Hello. How are you? Sitting comfortably? My name’s Mike Bithell, and I make games. Games like Thomas Was Alone, Volume, and this year’s Subsurface Circular. I was asked to write a list, and this is that list. It’s a good list. I’m happy with it. Sort of. This year has been a busy one, so if a game you love isn’t present, then you can probably go ahead and assume it’s because I didn’t find time to play it. This has been a phenomenal year for games (and not a lot else), so I suspect I’ll be going back and playing a bunch of 2017 vintage stuff over the next year.
All those caveats done, let’s go for it. Star wipe to:
10. Yo! Let’s UP (Android)
This is not my first rodeo. I know that GOTY lists need to begin with something obscure that you might not have heard of so as to establish my pretentious credentials and show you you’re in safe hands. This is mine. I have no idea why I downloaded this game, I probably saw it flicker across social media at some point, but it’s very possibly the game I’ve spent the most hours on this year.
You play as a little rectangle (yes, I know) who can do nothing but jump as other rectangles fly in from the sides. You build a stack and balance on it. The physics can be a little janky, but that adds to the charm of a very silly game with great simple visuals and some great game feel work. It’s kept me occupied on many a train journey. I have unlocked absolutely everything.
The second game in a GOTY list must be an obvious contender for the year’s best, but rated low enough to imply lofty and interesting arguments ahead, and this is mine.
My first experience with Prey wasn’t great. I got a press demo at DICE, because we were there and Pete Hines is a lovely man. I played for half an hour, and really couldn’t get into it.
But Prey is great, it just needed the time it deserved. Immersive sims were the backbone to my teenage games diet, and this one came close to matching those rose-tinted memories. It’s a game to be savoured, taken time over.
And that’s why it’s this low on my personal list. Gaming had to fit in short gaps for me this year, and I didn’t have the time Prey needed. This was a game that genuinely dove into the complexity of the genre, rather than just wrapping the trappings around an FPS. I hope to return to it.
8. Statik (PSVR)
I feel like this one missed out on some of the love it deserved. It’s a beautiful idea for a game, executed really well.
An exclusive for PSVR, it is designed completely for the hardware, its limitations and its strengths. You play a character in a test chamber (which, I suspect, deliberately evokes Portal) with your hands trapped in a box… you then fiddle with the DualShock, which results in contraptions on the box activating based on input. It’s blindfolded fidget cube: the game. It’s the best VR game I played this year. Such a brilliant use of the platform.
It’s consistently odd to me that more developers haven’t leaned into the fact that VR is basically a blindfold.
7. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PS4)
This one was a pleasure to play, and even better as a pointer to a possible future. Ninja Theory went and made a AAA game without a publisher, and the audience liked it. They liked it in spite of a shorter play time, no multiplayer, no season passes or other gubbins.
In short, Ninja Theory just demonstrated that there’s a market for lower budget AAA games, which will hopefully mean more of them, and perhaps nudge publishers away from their exponential feature demands of developers.
All that said, Hellblade wouldn’t be on the list if I hadn’t enjoyed it on its own terms. It’s a great, if straightforward game, and the first in a long time that’s made me sit up and notice audio design as a stand out feature. As a dev, I also loved their cost-cutting use of stealth FMV during cutscenes, very clever.
6. Wolfenstein: The New Order (PS4)
Yeah, the first one. I missed this when it came out, and only got to it in anticipation of the sequel. Number 2 was great, the storytelling in particular, but it didn’t quite hit the same bar for me.
The world of New Order feels authentic in a way so few alternate history games do. It felt pulpy, silly and riveting. It somehow managed to pull off scenes on moon bases next to labor camps without (too much) tonal whiplash. I really enjoyed alternating between stealth and action, and how balanced that was. The level design was refreshingly full of dead ends and secrets. It might lack the skull-thudding perfection of Doom 2016’s combat design, but it makes up for it with the nuance of its encounters. Just a thoroughly brilliant game, and one I suspect I’ll play again every couple of years.
5. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (Mac)
Another game that technically didn’t come out this year.
I was moaning on Twitter about how frustrating it was that the Commandos franchise hadn’t survived into the present day, that the genre they birthed hadn’t lasted more than a couple of games, and was hit by an avalanche of recommendations for this game.
