody wants to read a list of games from last year and beyond, so I’ll use restraint.
Instead of boring you with a list of games that I half completed, I’m just going to talk about the ones that stood out. The best of the best, a few surprises, and some regrets.
Game of the Year: Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a modern classic. Comparisons have been made to Breath of the Wild, but they are undeserved. While Zelda dabbled in player-driven wonder, Outer Wilds is a game entirely fueled by it. It’s an absolutely insane pitch; a game where knowledge is the only reward. But Outer Wilds sticks to it to the bitter end. It creates a sort of wonder that I haven’t experienced since playing games as a kid. Revelations are everywhere. Sometimes you encounter them by design, other times it’s pure fluke. But each cycle of the game’s orbit has the potential to give you an “oh shit” moment.
I played Outer Wilds knowing basically nothing about it, so I’m not going to delve any deeper than that. But it feels an appropriate winner of Game of the Year considering where much of AAA design has led us this decade. While the big publishers have attempted to stretch the market viability of live-game skinner boxes, Outer Wilds’ dedication to not rewarding the player with anything other than the experience feels like an appropriate snap of the band.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle teaches us that in a singular moment we can’t tell both the direction and momentum of a thing. For the sake of design, I hope more games will follow in the direction of Outer Wilds. And for the sake of us players, I hope they do it as quickly as scientifically possible.
More Surprising Game: Rage 2
Much like Kickstarting Shenmue III, I bought Rage 2 out of some twisted curiosity, and unlike so many cats I was duly rewarded. Rage 2 does the whole “map full of shit” thing that every open world game in this post-Ubisoft-formula world does. But while so many of these games attempt to keep you hooked with a breadcrumb trail of abilities and unlocks--Rage 2’s moment to moment action is the only excuse you need to keep playing. It’s just a good shooter. It has guns that fire bullets real good, and enemies that die real good. And i just wanted to keep shooting stuff. The story never got in the way, everything on the map was well labelled so it was easy to ignore the boring bits. And did I mention the shooting was great?
Best Mobile Game: Grindstone
I’m sure I’m not the only one who fell in love with quality advertising-free mobile games again this year, and it’s almost entirely down to the launch of Apple Arcade. I’ve enjoyed a bunch of the games that have popped up on that service but nothing has taken more of my time than Grindstone. Capy’s color matching quest mirrors the familiar strategy of a game of Puzzle Quest while staying fresh thanks in large part to the animations and art style. It’s a match game worthy of any insomniac, commuter or bathroom gamer.
Best Early Access Game: Hades
We are currently running a series on the development of Hades, and so I’ve been playing a lot of that game all year. In fact for the first time ever I have access to daily builds of the game so that I can capture gameplay for certain elements as they evolve during production. So it’s been a real treat to see how that game has evolved over the past twelve months. The game has been blessed with new biomes, god boons, characters, and weapons alongside entirely new modes of play. In fact one of the joys of the early access of Hades was how it kept challenging me to re-learn the game as the team at Supergiant kept turning the dials. I genuinely believe it is their greatest game to date, and while many people have missed out on its early access evolution, perhaps the launch on Steam this month might attract some more of you to the depths of hell.
Game I wish I’d played more: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Bloodborne was my favorite game last year as I spent much of the first few months of my daughter’s life playing for hours on end while she slept on my chest. Perhaps it’s fitting that she’s largely to blame for my inability to properly chew into Sekiro. There are certain games that require my full attention and while I enjoyed the opening few hours of the game, I couldn’t settle in and give it the focus it requires. I look forward to playing more of it over the Christmas break if I don’t get distracted by all the booze and food.
Best Classic Game I Finally Played of the Year: Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
For whatever reason Bloodlines totally passed me by in 2004. Perhaps it was the marketing, maybe money was tight, or perhaps it was because it came out the same day as Half-Life 2? But I never took the opportunity to take a swing at this cult-favorite vampire-em-up. With the announcement of Bloodlines 2 we had the opportunity to interview Brian Mitsoda, and so I spent a few days before GDC playing the original. Turns out it totally holds up. It’s just a charming little game. The writing is solid, the world you inhabit feels rich and multifaceted, and the Source engine controls feel as good today as they did back then. A pleasant reminder that there’s a lot to be said for digging in the cartridges.