GOTY 2019: Game Of The Year List For People Who Don't Finish Games Because They Have A Job And At Least One Kid

Not to presume, but this is the definitive 2019 Game of the Year List for People Who Don't Finish Games because They Have A Job and At Least One Kid. I'll do my best to show my work.

I surprised myself at how many titles I played (some of) this year. Twenty Nineteen was the year that I gave into FOMO to try and keep up, and paid the price in Tarzan-swinging from game to game. I finished almost nothing... few, even, of the games I wanted to finish.

Will that keep me from compiling a list and assuming inarguable, objective authority thereupon?

Skimmers will find Hot Take value here (I actively believe that things that enrage The Gamers are, generally, doing something right), but they'll miss my point. There's no calculus that proves empirically that Turkey Slammer 6: Turbo Stuffing EX is intrinsically better than American Cranberry Sauce Simulator: Origins. For us olds, who have been playing games for a long time in search of engagement and happiness and fellowship and introspection and good-ass headshots, we're looking for the thing that moves us, and annualized content ain't it. (Unless it is.)

So crack open a piping hot can of Monster™ Energy Drink™ and consider the most provocative game of a year with a lot of worthy big swings for respective fences.

List items

  • I know you convulsed a little bit reading that at the top. I warned you. But, briefly set aside your expertise on What Is Good and What Isn't Good and consider:

    [Spoilers ahead]

    Death Stranding is a dense supercluster of ideas that shouldn't (but do) coalesce in any smooth, intentional, or fun way. This melancholy, reflective follow-up to the MGS series made the act of walking engaging -- moreso, it made a core gameplay loop out of it. Just! Walking...!

    Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president's daughter? Can you kick terrorists' asses and defeat ghosts... by walkin' and peein' and poopin'?

    I'm not going to bother heaping adulation / dunking on Hideo Kojima's status or involvement or cinematic vision. I like all that stuff just fine. The odd "shared world" elements are for another time.

    The real use case here is this: The game makes you want to walk; it makes you *involved* in walking and hiking; it challenges you to plan your walk real good; then, it pressures you with the threat of fail states, none of which are nearly as bad as they appear, but all of which are profound threats that loom effectively and made me very concerned that my hike was not going to be successful. Gasp!

    And suddenly, you turn in your cargo and realize that half an hour dematerialized just packing for your virtual trip, and another hour evaporated as you grappled with sheer cliffs, deep rivers, banditos, and GHOSTS, and all of these things are equally scary.

    Things you will hear about this game which I urge you to take with a grain of salt:

    * "It's a walking simulator." (It's not like anything in the established genre. Indeed, it might be the ONLY walking simulator.)

    * "It's all fetch quests." (It's a game about delivering cargo. That's like suggesting Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a nothing more than a game of fetch quests, which has some truth but intentionally misses the point.)

    * "It takes 20 hours to get good." (That's simply not true. The game rolls out its complexifying mechanics gradually, and combat is never the purpose of the gameplay. I cannot stress this enough: The game is about walking, and joyously so.)

    * "The game is too on-the-nose to be profound." (Who cares if something is writ large if it is writ well?)

    The story is a fever dream about pioneers. It's officially buck wild, but sold palatably by really competent acting on the part of Lea Seydoux, et al.

    There's a lot more to say about Death Stranding and I look forward to saying and hearing it.

    PS. The brazen product placement in this otherwise novel experience was revolting and impossible to overlook. Let’s hope that isn’t becoming a thing.

  • "Control, Control! You must [finish] Control!" -- Yoda, paraphrased

    Control refutes a commonly accepted idea that people don't want to read in video game. As it turns out, they do, they just want to read something highly entertaining with creative force behind it (i.e., writing that is good and also does not suck). The aesthetic here can be (and has been) accurately fitted between X-Files and Twin Peaks. The creative is powerful here, a risky slow burn in muted colors and dialogue and redaction humor that deals with the Weird: American-philosophical-weird, not British-eldritch-weird. There's a confidence that is 100% warranted in its presentation and ability rollout. It's a shame that the performance was so unoptimized that it kept me from progressing past certain bosses.

  • I'm counting GRIS for 2019, because time is, like, an abstract human construct, maaaan. (*Plunges hand into bag of fritos.*)

    GRIS spoke to me, truly addressed *me* in its own aesthetically sophisticated language.

    By the end of this short, wordless narrative, I crumbled like the statuaries and sculptures that make up the environments and platforming of this emotionally electric experience. The moment I realized that it wasn't sadness for sadness's sake (the intolerable wallowing that, IMHO, plagues too many games of this length & breadth), but rather something that was core to my own personal meaning as a creative being who cannot forgive himself, I broke.

    I am truly and deeply grateful to have experienced GRIS.

  • Indivisible is just... so rad. It is a colorful and challenging platformer; it is a Thanksgiving Day cornucopia of visuals; it has energy and friendship and upbeat quirk and, Y'ALL, I WAITED SO LONG AND IT'S SO GOOD.

    It's slightly agonizing to note that this would be an ideal Switch game, or will be once the date for that is even revealed.

    Two years ago the gaming universe overlooked Gravity Rush 2, the most charming game of 2017... in that same vein, do yourself a favor and don't overlook Indivisible.

