God, this year. I feel like every time I do one of these I’m talking about how I’m tired and it’s been a long year and so forth. But I gotta say I’m tired and it’s been a long year and that is a part of this list, I guess. 2019 graciously turned out to be an uncommonly special year for games.
So here is my longest top 10 list ever, plus special awards. Get comfortable. I didn’t mean for it to get this long but hey, it happens. I should also point out for those who put stock in such things that my top 2 games are both #1. Can’t pick between those, wouldn’t want to, who’s gonna make me? It was a rare year where we got at least two transcendent, once-in-an-era games. I’m excited about a new decade that builds on games like these.
Games I didn’t get to play but look good:
- Frog Detective 1 + 2
- Baba Is You
- Hypnospace Outlaw
- Neo Cab
- Void Bastards
- Wilmot’s Warehouse
Stop making video games already. Goddamn.
Also go play Ai Dungeon 2. Oh my god. Video games, man.
Alright, let's get going with this!
Stillness of the Wind is a game about routine. You're an old woman on a farm. You got chickens, you got goats, you got some plants. You need to make food, gather things to sell, buy supplies or maybe something nice for yourself, and all of this takes time. Time doesn't wait for you in this game. There are only so many hours in a day, and it turns out doing all the steps to make a decent goat cheese omelette for dinner takes a lot of them. After awhile you might find the time to take a day and venture afield to find a landmark or point of interest or just a big mushroom you can sell. Every day at the same time the mailman/peddler comes by. He's one of the only other humans you see in the game, and he will often bring news of the wider world and maybe a letter if you're lucky. I found myself looking forward to his visits and feeling a genuine pang of loneliness and regret when I missed him for whatever reason.
To make it at all in this fairly short game you have to develop a routine and some discipline, hold off on some things you want to do until the proper time, and plan sometimes days ahead. Time won't wait. Life won't wait, even out here where it seems to hang in the air, a still cloud whose shape you don't notice changing until it evaporates. Beautiful, sometimes devastating game. I loved my goats. Fuck to all wolves.
Best Goose: Knights and Bikes
Untitled Goose Game got all the goose hype this year, but don’t sleep on Knights and Bikes, a charming co-op adventure featuring a good-ass goose.
Feed the goose. Pet the goose. Roll around town with this goose. A+ goose.
When I was a teen in New Jersey my best friend’s family went trick or treating in Queen Latifah’s neighborhood and they gave out king-sized candy bars. I have a memory of doing this too, but it’s clearly a false memory. I completely remember it though. That’s weird how that happens, right? I definitely have never met Queen Latifah. Other things that happened to my friend: she was, for a few years, the manager of a shoe store in the Garden State Plaza mall, and one time Method Man and Redman came in to buy shoes for their kids. Also one time her cousin saw Wyclef Jean coming out of the movie theater in Ridgewood. I have no reason to doubt any of this. Her family also knew Little Pete from Pete & Pete, that one I can 100% confirm because I think my sister met him with my friend’s other cousin. My mom claims she saw Whoopi Goldberg at the vet’s office. But now I’m wondering how many memories I have that reside in the Queen Latifah Universe.
Anyway Sayonara Wild Hearts is real good.
Best Worm: Wrigley, Dragon Quest Builders 2
GOD this is such a good worm. I can’t remember a better worm. Wrigley is just happy to be there, happy to have friends, happy to help out as you rebuild the world. But if you make Wrigley some WORM FOOD he will go the fuck OFF, leaping into the air, spreading greenery across once-barren earth. You make WORM FOOD by mixing grass seeds with NIGHT SOIL, which is poop. So you have to first build an outhouse for the townsfolk and then wait for them all to poop. Then you simply reach down and grab it, mash it up with grass seeds, and feed it to Wrigley, who will then get so excited he sails through the air. Feed your poop to the talking worm and watch him go. All of this is part the rich lore of the Dragon Quest universe.
Sokpop Collective (in particular Simmiland, Brume, and Pear Quest)
Sokpop occupies this space where I think a lot of my fellow folks who pay attention to places like itch.io are very aware of them, but I’m pretty sure they’re not super well known to wide audiences. Which is crazy because they crank out fun and interesting little games with alarming regularity. They just hit number 50 earlier this month?! Go check out Simmiland, the card-based god game I got extremely addicted to. Or Brume, the hazy hack and slasher. Or Pear Quest, the delightful one-screen adventure game. Or Soko Loco Deluxe, a tiny little train tycoon game. It just keeps going. And going. Support this kind of wild stuff you could never find in larger spaces. Actually, take this as a general plug for regularly hopping onto itch.io and seeing what looks new and cool. Just bookmark it and check back every now and then. You’ll expand your understanding of what games are and could be and where they’re going. It can be messy and bizarre and sometimes really really dumb but the good shit is there. Start with Sokpop and branch out.
