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2023 has a lot of big video games, huh?

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GOTY 2018

Hey! We survived another year! And despite everything else, 2018 was another great year for games, with plenty that I enjoyed; certainly more than the 10 on this list. That said, I also noticed a pair of big shifts for me this year, and it’s hard to parse whether they have more to do with me, or where video games are at right now. Probably some of both. First, as you’ll see on this list, I didn’t get super into many "big" games in 2018. And that’s not because I didn’t play them; rather, I felt like most of them were some combination of very safe sequels, too reliant on standard design, or bigger and more repetitive than they needed to be. In other words, I found myself getting bored with them. Thus, I found a lot of joy in 2018 from games that were smaller in scope, and presented more cohesive and/or novel design.

Second, I found myself just wanting to play games in 2018. Games that got out of their own way and encouraged me to think, interact, and participate meaningfully. This has been a longer trend for myself, and I think 2018 became the tipping point where I got exasperated with games where the focus was elsewhere. These are all subjective measures of course, but I found myself really engaged with games that presented complex systems, holistic experiences, and/or fun challenges to overcome. Games that let me play.

Put those together, and I wind up with a lot of smaller and/or more mechanics focused games on this list. It turns out that 2018 was a good year for those. So with all of that said, here are my 10 favorite video games I played in 2018. Thanks for reading!

List items

  • Into the Breach takes the things I love most about strategy, puzzle, and run-based games, tosses what I don’t like, and then combines and distills what’s left down into its purest essence. This is an incredibly smart and elegant game where nothing is wasted. Each turn presents you with a focused set of variables to consider, with the magic being that every one of them feels important; every decision could mean the difference between life and death. Then there are so many permutations of how the board can play out that you can encounter new patterns for seemingly forever; each new set of mechs and weapons almost feels like playing a different game. I played Into the Breach for close to 100 hours over the course of the year, and it continues to pose new, interesting problems I'm not tired of solving. And so many of those solutions turn into great stories, full of exciting moments of triumph and disaster. It’s a beautiful game.

    I could talk at length about all the little design details that make all that possible. Such as how you have almost perfect information and little randomness, or how slick the UI is at conveying all that information, or how manipulating the board is just as important as dealing damage, or how the enemy and map variety cleverly explore every mechanical angle, or how its simple rules make it easy to learn yet are still robust enough to provide seemingly limitless depth. And maybe someday I will write about those details. But for now, know that I think Into the Breach is a masterclass in game design. It executes on its idea flawlessly, and is a game I genuinely loved playing and thinking about all year. As time goes on it becomes increasingly rare for new games to legitimately compete for the honor of “my favorite game.” This is not something I say lightly, but Into the Breach is one of those rare gems. No surprise then, that it’s easily the best game I played in 2018.

  • I had only dipped my toes into Monster Hunter prior to 2018, but World pulled me all the way in. While there’s still room for improvement, its quality of life changes allow it to sharpen the focus on what it does best: setting up epic encounters between you and dozens of large, exciting monsters. It’s hard to stress just how much fun I've had in these fights, thanks to the intricate weapons that are fun to learn, responsive controls, and the variety of the monsters themselves. And there’s a satisfying loop to the whole thing that's nearly as fun as the central fights: preparing for a hunt, going out and executing the hunt, and then using the parts obtained from that hunt to craft new gear. And while connecting with others online is still a certain kind of nightmare, going on group hunts is a blast. Monster Hunter: World was my social game this year, and one I got a ton of enjoyment from on multiple fronts.

  • Subnautica elicited the most “wow” moments of any game for me this year. For as tired as I got of the inventory management, or just having to make water all the damn time, my stay on Planet 4546B was an unforgettable adventure. I’ve never been one for survival games either, but there’s a smartly designed progression here that hooked me. I loved seeing all the crazy gear I could make, and I also loved seeing all the crazy shit out in the world. It had a real sense of mystery and wonder that games rarely do, and as I explored I began to feel like I belonged in this foreign place. I learned its ins and outs, and how to survive and coexist; I became a part of this planet, and it a part of me. So when I finally left, it was a powerful, bittersweet moment, the kind that only a game could produce.

