StarvingGamer's Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2019

No preamble this year, too tired. Games happened. Spoilers.

Runners-up: 11. Observation, 12. Devil May Cry 5, 13. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, 14. Neo Cab, 15. Mini Motorways, 16. Telling Lies, 17. Sayonara Wild Hearts, 18. SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, 19. Slay the Spire, 20. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Best Old Game

Magic: The Gathering Arena

Titles are weird. If I didn't know any better I'd assume this was some sort of game about an arena that gathers or perhaps an arena that is made for gathering. Which, honestly, is not that far off the mark. By releasing this game, Wizards of the Coast has managed to gather together people approaching Magic: The Gathering from all sorts of different levels of skill and commitment. Are you heavily invested in playing the game in cardboardspace? Well here's another outlet for you when you can't get people together, without sacrificing any of the mechanical depth and technical play. Does the financial barrier keep you away from the traditional game? Or maybe you just feel anxious about the social aspects. Well here's a safe arena where you can gather up all the cards you want with a very generous free to play model that lets you remain competitive by investing time instead of money.

Sometimes the choice is made for you
Sometimes the choice is made for you

That's how I've spent a good amount of my free time this past year. Despite only putting $5 into one special bundle (more as a tip than anything) I have, for the first time in my life, gotten to really experience the Standard format of Magic play. Standard was just becoming a thing when I started getting into Magic in the mid 90s. Every year, old cards would rotate out of Standard and new sets would be released. For a person with infinite money, this probably sounded great. Wizards could learn as they went and design the game to be more varied and also more balanced, without having to worry about old, overpowered cards continuing to dominate. For me as a poor high schooler, this just meant hearing about all the cool new decks people were building while challenging my friends with our hodgepodge mishmash decks of badness made up of whatever cards we managed to scrape together.

Now I too am able to play the cool new decks that also still happen to be decks of badness but this time it's on purpose because I can't be happy with a straightforward strong deck that just wins. I'm not spending money, I don't have to leave home, and I can squeeze in a game or two here or there when I have time. I have more than enough cards to build several decks that can compete at the highest levels. I have oodles of in-game currency stocked up so I can go all out when the next set releases in January. Honestly, part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Wizards to take the hatchet to their in-game economy because the game is too generous. I hope they don't, so I can continue to get everything I want out of them for free in 2020.

Runners-up: Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Street Fighter V

Best Surprise

Life Is Strange 2

It feels weird to put this here.

Can you tell me the story about the wolf brothers?
Can you tell me the story about the wolf brothers?

When I think about the current phase of my adult life, I keep coming back to the original Life Is Strange as one of my most formative media experiences. I almost couldn't believe it when I double checked that the game came out at recently as 2015. Surely it's far older than that. Maybe it was just informing pieces of myself that were always there, but that I wasn't fully cognizant of. A four year old game that had been a part of me for the past decade. It was a game that tackled serious issues, sometimes clumsily, but always with care and compassion; issues that very few games with the same high production values were willing to tackle; with quality graphics and voice acting that lent each dramatic scene an immediate realness felt deep inside the gut.

But there was a sort of perceived universality to the themes being presented in Life Is Strange. Yes, DONTNOD was a French company trying to capture American teen drama, but what culture doesn't understand young romance, teen bullying, the pain of losing a loved one, or butting against parental authority? And when I played the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 back in September of last year, with it's plot about two Mexican-American teens on the run after seeing their father gunned down by a trigger happy cop, I thought, "Oooh, this feels too current, too of the moment." I doubted that the good-hearted but sometimes fumbling developers at DONTNOD would be able to properly capture what struck me as a uniquely American story.

In some ways, I suppose that was the point. Racism, prejudice, fascistic violence, these aren't uniquely American qualities. It can be easy to get tunnel vision and only focus on the things you hear about happening in your own back yard, but the truth is it's happening everywhere. And even if you don't experience it firsthand anyone can empathize with it, have compassion for those who do suffer from it, and as it turns out, write a compelling narrative with those themes built around a strong core. DONTNOD took a huge swing with Life Is Strange 2, from top to bottom a far more ambitious game than the original. They didn't miss.

I'm happy to be wrong, and sorry I ever doubted them.

Runners-up: Eliza, Teppen

Biggest Disappointment

Mortal Kombat 11

It's a little fucked up that my biggest gaming disappointments over the last four years have been fighting games. Am I too invested in fighting games as a genre? Maybe. I have a really good reason this time, though!

If you read my last GotY blog you may remember that my "gaming" moment of the year was when Dominique "SonicFox" McLean won Best Esports Player at The Game Awards, and took advantage of the moment and the platform to celebrate their blackness and their queerness and to thumb a nose at anyone who would hold those qualities against them. Since then, SonicFox has continued to be a voice for the marginalized, coming out as non-binary and pushing for more acceptance and fewer bigots in the fighting game community. They also have continued to excel in fighting game competitions, most notably by continuing to dominate in games developed by NetherRealm Studios.

