This has been an outstanding year for games, and I played so many games that I love that this list has been almost impossible to put together. I just don’t have 30 hours to lock myself in a room with myself and myself to yell at me until I get this list into an order that we can all agree that we really hate, but can’t object to because of a series of logic traps that we tricked ourselves into over the aforementioned 30 hours. Right? Right.
Instead, I’m just going to say that Dead Cells and PUBG are perfectly tied for my favorite games of this year and everything else on this list is a very close runner up.
Game of the Year: Dead Cells
Holy shit Dead Cells is an incredible game. The art and music set a tone in the opening moments that carried through the entirety of my experience with the game. And this was one of my all-time great video game experiences.
For the first few dozen hours, the hook for the game was playing a roguelite metroidvania whose layered progression and multiple paths through the world doled out new challenges and mechanics regularly. However, once I unlocked the core mechanics, weapons, and traps and I learned the paths through the world, the thing that kept me coming back for more was experimenting with different builds. In much the same way that every build in Bastion or Transistor is viable, the challenge with Dead Cells became shifting my play style to take full advantage of the tools the game gave me. I’m convinced that they’ll all work, if I can break out of my self-imposed rut long enough to learn something new.
When I finally reached my skill ceiling, somewhere between the second and third Boss Cell, there was streaming mode. Streaming mode, which gives Twitch viewers agency, is alternately a blessing and a curse. Having the chat vote on per-level modifiers, power-ups, and the like is fun, but the game’s true genius is the healing bird.
At the start of each level, one volunteer is chosen by the game to control a small bird, which flits around the level with you. The bird can basically do two things: talk to you and choose whether or not to respect your heal commands. A friendly, attentive, quick bird can save me from my own mistakes and make a difficult level easier. A novice bird, who burns your limited heals at the first sign of damage can be a curse. But on occasion, I got the very best kind of bird--the philosophical troll bird. Instead of healing too much or too little, the philosophical troll bird asked if I really, metaphysically-speaking, deserved the heal. Would healing me every time I requested a heal actually teach me any important lessons or would it just reinforce my bad habits?
The team at Motion Twin is still in active development on the game, so I can’t wait to see what they add next.
Game of the Year: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
It’s no secret that I really love playing PUBG. Even when compared to the new crop of battle royale games, and despite a consistent lack of polish, annoying bugs that inexplicably hang around for weeks or months, and brutally unjust loot boxes, PUBG remains a singular experience for me. The combination of the realistic sound model, the challenging ballistics, and the deliberately tense pace of the game make this the only battle royale that’s stuck for me so far.
And while it’s easy to complain about everything that PUBG Corp has gotten wrong with PUBG, they’ve also done a lot right. With each new map that’s been added, they’ve adjusted the cadence of the game to give each its own terroir. When it became clear that the slower pace and lack of cover on the desert map was a problem, they made massive changes, adding cover and more roads without diluting the unique feel of that map. The jungle map’s small size and dense loot distribution brought a more frenetic pace to matches on that map. All the lessons learned this year are evident in the new snow map, which is a dramatic graphical upgrade over the earlier maps and also adds new mechanics, such as footprints in the snow. It feels great every time I follow some unsuspecting chump’s footprints right up to his super-secret hiding spot, get a good flank on him, and murder him when he’s looking the other way.
At the end of the day, the tension that PUBG creates in every single game is why I keep coming back night after night.
You’re a tiny bug mail carrier, pushing a ball through a massive side-scrolling world, and for some reason, there are pinball machines everywhere. This game has a lovely score, a gorgeous art style, a surprisingly compelling story, but ultimately it succeeds because the story is charming and the pinball is really fun.
I never realized how much I wanted to play a really good Spider-Man game until I played this one. I’m not a huge fan of the comics, but between this game and Enter the Spider-verse, I finally see the appeal of Peter Parker’s everyman superhero.
For me, the whole game turns on Spidey’s frailty. Sure, he’s a super, but he still can’t take much of a beating. I was halfway through the game before I figured that out. I got frustrated because Tombstone was resisting all my gadgets and web tricks that worked on normal thugs, pounding me over and over. I was about to walk away from the game when I realized that Spider-Man just couldn’t go toe-to-toe with another super. I needed to be swinging around the environment, being a pain in the ass until my moment presented itself. Once I integrated the seamless movement I loved using to traverse NYC into fights, the combat opened up for me and I started to really have fun.
My typical progression with open-world games is to either do all the side-stuff and then burn out before I finish the story or mainline the story and never dig into the side missions and collectibles. Unlike other open-world games, the perfect pacing of the collectible and side-mission unlocks kept me excited to play through the entirety of the game (and get my first Platinum).
Whether I’m playing in VR or not, Tetris Effect has finally replaced Tetris DS as my favorite modern incarnation of Tetris. The addition of Lumines-style skins is great, but finally someone has made a modern Tetris where the infinite spin doesn’t feel like cheating. Conceptually, I love the idea of playing this deeply meditative game against no one but myself, but I still wish it had a multiplayer mode or even just leaderboards so I could compare my progress to my friends.
