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Dante Douglas' Top 10 Games of 2019

Dante has A LOT to say about his favorite 2019 games.

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Dante Douglas is a writer & designer who does secret things at Riot Games. He is online as @videodante.

Hi. I’m Dante. You might know me from being a hardscrabble freelance games journalist and editor for a couple years there. Now I work at Riot Games doing secret things, but I’m still extremely loud on the internet. You might see more writing from me in the future, because who the hell knows where I’m gonna be in a few years.

Alex gave me carte blanche on word count, so expect this to be a long one. It’s a tremendous honor to be writing this for Giant Bomb, a site I love, so I’m going to take this spotlight as far as it can reasonably go.

My Honorable Mentions (games that I thought were good but didn’t quite make the cut to the full list): Yakuza Kiwami, Crossniq+, Smilebot, Neo Cab. All those games are great, play them too.

Without further ado, here is a ranked list of Dante Douglas’ Games Of The Year 2019.

10. Persona 5

This one gets the tenth slot because it didn’t come out this year. BUT! It is the game that consumed most of the first three months of this year for me, because as it turns out I love Persona 5? I did not expect this.

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I love these kids. I love their stupid hijinks, I love their ridiculous escapades, I love their sick magic adventures through cognitive hell. I played a full hundred and twenty hours of this game because I love these kids that much. I played two entire Persona games afterward--4 Golden (bad) and 3 Portable (good)--because I was chasing the high of Persona 5 for the rest of the year (neither of them compared, but 3 got close).

Here is the “but”: It should be required to state that the game’s Producer & Director, Katsura Hashino, has a really bad track record with queer relationships and queer characters in his games! I have complicated feelings about enjoying a game this much knowing that one of the principal figures behind its creation sounds like, to put it glibly, a total asshole, but you know, sometimes that’s just how AAA games be. I love this particular brand of table scraps and I am unfortunately quite okay with turning it into a feast, as they say.

I am probably going to put an additional hundred-and-twenty-odd hours into Royal, whenever that comes out. I know this. I have made peace with this. This is my specific trash pile. Let me live here.

9. Kingdom Hearts III

So after I binged all the modern Persona games, I thought to myself, hm, what other gargantuan series of games should I hopelessly lose myself to? Luckily, around this time, Waypoint had began their first season of their Lore Reasons podcast, covering the often convoluted Kingdom Hearts series, and the answer was obvious.

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I did a pretty ridiculous thing, which is that I bought the Kingdom Hearts Collection on PS4 as well as Kingdom Hearts III itself for 100 American Dollars and, while loosely following along with the podcast, played through a fair bit of Kingdom Hearts, all of Kingdom Hearts II, one route of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (Terra), a couple hours of Dream Drop Distance, watched the cutscenes of Re:Coded, the hour-ish-long film of Key Back Cover, then--by around June--got to the actual game of Kingdom Hearts III, fully primed to cry my eyes out whenever my personal faves got on screen.

Here is the thing about Kingdom Hearts III: It is exactly what you want, if what you want is another Kingdom Hearts game. If you want anything other than that, it’s probably not going to satisfy. Like all Kingdom Hearts games, it is overlong, dialogue timing is absurd, plot beats are introduced & dangled for hours only to be resolved in the game’s (stellar) final sequence (a mere 25-or-so hours in), and all the Disney worlds don’t matter except for time padding.

There is another world, possibly a better world, where Kingdom Hearts III did not include any Disney appearances. It probably would have been a much tighter game, but would it have been Kingdom Hearts? I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I love it. Ask me about my opinions on Axel (my opinions are that he is perfect).

8. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Finally, a good Star Wars game. I really shouldn’t have to say more than that, because that is in itself noteworthy, but I’m going to, because Alex gave me this space and I am more than happy to. Jedi: Fallen Order is as close as we’ll get to a movie-quality Star Wars adventure, with a good (albeit small) cast of characters and mechanics that actually feel satisfying. It’s at times frustrating, with some overly-obtuse puzzle design and some (in my experience, over-exaggerated) bugs that stall the game at times.

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But even so, it’s a breath of fresh air in so many ways. It’s a Star Wars game with actual characters that are written well, with conflicts that feel grandiose and Star Wars-y but not unrelatable. It’s a game that somehow manages to bend some of the absolute doofiest bits of the rightfully-maligned Star Wars prequels into something worth engaging with (an accomplishment in and of itself), while maintaining some original lore that is equal parts touching and suitably space wizard doofy in its own right.

