My Top Ten Games of 2019

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gamer_152

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I love the discussion of games that happens around the holiday season as it's an opportunity to wax lyrical about the titles we're most passionate for and overflow with positivity about what we've played. Every year, I produce a GotY list that I select not from the games that came out in the previous twelve months, but from the games that I played for the first time in the year. In purely alphabetical order, here are my top ten of 2019:

2064: Read Only Memories

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When trying to move an audience, it's easy to fall into the trap of writing in extremes. To be consumed by cynicism or enveloped in optimism, or to create characters that are just one walking personality trait. 2064 is a cyberpunk tale speaking to themes of late capitalism, social discrimination, and the difficulties in determining self-identity, but never does it paint its narratives in black and white. Turing is a charming character to explore AI through not because they're an omniscient god or a blank slate, but because they're just one step short of understanding human behaviour. The world lends itself credibility not by depicting a status quo that's explicitly villainous but one that's casually oppressive. 2064 is a game that doesn't shy away from the terrifying issues of our times, and yet, never says that dystopian circumstances mean that we can't find some colour, some love, and some hope as we fight for our personhood or just try to pay the rent.

ART SQOOL

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While non-interactive media is purely about what its creators can bring to the table, video games have a unique power to value audience contributions. ART SQOOL is so much about what you can and want to do as opposed to what the game thinks would be a worthwhile exercise. This is largely because its formal assessments of your work carry little meaning, but in freeing us of objective goals, ART SQOOL lets us unleash our inner doodler without fear of judgment. Its primitive tools may only allow us to scribble out squiggly lines and apply shallow colour palettes, but even the crudest scrawling can be a masterpiece to us when we can take complete ownership over that art.

Celeste

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I don't have a high tolerance for games that have me going through the same motions numerous times before I can progress, so when I stick with one, it's usually a title that's going above and beyond to cooperate with me. It's usually a game like Celeste. Celeste's protagonist is buoyant but responsive to input; her signature dash provides an injection of adrenaline but also demands precise aiming as it covers so much air in the blink of an eye. The play's expectations of you are high, but it's rarely unfair; it uses organic indicators on Madeline and the environment to succinctly convey the current game state without a single intrusive counter or meter. Celeste also challenges the stylistic etiquette of the extreme difficulty video game. Instead of matching unforgiving play to harsh visuals and music, Celeste's endearing pixel art and toe-tapping electronica make for an altogether softer landing because the game is about nurturing you more than it is intimidating you.

Donut County

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Donut County fixing its camera in place allows it to compose the contents of every frame with the care of a well-trained jeweller. Each level is an adorable shot of rural life for its curious anthropomorphic villagers, and the game is a gallery of these dioramas. Our role is to tear all of them to shreds like the filthy little racoons we are. Donut County provides the simple pleasure of introducing a little frenzy to someone's everyday, and a lack of delay between us collecting items and seeing our ability to collect grow means the empowerment within is immediate. It's also acutely aware that an acquisitive attitude might make life harder for the critters around you. Donut County gives us the chance to see a crocodile's patio furniture disappear into a gaping pit and then empathise with that crocodile, and isn't that all we've ever really wanted from video games?

Mini Metro

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If you play a lot of AAA fare, you'll be used to screens that are dizzyingly busy with colour and shape, even when it stops the systems interfacing clearly with you, and you will have been buried under perfunctory mechanics that bloat and unfocus play. Now, more than ever, is a perfect time for video games to embrace minimalism, and there has been no better ambassador for the movement than Mini Metro. By removing all but the vital mechanical and artistic elements, Mini Metro ensures that every tiny piece that remains speaks volumes and matters in the grander scheme. It also makes the frequently insurmountable RTS genre, approachable. Its challenge comes not from trying to juggle an encyclopaedia of mechanics at once, but through managing an expansive network of components that follow just a handful of rules. The result is a compelling atmosphere that the developers refer to as "chaotic zen". Add to that that Mini Metro is just a wonderful tool for procedurally generating abstract art and music, and you have one of the best management experiences of the last few years.

Paratopic

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In trying to piece together the shattered, non-linear fragments of Paratopic, I was reminded of my reaction to Virginia in 2017. Both games are narrative puzzles that burrow their way deeper and deeper into your consciousness as you solve them. In the case of Paratopic, that's royally unsettling because it has the muted perspective and time slippage of a bad dream. It's a disaster watched from behind filthy glass, with us helpless to stop the characters beyond from their slow roll towards a cliff edge. It leaves us grasping for some fleeting moment of understanding in an inscrutable world and trying to attain some semblance of connection even in an environment of alienation. Nobody should have to live in Paratopic's stratified, copacetic reality, but I think we already do.

