I want to do a wacky bit like usual, but to be honest, I’m tired. 2019 was a rough year for me and it will continue to be a rough year for me until 2020 rolls around. We’ll see how 2020 goes. I want to say it can’t be worse, but it very much can be worse. There’s a good chance it’ll be worse. We can say with almost definite certainty it will be worse.
The games on my list helped me get through this year. It’s an incomplete list, and I feel too guilty to include games I haven’t finished (like Death Stranding) or have the time to play in depth (like Death Stranding) or both weirdly liked and hated at the same time (like Death Stranding).
If the games on this list are your cup of tea, that’s great. If you hated all of these and I’m a fake gamer, that’s also okay. I no longer have the energy to fight you.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is one of my favorite Star Wars stories in years. It takes a close-to-the-ground perspective I never thought I’d see again after Knights of the Old Republic. We’ve got disillusioned Jedi. We’ve got blue collar aliens. We’ve got other, different blue collar aliens. The game itself is… good. It plays a bit like a game from a previous generation, especially since half of the obstacles are ropes and large fans. On the other hand, it’s still more pure fun than most recent Star Wars games.
This isn’t the best strategy game to come out this year, but it is the one I enjoyed the most. What can I say? I like John Wick and am willing to forgive a lot of faults in a game with a good theme. It’s a bit wonky, and the replays don’t quite work as well as they should, but the timeline gameplay fits the theme and fills the hole in my heart where a Superhot sequel should be. I also get to be John Wick, which as I’ve mentioned earlier, I enjoy. Usually I’m me, which as I’ve mentioned earlier, I don’t enjoy.
In Telling Lies, you don’t get to be John Wick. What you do get to be is a detective searching through characters’ personal videos. Sam Barlow games tend to be very sad, slow-burn journeys, and I am here for it. The story is a bit bonkers, as seems to be the requirement in modern FMV games, but the heartbreak and need at the center of it felt real. My favorite parts of games such as Fallout and Bioshock are the moments when you have to figure out what happened from fragments of moments in time. Telling Lies is that without the mutant shooting. There are no mutants in Telling Lies.
The dream of the ‘90s is alive in Hypnospace Outlaw. Hypnospace Outlaw recreates what it felt like to first try the internet, going beyond dial-tones and catchphrases to create something nostalgic and alienating. While nostalgia is often shorthand for a bucolic feeling of childhood simplicity, Hypnospace Outlaw uses it to confuse us with the familiar. Yes, the kitschy pixel graphics and grainy videos are a reference to the way things looked and sounded online 20 years ago. But forcing us to read websites and literally judge them on their worth adds to the unease. The early days of the internet were exciting, but they were also weird and overwhelming. The cultural move to Silicon Valley corporate talk, the rise of toxic fandoms, the fear of crazy people with an electronic door into your living room. Also the puzzles are good.
Apple Arcade is a good value. Or it was on that first day that they released all the good games. Are there still good games coming to Apple Arcade? I’m sure there are. I haven’t checked. Is Sayonara Wild Hearts worth the $4.99 a month? Yes. For a month or two, because after that the costs add up. Anyway, Sayonara Wild Hearts fits into one of my favorite genres: Music games that make you sad about something. It’s also a more comfortable experience; the game’s developers care more about the audio-visual experience than they do your accuracy. If you want melodrama surrounded by a very indie-art-game aesthetic, man, I just told you about it.
Pistol Whip is the easiest game on this list to miss. It’s a virtual reality shooter, which both puts it in a niche and gives it an air of “been there.” Adding even more to the also-ran feeling is the game’s design: It looks like a Superhot knock-off. But, reader, these things are a lie. Pistol Whip is one of the most fun experiences with virtual reality I’ve ever had, a mixture of music game and arcade rail shooter that works far better than it should. The game just feels right. It lives up to the promise of virtual reality putting you in the moment, making you the hero without the controller getting in the way. You still use a controller. Pew pew.
Technically Luigi isn’t in a mansion here. He’s in a hotel. It’s a fun hotel filled with ghosts. Each floor of the hotel is a level in the game and each level has a different theme. Luigi scares easy, but he is very brave. The ghosts are not scary, they are just doing jobs like gardener and king. Solving puzzles is fun. One puzzle gives you a buzzsaw that allows you to destroy everything in a room. Luigi with a saw is good. This is my report on Luigi’s Mansion 3.
It seems weird for me to call this the best surprise of the year, but this was the best surprise of the year. The thing is, I’m not shocked that a Resident Evil 2 remake would be good. Rather, I’m shocked that I cared it was good. I played the crap out of Resident Evil 2 when it first came out on PlayStation, so my interest in the remake was more academic. I didn’t expect to become obsessed with this remake and to love its changes to the original as much as I did. Even more so when someone created a mod to replace Mr. X with Thomas the Tank Engine.
This game drove me fucking insane with its frustrating puzzles, making me figure out how to use basic programing logic to get some noun defined as me to a fucking other noun defined as win. How am I supposed to know what to do? Maybe I’ll just fuck around until I accidentally get a fucking solution and learn nothing from it as I move to an even more frustrating area that doesn’t give a shit about me or my feelings. 10/10.
I like to avoid conflict in games. Well, also in life. Avoiding conflict in life has caused me to let down a lot of people. But in games, what fun! Disco Elysium is the type of RPG that seems to think about every possible way you could react to a situation. It also does something I rarely see in RPGs anymore: Allowing you to determine who you are as a person while you play. I don’t mean change what factions think of you or add attribute perks. I mean your choices actually affect what your character believes and who they are as a person. You can end up a cowardly racist or an outspoken communist or a drug addict or straight edge. This malleability isn’t unique to Disco Elysium, but the game has so much more fun with it. Failing choices is fun because the game always has a result that makes sense in context. This is one of the few times I haven’t save-spammed a game that makes me roll for success. If I break something I’m trying to open, fine; it’s in service to the story.
And that’s where the biggest charm of Disco Elysium lives: Everything you do and everything you fail to do is used in service of world building and story, and everything in the world building and story is used to promote exploration and curiosity.