    There's a dude whose turban turns into a whip sword! One lady does kung-fu with no arms. YO THERE'S THIS HEALER WHOSE POWER COMES FROM HER PERPETUALLY WET HAIR AND ACTUALLY THIS SHOULD PROBABLY BE GAME OF THE YEAR.

    Y'ALL

  • You don't need me to tell you about SMM2. So I'll tell you my experience with it.

    I kind of made a game!

    Using the 3rd party World Map Builder (functionality that is criminally omitted from SMM2), I made Mario 3 style overworld map that lets me give some context to the 5 levels of my world.

    Enter "Temple of Dunes." Mario visits the Mushroom Museum, where he unleashes a dormant evil (in-game!) on the desert outskirt lands. One auto-scroller, one water level, and one boss fight later (beatable in one sitting), I can say I made a game, sorta! (If you want to play it, it's on my twitter.)

    I love what this game did the community on Twitter and Discord: People flocking to make up for Nintendo's considerable social failures and fill in the gaps and play one another's maps. That was not meant to rhyme. The community reaction was so pure and positive and tremendous fun to be part of.

  • Anthem took a big, big swing. Its compromises left it, well... compromised, but if we could have played the pure, design doc version of Anthem, I'd still be playing it. But we didn't, and I'm not.

    There's no shortage of people kvetching about what it did wrong, so here's what it did right:

    1. The world. The setting of a world frozen halfway through its creation myth is such a cool and mind-boggling concept. It's not playing strictly by shooty sci-fi rules, or earnest high fantasy worldbuilding, but draws from both as needed, and that is great fun.

    2. The evolution of the Bioware-style fight/talk/fight/talk rhythm. The conversation system is engaging here, and the characters showed a glimmer of the more beloved franchise characters in Bioware's previous works. There was and is potential here.

    3. Flying rules. Honestly, the flying just kicks ass. Games should be fun, flying is fun, and this is an excellent groundwork for a powerful power fantasy with limits.

    The first legitimate competitor to Destiny was always doomed to not be Destiny. Anthem is fun for its own reasons though, but the bugs and loading screens were simply too much to bear.

    My main refutation of all the rote dismissals of the game are those first seconds of every mission, where 4 players pop in and engage thrusters, roaring into the air like a squad of Iron Mans. Iron Men? Irons Mens. It's compelling and I hope they fix(ed) it.

  • This game works for (A) people with MUA nostalgia, of which I have gobs, and (B) people without MUA nostalgia but who like brainless fun and/or Marvel Stuff in voluminous quantities.

    I consider the MUAs to be that kind of infinitely replayable game that you can simply turn on and enjoy, then turn off whenever. I despise the term "podcast game," but I can't deny this fits the description. The story has, like, some... stuff or whatever, probably! I don't remember a lick of it, but it evokes a lot of appealing shades of MCU and recent comic arcs, and I'm a sucker for a great big crossover.

    There are some slight tweaks to the old formula, most good, some great. Seeing an old, beloved formula translated through a Japanese game dev lens captures 99% of what I wanted and adds style for miles.

  • MK11 expanded on what MKX did really well, and although I have no business weighing in on the competitive scene, these seemed like sensible improvements. The crisis-on-infinite-realms approach is a fun twist on what has already been fairly exceptional storytelling for a fighting game series, and the skin variations are a bold aesthetic step forward as well.

  • My personal arc this year went from "Why are there so many indistinguishable Fire Emblem characters in Smash?" to "Every day that Hilda continues to not be in Smash is a criminal oversight."

    I had zero interest in Fire Emblem until the hype finally piqued my curiosity. I'm glad I gave it a chance, because I've never really played anything quite like it. For all its oddities, FE:3H sets the player up in a teaching role -- in a mechanical sense -- and you become invested in the development (and survival!) of these unique characters in a way that I've not experienced in other tactical turn-based games.

  • I'm not overly experienced with visual novels, but the conceit of Neo Cab (you play the part of a cyberpunk rideshare driver in a world where most cars are automated) makes one wonder why this had not been a premise before? As one of the last human-powered cars in a city where business is booming for the competition, Neo Cab presents a David and Goliath story with branching narratives and meaningful decisions, which nevertheless exercises a bit of elasticity and forgiveness if you whiff. It tells the story of a megacorporation's exponential increase in power, and a fading distinction between monopolistic market dominance and government.

    Neo Cab could have stopped there, but it didn't.

    It also dared to explore some sci-fi tech of varying plausibility -- stuff that's right around the next bend in what is hopefully not the capital-S singularity.

    Thanks to an invention called the "FeelGrid" (sp?) and some very emotionally aware writing, the game really is about emotion and feeling one's way through one's decision-making process, quite literally. The FeelGrid, an display device that color codes emotions, has affected the way I think about sudden shifts in the atmosphere between two people.

    A warning for people like myself with high empathy: Neo Cab's suspension of disbelief is meaningless, as people like us will naturally try to get the best outcome for all people, not step on any toes, and maximize happiness for all. This is not possible, and trying to do so netted me the "bad ending." This was still a meaningful conclusion... but, y'know, just a heads up.

    Neo Cab seemed to cement that this year wasn't just big on a rising and explicit disdain for the unchecked capitalism and the abuses implied thereby, but also a year of raw, personal, emotional exploration among the narrow inlets and jagged edges that comprise other people's immutable needs and nuances.