GOTY 2019

Another year, another list of games. I liked games this year!

List items

  • This game makes me appreciate the stars more. I wonder about the worlds surrounding all those stars. Outer Wilds compresses the vastness of space and makes it possible to explore a solar system while somehow keeping the wonderful sense of scale present in space. The scale and beauty can only propel a game so far and thankfully Outer Wilds also has a wonderful story. Uncovering the history of a civilization is so rewarding. Gradually understanding how all the pieces of their worlds and goals fit together is a really interesting contrast to Metroid style exploring. Instead of saying "now I can go there" it's more "now I understand why I need to go there".

    All of this is so well done with these great set pieces: imploding planets, elaborate caves, rising sand levels and liquid giants with raging storms. I loved the arc of getting to the quantum moon--it's so rewarding to learn about how a world works and have it culminate and tie so well together with the story and mechanics. I kind of thought it would be the end game with how perfectly it dovetailed but it was actually just a side quest! It speaks to how long and detailed this game is.

    There are so many great little moments:

    -Quantum moon disappearing and reappearing as you wake up

    -Accidentally flying into the sun

    -Islands being flung into orbit on giants deep

    -Going through the black hole for the first time

    -Seeing an ethically and ecologically concerned civilization grapple with technology and death

    I loved this game, it was one of the most unique experiences I've had playing games. I kind of ran out of steam near the end but I'll always remember how much fun I had exploring this world.

  • I want games to be shorter, smaller and more dense. A Short Hike is perfect microcosm. It's a little island full of great, funny characters. It also has some genuinely sweet and touching moments with these characters. The small space has a lot tucked away in it and helping the residents of the island felt like a more focused animal crossing. I love how easy it is to move. It makes it that much more fun to explore as you're gliding, running and climbing. This game is beautiful and makes me appreciate the outdoors and small communities.

  • Religious iconography is fascinating, especially how gruesome it can be. This game reminds me of how violent "Passion of the Christ" is--there are a subset of people who clearly get something meaningful (and possibly good?) by really taking in violence associated with religion. Blasphemous leans into this discomfort, both in its visual style and storytelling. I kept thinking about how much guilt and punishment and a desire for punishment are all tied together in Christian religions. That's not something a game has ever made me think about (maybe The Shivah?). I really wanted to see the outcome of the characters who think of pain as a gift in some sense. I also really liked the way religious language is used to tell the story in small bits of lore.

    As an exploration game, I enjoyed seeing new areas and enemies because everything is visually distinct. There is too much backtracking and it takes a long time to move between some areas (even with fast travel) and I eventually just wanted to see where to go next instead of having to check every area for a new path. I really did want to see all of the little questlines though, I can't help but want to look for hope in this grim world. It lacks the danger, beauty and intrigue of Hallow Knight but I found the story much more interesting, even in its cryptic form.

    The bosses were a bit too easy (I usually don't mind but it was odd here given how brutal the world is). I loved the animations and how grotesque everything is. I really enjoyed living in this terrible place and I think they struck a good balance between being beautiful and grotesque (unlike say, Stasis, which is firmly in the "grotesque" camp).

  • Oh my god Ape Out is awesome. I couldn't help but yell "out of my way, motherfucker" as I pushed enemies into walls and tried to get out of open areas and back into my sweet, sweet small rooms. This game has two main options--push or grab and push. The enemy types are varied enough that you really have to think about how you want to approach each situation. The only problem is it's so frantic that you kind of get this feeling like you're actually running! The game is just full of these split second decisions and nail biting moments. The randomized nature of each area only adds to that frantic feeling. I loved not knowing the shape of the level or where the enemies were.

    The game gets very difficult near the end. The endgame is fantastic--I love the flame thrower enemies. You are just fast enough to outrun their flame throwers if you play it right. I love this touch. The last level has you rescuing other imprisoned animals that help you escape. This is the most satisfying feeling as you overwhelm the enemies and escape! OK, last bit of praise. The soundtrack for the whole game is this wonderful jazz drumming along somewhat minimal accompaniments. When you finish the game a loud trumpet joins in and you're suddenly hear this wonderfully noisly jazz song. This game is a masterclass in tension and release and it is driven home the moment that trumpet kicks in and a jazz song starts.