When No Brakes added multiplayer to their squishy puzzle platformer this year, they made something truly monumental. This is one of the silliest games I’ve ever played, and it’s exponentially sillier with friends. Sure, using your physics know-how to solve puzzles and traverse a series of ever more absurd levels with your ridiculous squishy person-thing doesn’t sound that silly, but once you add multiple players to maps designed for a single puzzle solver the game breaks in the most delicious way. And Human: Fall Flat is at its absolute best when it’s being broken.
Katamari Damacy is one of my all-time favorite games. But it clearly was pushing up against the technical limitations of the PS2 hardware when it was released, and the opportunity to revisit this absolute classic in 4k at 60Hz on my PC has been everything I ever dreamed of. Rolling up random objects has never felt better, and while my relationship with the King of All Cosmos remains fraught, now I can really feel the cosmos.
I don’t know about you, but the constant grind of bad news from the real world gets me down sometimes. For a change of pace, I found it really healthy to dig into something that’s optimistic and full of hope, like Frostpunk. In Frostpunk, I got to be in charge of (maybe?) the last town in the steampunk post-apocalypse. Sounds fun, right? Just wait, it gets better. The town is in a freezing hellscape, where the most important resource is heat and the slightest wrong move will doom everyone in your town to an icy death. It’s the perfect antidote for the unrelenting Trump-drenched news cycle.
And the decisions? They’re perfect for 2018, too! Do you waste heat and resources on schools or just open some nice work camps for children? Heat the hospitals or the greenhouses? Work the coal miners to death or let the sick and elderly freeze to death? Should you enact fascist authoritarian rule to ensure survival, “take care of” the rabble rousers, or submit to the rule of the people, even though it may mean the end of humanity?
No game I’ve ever played has balanced the tightrope of the good of the many against the good of the few like Frostpunk. And once you manage to survive the campaign, the game gives you a brutal reckoning of the human cost of your choices. And after that? There are more bonus campaigns, each more difficult than the last.
Where Frostpunk is a dystopia, Surviving Mars is its utopian antidote. I took my job as the administrator of a Mars colony very seriously. My job was simple--turn the first human foothold on Mars into a self-sufficient colony over a few generations.
In many ways, Surviving Mars is a straight economy game--you need to manage a fiendishly complicated web of resources and products created from those resources, all while managing a robot workforce, recruiting new colonists from Earth, and keeping your people safe, productive, happy, and horny enough that they’ll keep cranking out kiddos.
Some absolutely wonderful moments emerged while playing Surviving Mars. My favorite was a lone malcontent so desperate to escape that he ran 20km overland to get to the only ship returning to Earth. He made it just as his oxygen, and thus his life, were expiring, and escaped my prison planet. I was disappointed, but also kind of impressed.
I love Arkane’s games, but there’s often so much going on with them that I don’t know where to begin. With Prey, I got past the opening sequence, looked deep into that lovely skill tree, gazed out into the abyss of the open world, and just froze. I put the controller down and backed slowly away from my PC.
Until Prey: Mooncrash came out. Mooncrash is almost custom designed to appeal to me--it’s a tight little game set in the Prey universe where you play multiple characters, each with their own unique skills and powers. Mechanically, it’s a tasting menu for the bigger Prey experience. Story-wise, figuring out what went wrong on a doomed moonbase by delving into a VR simulation is exactly my jam.
The best thing about Mooncrash is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In order to succeed, you have to change your play style to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of each character, but even if you hit one you dislike, each character’s arc lasts about an hour, so you can move on to the next person relatively quickly.
Games I Loved Playing With My Daughter
It turns out that Minecraft is a really good game. We started out exploring the world together in creative mode, then experimented by building small structures before we got really into geomodding projects (read: dynamiting mountains into rubble).
Now we’re building, sometimes together and sometimes separately and showing each other what we’ve done. Each new build is an opportunity to talk about our work, what we’ve learned, and figuring out what is and isn’t possible in this incredible game.
Bonus points to Minecraft for doing crossplay before it was cool. We can play together whether I’m on my phone or PC and my daughter is on her iPad or Switch.
Watching my five-year-old daughter transition from simply building platforms to help her traverse the map to plotting secret routes that she thinks I won’t see to setting traps and giggling with glee when she manages to kill me has been very satisfying. Now I just want more Incredible Machine-style objects we can place in these levels, so we can build increasingly complicated traps and Rube Goldberg nightmares.
It’s been a while since I played a LEGO game, but The Incredibles does what the open world LEGO games do best, lets you live in one of your kid’s favorite universes with them for a little while. The platforming and combat get a little tricky, so I’d often end up bulldozing through levels, but the most fun was simply exploring the world together and playing in the open world like we would with action figures.