Imran Khan is a video game journalist that has been writing about the medium for seventeen years. He used to be a senior editor at Game Informer and is currently a professional loudmouth at Kinda Funny Games. He's @imranzomg on Twitter.
Video games generally release throughout the year at a certain tempo that, if you have been playing them long enough, you’re more or less used to. You have your occasional Capcom Q1 blockbuster, some steady Spring titles, see who wants to take over summer, and just enjoy a stream of releases through Fall in fits and starts. This year kind of messed with that formula, as two-thirds of the industry began to wind down their gears in preparation for a new generation, while Nintendo seemed content to make a Wii U launch title their centerpiece game for the first half of the year. But, for me, this was all pretty containable even if it was a small diversion. The experiment had not escaped the lab.
Then I got laid off.
And, y’all, that dampens video games as a whole just a smidge. It’s real hard to get invested into the realpolitik of Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ warring factions when the real world comes pounding at your door with unexpected force. Playing Control and hearing Jesse’s footsteps in an empty hallway as backbeat to the whispers of the Hiss, the game’s ubiquitous and largely non-corporeal antagonistic force, felt like my anxieties made manifest. It is a strange thing, actually, watching what was once a medium fine-tuned for my enjoyment become as inimical and ethereal as the villains I once shot magic guns at with reckless abandon. Depression’s a hell of a thing.
I’d love to say there was a game that lifted me out of these doldrums, a silver bullet of a title that perked me up when countless of waves of exhausted endorphins had otherwise failed. Rather, life got better, and I felt better, and video games as a whole played their part in it. I started to remember, despite a brief inability to do so, why I enjoy them as much as I have for the last however many lifetimes I have been playing them. More importantly, I realized that I don’t actually have to do any of that. It’s totally alright to just not feel it, and no one owes the world personal admissions of joy if that is not what they are currently receiving in kind.
I guess what I’m saying is, video games are still good, but that doesn’t mean you have a mandate to think so.
Best Game that is probably better now that it has updates but didn’t make the list: Super Mario Maker 2
Best Game that made me real mad at level 99 and I quit but have kept paying for Apple Arcade for months in case I want to finish someday: Grindstone
10. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds stands in complete contrast to everything I just wrote above, because this game is an acupuncture-style penetration of all my deepest apprehensions. More than once, I fumbled my way to every spacefarer’s nightmare, disappearing into the inky blackness as I drifted further and further from my ship until I could no longer breathe. Whichever designer decided that you would expend your oxygen supply to fire your jetpack after running out of whatever tar fuels it otherwise is a unique kind of cruel.
But those moments of abject, impossible fear serve as bookends Outer Wilds’ sense of discovery. I became obsessed with pursuing the haunting sound of a lost harmonica past our atmosphere and into another planet’s foggy depths. I sat on the north pole of the moon and watched the galaxy rotate around the sun and marveled at how the virtual equivalent of a planetary mobile could make me feel infinitesimally small. It is a game that feels like a recitation of grand moments by Roy Batty rendered out to be experienced yourself. There is, deep within the beating heart of Outer Wilds, a game that cut its teeth on Zeldas and other likeminded adventures, but it’s the abyss that surrounds said heart that makes those moments shine.
Sega’s latest Yakuza spinoff kind of says the quiet part loud about the main series. Yagami, a hip private detective in Kamurocho, is impossibly slavish to the truth above all else. It lays bare that part about Yakuza that we all just nodded and agreed to accept, that Kazuma Kiryu is himself a beacon of moral good and idealism, and wraps it around a motivation. In that sense, Judgment asks you to take less of a leap than its mob-based sister series, but still keeps all the trappings of the Yakuza series intact. The spinoff establishes Kamurocho as the main character of the series and feels akin to buying new action figures to act out fresh stories in your existing playset. It was not quite the shot in the arm the franchise needed to feel revolutionary, even if it is somewhat disconnected from the main series, but it is a solid entry in my favorite Japanese crime serial drama.
