5 Games of 2019 That Occupied My Brain

Hello! I will probably do a real top 10 games of 2019 as a list at some point (when I finally catch up on playing some more of 2019's games). Until then, I thought I'd do a bit of writing about 5 games that I think of more than any others when I think about games of 2019. These aren't my favorite 5 games of the year, and they are not in order of how much I like them, but they are games I've spent too much time thinking about, so I'm putting some of those thoughts down on digital paper! For you! To read!

*Mild spoiler warnings for some of these*

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Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds is an exploration of space, of the vastness of the universe and time, and of bittersweet ends. It is an achievement that a game fundamentally about wide scale death, decay, and destruction can feel so warm and hopeful. Outer Wilds does not dwell on the suffering or loss of the moment, but revels in the details of remembering successes large and small. Remembering others and how people fundamentally care about each other. How life can and should be about joy, discovery, and sharing.

Of course, there is also the matter of the sun exploding and resetting time every 22 minutes. One of many mysteries for you to solve, this cataclysm is actually the tool needed for your character to embark on this amazing journey of discovery. It’s a terrible event that reveals so much joy and warmth. A bittersweet loop of questions, understanding, and death.

The scaled down solar system of Outer Wilds feels vast but manageable within the constraints of the game, and the on ship information map is such a great tool for finding the next question you want to answer. The discoveries you are able to make range from mundane but charming conversations of an ancient alien race to absolutely fascinating discussions of space, time, and the nature of reality. Every location you can visit has something worthwhile to learn, and most of them also have some really impressive views or awe inspiring phenomena. This is a rare game where I never felt like I was wasting time, even when all I managed to do was crash land on a planet and watch the sun explode. It is beautiful every single time.

I don’t think there is much more I can say without getting into spoilers, so I will leave it with these vague praises. The core loop is excellent. The sense of wonder and glee of discovery is something I can still feel when I think about this game, months later. The warm tone and lovely writing pepper this universe with such a sense of place and purpose that I feel like I belong there. I love that this game exists and that I got to experience it.

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Baba Is You

This is the only game in this blog that I didn’t finish, because frankly, Baba Is You is too hard for me and it frequently broke my brain. That said, I respect the hell out of it.

Simply put, Baba Is You is a puzzle game where the puzzles to solve are “How can you rewrite the rules of the game so that you can win?”. You don’t just need to think outside of the box for each level, you have to forget everything you know about boxes and reimagine a world where boxes are actually something else entirely, and then think outside of that. Then move on to a level where your new idea about boxes is utterly unhelpful.

This is what made the game so hard for me. I wanted to be able to take lessons learned from previous levels and apply them in new ways, and the game would oblige that to a small extent. But after a small indulgence of a level or two building on each other, it would toss that whole idea away and ask me to reinvent the wheel again. Except it can’t be a wheel that’s round and spins, think of something else. Nope, not that either, keep trying.

The rules of Baba Is You are so systemic and flexible that I honestly was never sure whether the solutions I found to a difficult level were the intended ones, or if there even were intended ones. Each level has such specifically placed objects and rules, the layout so meticulously designed that I was trying to imagine the mind of the designer rather than try to find an organic solution honestly. Often I felt like I was playing a game made by a mad scientist, unsure if they had actually constructed a game for the purpose of fun or if it was something else entirely. Maybe Baba Is You achieved sentience at some point and started creating itself.

I enjoyed seeing and thinking about the levels I managed to struggle through in Baba Is You (which was honestly not even that much of it). I never want to play any more Baba Is You.

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Hades

Early Access and Roguelike are still two terms I tend to shy away from when I hear them, despite occasionally enjoying a few of them. I’ve never really stuck with a game throughout it’s Early Access period and checked back in as new updates hit. I’ve never really gotten into a Roguelike to a point where I keep coming back to it after having a completed run (if I even get to that point). Supergiant’s Hades has broken both of those for me.