It's cool they brought in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa though
It's cool they brought in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa though

This includes Mortal Kombat 11, a game that, among other things, replaced a number of its voice cast mainstays with this latest release. Part of this may have been due to the voice actor's strike overlapping with earlier phases of the game's development. In one particular case, it turned out to be the worst sort of stunt casting imaginable.

If you somehow don't know who Ronda Rousey is, consider yourself lucky. Rousey exploded into the mainstream in 2012 when she was announced as the first female fighter signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts (MMA) company. She was seen as a feminist (although very fat-shaming) icon thanks to her strength and dominance in the ring. Around the same time, however, she was also proving herself to be a real shit human to anyone paying enough attention.

It was only a month after the Sandy Hook shooting that claimed the lives of 28 people, including 20 children, when she was on twitter sharing a popular conspiracy video claiming the entire tragedy was a hoax. She called it an "extremely interesting must watch video" and initially doubled down on her tweet, saying it was more patriotic to ask questions than to accept what we're told. Eventually, she deleted the tweets and gave the pat "sorry you were offended" non-apology. Later that year she used gross, transphobic language when referring to Fallon Fox, the first transgender MMA fighter. She never apologized for this but she did learn to be less outspoken when it came to her more bigoted views. Since then her career in MMA fizzled and she went on to become a bad WWE wrestler and a worse film actor, getting by on name recognition alone. And in 2019 she became the new voice of one of the most iconic characters in fighting games, Sonya Blade.

It's so bad. It's really terribly awfully bad. Her delivery is wooden, stilted, affectless. She detracts from every scene she is in and turns what would otherwise be very intense, emotion beats for her character into embarrassing cringe-fests. And it sucks that anyone who fights as or against Sonya has to hear Rousey's lousy voice. And it sucks that because she was stunt cast she was at the forefront of the game's marketing. And it sucks that someone as progressive and inclusive and genuinely kind hearted as SonicFox has to compete in a game tainted by her vile presence.

Fuck TERFs.

Runners-up: Disco Elysium, Outer Wilds

Best New Character

Edelgard von Hresvelg (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Her burden is heavy
Her burden is heavy

Look, I don't see what the problem is. Yes she technically used to be my student but that was five years ago and I've been in an ageless sleep that entire time so we're basically probably the same age now. Ok so sure she's declared war on the Church but since the Church is run by a megalomaniacal dragon lady who likes to summarily execute dissenters, I think I'm ok with that.

And besides, even though she is technically the pinnacle of bourgeoisie, being the Flame Emperor and all, she's only wielding her absolute power over the Adrestian Empire to smash the other bourgeoisie. She's either punching up at dragon god or punching sideways at a ruling class that is obsessed with hereditary magical crests. Long live the proletariat!

I know that some of her allies/uncles might seem a bit evil or guilty of war crimes, but when you're fighting the Dragon God Church you need troops and supplies. You can't go it alone and you don't get to choose the family of sadistic sociopaths you have. You make the best of it and try to make sure they don't kill too many innocent people before you drain them of resources then murder them in the dark. Or have Hubert do it.

Plus this could be the start of a whole new trope. The "lesbians that conquer a continent to spread their egalitarian agenda" trope.

I know I'd die for my Emperor. Who are you going to die for? Claude?

Runners-up: Kim Kitsuragi (Disco Elysium), Parvati Holcomb (The Outer Worlds)

Best Moment or Sequence

David's Trailer (Life Is Strange 2)

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but I have strong feelings about the original Life Is Strange.

Fuck the Bay!
Fuck the Bay!

For five episodes, it was a game about using time travel to explore choice and consequence. In the end, the player's final interaction with the game was less a decision and more an ultimatum. Do you sacrifice the town of Arcadia Bay to the whims of a supernatural time cyclone? Or do you sacrifice Chloe, your best friend and possibly the love of your life, the person whose tragic first death was the impetus for discovering your ability to rewind time.

The game has two endings, but players who chose to sacrifice the Bay couldn't help but feel like their ending was less intended and more an afterthought. Players who chose to sacrifice Chloe were treated to a beautiful funeral sequence with a majority of the principal cast in attendance. It closes with Max witnessing a blue butterfly landing on Chloe's casket, a bookend to the blue butterfly that Max was chasing at the beginning of episode 1. The implications were clear. The culprits are apprehended. Everyone mourns. Life goes on.

On the other hand, if you chose to sacrifice the Bay, your ending consisted of a few brief aerial shots of the city vaguely hinting at the extent of the destruction, followed by a handful of quick cuts of Max and Chloe wordlessly driving out of town. There's no bookending, no closure, no real sense of what actually happened to the people in the Bay or what came next for Max and Chloe.

