Yeah, I played a bunch of PUBG this year. I play almost every night over on my Twitch channel. It’s still fun, still challenging, still tense, and unexpected and delightful things happen on the regular. As with any long-term relationship, I still love playing PUBG, but I’m more frustrated with the game now than I have been in past years. While PUBG Corp has been generally improving it over the entire life of the game, it’s often broken in annoying ways and it still suffers from the same desync problems that plague every other battle royale I’ve played. I realize this is part of the life cycle of the multi-year live game, so I’m pragmatic and mostly enjoy an excuse to spend a few hours hanging out with my murderer friends every night.
Approaching 3000 hours played, I’m reasonably sure that I’ve hit my personal skill ceiling for the game, but I’ve thought that before. Regardless of what PUBG Corp does to the game, I’ll probably keep playing as long as there are players to hunt on Murder Island.
In my eyes, this has been one of the very best years for games this decade and I loved a bunch of them. Breaking from tradition, I haven’t included 200 games this year (You’re welcome, Alex), and I did actually break my four favorite games of the year into this very intentionally ordered section of the list*:
True Game of the Year: Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is the most melancholy game I’ve ever played. It might be the only melancholy game I’ve ever played. It’s an adventure game that eschews the fiddly inventory puzzles and obscure solutions to obtuse obstacles that plague many adventure games, simply because the only thing you can carry from run-to-run is the knowledge you collected along the way.
It’s incredibly satisfying to me that Outer Wilds’ core mechanic--a 22-minute time loop set in the closing minutes of your solar system’s existence--makes my most valuable resource, the time I spent playing the game, the only resource that really matters.
Each death gave me an opportunity to poke at a different mystery in a different part of the solar system. Bad runs ended when I crashed into the sun or impaled myself on the local flora before I uncovered some new shred of information. Those were frustrating, but the loops where I managed to unlock a big, satisfying chunk of the solar system-sized puzzle overshadowed the frustrating runs.
Without a way to document the complicated web of story and puzzle, Outer Wilds would be incomprehensible, or would at least force the player to keep a lengthy notebook. I love the design of the ship’s computer, which keeps a detailed list of everything you find while you’re playing. That computer reminded me of the places I’d been, the clues I’d collected, and the connections between everything, while gently hinting at the mysteries I had left to solve. It made it possible for me to jump right back in where I left off when I put the game down for a few months.
If you haven’t played Outer Wilds, be warned that it starts slow. But I’m glad I took the time to keep poking at it and figure it out at my own pace. It ended up being one of the most satisfying game experiences I’ve ever had. And as is fitting for a game about landing spaceships on every astronomical body in a solar system, I don’t recall playing a game that stuck the landing this perfectly… well, ever.
Game of the Year: Untitled Goose Game
I never would have guessed that being a rude goose could be this much fun. Part of the appeal of Untitled Goose Game to me is obviously styyyyyyle: the minimalist art design and the situationally aware, dynamic Debussy score mark this as an extremely cool game. But styyyyyle alone wouldn’t have left me obsessing over anything like I did over this damn goose.
The hook, for me at least, is that UGG does something I’ve never seen before. It’s a stealth game with no fail states. And while I was busy failing without resetting the world, I rode the games challenge list up a damn near perfect difficulty curve. House House presents you with increasingly difficult challenges inside each area, then expects you to apply the goose lessons you learned to the next area. Each encounter is somehow deliciously tense and hilarious, despite the complete lack of stakes. And the game’s final mission forces you to apply everything you’ve learned about being a goose and the town you’re terrorizing before you can reveal the delicious denouement whose seeds are sown in the first five minutes of play.
I can’t think of a more fabulous way to spend a few hours than with this game.
Game of the Year: Control
You should really play Control. I never played Alan Wake, so I’d never really gotten weird with Remedy before. Control is a weird game about weird stuff happening to weird people in a weird world. You’re going to have to fight some weird shit: a fridge, an anchor, a mirror universe, and a bunch of even more unusual monsters. It’s some real good video game business.
On top of the weird, Control is the best written game I’ve played this year. It dumps you unceremoniously into a world based loosely on SCP, a weird Internet-based collective-fiction project, you’re immediately buried in a deluge of information, and it never lets up. Every snippet of text I found, every informational video, every nightmare puppet show I couldn’t look away from was worth my time. While the main storyline is great, the optional side activities are the business. If you play Control (you should play Control) I strongly recommend that you complete the optional fungus side quests and you should scour the Dead Letters section.
I loved that Control’s mix of weapon and skill enhancements let me customize my version of Jesse to suit my play style. Even more, I love that Control remained playable (and challenging) when I didn’t dink around with min-maxing my character.
But the real reason I love Control is the writing. The “I have a website” dead letter may be the single funniest thing I’ve read in a video game this decade.
Game of the Year: Pistol Whip
This is the game I wanted first person shooters to be when I first played Doom in 1993. It’s what I imagine being Neo in the matrix must feel like, or maybe what it feels like to be John Wick. Heck, maybe this is just what Keanu feels like on the day-to-day. Anyway, I’ve wanted to play this game for a very long time.
The thing that makes Pistol Whip work for me is that it has very tight controls with some loose elements or maybe it has loose controls that feel tight in specific ways. It doesn’t matter. What you need to know is that unlike most shooters, Pistol Whip doesn’t care about your aim. Sure, you earn half of the maximum points per kill for landing center mass shots or headshots--the game isn’t picky and its auto-aim is generous. You get the remainder of the points by making shots on the beat. Like other rhythm game greats, everything happens on the beat. From enemy spawns to shots fired at you to your dodges, you have to feel the music to maximize your score.