  • Like Papers, Please before it, Return of the Obra Dinn turns a seemingly rote job into a fascinating affair. My investigation of the titular Obra Dinn as an insurance adjuster was filled with mystery, dread, and genuine surprise, and the process of piecing together exactly what the hell happened on this boat proved mesmerizing. That’s not only because the tale itself is wild, but also due to some incredibly smart design ideas. Sleuthing out how everyone died is a complicated web where you have to pay attention to every little detail, and I had a blast making those connections and solving this large, unique puzzle. Also, Return of the Obra Dinn looks and sounds absolutely incredible. Playing detective has never been this good.

  • I have a confession to make: I’ve never loved either Tetris or Lumines. The former was always too dry, and the latter was never an interesting puzzle game to me. But I’ve always respected things about both, and Tetris Effect takes those good parts and combines it all in a way that elevates it well above its source material. Wrapping the aesthetic pleasures of Lumines around the time-tested gameplay of Tetris makes for a borderline transcendent experience, as the incredible soundtrack and gorgeous artwork dance and respond to your every move. It’s a profound sensory journey that ties every part of the package together, and it honestly makes me wonder why more video games can’t be this comprehensive in the ways they involve the player.

  • Celeste has a lot going for it. First, it is an incredibly tight platformer, with super responsive controls and intelligent level design punctuating every moment of play. Second, it offers a lot of options that allow players of any skill level to enjoy it, from smart accessibility toggles up to incredibly tough additional challenges. Third, it tells a wonderful tale about confronting your own inner illnesses, and then accepting and living with them productively. Most meaningful to me is how it all ties together. Celeste’s themes cross fluidly between the explicit narrative and the game design itself, resulting in a holistic artistic expression that hit me pretty hard in spots. The charming art and beautiful soundtrack then wrapped it all up beautifully.

  • Curse of the Moon may not be Castlevania in name, but this obvious throwback expertly taps into what made those games great. It controls extremely well, showcases lots of fun levels and enemies, and has style for days, thanks to its moody artwork and rippin' soundtrack. In its execution, Curse of the Moon nails the classic formula, and then adds a layer of polish and some new twists of its own to make it a superb and modern action game. I even played through it multiple times thanks to some clever alternate unlockable modes, and when I was finally done it inspired me to go back to some of the older Castlevania games themselves. I spent a lot of time with the franchise during the course of 2018, and it’s all Curse of the Moon’s fault.

  • IO Interactive can enjoy a well-earned victory lap with Hitman 2. While this sequel may be predominantly “more Hitman,” that game was so unique and so good that a second outing is more than welcome. In fact, the maps here may be even bigger and more creative than before; there’s a real confidence on display this go around. But I most like Hitman 2 for what it already was. Learning the ins and outs of each clockwork level remains a highly satisfying process, and provides a great playground for you to murder in all sorts of ridiculous and entertaining ways. It’s a really smart game, with clear rules and countless exciting ways to interact and play. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best comedy games I’ve ever played. Just, really great stuff.

  • I didn’t play the landmark PC shooters of the 90s, and thus don’t have the nostalgia I thought I would need to appreciate Dusk. It turns out I don’t need it: Dusk pays homage to a classic style of game, but updates it to work in a modern context. It has highly creative level design, super fun weapons and powerups, a totally rad soundtrack, and some of the smoothest, most precise controls I’ve felt in a FPS. It also subverts expectations more than enough to create its own identity, and the result is a smart, fast-paced, high quality shooter that’s a blast from start to finish. Dusk pulls off the magic trick of being what all of those 20 year old games feel like in our memories, even though the reality is they almost certainly don’t hold up nearly this well.

  • The end has come. For these characters, this world, and my journey with them. It’s been a memorable journey over the past four years, and The Banner Saga 3 wraps up the trilogy in epic fashion. It leverages the buildup from the previous games, as well as your choices all along the way, to produce many impactful and shocking moments. Nothing is off limits for the finale, and I especially appreciate how the final moments honor the tone of the series; it would have been easy to concoct a happy, “save the day” type of ending. But The Banner Saga is more real than that, and thus more real than most video game narratives. I still generally like the combat too, and the music and art remain wonderful. Oh, and fuck Rugga.