In a subway train once, as I reeled from the fact that my bluetooth headphones ran out of battery and I was not smart enough to bring a pair of normal-ass headphones, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation next to me. One man was explaining to another that he did not like Star Wars anymore and took to declaring the entire franchise “a criminal enterprise.” My pained expressions likely matched the intended recipient of this declaration, but that wording has stuck with me, and kind of repeated through my head while playing Jedi: Fallen Order. In contrast to the subway-goer’s impassioned pleas for the property to work better for him, I suspect I might just be exceptionally easy when it comes to Star Wars. Fallen Order, despite myriad issues, lets me play Star Wars in a way that feels like it is on my terms. With six more months in the oven, this game probably could have jumped six more places on my list, but sometimes being a Star Wars fan is making peace that what you got isn’t everything you wanted. It is a criminal enterprise because I kind of let it get away with a lot and come out the other side still smiling.
In my head, I hear the voice of the protagonist of Disco Elysium as performed by Lorenzo Music. I am not sure I have any basis for this and to some extent I genuinely wonder if I would like the game as much if the idea of hating Mondays and liking lasagna were not so similar to hating hangovers but loving booze. Luckily, there is a lot more about Disco Elysium to like, even love, and then somehow end up resenting the game for being so good that it makes similar games look worse. I might actually have Disco Elysium to blame for punting The Outer Worlds out of this list.
After successfully convincing my captain at the precinct that I did not in any way lose my gun, I was confronted by a character that possessed both knowledge of my lost gun and a desire to slyly blackmail me over it. If I hadn’t successfully lied to the higher-ups about it, took my lumps, and been snickered at over my drunken antics, then I’d probably be in a better position overall without endangering the case. This is the way Disco Elysium plays out, where every choice I make has consequences, and what I choose to say or even listen to reflects who I want to be. I put video game writing on blast with regularity, but Disco Elysium is one of those games that makes me think we might be on the right track.
I first bought Dragon Quest XI on PS4 in 2018, but never launched it, and instead bought Dragon Quest XI S on Switch a year later. This process proves I am bad with money, but it is also a testament to how good Dragon Quest XI in any form is.
As a curmudgeon that sits with my arms folded and continually repeats that no Dragon Quest game will ever be as good as the fifth one, I found myself in love with DQXI. The game feels like a wholesome friend that I abandoned to hang out with cooler kids but find myself appreciating more as time goes on. I think I got from Dragon Quest XI what I hoped for from Final Fantasy XV, which includes things like: a second half of a game and characters I liked. But more than that, it felt like a journey in the same way that games used to feel like journeys, where every part of the world is equal parts eccentric and livable, and there’s no shortage of personalities within it. Dragon Quest XI is a child’s fantasy novel come to life and it is a refreshing respite from an industry that’s driving to be anything but.
I know, I know. Somehow within the confines of 2019, I found myself party to a surprisingly public argument with Gearbox’s head honcho, and also within the same year ended up really enjoying the game that argument was about. After trudging through the main story--which culminates in a cringeworthy cover of "Girl On Fire"--I kept playing Borderlands 3 with friends. It’s at that point, with no guided story to stop us or bad jokes to interrupt us, that Borderlands 3 gleams through its own darkness. It’s a little hard to separate the game’s qualities from its existence as a platform with which I get to play with my friends, but I would argue that the way it facilitates that end is actually quite important. The level and loot instancing features do let those other things that Borderlands is good at work better, even if the script is a garbage fire for which no person should ever claim credit. The script should be placed into a rocket and shot into the sun and then everyone who made the rocket should entomb themselves like The Cask of Amontillado so no one can absorb their dark knowledge through accidental osmosis.
It’s the end of the decade, and this isn’t an end-of-the-decade list, but the timing is still forcing me to think a lot about Dark Souls. When I first played Dark Souls, I hated it, I did not understand it at all, and decided it just was not for me. Years later, when I went back to the game, something clicked, and it became a lifelong favorite of mine. More than stirring an affection for FromSoftware, Dark Souls taught me to keep pushing these boulders uphill for as long as I can manage, and I think Sekiro ended up testing this lessons harder than any other title from the studio. I just plain and simple did not get it for the first half of the game. My victories felt like flukes which, in the atmosphere of the samurai era Sekiro was portraying, itself felt weirdly shameful. I did not understand how to get good at the game and I was interpreting that as a failure on my part. For better or worse, Sekiro eventually just doesn’t let you coast anymore, and slams the shutter down on your head so hard that you have no choice but to aggressively push back. Sekiro’s mechanics feel like a war from the top-down and the constant push-and-pull defines its battles, its pacing, and even my overall feelings on the game. It is in many ways a completion of the lessons Dark Souls started teaching me ten years ago and also still something individual and unique.