Wolfenstein and Prey may play into my nostalgia, but this game commits fully to being a time machine. Someone made this a decade ago and put the master disks on a shelf somewhere to collect dust. There are of course a number of nods to modern design here, but on the whole, this is authentic to the point of almost-cloning. Which is exactly what I wanted.
4. Thimbleweed Park (Mac)
Wow. This is a nostalgic list. Clearly my early thirties are making me long for childhood adventures.
Thimbleweed Park came out perfectly. Ron Gilbert and his team created something so utterly meaty here, and it was a delight to play. It’s brilliantly funny, has enormous depth, and a surprising amount of heart.
It’s also a direct inspiration for Subsurface Circular. I was already in preproduction on the game when I started playing Thimbleweed Park, but the design shapes of that game massively inspired a number of puzzles and structural choices in my game, so this one will always hold a special place for me.
3. Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4)
I remember being in the room for the announcement of this one at E3, and feeling everyone’s minds boggle at the idea of robot dinosaur combat. It’s great, tight mechanically, and the way Guerrilla use the scale of monsters to milk game opportunities from the old ‘sensitive spots’ trope using elemental stuff is just lovely.
But I was surprised by how much the story of this one touched me. The themes of maternity and nurture, of responsibility, felt simultaneously fresh and reassuringly comforting. Sure, there was a big bad to stop, but Aloy is a character of compassion, which is rare in AAA. I’m really excited to see where this story goes next.
I’m a sucker for an underdog, and there weren’t many games this year more utterly doomed to bad buzz than this one. The backlash when it leaked was astonishing. Kudos to Ubisoft and Nintendo for utterly flipping that expectation once they first showed the game in action, and boy did it live up to that expectation.
“Mario X-COM” is a cute shorthand, but it doesn’t give this game the credit it deserves for iterating on those mechanics. Ninty and Ubi are both incredibly strong at (whispers) "accessibility" and this team up seems to have resulted in the perfect meshing of their house styles. They took a game as brilliantly hardcore and nerdy as X-COM and turned it back into a fun board game, without losing too much of the depth that makes it so popular.
I’m hoping a sequel takes the brilliant combat here and marries it to a slightly more compelling and consistent metaworld. If they can do that, it’ll likely make the top of that year’s list.
1. Assassin’s Creed Origins (PS4)
I had given up on Assassin’s Creed.
Nobody was a bigger fan of the franchise at its inception than me. I’m a history nerd, with a penchant for minimalist graphic design and slightly convoluted sci-fi world building. On the venn-diagram undoubtedly stuck to a wall in Montreal, a photo of my face was the tail on the goddamned donkey. I loved Altaïr, I adored Ezio, I hired Shaun Hastings. I briefly came back for Black Flag, but from Unity onwards I tried every game’s opening and immediately bounced off it. My stack of art books and AC merch suffered an extinction event.
And damn the movie sucked.
But then comes along Origins. The marketing points to a year off to make it better. I cynically assume that has more to do with giving the film room to breathe than actually delivering a new experience. I’m kind of disappointed by the gameplay footage I see at announcement. I even forgo the game’s release to play Wolfenstein II instead. I buy it a couple weeks later, play through the lacklustre 4-hour tutorial and am about to drop it.
And then it clicks.
I’ve been exploring Egypt for 30 hours now, I’m reading a history book on the period on flights. I am onboard. Part of that’s the suddenly satisfying combat. Definitely the obsessive loot collection flipped a switch in my brain. I love the maturity of Bayek and Aya’s relationship and where that looks to be going. But more than all of that, it feels like Ubisoft finally did some iterating. Horse riding is dull? Cool, use this eagle to look at our amazing environments during travel instead. You liked outposts in Far Cry? OK.. here are a mind-blowing number of those for you to just mess around with. You want to actually stage assassinations? Sure, here you go. I cannot express how happy I was, as a lapsed fan, that the marketing line about taking the extra year to address some franchise problems wasn’t just a line, but an honest statement.
My favourite thing about this list, is that with the exception of Horizon, I would have called none of these on January 1st.