Long before the release of Life Is Strange 2 (LIS2), DONTNOD had made it clear that the story would be focusing on brand new characters, not Max and Chloe. Still, at the beginning of the game it asks players which choice did they make. Did they sacrifice Chloe, or sacrifice the Bay. Near the end of episode 1 there's a moment where the main characters pull onto an overlook along the highway to get a breath of fresh air. Down below you can see one of two things, a quaint seaside town dotted with lights against the night sky, or a desolate ghost town of destroyed homes. This is more or less what players expected, a little cameo of the Arcadia Bays that could have been and a fun nod to players of the first game.

No one expected David Madsen, Chloe's sometimes abusive and always shitty stepfather, to show up in the final episode of LIS2. Separated from the events of the first game, the ex-soldier turned power tripping security guard had finally mellowed out and found a community where he could simply be. Trading in his crew cut and jeans and button downs for a ponytail and cargo shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt (although still in military camo colors), this new David was less interested in being the Man and more interested in helping the protagonists Sean and Daniel Diaz escape the Man.

We lived, bitch
We lived, bitch

When David sends you into his trailer home to pick up a police scanner, you get to poke around his life a bit and see what he's been up to. If you chose to sacrifice Chloe you find out that the tragedy of her death led to the eventual dissolution of his marriage to Chloe's mother, Joyce. She sends him postcards and he writes her letters and that's about all you get.

If you're like me and chose to sacrifice the Bay, however, you are treated to a veritable feast of epilogue content for a game you thought was over four years ago. You enter his trailer and inside there's a string of Polaroids of the people in David's community, taken in Max's trademark photography style. And there, beneath them, is a photograph of Chloe and Max, together. David talks about the tragedy of the Bay being destroyed, confirming that yes, in fact, more or less everyone else died, but goes on to talk about how through that loss he was finally able to form a real relationship with his stepdaughter. She even visits him with her friend Max sometimes!

So your heart breaks into a million pieces because you love these girls so much and they're safe and they're happy and they're together and you didn't know you needed this but you needed this so you say thanks to David and bid him goodbye as he walks away to take an important call.

You only ever hear his side of the conversation but it's enough. Chloe and Max are in New York looking for a gallery space for Max. One spot turned them down, but another one sounds promising! Some of the old David creeps through as he takes a dig at the general concept of New Yorkers. He talks to Chloe about when he can see her again and ends the call with a, "Bye bye, love ya!"

And that's what this was, a moment for all the players who chose to sacrifice the Bay and save Chloe to properly tell these girls, "Bye bye, love ya!"

Runners-up: Keyblade Wielders from Long Ago (Kingdom Hearts III), Tommie Earl Jenkins Came Here to Act (Death Stranding)

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2019

10. The Outer Worlds

A lot of this comes down to timing. After beating Control, which dropped in late August, there wasn't really anything meaty for me to dig into. The expansion for Monster Hunter came out, alongside a slew of smaller games on Apple Arcade, but those were pure gameplay experiences meant to be chipped away at gradually over time. By late October I was starving for something more substantial that I could lose myself in.

I really don't have much to say about The Outer Worlds the video game. It's just a pretty good one of this style of open world RPG, and exactly the perfect sort of comfort food gaming that I could slot neatly into my life. It let me explore themes I find interesting without ever being too challenging. I got to futz around with inventory management where the ratio of value to weight was pretty easy to parse and the limited item pool meant I didn't have to agonize over optimization. And I got to fly around space with my very Firefly adjacent ragtag crew of castaways and roustabouts.

Look at this cute nerd
Look at this cute nerd

I guess now is the part where I afford special attention to one of those crew members, Parvati Holcomb. Typically, in this sort of companion based RPG, your teammates tend to be "player-sexual", meaning that any romantic narrative they have will focus on whether or not they are the member of the party that the player character will claim as their partner. The Outer Worlds bucks this trope in a few key ways; first, by having zero romantic options for your character to pursue; and second, by focusing Parvati's personal quest on her attempts to woo Junlei Tennyson, the chief engineer on a space station the player frequents.

At first things play out as you'd expect them to for a bubbly but socially awkward young lover. Parvati can't stop rambling incessantly about Junlei, "I like her. Does she like me? She mentioned her ex what does that mean?" but pretty quickly she makes it clear to the player that she has another concern that goes beyond what many players will find typical, or even have any awareness of.

That's because Parvati is "ace" or asexual.

For the uninitiated, an asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction to others, and are sometimes uninterested or even repulsed by intimate physical contact. Asexual does not mean aromantic, however, as plenty of asexual people experience emotional attraction to others and can have long fulfilling relationships along those lines. And boy is Parvati ever romantically attracted to Junlei. In between fretting over her asexuality and talking about the ways it has caused problems in her past relationships, she's pushing the player to scour the galaxy for the components she requires in order to assemble the perfect first date.