Despite being a fan of the original Life is Strange, I took one look at Life is Strange 2’s release schedule and more or less wrote it off from my mind. It was too soon after Before the Storm, too long between episodes, and there was no new hook as far as I could tell. When the final episode came out, I convinced myself to test drive the first two episodes for placement on this list, and ended up blowing through all five and the prequel episode inside of a weekend. In an age where developers are eager to say their games aren’t political, Dontnod positions Life is Strange 2 as essentially a middle finger to the very idea of creating apolitical art. It uses a country at war with itself as a canvas to tell a well-crafted story about trauma and trying to shield younger generations from inheriting that trauma without understanding it.
I got a chance to sit down with Dontnod recently and tell them that their game meant something to me, which is exceedingly rare after 30 years of playing games. Life is Strange 2 isn’t the most revolutionary thing to come to video games, or the best story of any medium, but it’s real, touching, and genuinely saddening in a number of good ways. We could do with asking our games to be more than they currently are, and I think the leap from the first game to the second shows that it’s always possible regardless of our preconceived notions and early thoughts.
From a very dissociated perspective, it’s a little bit fascinating to watch a series you at one point loved slowly start to slip away from you. This was the case with me and Fire Emblem, as the direction Nintendo had been taking the game in recent years felt like they were heading down a path I was dreading. It was fine, I reasoned. It may not be for me, but at least it’s alive. Fire Emblem was lost to me like Law & Order spinoffs that I didn’t care for when the original show was cancelled.
This turned around completely with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a far-from-flawless title that nonetheless is one of the most endearing games I have played in years. I fell in love with the characters, I hummed the recurrent main theme throughout my day, I became enamored with sharing my experience and my party and my storyline and my class decisions with other players. Fire Emblem: Three Houses ended up releasing at a fairly bad time in my life, but I also think it contributed to helping me out of those bad times. I feel like I grew up with the characters and, more importantly, I feel like I grew close with these characters. I went from writing the series off to needing more, which is the best kind of redemption story.
I first played Control earlier in the summer at a pre-E3 event. The combination of an early flight that day and an exhausting gauntlet of prior appointments left me nodding off in my seat with the controller in my hands, but the game itself did not help. The demo was somewhat confusing and difficult and I came away from it feeling relatively sure Control was not a game I would like. Its release date, days after I lost my job, cemented that feeling. After cajoling from a former colleague who insisted that playing the game would make me feel better, I decided to pick it up. I decided to exercise the lessons Dark Souls instilled in me, to put it another way.
I think there is a tendency when reading Game of the Year lists to view them as countdowns of games without flaws. Consciously or subconsciously, we look at the lists as a descending order of better and better games, with the number one spot going to the game that had fewer flaws than the nine preceding it. I have personally never felt that way, but Control proves that feeling truer more than any other game I have put in this spot. Control is flawed, y’all. It has so many problems. But it also feels like it has this immense, uncommon spirit reaching out from the rubble beneath it to become more than the sum of its parts.
Control grabbed me in a way I did not expect. In an age (and at an age) where I could not be bothered to pick up and read every collectible in a video game, Control made them a driving force. I could play an entire game that is just sorting through the Bureau’s Dead Letter archive and reading all the messages complaining of haunted toasters and ill-tempered candy canes. I didn’t want to live in Control’s world, but I wanted to consume more and more media of it.
Control’s gameplay, at its best, felt like a ballet of bullets and debris. It is the experience of standing in the middle of a highway while cars whizz past you and a slight turn to your left or right could be fatal. This doesn’t always work. It doesn’t always feel right. But the highs of when it does are incomparable to anything else this year. No recent shooter has managed to make the simple concept of “keep moving and never stop attacking” feel quite so good and it makes Control almost feel like a character action game at times. After I finished it, there wasn’t a question of whether it would be my Game of the Year or not, only whether anything next year will make me feel the same way.