What a year, what a year! 2019 is a year that I started in a job where I did full time games/movies/entertainment coverage, had a mid-year shift, then finished up by moving here to Fanbyte and going back to doing full time games/movies/entertainment coverage! So, there are a couple of odd little gaps, games I just didn’t quite have time for in 2019. But nevertheless, I never stopped playing or covering games, and I played a lot of very, very cool things.
There are a few glaring omissions here, which I will address upfront: I didn’t have time to sink into Disco Elysium, nor a few smaller titles that I do think I’d really dig, including Baba is You, Telling Lies, A Short Hike, and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair. I fully intend to play these games in 2020 and kick myself a little, and maybe a couple could even spill into a future list. Who could say, with the future!?
Without further ado, here are my top ten games of 2019, an extremely weird year by every imaginable measure — but a solid one, at least for playing the kinds of games I enjoy.
10. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is one of the most astounding, impressive pieces of game design I’ve ever put my hands on. It posits a clockwork solar system full of interesting mechanics, secrets, and intricacies, that you explore, bit by bit, plumbing deeper into its weirder corners, until… well, until an ending that everyone tells me is an all-time great, but I’m not sure what happens, because I can’t beat the game.
See, I was having a hard time the whole way (the game has some frustrating mechanics and an in-game loop means you kind of have to do everything in a segment all over again whenever you start up). I got very lost for what seemed like forever, but after about 50 hours of fits and starts, I found a rhythm. I was well on my way towards the end. Moments after a really big, awesome revelation… my save corrupted completely and I had to start all over again.
Now, as dozens of people on twitter have pointed out to me, the game’s structure is such that losing progress means you lose knowledge — notes, really, on your computer. However, if you don’t know what you don’t know, and have big gaps in that knowledge… starting all over again really does kind of mean starting all over again.
I did start up a new save. Only for that one to crap out too. So now, fingers crossed, I have a third save going. I’ve made some progress there. But I can’t lie and say my frustrations haven’t eroded some of my admiration for the design here, and the big, beautiful world that Outer Wilds has presented. I don’t blame the small team at Mobius for what happened to me, games are hard as hell to make and test, and shit does happen.
I’m sitting here writing this and I need to be honest: I may need to simply love Outer Wilds from afar. For me, in my experience, the concept of Outer Wilds is #1 this year. Up there, even, in Game of the Decade discussions. But the execution glitched for me, far down, stuck in the geometry deep in the bowels of Brittle Hollow.
9. Speedruns of Death Stranding and Sekiro
Now, I’ve only played about an hour of Death Stranding myself, and I haven’t so much as touched Sekiro. But I’ve watched dozens of hours of speedruns, both while the games were brand new and runners were only just beginning to play them and figure them out, long before all the glitches and secrets and tricks have been sussed out. Watching and enjoying these games from the safe distance of my laptop screen (entirely, in the case of Sekiro), was instructive and enjoyable, and while I do plan to spend more time in Sam Porter Bridge’s America at some point in the future, I feel like I’ve gotten an incredible glimpse at what the early days of speedrunning any complex, massive game look like, firsthand, and that’s worth a spot on this list in itself.
I’m genuinely sad that more people didn’t get to play Devotion, and I still hold out hope for the game’s release again one day, because it’s a brilliant horror game in the PT/Layers of Fear tradition. It’s scary and effective, with excellent puzzles that require you to really, really delve into this history of the core family, exploring their apartment in three main scenarios, represented as years throughout the 80s. It’s about faith, ritual, sickness, fame and estrangement, and I can only hope Red Candle Games get another shot to bring it to the world.
7. Hypnospace Outlaw
This weird and wonderful delight combines the aesthetics of the old internet of 90s webrings and personal pages with the dystopian policies of the current day – policing content for the good of corporations, not people. In blending these values it tells a story that’s funny and ultimately sad. I’m a huge fan of creator Jay Tholen’s previous game, Dropsy, and I dig his deeply empathetic, human, colorful aesthetic throughout.
6.Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
Anodyne, a 2013 Zelda-style game that started its life as a student project – is easily one of my top ten games of the decade. It was bold and intricately designed, with plenty of imagination in its wild scenarios. Anodyne 2 has a lot of expectations to live up to, but the low-poly 3D platformer with Anodyne 1-style 2D Zelda dungeons is whimsical, caring, and yes, imaginative. I’ll play basically anything that Analgesic productions makes, and find many, many things to love.