Eventually you complete Parvati's laundry list of tasks and they have their dinner and you eavesdrop a bit and it is extremely cute and afterwards you ask Parvati how it went. It turns out the plan was a big success, that Junlei was sufficiently wooed, and even though Parvati is asexual they are still going to try to make it work. There's an implication that Junlei is not also asexual, but the game's epilogue makes it sound like they found a comfortable middle ground and lived happily ever after.

It's a small step, but I think it's pretty cool that the most memorable character from a big budget mass market video game is asexual, and that asexuality is front and center. And part of the reason she works so well is because the writer in charge of Parvati, Kate Dollarhyde, also identifies as ace. Representation matters, and I hope we have a lot more in 2020.

9. Control

Speaking of Control (I mentioned it up there somewhere), this game is the best instincts of Remedy Entertainment on full display. There was a stumbling point for the studio in 2016 when they released Quantum Break to a very lukewarm reception from critics and fans alike. The qualities that had become hallmarks of the Remedy house style; a heavy focus on genre trappings, a strong dose of Lynchian surrealism, and the uncanniness that came from projecting video of real actors onto the TVs in a world of polygonal people; were all sanded down for what felt less like a Remedy game and more like a licensed game based on a generic network TV show.

Not relevant; I just love this suit
Not relevant; I just love this suit

Thankfully Control gets right everything that Quantum Break gets wrong. Falling somewhere between X-Files and SCP Foundation, the game is dripping from head to toe with genre goodness. The main character, Jesse Faden, stumbles into a building called the "Oldest House," a building that normal people can't see and may or may not be an extradimentional entity, while in search of her brother who was taken by the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) 17 years ago when an old slide projecter they found in a dump opened portals to other dimensions and caused every adult in their town to disappear. She immediately gets hired as the assistant to the janitor, who may or may not be God, and also inherits the gun of the old Director who just used said gun to commit suicide and, like, it's Mjolnir so whosoever holds this gun shall possess the power of Director and everyone in the bureau is immediately on board with this person who walked in off the street suddenly being the one in charge.

It's some wild shit.

And the game is great. It's incredibly fun to play. As you explore the Oldest House Jesse's access to powers and weapons expands, so even when you're facing generic grunt soldiers for the 100th time there's always another way you could try to approach the fight. The architecture of the Oldest House does an amazing job of setting tone, like what if Brutalism but the part where it looks uninviting or actively hostile to being inhabited by people is actually a design feature. All the descriptions and behaviors of the supernatural objects of power in the game play out like the best creepypastas. And they learned the lesson from Quantum Break by making sure none of the live action actors were also represented by performance capture models in game, and vice versa, unless they were doing something really weird with it.

By the end of the game Jesse has found a new home for herself as the Director of the FBC, and in a lot of ways Control is a homecoming for Remedy as well. With the beginnings of their newly established Remedyverse being teased in the game with direct references to their 2010 game Alan Wake, I can't wait for whatever comes next.

8. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Up front I just want to thank Sylvain and Lorenz for being such total creeps towards my main character that I had no choice but to side with the Black Eagles just to get away from them.

Blessed be the fan artists
Blessed be the fan artists

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is three very long games rolled into one. In one game you can be a radical revolutionary, trying to tear down not one but two dominant systems of power. In another I think you end up being some sort of weird revenge cop. And the third I'm pretty sure is just about being a centrist who is really proud about how cleverly centrist they can be. But like most modern Fire Emblem games, the real story is about the characters living in the world, and the ways that conflict can bring them together or drive wedges between them.

The narrative of the game is set during two distinct time periods. The first half casts the player in the role of professor for one of the three class houses at Garreg Mach Monestary's military academy. Each house represents one of the three major geographical powers of a continent at peace, with students hailing from all three regions learning together, eating together, and going on military excursions together to eradicate the occasional bandit gang or quell a minor uprising or two. And outside of a few exceptions that change depending on the house you chose, almost every character in the game is recruitable to your house. This includes not only other students but also teachers, soldiers, and clergy from the Monastery itself.

Then comes the plot twist, and for the next five years the protagonist falls out of the world before returning to very different circumstances. The war that was declared at the end of the academy arc has been ongoing, and the principal actors in every faction are the same people you spent the first half of the game getting to know better. Almost everyone you failed to or couldn't recruit ends up facing you on the battlefield and falling before your army. They fill the enemy ranks with a handful of side characters, bit players that matter more to the plot than the narrative. But the moments that really matter are when your former friends beg you for forgiveness, or apologize for their loyalties, or curse you for your betrayals, before you strike them down for the sake of a better tomorrow.