All throughout 2019 this is the game where not only did I constantly think “I want to play more of that”, but I actually kept doing it. Every time a major update hit I would jump back in for at least a couple of runs. Even as I type this, having beaten the game’s final boss half a dozen times, I am thinking “I could definitely enjoy playing some more Hades right now”.

First and foremost, Hades feels great to play, and every run feels great to play for different reasons. The amount of run to run variation is probably not as wide as some other, more traditional roguelikes, but it is still quite impressive. Even more impressive though, is how every character option, every upgrade, every tradeoff you can take, almost universally feels like a big deal. The way different powers interact creates the feeling that you can create a viable build out of anything. Your dash can create a pool of poison (granted by Dionysus) to slowly damage enemies as you move around the battle. Your sword slice can be modified by Athena to deflect incoming projectiles. Your area of effect attack can cause all enemies hit by it to be cursed by Ares, marking them with Doom: an effect that inflicts massive damage after a few seconds. Your magical “cast”, typically a long range projectile, can be altered by Aphrodite to become a short range shotgun blast that also lowers the damage output of enemies hit by it. All of this and so much more.

Clearing combat encounters and getting upgrades is the core of Hades, and it feels great every time. Of course, being a Supergiant game, it is not content to stop there. Gorgeous artwork, a terrific soundtrack, and engaging writing help to keep me hooked every moment, even during the downtime between runs.

There is so much heart and personality in every single character, and being based in Greek mythology - there are a lot of characters to interact with, hear about, and drive mysteries. Zagreus is a likable brat, and the son of Hades, who wishes to escape the underworld. He is aided by many allies: Achilles, Thanatos, a target practice skeleton named Skelly who is just a delight, as well as a whole host of Olympians and other fascinating characters. Every one of them is sharply written and well acted, and you immediately get a sense of how they think, and what the relationships are like in this world.

I am so excited to see more of this game as it continues to get updates and eventually hit its full release in 2020.

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is easily the game I have the most conflicting feelings about in 2019. I played a whole lot of this one (I finished the Black Eagles Edelgard route), and I’m not even sure I came out the other side liking it at all.

On one hand, it’s an epic tale of interesting characters struggling through conflict, betrayals, and the weight of their own history and sense of duty. Everyone in this world has a story, a worldview, and their own goals. The conflicts arise when those things clash with others, or even when there simply isn’t enough shared understanding. People with too much power make sweeping decisions that affect everyone, and then others react to that without understanding the reasons behind the moves to begin with. It’s a very compelling narrative structure, especially given the option to see the entire story from different perspectives. The ideal version of this game would be a strong contender for a Best Narrative in Video Games award.

Unfortunately, Three Houses failed to deliver a meaningful third act that pays off on the themes I did latch onto for most of the game. I wanted the game to question whether my characters were on the right path or not, or for them to question themselves. I wanted to feel as though the other Houses were making what they thought were the best decisions for themselves at the time, but they quickly filled the role of enemy obstacle keeping my true heroes from saving the world. I wanted there to be something, literally anything, that spoke to the potential nuances of the situation after my band of overpowered nobles reached their final victory. After reaching my route’s ending and learning about what the other routes included, I couldn’t help but feel as though Three Houses may have diverged the playthroughs too much, and mine specifically felt unfinished.

At the same time, the narrative disappointments in the end game might not have derailed me as badly if I found the core tactics game to be more engaging. Playing on the normal difficulty became a boring trudge through battles full of completely underwhelming enemy mobs. I grew increasingly tired of the monastery side quests and character building aspects of the game towards the middle as well, as it felt more and more like a chores list. Specifically, a chores list that mostly served to make the game even easier than it already was.

If it sounds like I am really down on this one, it’s mostly because the parts I did like are so strong for most of the game, and I was really enamored with it for the first dozen hours or more. I am glad I played it, despite my problems with it, but am resigned to my conflicted feelings of wanting a different version of this game that really nails it. Hopefully they continue on the path set by Three Houses for whatever Fire Emblem does next.