Despite my initial annoyances, protagonist Cal Kestis grew on me. He’s still the most boring character out of the bunch, but he’s written smartly and his story is genuinely well-told, finally turning Order 66 into something with actual stakes rather than a cartoonishly villainous evil plan as it appeared in Revenge of the Sith. If you want more Star Wars, this is good. It’s some good Star Wars.

And good lord that final third is incredible. Magnifique. Hard to top. Exquisite Star Wars content.

7. Risk of Rain 2

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Risk of Rain 2 is the perfect reapplication of the first game’s core loop and mechanics into a new, third dimension. I gotta admit, I didn’t love the first Risk of Rain. I bounced off of it pretty quickly since I have pretty short patience for 2D action-platformers. However, Risk of Rain 2 is a 3D shooter, which I can play forever with minimal complaints.

It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s a fucking mess of upgrades & buyable items & rogue-lite-lite-lite mechanics. It’s wonderful. Read my piece on this game over at Waypoint if you want to hear me talk about it more.

6. The Collusion Slot: Gato Roboto

Let me tell you a story.

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When I was in college, I wanted to “be in” video games. I spent a lot of time between classes devouring podcasts, articles, keeping up with the “games blogosphere” as it existed in the mid 2010s. Around that time and shortly after graduation, I became involved in some local game dev scenes, because I was desperate to find other people in real life who spent as much time as me thinking about video games. I had a couple friends in college, and a couple friends outside of school who had those interests. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. Most of us landed somewhere in games, or animation, or art, or design these days, but back then my main point of contact with these kids were locally organized game jams.

At one of these jams, a Ludum Dare in 2015, these two scruffy dipshits from New Hampshire move to my small Oregon town. They started showing up to game jams, playtest nights, that sort of thing. We were around the same age, so naturally we gravitated toward each other as we kept seeing each other at events. One of those kids was this guy named Cullen (Also Dan. Shoutout to Dan).

Cullen is smart. He’ll feel awkward about me being this profusely praising in public, but it’s true. He is a high school dropout who became a math tutor, a coding savant, a bit of an asshole at times but one of the most caring & sensitive people I know. A game designer in true “gutter rat indie” fashion, as we would call it, over 24-packs of cheap beers at his couple-hundred-a-month apartment in the student housing neighborhoods. It smelled like cigarettes in there all the time because it was a place that, to my knowledge, didn’t mind too much about indoor smoking. We’d gone dumpster-diving for furniture when he moved in, so the place was full of haphazard decor. It didn’t matter. What mattered was video games. We called it the Sad Dad Rad Pad.

So we’d kick it at SDRP, get some shitty beers, he and his roommates would smoke cartons of cigarettes and we’d daydream about making enough money in games, knowing the right people, ‘til we could make something that was a true fusion of commercial viability and inspired game design. We both wanted to “be in” games. That was clear. He was one of very few people I knew at that time who shared that drive as strongly as I did.

I went in a slightly different direction than Cullen career-wise. I wasn’t nearly as good of a coder as him, so I started writing about games, while he kept making games. He started working with this other guy, Britt (who I had known for a couple years and had collaborated with making a small game in 2014) and they started making small projects, independently produced things and eventually joining up with a larger company. That didn’t go great, but that’s game dev. Shit happens like that sometimes.

We’d meet up at bars and talk until the early morning about the best ways to design games based around time loops, around exploration, around the right level of screen-shake, about the granular and the big picture. We’d talk shit about design and about criticism. The type of conversations that lead into ideas seeping into everything you create, everything you write, everything you do. We might have both drifted away from the local dev scene, but we stayed tight. When I needed to get out of the house, he was there. When he needed someone to vent to, I was there.

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Cullen & Britt keep making games. Eventually they break away from the shitty larger company they were part of and spin up another indie studio. They hire this fast-talking coder named Joseph. He grows on me. Everyone moves to better apartments, we meet this guy Riv who moves to our tiny town and also is making good as hell indie video games. Some breakups happen. We all get a bit older & a bit more jaded, but stay close. We all keep each other grounded.