Image credit: https://twitter.com/minnnnnnnim/status/1185581581664051203

7. Teppen

GungHo Online Entertainment is a publisher/developer perhaps most well known for the widely popular, highly addictive, and microtransaction laden mobile game Puzzle & Dragons. It struck me as unexpected, but not entirely surprising, when I learned that their most recent game was a highly addictive and microtransaction laden mobile card game being developed in partnership with Capcom, leveraging the latter's vast roster of world-famous characters. What did surprise me was how well designed and balanced the game was for a mechanically rich card game in its infancy, and how friendly it would prove to be to free-to-play players like me.

No Caption Provided

I've been playing the game since right after launch and it has superseded every other mobile game on my phone. If I think I have the six or seven minutes available to complete a match of Teppen, I'll play Teppen. If not then I'll play Mini Motorways which is also great. Sorry Kingdom Hearts Union χ[Cross]. Sorry Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. I did the usual thing of investing $5 in the special introductory pack, like I do with most free-to-play games, and haven't spent a dollar on the game since, while still managed to accrue enough in-game currency through play to remain competitively viable.

More than just being fun and inviting, Teppen has given me the first opportunity in my life to be right at the ground floor of the conversation surrounding a competitive card game. I'm in chats with top Teppen players from around the world, discussing balance, deck design, shifts in the metagame, and even collaborating on homebrew cards that will never be printed in the game but serve as excellent design practice. I was even able to rank 39th in the North American qualifiers for the World Championships.

In a lot of ways Teppen is finally letting me live the life I would have led as a kid if I had much more disposable income when Magic: The Gathering first released. And thanks to the specific ways Teppen was designed, I can manage to live this life in the pockets of free time I carve out for myself as a homemaker and parent.

I don't have a clear idea of just how popular or successful Teppen has been for GungHo and Capcom, but the community that is there is engaged and excited so I hope they continue to support the game for years to come. And if any GungHo recruiters happen to have seen my card creations on the fan Discord server, maybe send me a DM. I'd be happy to do contract work.

6. Monster Hunter World: Iceborne

There really isn't much to say here. You can already read my thoughts on what made Monster Hunter: World (MHW) my game of the year in 2018. Now there are more monsters, new tools and attacks to liven up old weapons, a fascinating new take on the Monster Hunter endgame that does what I hoped it would by focusing more on time invested than luck in drops, and a wild new post-endgame event that is again basically a giant roll of the dice but I'm not even close to being ready to tackle that challenge. The only reason this game isn't ranked higher is because, after grinding MHW for hundreds and hundreds of hours last year, my fire for it just doesn't burn as brightly. That said, I still am having fun checking in to complete my weekly quests and don't imagine myself stopping any time soon, and Capcom has been great about continuing to produce fun and free post-release content. Also the winter event qipao armor is super duper cute.

5. Death Stranding

I've been thinking about this game a lot for the past two months. After beating it, I immediately went and watched two other playthroughs of the game. But Death Stranding has already been thoughtpieced to death by better writers than me, and I don't think I have any sort of insightful, personal take to give. Bear with me here.

Die Hardman AKA John McClane lol fuck off Kojima
Die Hardman AKA John McClane lol fuck off Kojima

It's not novel if I point out that the cutscenes are amazing. Did you know there are seven hours of them? That's basically a cinematic trilogy's worth of filmed footage. And unlike most trilogies, the fidelity of Death Stranding's visual design is so high and the talent of the performance capture acting so great that even when the writing gets long winded and expository, it is never uninteresting to watch. It helps that Kojima has finally started to learn how to use shot composition, even if he still needs to work through his instincts to objectify women with his framing at the most inappropriate times.

This is where most writers want to go on a tangent about how clumsy his games continue to be about the handling of its female characters, when your principal women are named "Fragile" and "Mama." And it's weird when you have multiple couples that you make deliveries to in the game where the man does all the talking and the woman just stands there and smiles, completely mute. You'd think the mountaineer's wife whose life you just saved, who just gave birth to a child that she chose to name after you, would maybe have any words for you when you drop off a bunch of crates of baby formula. Or maybe instead of the doctor telling me how brilliant an engineer his wife is, she could tell me herself? I can see her right there standing next to you.

Kojima, I know you think "I'm 'Fragile', but I'm not that fragile" is a badass line, but it really just isn't.

Then there's Kojima's tendency to learn just enough about a thing to clumsily misrepresent it which normally wouldn't be as big an issue, but when it comes to marginalized identities, that shit just doesn't fly. For everything that The Outer Worlds got right in its handling of asexuality, Death Stranding gets it hilariously wrong. Granted you'll only find it addressed in a journal entry you can choose not to read, but that entry is filled from top to bottom with harmful stereotypes and misconceptions around what asexuality is.