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Swords clash in the rain atop a sheer cliff above a rocky coast. A boot slides in the mud, repositioning for the next strike. Timing is everything. Steel clashes again. Torches move as voices rise, and suddenly I am surrounded. Time to move. Gunpowder ignites, swift feet skip across the ground. A leap to safety. Now breathe. Think it through. Plan. Attack. Pull back and push again. Win.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an immensely satisfying action game at its core. Despite inheriting so much from the Souls/Bloodborne lineage of From Software games, Sekiro is the most distinct and new feeling entry since Demon’s Souls. Sekiro, or Wolf, is the hero, a shinobi with all the tools and expertise to switch seamlessly between stealth, use dangerous tools like gunpowder explosions, and cross swords with foes until they are on their heels enough for a death blow. All of these systems work together to create solutions to any of the game’s problems, as you traverse a mythical version of feudal Japan. The parry system, though. That is what makes this game sing.

There is nothing that made me feel more powerful this year than deflecting a series of attacks from a deadly enemy. If my timing is off by a beat, even once, I will be in a dire situation. But when I am focused, when I am in the zone? I can not be touched. Their strikes might come fast and unexpected, a massive warrior with a long blade whirling and striking from all angles, but I could make it through. Each attack I turn away visibly puts them off balance. They bark an angry curse, or grunt in exertion. Stumbling now, they continue their assault, and I continue to focus. Turn their blade away, push them to a breaking point. And then, the opening is there. Without hesitation, I plunge my blade into their neck. Shinobi Execution.

Of course, this moment of clarity and victory comes after so much failure. I’ve died to this enemy a dozen times. This is what makes Sekiro a Souls game more than anything - you are rarely going to have a clean victory (or likely any victory at all) the first, second, or third time you face a new enemy. It forces you to learn, to adapt. Watch how they move, see how they make themselves vulnerable. Try using all the tools you have: you may find they are particularly vulnerable to being set on fire. If they spend time in the air, learn how to knock them down with a well timed shuriken throw. Above all, make sure if you die, you learn something from it. Come back more prepared next time.

The challenges in Sekiro are always ready to teach something, while at the same time demanding you to prove your understanding of what has been taught before. It is a self reinforcing structure that builds slowly - the challenges before me were always just beyond the edge of comfort. By the final areas of the game, the things that killed me dozens of times earlier felt like child’s play. That is somewhat due to new abilities and upgrades, but much more due to my game knowledge. It is consistently a wonderful feeling of growing and learning.

One common criticism I’ve seen of Sekiro is the lack of RPG style depth and character building, which is fair. There is no complex screen of interlocking stats where you place points carefully one at a time. There is no armor to mix and match, no option to swap your sword out for a different style of weapon. You can upgrade your Shinobi tools: your shurikens, flamethrower, poison dagger, etc., and there is a skill tree with various options for combat and stealth. Some of these options are incredibly fun and powerful in the right situations, but they are almost all unnecessary options. Your sword is your life in this game, and it does not change. This lack of customization did not bother me, despite how much I love the character options of Dark Souls. Sekiro is an action game first, and a stealth game second. RPG is just not really a part of the equation, and it doesn’t need to be.

Carefully, I have mapped out the area from safe perches and while hiding in tall grass. I know where the enemies are, how many, and which ones are the most dangerous. I circle the buildings, using cover where I can, and take out the gunners. A hidden path along the cliffside will get me behind the strong axe wielder. Then the spearman will rush me, they always start off with a predictable thrust attack. A heavy thud as my foot slams the end of his rushing spear into the ground, making him completely defenseless. Now just one swordsman left to take care of before the nearby half-giant looking monster is on me. I rush the lone soldier, baiting the attack and finish them quickly. As the giant approaches I zip away to a safe treetop and disappear. I’ll be behind it in just a moment.

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