The end result is that the mere act of playing Pistol Whip makes you feel like an eternal badass--twisting, ducking, and dodging your way through gunfights set to loud dance music. And yes, this is music I’d probably never listen to outside of a rhythm game, but in the context of the game, it’s perfect.
A Bunch of Other Very Good Games in No Particular Order
There’s a story, but for me, the appeal of this type of space game is simply living that space trucker lifestyle, trying to make my way in an unforgiving galaxy when everyone’s out to get me, and no one has my back. And like its predecessors, when I got bored of trucking, there were lots of other options--bounty hunting, playing a space pool hustler, or just some old-school pirate work. It turns out, jacking convoys and stealing from corps never goes out of fashion.
A Souls-alike in the Star Wars universe made by the people who made Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends? Yeah, that’s great I guess. One of your space buddies is a short alien with amazing sideburns and a sassy attitude? Fan-fucking-tastic! Yes, the game is terrific, but Greez is a god-tier character. I want to see more of him in everything Star Wars ever.
Greez Dritus fandom aside, I’d love to see the Souls games’ bonfires paired with shortcuts come to more genres. It’s a gentler way to punish death and reward exploration than a pure reset of the world (including all the enemy spawns) and it encourages people like me, who don’t have a ton of time to hammer at the same segment over and over again each time I fail. I’m not going to traverse the area with the annoying miniboss every time I need to cross the map, but I’m happy to keep at it until I can make one perfect run and unlock a shortcut so I never have to traverse that difficult area again.
I’ve never needed to walk away from a game to think through the moral implications of my choices in a game before. They’re usually cut and dried; are you going to be good or evil? Outer Worlds forces you to choose between the interests of humanity and corporations, to put a price in human blood on personal liberty. I had to set down the controller and take time to work through my feelings around complicated moral issues on multiple occasions. I love that there are no easy decisions, but I love even more that the game is a reasonable length so I’ll actually be able to play it again as an absolute Board-loving, misanthrope dirtbag.
In the grand tradition of Ultimate Chicken Horse and Human: Fall Flat comes Heave Ho--a semi-cooperative game designed to make you fight with your friends. I love Heave Ho’s simplicity. All you have to do to excel is remember which hand is your right hand and which is your left hand, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult. I played this with remote friends a few times this year using Steam’s new Remote Play Together streaming tech (it’s great, btw), and the sessions always ended the same way, by laughing until we cried.
For me, What the Golf was the standout of the initial crop of Apple Arcade games. While not exactly about golf, What the Golf? isn’t not about golf either. WTG’s charming mix of gimmick one-off gags and intense challenge levels gave me exactly what I want from a mobile game--something I can pick up and have fun with whether I have three minutes or an hour to kill.
It turns out I love making illicit molecules using a homebrew nano-assembler in my central European apartment. As with SpaceChem and other Zachtronics games that came after, Molek-Syntez makes chemistry into a game, forcing you to assemble increasingly complicated molecules from a handful of readily available precursors. Once you figure out the assembly process, I love optimizing my script to make my nanoassembler work faster or more efficiently or use fewer precursors.
And Mom, you’ll be pleased to know that I’m finally using my biochem degree for something.
Ape Out is the antithesis of Untitled Goose Game’s no-fail design. In Ape Out, I failed often, usually with lots of blood. Even after playing hours of this game, I’m hazy on what the story is, but the upshot is simple. You’re an ape. You’re stuck someplace you don’t want to be, and there are men with guns between you and the place you want to be. Then it’s smashing time.
I’m generally anti-violence, but I find smashing a bunch of gun-wielding dweebs really satisfying, primarily due to Ape Out’s outstanding art and sound design. The score ties the whole thing up in a delicious bow.
I Wish I’d Played This Last Year Because It’s Super Dope - Subnautica
I bought Subnautica in Early Access because it was an early VR title, but found the VR support unusable, so I never made it past the first few minutes. Wow, was that a mistake.
Trust me when I say you don’t want to spoil anything about Subnautica if you don’t already know anything about it. I love crafting and exploration games like Minecraft and Don’t Starve, and Subnautica does something new that I hadn’t experienced from this kind of game before. Once I started building bases and exploring the world, I couldn’t stop playing until I totally completed it, something like 50 hours later.
Early Access Games I’m Keeping a Close Eye On
Noita - A particle simulation roguelike might as well be made for me. I spent an embarrassing number of hours noodling with those old flash elemental simulation games. I spent enough time playing this in early access that I realized I wanted to save the rest for when it was done.
Subnautica: Below Zero - After devouring the first Subnautica, I’ll play whatever that team makes next.
GTFO - I got my ass kicked when I played this during their open alpha earlier this year, but I was hooked. I’m a sucker for co-op PVE games, and this one seemed difficult enough to be challenging without being unjust.
Satisfactory - I love factory games and I love exploration/survival games. I’ve already put a few dozen hours into building my factory, but I’ve got some ideas for new ways to optimize it. You see, I just got a new recipe for screws, and I think that will increase the efficiency on my iron ore smelters by at least 30%, so I’m going to need to refactor that part of my… Never mind all that. I just like this game a lot.
Hades - The moment Supergiant says this is done, I’m adding it to my daily allotment of roguelike.
Games I didn’t get to Because I Played PUBG Instead:
Games I loved playing with my daughter: Untitled Goose Game. One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, Ultimate Chicken Horse, Heave Ho, LEGO The Incredibles, The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet
FYI, if you have a kid and a Vita with a bunch of old indie games on it, give the Vita to the kid and watch them have fun with a bunch of old, weird indie games.