This entry got weirdly critical of the fifth most enjoyable gaming experience I had all year, but that goes to show just how much fun I had with the rest of it. These small but significant hiccoughs didn't manage to taint my overall experience with Death Stranding because there's just so much game to enjoy. Beyond the seven hours of cutscenes, I ended up putting in something around another seventy hours in the game world, exploring, traversing, optimizing my carrying capacity, and carving out efficient paths between outposts.

If nothing else, it's great that a game as audacious and expensive as Death Stranding can exist, and I can only hope that other game publishers will see its success and be willing to take more risks by throwing their biggest budgets at games that may not fall within the board-approved narrow definition of safer commercial bets.

4. Eliza

No Caption Provided

As a good little SJW I've always been more than willing to sound the horn and bang the drum any time cries of "Destigmatize mental health!" and "There's no shame in therapy!" are called for. It's just compassion 101. People suffering from mental health issues should be given the space and resources they need to get better. Everyone should have a safe space to really air out their problems to a sympathetic and professionally trained ear. But it wasn't until after playing Eliza this year that I developed more than an purely intellectual understanding of these beliefs.

Eliza is a short visual novel about a software engineer named Evelyn who was one of the lead designers on an algorithmic counseling app. When one of the other development leads died due to work-related stress, she left the project and disconnected from colleagues, friends, and family for three years. At the start of the game, Evelyn is only just returning from her self-imposed exile, taking contract work as a proxy, a human face to the app she developed, now dubbed Eliza.

The narrative follows two throughlines. In one, Evelyn is making new friends and reconnecting with people from her past, as they all talk about their concerns about Eliza and their wishes for the future. There's Nora, a fellow engineer turned electronic musician and anti-tech activist. There's Soren, the visionary with dreams of eradicating unhappiness through tech. There's Rainer, the progress-obsessed CEO striving for genuine AI. There's Erlend, the new engineering lead fresh out of college struggling with Eliza's potential for misuse.

There is also Rae, the manager of the Eliza clinic that Evelyn contracts for. She is kind, thoughtful, and relentlessly motivated to help people with their mental health struggles. She is clearly driven by trauma that stems from her own brother's struggles with mental health. She loves to make cookies. She also is asexual, and shares her asexuality with Evelyn in a very natural way.

I feel it's especially important to mention that much like interacting with Parvati in The Outer Worlds, Eliza gives the player a chance to represent their character as asexual during these conversations. It's a small thing that I know has been incredibly meaningful for players of these games that identify as asexual.

No Caption Provided

The other story is about the people who Eliza speaks to through Evelyn as proxy, that lays bare both how important therapy is and also how little power therapists actually have. These people all are dealing with rough situations, some self-inflicted but mostly matters of circumstance, and there's very little aid the Eliza algorithm can provide them outside of minor recommendations to make the pain more bearable and maybe help keep these people from making these already bad situations worse. It's heartbreaking, but even if Evelyn chooses to put her job at risk and break free of Eliza's generic script to freely speak to these people, she's powerless to actually improve their situations.

That's what I mean when I say I have more than an intellectual understanding now. This game made me feel, deep down inside, how difficult it must be to be a person on either side of a therapy session. Life is hard, and people should have access to the help they need to make things even a little bit easier. And my heart goes out to the therapy workers who take on that heavy emotional burden despite having so little access to the tools they would need to materially improve their patients' lives.

At the end of the game Evelyn is given a choice on what path to follow. I ended up going with Nora, trading in resources and stability for the freedom to try and make the world better on my own terms. And maybe write some electronic music on the side. Did you know that the "moog" in "moog synthesizer" is actually pronounced "moog" and not "moog"?

3. Kingdom Hearts III

I was never a Kingdom Hearts superfan. I played the first game, maybe half of the GBA game, and never actually watched the ending of the second one despite beating the last boss. Then I sorta stopped paying attention to the series as game after game that wasn't Kingdom Hearts III (KHIII) came out.

So when KHIII was nearing release I knew I had some brushing up to do on all the lore I missed. I had seen the memes and heard the jokes about how labyrinthine the plot had become, and started thinking of the world of Kingdom Hearts as a sort of challenge to be overcome. There are few things I enjoy more than understanding things other people find complicated.

So I looked up one of the more popular lore breakdown videos and watched it. It was a lot shorter than I expected, and at the end of it I felt reasonably comfortable in my understanding of the games up until that point. It wasn't even that convoluted, and I was pretty easily able to field quizzing questions from Kingdom Hearts loyalists. More importantly, at this point I was all the way in. By valorizing my understanding of Kingdom Hearts, I suddenly found myself giving a shit about Kingdom Hearts. As I started listening to the Waypoint's new podcast Lore Reasons, I was one of those people yelling at my phone every time they got something wrong.

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Is this what it's like to be in a "fandom"? Am I a member of the Kingdom Hearts fandom?