  • I love exploring a castle. I loved Portrait of Ruin on the DS and I played through most of Order of Eclasia. I like being on the lookout for breakable walls and secret passageways. It's all of these things that keep me coming back to this formula. Hollow Knight was the best for really feeling the danger of exploration. Castlevania to me is about finding ways to feel overpowered--using the game's systems against themselves. In Bloodstained it felt like maximizing for luck lets you build up huge stat bonuses with the recipe system and permanent bonus effects from stat shards. Taking back a bunch of item drops to craft recipes and enhance shards feels great. That loop works for most of the game--clearing areas, getting new exploration abilities, seeking out new ares. The game breaks down when it tries to be cheeky with the formula and make you talk to NPCs or search the entire map for an item. I know this is a tough balance. It's fun to suss out where to go next but I feel like that's usually something like "I remember seeing something suspicious in that one room" and not "I should scour the whole map again". There were a couple points that felt like the latter and I eventually got tired of it and looked up a solution. The only other thing that breaks the game for me is the end game. It's one thing to feel briefly overpowered but to feel like you have to grind to beat a boss is annoying. This is why I stopped playing Order of Eclasia. I had a great time exploring but the end of that game felt cheap. No matter what clever combinations of armor, spells and weapons I chose I was getting bulldozed by one of the last few bosses. Thankfully this didn't last too long in Bloodstained--the librarian bit at the end was clever and again makes you feel overpowered in a fun way.

  • Children of Morta was colorful and dreadful at the same time. I loved the story of a family going though a strange fantasy apocalypse. A the corruption overtakes the house and starts infiltrating their dreams, the game delivered some pretty creepy moment for a top-down dungeon crawler. There are also some very sad little vignettes you get as you explore the dungeons and because the feeling of a corrupt world is don e so well they earn these moments of heartbreak (an strange animal is tortured by robots, a scientist retrieves a power crystal only to have his daughter die as his machine powers back on). The gameplay has some great Dark Souls elements along with a touch of DOTA. I like dodging, moving and waiting for abilities to cool down. Each run feels so dependent on the items you get that it can be really frustrating if you get two useless items pickups (of maybe 5 total).

  • A neat little metroid style game. The black and white color palette works very well with the low-res art style and the kind of junky world. This game really stands out in the movement--the recoil of the missile launcher and the feel of the jumping are superb. The bosses are also well designed with interesting patterns. The game isn't that difficult and it could have done with a slightly more challenging last area. I really liked the tone of the game. I guy talking to his cat in a robot suit was wonderfully absurd.

  • I like games that allow me to mull on solutions while I'm not playing them. Wilmot's Wharehouse is exactly that. As you start out you kind of assume you'll be able to sort things into like categories "food", "abstract shapes", "tools and crafts". Everything goes down hill pretty quickly as you're overwhelmed with new tiles and duplicates of existing tiles. Eventually, I realized I had to sort by color and arrange in rows with a single, straight edge forming a lane. It was exciting to form my grand vision as I upgraded the wharehouse. Most rounds ended with either "can I make this work for one more round" or "I need to seriously rearrange a everything". I like the rhythm of "deliver, sort and ponder my whole organization" that the game falls into. It also has some hilarious pro-labor moments. The problem is that by the last 50 items or so, it started to feel much more like rote work for me. I had a good ride and I like the design but I wanted a slightly different end game.

  • All of these working and crafting games are interesting as examples of "how does the game transition between states". In Forager, you spend most of the game hitting rocks and trees with your pickaxe. The pickaxe gets stronger, but for most of the game you're still hitting things. All of this feels great as you slowly unlock a tech tree and explore dungeons. All of a sudden the game transitions into something different as you get a kind of tesla coil that mines for you. This moment when the game transitions from a survival game to a kind of weird idle game (along with banks that are always producing money) is hilarious and very satisfying. The game is suddenly about effectively streamlining production and managing high level crafting items instead of about collecting resources. I really like this transition! I do wish there was a bit more to do in the endgame--especially after your sword can break resources, which further heightens the pace of moving, destroying and collecting. I played this game obsessively for two days. I loved the loop but each stage kind of plateaus for a while before you get to the satisfying transitions mentioned above. That kept it from feeling like a real roller coaster but it has some great moments.

  • A neat little animation focused "thing". It's mesmerizing to watch the crowd movement.