Pokémon GO

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In many ways, it feels like Pokémon GO is realising the dream that Jane McGonigal had of popular games motivating us to make self-improvements. It's always felt like polished player empowerment games have existed in one realm, and health games and educational tools have existed in another. Pokémon GO is the long-sought synthesis of the two, as the game rewards us for staying active and exploring the real world using the time-tested collection mechanics and character design of one of the most gripping RPG series ever produced. Niantic's augmented reality experience is a wondrous hidden world layered under our own, which can take even the most mundane city street and fill it with fantastical monsters and caches of useful resources. Pokémon GO made me more active, more curious about my local area, and had me uncovering places I never knew existed. From finding rare starters in a local square to staring over my shoulder wondering who just sniped a gym from me, Pokémon GO was a jubilant experience.

Tetris Effect

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Tetris is one of the most enduring works of interactive entertainment ever developed. In thirty-five years, it hasn't aged a day. It still combines the constructive tension and destructive release of building and knocking down a Jenga tower with the spacial satisfaction of organising your cupboards. Tetris is about being rewarded for putting everything in its right place. This incarnation conceptualises this system not as an elaborate toy or even a sport like previous editions, but as a full sensory experience. With bold environments, glittering particle effects, and reactive sound design, Tetris Effect draws parallels between this block-stacking puzzle and everything from meditation to oceans to jazz concerts. It's planted firmly in the fork between the real and abstract, and anywhere you can find euphoria and flow, Tetris Effect goes.

Titanfall 2

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Titanfall 2 is the philosophical opposite of Mini Metro. There are many cogs inside its casing, but each serves a deliberate purpose and is cut to precisely the perfect shape to slot into every other. The campaign doesn't outstay its welcome, and its multiplayer is a breathtaking balancing act. It incorporates meticulous customisation systems and earthshaking weapons while keeping competitive ground level. Titanfall 2 is the FPS that finally cracks the problem of how to frequently give everyone the rocket launcher and still not lend them an unfair advantage. Through and through, the designers stir the pot so that the play never stagnates. That happens via them switching you between pilot and Titan modes, instituting stage-specific mechanics, providing plenty of tributaries through levels, and setting out smaller AI mobs to fight in between duking with players. It's a joy sprinting to keep up with this shooter that's always on the move.

Yakuza 0

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What Yakuza 0's environments lack in roominess, they make up for in density of activities. Its seedy Tokyo districts may be cramped, but their narrow, clogged arteries reflect their roles as prisons for Kiryu and Majima, two scraps of meat in the claws of the capricious yakuza. In other open-world romps, a pageantry of minigames can make the design seem distracted, but here, it allows us to indulge in Sotenbori and Kamarocho as the bustling entertainment capitals they are. This game has both some of the most chilling drama and uproarious comedy I've encountered this year. Chapters generally comprise full narrative arcs as opposed to just dragging out a larger framing device for the play. And while other games often try to milk laughs from raising pre-approved "funny" topics or being as loud as humanly possible, Yakuza 0 puts in the work to construct dedicated and hysterical sitcom scenes. It's audacious but never desperate, and the script knows how to imitate western "cool guy" vocabulary in the most delightfully goofy way possible.

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And that's all of it. Honourable mentions go to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Destiny 2, Forza Horizon 3, GNOG, Stories Untold, and Year Walk. I hope you had a great year and wish you the best 2020 possible. Thanks for reading.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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Good list! I played through YakZ (shut up, I'm making that a thing) this year too. I think it was my least favorite of the ones I've played (3 & 4 being the others), but the two leads were so much fun and the villains so adorably campy it was hard not to like on its own merits.

Also, comparing Paratopic to Virginia has my attention. Wasn't huge on Virginia, but man, that game had something really going for it. I'll definitely have to check that out.

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#2 gamer_152  Moderator

@sparky_buzzsaw: I'd not played a Yakuza before, so this was all new to me. I find Majima a more relatable character both in the more dramatic and wilder moments of the game, but I loved most of what I played with Kiryu too. I'm a sucker for slice-of-life elements in games and it's a way to do open-world crime that isn't just chasing the GTA formula.

With Paratopic, it's certainly easier to decipher than Virginia; it's shorter and it has actual dialogue, but it is the kind of game where you need more than one playthrough to begin to see a picture forming of the plot. I really like that process of decoding.

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@gamer_152: Majima's great! Loved the peek into his personality and the circumstances leading up to that ending.

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Mini Metro eh? Never heard of that before, but as someone who has struggled to get into RTS games maybe this is the gateway I need.