Turns out one of their pitches was good enough to catch the eye of Devolver Digital, and within a year, this ridiculous concept that Cullen explained to me (half-drunk on Montucky Cold Snacks outside of our favorite coffeeshop-slash-bar) about a cat that has a mech suit, is getting greenlit for release. Also, that it’s now called Gato Roboto.

Gato Roboto becomes the first release for Doinksoft, published by Devolver in 2019. It’s a collaborative effort, equal parts Cullen’s affection for metroidvanias and mechanical design bullshit, as it is Britt’s deep love for bassy soundtracks, as it is Joseph’s polish & design influences. It’s a weird ride to release, but it releases, and people like it. People really like it. The people who I looked up to in college, who I sparred with in games blogs or listened to religiously on podcasts, they like this game. Even at this point in my life, when many of those people are my personal friends, it feels great.

It’s good to know that something that my friends worked on touched people. There’s even a small speedrunning community. People who I don’t know will mention Gato Roboto. It makes me feel immensely proud of them. It’s a labor of love. It’s my reminder of what my friends can do, and it’s a constant reminder of where I came from, where we came from, and what we’re capable of.

It’s my friends, in video games. We got there. We got “in” video games.

It’s also a good video game. Tight, 3-5 hour long metroidvania. Some fun hidden areas. Controls 10/10, Sound 10/10, Controls 9/10, Replayability 8/10, “X-Factor” 10/10. Great for fans of the genre.

5. Mutazione

Sometimes there are small games that mean a lot because they are trying to model something very small and intimate. These are my favorite games. Mutazione is one of those games. It’s about homecoming, and it’s about never really being able to come home. It’s a game about gardening and singing to your plants (two activities I highly recommend). It’s about dealing with family even when they’re getting on your nerves.

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Mutazione is a game about a small community of mutants who have been mostly left alone since the meteor impact that changed the world and mutated all the flora & fauna of their small island, built on the remains of an ancient city. You are coming there to help your grandfather, who is very old and dying. He’s also kind of an asshole, but he means well. He might be magical. You might also be magical.

It’s not a long game. It’s just full, jam-packed with small moments that impressed me. It feels like a game that knows very deeply the harms that it is portraying, and is genuinely invested in helping heal them. It’s a wonderful, calming, beautiful sort of game.

4. The Outer Worlds

Sometimes I want to be pandered to. Outer Worlds panders to me.

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Outer Worlds is an Obsidian game (you know, the New Vegas folks, or the Tyranny folks, but I know none of you played Tyranny (you should play Tyranny!)) that feels like a game from seven years ago, but in a good way. It’s more contained than the Fallout games it takes clear inspiration from, and it takes the right pages out of BioWare’s book when it comes to companions. You pick up a lot of junk and sell it to vendors. You go on sidequests and then come back to the quest-giver and shoot them in the face, because you can! Because video games rule.

It’s smart, it’s funny, it has a furious rage against corporations and a refreshingly critical stance on space colonialism. Also I love all the characters. My only wish is that it was longer, because I want to stay in that world forever.

3. Outer Wilds

It’s the other “Outer” game! Someone really oughta get fired for that blunder. Probably someone from Obsidian and not Mobius Digital, because Obsidian probably has more money and could have made that change with considerably less sacrifice than would be necessary from Mobius. But I digress!

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Outer Wilds is a singular achievement in video game storytelling and exploration that I don’t think will ever be topped, because I’m not sure what you could even do in this mechanical game space that would be better than Outer Wilds.

It is a meditation on grief, on loss, on apocalypse. It is a detective story about a lost civilization. It is a fishbowl galaxy coping with its own history. It is deeply, deeply human and unfathomably alien. It is dense as hell. It is extremely frustrating in its middle chapters. It has one of the best musical scores in games in years. The ending will make you cry.

The worst part about Outer Wilds is how hard it is to explain how that game makes you feel. It’s not just the mechanical frustrations sloughing away at its climax, it is the weight of a solar system dropping away. Outer Wilds is a game about so many things but at its core it is about care, and love, and the unselfish, divine love of an entire universe, all at once, in its wonder and its terror.

2. Disco Elysium

There are games that profess to be ‘apolitical’, and then there are those awful Steam games that claim to be ‘about politics’ and are called like Race To The Presidency! and have awful cartoon art of politicians, and then there are games that are suffused with politics. Games that have politics in their blood, in their every moment. Disco Elysium is one of those.