Dumbest People On A Boat: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
One upon a time there was a sublime game called Until Dawn, which played like a David Cage game, except when it’s funny it’s doing it on purpose. I really love Until Dawn. It’s super fun, especially with some friends. I didn’t get a chance to finish Man of Medan unfortunately, but I will say that it features the dumbest people on boats you will see in a game this year. It opens with some dumb guys on a boat. It continues with more dumb people on other boats. I highly recommend it for all of your dumb boat people needs. Apparently it’s the first installment in a planned anthology and I can’t wait to sail the seas with successive sets of emotionally volatile and foolhardy dipshits.
Pilgrims is an adventure game I felt like I didn’t see anyone talking about this year, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a special thing. It’s small-scale in that it’s only about a few characters in a relatively small world, and it’s unfortunate that those two things are seen as failures of game design by so many folks, because small is great. Small can be detailed and handmade and specific. Pilgrims is all of those things. It rewards being playful in how you approach each new scene, offering ways of messing up and affecting things completely outside of what your original intent was. The simplicity of how it plays out lends the game a storybook feeling, like you could list out each successive thing that happened, whether it led to any solution or not, and have it feel like a very strange and rambling story from a long time ago. It’s charming and funny. More people should play this game and there should be more games like this. Oh did I mention it’s built around a really cool card-based system that acts as both inventory and character swapping mechanism? This game is great. I love it.
Best Screaming Horse Guy: Sekiro’s Screaming Horse Guy
Sekiro is the first of these FromSoft Souls-ish games I’ve bounced off of, but even a game of that type that I don’t much like is still a pretty good game. Among the standout aspects of Sekiro is the memorable character Screaming Horse Guy. Screaming Horse Guy appears early on in the game, among the first bosses that block progression until you deal with them. You’ll know it’s Screaming Horse Guy because he’s a screaming guy on a horse, and he wants to kill you. You might have encountered horse guys before, perhaps ones that screamed at you, but I dare you to find a higher quality, more enthusiastic screaming horse guy than Screaming Horse Guy.
This game is pure charm. I’m biased towards this one a bit because I’m an animator and this game revels in its character design and animation. So much love and care has gone into every character and there’s honestly just a whole lot of good-ass gators in this game. A bite (pun) sized adventure you can get through in an afternoon or evening that rewards replay because there’s no way you’ll actually get all of the family members in order. Or, at least, I couldn’t. Later Alligator has a lot of fun with its format, not just in its often surprising minigame-centric design, but in the times where you return to the hotel for an extended narrative bit full of its own gags, or the great climactic segment. I felt WARM playing this game. Do you want to be WARM? Sound off in the comments! Also, play Later Alligator.
The Richard Scarry Busytown Award For Animal People With Mundane Occupations: Eastshade
Given my resume, I feel qualified to give this award which I invented just now. Eastshade is a game where you wander around a lovely island helping people out as you paint various locales. It’s filled with normal villagers going about their day to day lives, except with animal heads. Meet Steve the baker. He’s got a bear face. Andrew the blacksmith, who has an alarming owl face. This is Debbie, who is a monkey, but she’s also an accountant or something. No reason for the animal face people to be magic or anything. You help them out by settling minor disputes and finding bolts of cloth and stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone is pretty chill. It’s a chill time on animal face island.
It’s been a couple months since I put a couple dozen hours into Hardland, and I still have little understanding of what happened or what Hardland is. It’s an open world action RPG with some procedural elements (I think?). It doesn’t have a quest log, which has larger effects that you might assume on the feel of the whole thing. With no quest log you don’t have much idea what is a “core” thing and what is a “side” thing. That could be very irritating for folks who want to run the main corridor of the game as efficiently as possible, but if you’re up for something a bit more adventurous it makes everything glow with the possibility of it leading somewhere strange and unexpected.