5. The Outer Worlds
I had an inkling that this would be the first Fallout-style game for me, that I would enjoy the winking anti-corporate humor. But I had no idea I’d fall this far for the game, beating it and then jumping right back in, to ensure I got to play Ellie’s companion quest. Yes, The Outer Worlds is a good “one of those.” It’s not doing anything mechanically wildly new, but it is tuned correctly to be a swift, seamless, entertaining one of those, with fun characters (especially Parvati and Ellie) and a delightful branding-gone-haywire-in-space aesthetic.
I played the living crap out of this excellent little BioShock-y Roguelike with a wild sense of humor. So much so that I brought my monstrous launch Xbox One to a tiny cabin in the Poconos for a weekend trip, because my partner and I basically couldn’t stop that good grind. I beat the game several times not long after that, enjoying both the batshit humor and the manic pursuit of the perfect run through any given ship in the void.
The game also gets bonus points for being a light immersive sim (a favorite genre) and a potential place for the genre to go in the future, spilling style and flair without needing a Bethesda AAA budget to get there.
There are a lot of visual novels on this list. Or pieces of interactive fiction more generally. Neocab is the most innovative, I think, and it’s also one of the only story-based games that, the minute I finished and watched the credits, I jumped right back in to a mid-game save to make a few other choices and play the rest of the way through again.
Neocab is a cyberpunk game where you play a futuristic car share driver in a neon-hued LA ripoff called Los Ochos, and you are both trying to track down your “friend” who has gotten into some serious shit with the horrifying tech conglomerate that all but runs the town, and also have to work every night, picking up fares and learning more about this world and the people who live in it.
There’s a nice little twist: you are also wearing a bracelet that shows off your emotional state, in a sort of glowing color wheel that flavors the replies and choices you can make.
Control has some demonic difficulty spikes that may’ve placed it #1 on my list if we were on speaking terms for my whole play through. Despite that, it has one of the best, most batshit, fun and complete game worlds I’ve had the pleasure of stepping into this year. It’s all centered on the Bureau of Control, a fictional alphabet soup government agency that’s one part The X-Files, two parts Cold War paranoia and about seven parts batshit new weird humor, complete with wacky scientists and deranged puppet shows and wild interdimensional antics.
The whole thing is set in the oldest house, an inter dimensional anomaly that mashes up office building with interstellar base/alien bacteria host/shifting Brutalist concrete nightmare. But no description of Control and why I love it so would be complete without a nod to the Threshold Kids (and other in-universe fictional enter/edutainment). I love it.
Eliza is one of the best-written games I’ve ever played. That’s not a backhanded compliment, coming from me. I’m the kind of person (evidenced all over this list) who very much comes to games — many kinds of games — for the storytelling, world-building, and ability to bring me to another place. Eliza brought me to a much more immediately real place – a barely-near-future Pacific northwest.
It’s a visual novel about a woman who helped to program the world’s first AI therapist, Eliza, who analyzes a person’s speech patterns and social media for cues about their behavior and recommends treatments. Mainly, that treatment consists of crappy relaxation apps and often medication. Eliza is kind of like Uber for therapy, and this crappy/miraculous AI product is, well, better than literally nothing. Or is it?
The people who worked on Eliza are all complex: each of them is various degrees of broken or fucked up or grieving or full of themselves. Some are doing better than others. Your character, Evelyn, is dealing with the repercussions of all of it, including the death of a team member. You can choose to try and right wrongs with the project, or help people in your life, or fall in love, or run away from it all, or dive back in to the tech world, even though it broke your soul the first time around.
There are plenty of games with good writing. With heartfelt characters and great dialogue and scenarios big or small. But Eliza felt like the first game I’ve ever played that contended, on both a personal gut level and in the bigger-picture sense, what it means to give your life to your job. To choose to work in a deeply flawed, sexist, racist, terrible industry, because there’s something you think you can actually do with it.
It feels like the product of both painstaking research and lived experience, and it plays like a page-turner.
Yuppie Psycho, Nightcall, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Switch), Mutazione.