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It’s not set on “Earth" in the way that we understand Earth and history. Instead, it is set in a parallel universe that is so close as to almost be touching our world, a universe where the experiment of communism sprouted and was crushed by the combined capitalist forces of the world, but not exactly in the ways that that happened here.

The city of Revachol is a city of ghosts. Haunted by history, haunted by the living remnants of history, unsure of the future. Disco Elysium is a bleak game, in many ways. It is unafraid to berate you, the player, for playing it like a video game, where you expect to do the quest and turn it in and choose the good answer and get the good side points. There are no good side points. There is, often, no 'good.' There is only the dogged optimism of survival, the practiced methods of the poor and downtrodden. Or, there is nothing. That is Revachol.

The funniest thing about Disco Elysium is that it’s basically just a CRPG in the classic sense. It doesn’t feel like it, though. It is expertly written in a way that makes me feel anger at how good it is. People do things in this game that suck, and they suck in a realistic way. Revachol is a city full of people who are afraid, and who are frustrated, and there actually isn’t a good way to fix anything. At the end of the day, you are a cop. You have the toolset of a cop. You are not a savior. You cannot be a savior, by design.

Because the thing that Disco Elysium understands, on a level most games fail to even approach, is that politics is not just ideologies. Politics is going to the store and choosing which bread to buy. It’s arguing with your racist neighbors when they’re racist. It’s deciding if you want to stand with the union even if the union bosses are kind of slimy, because you know that the value of organized labor is more important. It’s playing petanque, or setting up a rave. Politics is everything and everywhere, inescapable by design. All you can do is try and affect it, or lose yourself to it.

1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

It is hardly without its faults. It’s way too long. The tripartite branching story stuff could have used a “skip” button at the beginning to just get the new stuff on a second playthrough. Despite being the largest Fire Emblem game to date, it feels like the visuals were made on a tremendously small budget. Some mechanical complexity was removed in order to make a more approachable battle system. All those things suck, in my opinion, and I want to get that out of the way.

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Because here is why it fucking rules. And let me tell you, I put on the Three Houses battle theme (Fódlan Winds) right before writing this, and even just hearing the opening notes to that song gets me fucking going.

This is one of the best games ever made.

It’s the best Fire Emblem game easily. It’s a Fire Emblem game that actually makes you care about the world and the plot, which is surprisingly rare in the series, in my experience. Fódlan is a genuinely fascinating medieval fantasy world, with complex politics and four (!!) endings that take the game’s future into wildly different territories.

Each character, each student at Garreg Mach Monastery, has a history and a worldview and worthwhile interactions. None of them are duds, which on a pure numerical level is impressive, given how many of them there are. Three Houses steals from the best parts of Persona for its social interactions, and the game is elevated for it. Remember how I said this was my year of discovering Persona? I didn’t expect Fire Emblem to also be a Persona but it totally is and I love it.

Even beyond how much I loved the game (and I did, god I did) one of the things that got me through this year was seeing the fan creations around Three Houses. Because of the structure of the game, just winking and nodding at the backgrounds of characters gives fan artists the license to go absolutely buck wild on imagining what things were like. Three Houses is hardly the only game that’s done this, but somehow it just really caught on. Like that great thread on twitter about each character being on twitter. You could feel like you knew these kids.

Which is what makes the game’s timeskip (and subsequent plot turns) so masterfully done. You spend about the first half of the game learning each character, their likes and dislikes, the ways that they speak with one another, who their friends are, who their enemies are--and in the game’s second half everyone changes. Everyone grows up, some are forced to kill each other. When war happens, it is real. A shock to the system delivered in perfect cadence. I’ve called Three Houses an angst generator often.

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What makes Three Houses work is the characters. These feel like real, flawed, traumatized people, even in their slightly over-the-top Anime Fantasy High School setting. They have wants and desires, dreams and regrets. Three Houses is about living through hell and still living, about making connections with others and falling in love and trying not to lose your humanity as you are forced into battle with someone who you used to drink tea with. It’s surprisingly, impressively deft at handling all of this, and that’s why it’s so good.

I can’t imagine a game that can take my #1 spot that isn’t Three Houses. This is the year of the Angst Generator. This is the year of choosing to live, choosing to keep fighting, choosing to still be in the shit, despite it all. This is the year of Three Houses.