And I should point out that Hardland is weird. Here are some things that happened during my time with Hardland: I killed a big round goblin king, was bafflingly given the option to climb into his body, and then rolled across the plains in it until I got stuck and had to ditch. I got a wolf mask that got me invited to a secret furry orgy society. I don’t even remember what it was in pursuit of. I don’t know if it was on the main questline. I ran into aliens once, I think. I was talking to a guy and was suddenly given the option to steal his tongue. I don’t know why, but I did. Now I’m running around the world with a tongue. I guess it’s important. Usually games don’t let you steal someone’s tongue unless it’s important. I don’t know. Everything in this feels like I just stumbled into it and things could have gone a bunch of other ways! And that’s cool! Also I have no idea how far along in the story I am! But who even cares? What even is Hardland?? What even is anything???
Most Plot: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Ritual of the Night has a lot of what you’d expect from an homage to Symphony of the Night that couldn’t utilize anything specifically related to Castlevania. Instead of the gothic horror monster mash (which I am very fond of), we were treated to an original setting with crystals and alchemy and the church and demons and high drama and loads of dialogue between half a dozen characters saying the word “shard” a whole lot. By the end, “shard” didn’t sound like a word anymore. It still doesn’t. What does shard mean? Shard. Shard. Say shard.
This is a game that pulls off something that very few games do: it is the perfect length. It does what it does and sends you on your way. Bravo. A Short Hike belongs on any best games of 2019 list. It’s the perfect execution of what it is--a bite sized chunk of joy and chill. You’re a little bird person doing a hike. It gets more complicated than that, but never less simple. I almost don’t want to say anything more about it because you should just go in looking for a breezy good time. Look out for future games from this dev because this is such a well put-together thing. I am dying to see what they do next. This game is a gem.
Chillest game: Mutazione
Mutazione is a beautiful game. It’s a lot more of a drama than you might expect from looking at it, maybe expecting some wacky indie quirk and stuff just from having seen the colorful blob folks in a screenshot. But it’s a character-focused affair with real adult emotions and shit among a cast of mutants. And you get to garden! Fun times. It’s also, like, the most chill. Unbelievably chill. This is a game about tending things--plants, gardens, relationships, communities. And chilling. It's a chill time on mutant island.
God, Control. I have a feeling Control is going to be in the top few entries of a lot of people’s lists, or else nowhere to be found. Those are the best kinds of games.
Someone asked me what Control was about. Not just the story, but what was the game about. I'm usually really interested in those questions, but it dawned on me I hadn't thought about it at all when I was playing it. I guess it's about, well, control. Control over your personal boundaries, control over your space, control of your mind. Organized control in multiple dimensions. Malevolent forms of control. Trying to control things that are utterly chaotic and senseless. But more importantly, the game is about picking up one side of a room with your mind and throwing it at the other side while fucking flying around.
This game owns so hard. The surreal elements are stylish and impressive. Ashtray Maze is a standout moment this year of game developers clearly having a lot of fun. And the use of FMV, totally just for style and coolness. The Threshold Kids! Someone made those shorts, like, on purpose. In a planned manner. And geez, that timeless modernist international style sans serif tasteful purposeful color clean brutalist thing the game has going was almost a character unto itself. It was the right dosage of goofy and self aware. It's just a fun, weird game with loads of personality and specificity and I hope we get more of it. I'm not even a sequel guy. I could have played a lot more of it.
Art Most Imitating Life: House Flipper
This year we bought a house. It’s something we never thought we’d ever be able to do, so much so that we hadn’t really formed a lot of opinions about house things. The house we got was inexpensive as far as houses go, in part because it’s a small post-industrial town in Pennsylvania. It was also inexpensive because it’s over 100 years old and suffering from decades of decisions that are at once pure negligence and highly specific additions.
Behind four separate layers of wood paneling and one last barrier of ancient fragmented plaster we found a chimney, walled up god knows how long ago. At least half a century. Newspaper shoved in there was from 1948, but that was on top of several layers of wallpaper hanging onto the plaster. The chimney was decaying, big cracks, the mortar all but dust, a whole section of it ready to fall into itself. The kitchen floor slanted to one side because the floor joist in the crawlspace had been chewed on by termites long ago and there was a persistent drip from water pipes slowly damaging it over the decades. The upstairs floors have a big slant happening because years ago some genius decided to remove all of the beams that support it from below in order to put in a downstairs bathroom. Decisions piled on decisions, while floors sagged and, hidden by layers and years, the house rotted and crumbled. Behind the walls that look so solid, the bright wallpaper and frankly ridiculous amount of wood paneling, catastrophe was slowly taking shape. If you sat on the living room couch you’d never know that disaster was building up a few feet away. You buy the house, but you get the heavy-handed metaphors for free.