I must be, because I cared so much about everything that happened in Kingdom Hearts III. Axel seeing a phantom memory of Xion and suddenly crying without understanding why? Wrecked me. Sora bursting into the realm of darkness to give Riku that boyfriend powerup combo attack? Destroyed. Aqua saying "good morning, Ven"? I literally died. Woody ends a man's life; there's the bit at the top of the San Fransokyo bridge; Lingering Will shows up with a proton cannon; there's Strelizia's ghost probably; anything involving Roxas, Axel, and Xion; Yen Sid is Moses; a whole bunch of players from the mobile game lent me their power; Donald Duck is the strongest magic user to ever exist in Square Enix canon.

Somehow I went from not even knowing most of these characters existed for the past 14 years, to adoring every single one of them. It's the way they're so vulnerable and open about how much they love each other. They suffer doubts and make mistakes but are always carried forward by their desire to be there for one other and to save everyone. It's a purity of motivation that helps to push back the haze of darkness that an ever growing part of living in the real world.

Since then I've watched three different playthroughs of the game. I've listened to podcasts recapping KH3 and also recapping the entire series. I've gone back and relistened to Lore Reasons probably a dozen times. Whatever comes next for Kingdom Hearts (ReMind), I am ready to fall in love with these kids all over again, and maybe in the next game they'll even let Kairi do something.

Also how fucked up is it that they worked so hard to recreate this whole musical number and didn't just copy/paste it? It's legit coocoo bananas. (The embed keeps breaking so here's the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zahz4iGaZw)

2. Anthem

How many critically panned BioWare games to I need to put at #2 on my GotY before it becomes a trope. Is it three? Because this is the second one.

Look at that cutie booty
Look at that cutie booty

First I should acknowledge all the criticisms of the game. The play structure is poorly paced and highly repetitive. A majority of missions follow a very simple formula of go to place, kill things, maybe interact with an object, go to next place, etc etc etc. The hub city can be annoyingly slow to navigate for no apparent reason. Also I hear the game was a buggy mess at launch, but as usual BioWare spared me the brunt of it. Probably because I'm so loyal.

The itemization was a mess and the more interesting gear that really opens up diversified playstyles is still locked behind the higher difficulty levels, and only after you've reached the level cap. Also some people were upset that the game followed a much more linear storyline as opposed to the decision-laden dialogue-tree-riddled narratives of previous BioWare games, but that's more on them for not paying attention to what they were buying. It was hardly a secret that this game would have a different storytelling style.

All that being said, none of these flaws actually matter to me. That's because the act of playing this game is so unbelievably fun.

In the broadest strokes, Anthem is an Iron Man simulator set in an original sci-fi world. When you think about the cinematic representations of Iron Man's fighting style across the past 11 years, one of the key aspects is his mobility. He is constantly transitioning between fighting on the ground to hovering over the battlefield to rocketing off in whatever direction. That's a level of freedom to navigate a space that is rarely afforded to players in a video game, but Anthem lets you do all of it. You can seamlessly transition from sprinting across the battlefield to leaping 30 feet in the air to taking off in flight to stopping to hover and lay down some fire to avoiding a rocket with a midair dodge to dropping out of the sky with an explosive melee attack on anyone unfortunate enough to be beneath you, all in a matter of seconds.

Then there's Iron Man's versatility. After all, there isn't just one Iron Man suit. In Anthem you have the good all-arounder Ranger that specializes in setting up and capitalizing off of combination attacks, the Interceptor that can get in and out of locations quickly and surgically remove high value targets deep behind enemy lines, the War-Machine-adjacent Storm that provides explosive artillery support from long range, and the Colossus that wades into the thick of it, smashing the opposition like a Hulkbuster. And within each of these archetypes there are dozens of weapon options and unique powers and suit mods that allow you to push your playstyle in a hundred different directions depending on what feels right to you.

Also I guess I sorta made Raphael?
Also I guess I sorta made Raphael?

I can't recall the last time I clicked so well with an action game of any kind. With shooters like Destiny or Wolfenstein or DOOM I get tired really quickly of the limited verbs available to me. In character action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta and the dreaded Souls lineage, eventually I butt up against the game's demands for precision and my physical limitations. In Anthem I have so many options between all the different suits and builds that I never grow bored. And the increased focus on battlefield awareness and movement means that I'm actually pretty good at the game too.

My preferred suit is the Interceptor, and I know all the little tricks that let the interceptor move through environments twice as fast as any other suit, despite the fact that running and flying speeds are normalized. And when I was deep into the endgame, I started doing this thing in high difficulty dungeons where I would sprint several rooms ahead of my party and clear out entire areas by myself, causing the game to automatically teleport everyone to me. It's a silly thing to care about, but as someone whose enthusiasm for games is significantly disproportionate to their fine motor control functions, it feels good to be able to sit down with a game and know that I am providing value to my team.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Anthem was a commercial failure, but I'm heartened to know that rather than scrapping it entirely, BioWare has been given the go ahead to work on an overhaul that addresses all the issues that turned people off the original release. Whether that overhaul takes the form of a massive update patch or, more likely, an entirely new Anthem game, I'll be there on day one ready to suit up again. If they can maintain the feel of the original game and improve the game flow and mission variety, it's going to be hard to top as my Game of the Year when it comes out.

