Note: The following article contains mild spoilers for all games mentioned.
Every year I publish a GotY piece which looks not at the best games that came out in the last twelve months, but at my favourite games that I played for the first time. The rationale? New games are expensive and older games deserve more love. Here are my top ten plays from 2018:
Agents of Mayhem
This entry is as much a surprise to me as anyone. You can compare Agents of Mayhem to Volition's previous work and find it doesn't have the affable cheekiness of Saint's or the wanton destruction of Crackdown, but allow it to stand as its own entity and you will see an ARPG that controls with grace and eschews the standard clutter of the genre. It has feather-light platforming, a moratorium on tedious micromanagement, and distinctly flavours its characters through imbuing them not just with unique stats but also unique firing models. Agents gives the FPS-RPG genre a shot in the arm at the moment when it's most sorely needed.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
While the other Life is Strange games ride atop steadily advancing narratives, Captain Spirit isn't as much an evolving story as a character portrait. Its single location and ninety-minute runtime allow it to focus acutely on the fragile companionship between father Charles and son Chris. It remembers how, for an imaginative child, even a mundane home is a universe of possibilities, and it understands with disturbing clarity the duality of many alcoholics: friendly and supportive sober, belligerent and selfish a few cans in.
I loved Injustice 1 for its larger-than-life fighting game interpretation of DC Comics' most stylish characters. Matches oozed spectacle without losing the player agency in a stew of cinematics, and the game remained open to casual fans without its accessibility diluting its depth. Injustice 2 takes that original experience and appends to it extensive tutorials that demystify its play, and progression and equipment systems that multiply its longevity many times over. When playing fighting titles, I often hit a wall where I'm not sure how to squeeze more time out of them without surrendering myself to the unforgiving bloodbath of online play, but in Injustice 2, the multiverse and its sundry rewards keep me enthusiastically returning for battle after battle.
2018 was not a good year for retro video game content. Nintendo swung a wrecking ball through decades of interactive entertainment history with their legal action against various ROM archives and the PlayStation Classic ironically turned out not to include many of the beloved system's essential releases. It's not all bad news, however, because this year, we got Jazztronauts, a zany serving platter for the years of Garry's Mod user content stashed in the Steam Workshop. The old G-Mod community maps may be crude or even technically unstable in places, but in their wonkiness and rough edges there is an earnestness and charm, and without Jazztronauts' random map retriever and thin overlay of objectives, I might never otherwise have been able to connect with them. Also, the game stars a decadent cello-playing cat who will talk to you about Percy Shelley and Michelangelo, so there's that.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
The original Life is Strange had a contagious empathy for the struggling teenagers at its heart. It didn't see the drama of their lives as the product of comical angst but of real emotion often stemming from family dysfunction, the death of loved ones, and uncertainty about the future. Before the Storm has the same outlook, and like its predecessor, plays intelligently with imagery and inspirations, and puts aside time for serene reflection on its events. However, where Dontnod's freshman entry into the series derailed itself with its surrealist and high concept ambitions, Before the Storm tells a more even and coherent tale. It also doesn't let its status as a prequel prevent it from hiding a few surprises up its sleeve. A game about fraught family ties and processing tragedy, we could do with a few more Before the Storms out there.
Something that real-world relationships and a lot of video games have in common is that they both force us to make decisions about where we dedicate our effort, time, and attention. The Novelist exploits that link, taking the form of a branching narrative game that delights in and frets over the little things; through frequently pushing you to choose who within a family you accommodate and who you neglect, its ludonarrative churns with emotions of pride and guilt. The Novelist reminds us that seeing everyday family decisions as trivial is ignorant as our small decisions about our domestic dynamics add up to decide the big things like whose career takes off or whether a child develops into a confident, complete adult. Perhaps more than any other game to date, it intimately understands the compromise and sacrifice inherent to partnership and parenthood.
Prey is a masterpiece of environmental art that approaches the dystopian majesty of Bioshock. When so many video game settings feel like barely-disguised combat arenas, it's uncanny to see one that feels as lived-in, and as organic, as that of Talos I. You become utterly convinced that this space was designed for habitation, office work, and engineering as opposed to alien extermination which means that when extraterrestrial shadows come to infest the corridors of this neoliberal space wreck, they appear as manifestations of a realistic corporate environment. Offices become traps, coworkers become unrecognisable ghouls, and the labourers pay the price for the executives' transgressions. The first few hours of Prey are a devious mind game, while the last fifteen see the upgrade system bloom with a brilliance you would never expect going in. Each new ability you gain has multiple applications in the play creating a sprawling plethora of player choices that can only be compared to the original Deus Ex.
There's something gratifying in the ridiculous premise of SUPERHOT. With the same intonation that someone might ask "Why can't they make the whole plane out of the black box?", SUPERHOT asks "Why can't they make the whole shooter out of bullet time?". Because its developers give you regular pauses in the pandemonium with which you can survey your surroundings and weigh up your options, SUPERHOT becomes a game of planning and deliberate movement. It makes you think about confronting opponents so fundamentally unlike any other FPS that going back to one afterwards requires some recalibration. But then this is a game about the rewiring of minds, bearing an insidiously understated parable about toxicity and the erasure of individuality in the internet's darkest corners. Its bold and stylish use of colour doesn't hurt it either.
These days, an increasing number of publishers are lowering perfectly decent series into this big business acid vat where their unique characteristics and voices are dissolved so that they can emerge as broadly marketable action media products. It was therefore uplifting to see Ubisoft do the opposite with Watch_Dogs. This sequel ditches its father's sterile city, faceless protagonist, tacked-on hacking, and fear of political commentary. In their place, we get a San Francisco buzzing with street culture, an infectiously upbeat frontman, crafty stealth play, and a middle finger to America's technologically-enabled tyrants. It's the optimistic cyberpunk crime game you never knew you needed.
What Remains of Edith Finch
There's been no shortage of accolades for games that can make their audiences cry, and not without some reason, but there's a difference between a game that's superficially emotional and one that moves you because it's speaking truthfully to pain and loss as we experience it. What Remains of Edith Finch is part of the latter class: it's a story about facing the hard truths of family, fiction, and death. It stirs sorrow in you not just by having overwhelming tragedies befall its characters but also through framing all of them delicately and remaining sympathetic to everyone involved in its dramas. It lets you armour yourself in its delightful and imaginative montages and then forces you to discard them right when you most want to cling to some protection from the despair. But if you can make that sacrifice, you can reach one of the most touching and philosophically sound endings in the medium.
That's it for the year. Just a quick note: I would have considered Toby Fox's Deltarune for this list, but as it's labelled the first episode in a series, I'm not treating it as a full game. Honourable mentions go to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, From Ivan, ISLANDS: Non-Places, SHENZHEN I/O, and VA-11 HALL-A. Thanks for reading.