We’ve spent the last 5 months finding these things and fixing them, three of those months with a great crew of renovation guys we like a lot. The floor joist has been shored up. The chimney is solid now and the new bricks matched the old ones. Fun fact: fixing bricks like that is called “tuck-pointing," which sounds like a quaint British town populated by talking otters. The missing beams holding up the second floor have been replaced. This place might actually live again now that it’s not busy falling apart. The renovation contractor, having worked with us for several months, said, “Well, for all this work you’re clearly not just flipping this house, huh?” and I said no, but have you heard of this game House Flipper?
Can you see beauty in spending your entire life understanding something that will be over before you’re ready, before you could ever possibly grasp it? Can you work towards something that you won’t survive to see?
Outer Wilds is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s a game that you can finish in a half hour if you know what you’re doing. That’s the nature of the setup. It’s based around a time loop and all that you gain throughout is knowledge. But likely you won’t finish it in 30 minutes, and you’ll spend many hours filling out the brilliant yarn and pin board that tracks what you know thus far. It’s the only element that doesn’t reset every loop. You progress this way. I literally don’t know how they made this game work as well as it does, a game where everything is basically accessible from the jump, where locations can be visited in any order, and the narrative not only works but is gripping and heartfelt. The writing is superb too. This whole game is like a magic trick.
You do a whole lot of space flight and traversal of alien worlds in Outer Wilds, and it really feels more like you’re hiking around a giant national park than floating through the void. Your ship feels like a cozy log cabin that flies. You find your compatriots on some alien world camped out, playing on some instrument, happy to say hello. One of the things I didn’t consciously think about until I was deep in the game is that Outer Wilds takes cool, huge cosmic weird shit you might see in the skybox in other games about alien world exploration and brings it directly in contact with you. Worlds don’t crumble in the distance, they crumble out from under you. Giant tornados don’t just hang out in the background of an ocean planet, if they get close enough they suck up the floating island you’re on and throw you into space, and the gravity and oxygen situations follow suit. Waves crash over you. Black holes aren’t background cooless, they are real things that have behaviors and you can and probably will find your way through one no matter how hard you try to avoid it. One of these kinds of things I discovered later on made my jaw actually drop. The sheer scale of this game. I want to spoil all of this, but you need to find it yourself.
Over the course of the game, and your innumerable planet-hopping trips around the solar system, it starts to feel like the woods around your home. You grow to love it. You’ll spend a decent amount of time out in the vacuum on your way somewhere, watching the sun in the distance, a mysterious comet that probably doesn’t mean anything, and the distance meter ticking down as you approach your next destination. It just has this feel of homeyness while simultaneously giving you this impression of the interconnectedness of impossibly large endless soundless reality. It’s a good feeling.
Outer Wilds goes places. Places worth discovering for yourself. It’s a game to commit to, if that makes sense. Go hike the universe. Pore over what you find. Experience being a finite being, a mess of endless potential frozen into one thing in a ship floating between planets in a solar system in a galaxy in a universe. See where you arrive when the trail ends.
I could write about the revelatory mixture of deep RPG mechanics and Kentucky Route Zero-esque adventure games. A lot of people will probably talk about the characters in detail, probably Kim most notably. All the stuff I’m about to write about ties deeply and beautifully into those aspects in ways that would take me forever to do justice to. I could write about the art, the music, the design, all of which are fantastic. But I feel like others have written and will continue to write about all that stuff quite a bit, possibly on several other top 10 lists on this very site if there is any justice in the world. So instead I’m going to talk about just one reason why this game has stuck with me personally. Also this entry for some reason ended up containing multiple references to the late author Mark Fisher. Make of that whatever you will.
It was a decade of backwards looking, in almost no good ways. We recycled the '80s and '90s over and over, nostalgia run through the marketing department and sold back to us until the retro cool itself became retro. Things that survive and are imbued with outsized importance because they can be monetized over and over, and anyway I hear there's a second Ghostbusters reboot that just got announced. There were no shortage of assurances that we were already doing more or less the best we could do as a society, as an economic system. We only needed to proceed with small tweaks and sensible reforms, any real promises of progress seemingly tied to structures sinking, sometimes literally, into the sea.