1. Life Is Strange 2

Here I am at the end of this wondering if I have it in me to write three essays about Life Is Strange 2 in as many days.

Broification?
Broification?

There has been a lot of talk surrounding about the "dadification" of games over the past decade, and while the trend hasn't been as prolific as some people were expecting after the releases of BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us in 2013, most of these games approach parenthood from a very similar angle. How do I keep this child safe, how far will I go to do it, and when can I trust them to have my back too? It's a very masculine sort of take on parenthood. I am strong and will use this strength to protect my child and I will teach them to be strong and protect themselves.

Life Is Strange 2 is about two brothers, Sean who is 16 and Daniel who is 9. They're Mexican-Americans kids trying to grow up in 2016, in Trump's America, when their father is abruptly murdered by a poorly trained, under prepared police officer. The shock of this triggers Daniel's latent telekinetic powers and he lashes out, killing the police officer before falling unconscious. Faced with the intense mixture of confusion, trauma, and fear, with the specter of racism haunting his mind, Sean grabs his backpack, takes his brother, and runs.

Life Is Strange 2 is a story about what it means to be someone's family. In an instant Sean has to transform from the annoyed older brother to Daniel's sole caregiver, provider, and protector. And more importantly, he becomes responsible for Daniel's upbringing, for guiding him and shaping him as a moral person who also happens to have super powers.

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Throughout the game, Sean and Daniel see and experience the different things family can mean to different people. They encounter Brody, a traveling journalist who fled his home when he realized the sort of life he would have to lead if he stayed to inherit his parent's money and legacy. They meet Chris, a kid Daniel's age who is having to learn to be the parent to his abusive father Charles who has fallen into disarray since the passing of Chris's mother. There are Sean and Daniel's maternal grandparents, who still haven't recovered from their daughter cutting them, her husband, and her two kids out of her life years and years ago. There are the vagabond kids who drift from town to town, always looking forwards because of the pain they're trying to leave behind.

During all these encounters Daniel is always observing, always learning, and it is up to Sean to help teach him what here is valuable, what should he be taking from these people. Is it ok to swear? We didn't really go to church as kids, but should we pray with Grandma? When do we lie to cover a painful truth? How hungry do I have to be before I decide to steal? Does it matter who I'm stealing from? When is it ok to use my powers?

Because that's what parenting really is for the most part in 2020. It's watching these brilliant little sponges of limitless potential taking in everything around them, so much of it beyond our control, and doing our damndest to make sure all the good parts stick while trying to wring out all the bad. If the 2010s were about the dadification of games maybe it's time for the 2020s to be about the parentification of games. Let's focus less on the keeping safe and keeping alive and more on making sure the future generations grow up to be better than we are.

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At the end of the game you are given one final choice, or what feels like one final choice. Do you push Daniel to use his powers and break a police blockade at the border to Mexico, or do you give up on your quest to flee to your father's hometown of Puerto Lobos and surrender. But unlike the original Life Is Strange, and most other games in this style, you have been making this choice all along in smaller ways throughout the five episodes.

That's because in the past year of hardships, Daniel has grown to be his own person, and depending on your decision and the morality you've instilled in him, he may or may not choose to defy you in this moment. In the end, I couldn't ask Daniel to do it. Despite his formidable powers, with several semi-automatic weapons pointed directly at the brothers, the risk was far too high. Either Daniel would be hurt or would be forced to kill the people in the way. Because I had largely taught Daniel to respect other people and not use his powers selfishly, he followed Sean's lead and watched as his brother was put in handcuffs and driven away.

In the epilogue that follows you see a series of photographs depicting Daniel living what amounts to a normal childhood with his grandparents, making friends, having adventures, attending school, and eventually graduating college, earning his degree. Fifteen years later and Daniel, his Mom, and Sean's old best friend Lyla are there to pick up Sean on his release from prison. On a camping trip to one of the first spots they used when they started their journey, Daniel is animatedly regaling his brother with tales of his life. Sean can only stare sullenly at the fire, when suddenly he is overcome with sadness or grief and begins to sob uncontrollably as Daniel tries to comfort him. In the morning the brothers embrace and Sean gets in his car and drives off to parts unknown. Daniel returns to his car and cries, before turning on the ignition and going home.

There is no justice in the end for Sean Diaz. His triumph is the life that his brother was allowed to live, even if it cost him all of himself. My one hope is that in 15 years I'll be able to look at my kids and know that I was as much a parent to them as Sean was to his brother.

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