When I look back at this decade, the games that have most captured me fall under the broad umbrella of the End Of History game--games that directly address the feeling of being trapped in a social and economic order from which there is no possible escape, no conceivable one, none that won’t immediately be brushed aside by Serious People or crushed outright by capital and the state (sorry, this is going to get heady for a minute but let’s be real you knew what you were signing up for reading my list). A quick roundup off the top of my head might include Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor and the great Kentucky Route Zero. Our own game Night In The Woods would fit. There are others. These games don’t simply depict people struggling to get by, but doing so in a world haunted by dreams of the future that never came, where even the barest hints that things could really get better, that things could really change, are seen almost as nostalgic. Not just a Fallout-ish ironically cheery future set among the ruins, but the empty space left behind when a better tomorrow dies. The ghosts of the better future that died long ago. Mark Fisher would describe this as "hauntology." Tomorrow sucked out through the past, and we find ourselves somehow missing the future. In the final months of the decade we got Disco Elysium.
Disco Elysium got a bad rap among some folks I know for being a nihilistic, irony-poisoned game, but for me at least that appraisal couldn’t be further from the truth. It reveals itself to be an achingly human, vulnerable, intricate thing about the complete failure (or murder) of past dreams, the desperate hope for the future, and how individuals and communities bridge that gap. Or don’t. Revachol is a place where idea after idea of how to order a society has failed or been crushed by outside forces. It’s a game that has no illusions at all that the past held some perfect form of government or a revolution where everything panned out beautifully, free of contradictions. The game has a rare-for-video-games-of-this-kind interest in the material reasons for why things are how they are, how things developed to be that way, and how the different pieces of a place, a state, and economy function together. The world of the game is, for lack of better words, sturdy.
I should point out that this is a game made in large part by folks from Estonia and is very much a product of a place and a history very different than mine. It has different reference points and perspectives, but it hit my small town America-raised ass pretty hard, because there’s something shared there. Bong Joon Ho touched on this sort of thing when talking about how audience responses to his film Parasite this year were so similar all over the world. "In the end it's as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism." We heard the same things about our own game when it came out. I got emails from players in Poland saying they were from the Possum Springs there. Western Pennsylvania isn't Poland or Estonia and South Korea isn't either, but there's a country all of us somehow find ourselves in. And the game depicts the present order of globalized neoliberal capitalism as an overwhelming force laid down, often with straight up guns and cannons, and then branded as the only rational, only possible choice- the final evolution of society. Because what else is there? It's this or utter chaos and ruin, right? It’s what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism in his extremely good and short book of the same name. Not only is the current order the way things have to be, but the idea of a worthwhile alternative is laughable, any dream of it almost impossible to conceive of.
In the world of Disco Elysium the end of history isn’t some theoretical concept--it is literally happening to the world, at that moment, ever-growing, devouring everything. The game’s world of factions and ideologies and powers rubbing and crashing into each other paints a rich picture of a world falling apart, a world that is not all that different from ours. Something is going to happen, even if that something is just entropy dissolving everything into nothingness. Harry’s fragmented and dysfunctional psyche clanging around in his head mirrors this. In playing the game you navigate this both internally and externally, his mind and the world itself ever commenting on one another. So many things pushed to the limit, and the sensible middle being a failed ideology all its own. It's not a game that posits the salvation of Revachol can be achieved by taking out a megacorp or a few bad actors or restoring some law and order. The game is interested in how things actually work and knows that there's a chain, a structure that makes people and places and moments what they are. And it shows how all of this shit radicalizes people, often in horrible ways, but potentially in very good ones. On a personal level, Harry’s rebuilding of himself is a radical act. Harry letting go of his pathetic past while recovering what makes him worthwhile is a radical act. Understanding the past and moving on to become something else, something better, something alive--that’s radical, and brave. It’s in the fractures in Harry’s mind, and the world around him, the death of something old, the potential for something new, and the space between them.
Did I mention it’s also probably the funniest game I’ve ever played? And, like, unfairly well written? And it’s just extremely fun to run around in? And the story and characters are great and interesting? And the art and music are just dynamite? I’m glossing over all of the other things that make Disco Elysium a landmark, a real before/after moment for games of this sort. I’d need several more pages to talk about all of that. But what hit me the hardest was this perfect capturing of a feeling. When I first read Capitalist Realism I was shocked to find that there were words for some of the things I was feeling. Disco Elysium has that power too. I'm not saying it set out with that project in mind, but it's there.
There’s that one famous quote that’s like, “the old world is dying and the new one struggles to be born, now is the time of monsters,” and hey, do you feel that too? Disco Elysium isn’t trying to pretend it isn't a product of the place and time in history it was made in. It's not naive or rose-colored or particularly sentimental. It knows what the old world was and what the monsters now are. And it's all but screaming for a new world to be born. You can almost hear it. You might find that you’re screaming too.
Un Jour Je Serai De Retour Pres Des Toi
See you in 2020.