Over the past couple weeks, some people at this website have spent hours upon hours debating the very best games of not only this year, but the last 10 years as well. You’ve probably been enjoying the bountiful fruits of their labor, and in doing so, have also noticed that I’m not involved in any of these discussions.
This is most likely the result of an extensive, clandestine interference campaign on the part of Fanbyte’s leadership, designed to keep me and my revolutionary opinions from reaching a wider audience. And that’s fine! It’s fine. I’m fine with it. So fine, in fact, that I’ve decided to write my own Game of the Year list without the knowledge, input, or permission of Fanbyte’s editorial management — allowing me to share what I loved about 2019 with you, my dear reader, even without being included in their big fun project, which is fine!
Anyway, without getting too into the specifics of my own ruinous mental health disorders, 2019 was a net-positive year for my emotional well-being and stability, and this job was an enormous part of that. John, Steven, Merritt, Danielle, Dillon, and everyone else here at Fanbyte are a dream to work with and for (their FAILED attempts to censor my controversial GOTY documents notwithstanding) and I’ve never had job so accommodating of all my weird problems, games industry or otherwise.
None of this would be possible if y’all hadn’t taken the trip with me each time I popped off at old bosses, or kissed up to new ones, or got mad at and/or about Elon Musk, so, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for reading our dumb website.
(World’s biggest spoiler warning for every game on this list. You have been warned!!)
#10: Magic: the Gathering Arena
As Destiny 2 saved me from Overwatch, so too did Magic: the Gathering Arena save me from Hearthstone. A collectible card game where the outcome isn’t entirely determined by random chance? Could such a wondrous thing even exist? It can my friend, and it’s glorious. Not only does MTGA feel more balanced and thoughtful than Hearthstone ever did, it’s also a million times better at respecting the work I put into it.
It’s free-to-play, so of course it still wants you to spend real money on it (and I have, full disclosure), but the game is so much better than Hearthstone about awarding freebies that Blizzard should honestly be embarrassed. I used to finish a season of Hearthstone somewhere in the Rank 10 neighborhood (top five percent!), and for all that time and energy Blizzard would award some crafting dust and a golden card, which are both basically worthless.
Meanwhile, Magic gives me multiple full-ass packs of cards for roughly the same time investment, and Magic packs contain more cards than Hearthstone packs to boot! If you’re still playing Hearthstone in 2019, you really, truly owe it to yourself to play MTGA. For a free-to-play game, it does an incredible job of respecting the effort that you put into it. And besides, Magic is still extremely fun, especially now that the computer does all the math for you.
#09: Tetris Effect
That’s right, baby! Tetris Effect came out on PC this year, and even though it’s just a port of last year’s PlayStation 4 version, there’s nothing in the rule book that says an unauthorized bootleg GOTY list from a disgruntled contractor can’t include ports of previously released games. Tetris Effect remains the very best single-player Tetris on the block, with or without VR, though VR is highly recommended if you’ve got the gear lying around. (I bought PSVR on sale last year specifically for Tetris Effect, and while it was worth the money for me personally, I’m also a complete lunatic in this very specific way, so your mileage will vary.)
Everybody talks about the audio/visual sensory experience when they talk about Tetris Effect, and that aspect of it is still stupendous, but nobody ever talks about how Tetris Effect is easily the best crucible there is for improving at Tetris. The game’s “Extra” modes include several different rule sets for practicing combos, full clears, and other advanced Tetris strategies, and practicing with them actually does make a difference.
I could barely finish Tetris Effect‘s “Journey” (read: story) mode on normal difficulty last year, but now I play Journey on Expert as a warm-up. My 2018 personal best in Master mode (read: AGDQ wizard Tetris) was “M4” difficulty, but now I can get to “M16” kinda consistently. I’ve even won Tetris 99 five times now, and it’s almost entirely because Tetris Effect made me better at the core concepts of Tetris. Secondary vibrators and some of the best pop-EDM of the last decade are just icing on the cake.
#08: Muse Dash
Muse Dash isn’t complicated, or existentially beautiful, or emotionally contemplative like some of the other entries on this list, but it is a damn good rhythm game with some really bangin’ music. It’s not as mechanically complex as, say, the Hatsune Miku: Project Diva games, but it does scratch that same itch in a lot of ways, both in terms of how frantic high-level play can be, and in terms of the song selection.
The art design is a bit ecchi (read: horny) at times, especially when compared to something Project Diva, to the point that I’d probably be embarrassed to play Muse Dash on a bus or something, so keep that in mind. There’s also not much in the way of visual diversity or spectacle in Muse Dash, since each song takes place on a handful of themed backgrounds, rather than bespoke music videos like some rhythm games. It’s more of a Taiko no Tatsujin situation, and if that means anything to you, you’ll probably love Muse Dash. It’s definitely the most fun I had with a traditional rhythm game in 2019, and it’s even on Switch!
#07: Mortal Kombat 11
Mortal Kombat was my very first fighting game, way back in the sassy, brassy days of the Sega Genesis, so I’ll always have a soft spot for its absurd lore and cheeseball characters. But for most of my life, Mortal Kombat games just haven’t been that good. The series really went down the tube as soon as everything went 3D, and it wasn’t until 2011’s Mortal Kombat (colloquially referred to as MK9) that Scorpion and pals regained their footing. (People will argue with me on this, and that’s fine. We’re all entitled to like whatever garbage we convince ourselves is good out of desperation.)
Fast-forward to now, and Netherrealm Studios is still refining MK9‘s formula into a concentrated, crystalline powder of dismemberment and excess. The studio’s trademark staccato fighting style has never felt better than it does in Mortal Kombat 11, and from a purely mechanical standpoint, I easily consider this Netherrealm’s best work. The character roster is as varied and interesting as it’s ever been, and somehow the troubled souls at Netherrealm continue to invent new, grotesque ways to dismantle a human being.
Had it not been for the Krypt and its randomized loot box system, MK11 easily could have taken the number two spot on this list. But alas, we live in a world where, for some inexplicable reason, Netherrealm thought it was a good idea to keep people from being able to just buy the damn cosmetic they want and call it a day. I played over 100 hours of MK11 before I put it down last spring, and in that time I opened nearly every container in the Krypt and still did not receive the one cosmetic option I actually cared about: Skarlet without her mask.
And make no mistake, I quit playing explicitly because of this; I just couldn’t keep torturing myself. I really hope that Netherrealm never does anything like MK11‘s Krypt again, because when I play a fighting game, I want my spirit crushed by other players, not by the game itself. Just let me look at my wife’s face, Ed Boon!!
#06: Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
I owe Destiny 2 a lot for breaking me out of my self-destructive Overwatch spiral when Forsaken came out last year, but for as much as I loved how Destiny 2 looked and felt at the time, I didn’t find much joy in Forsaken‘s end-game content.
In contrast, this year’s Shadowkeep expansion made things way more interesting by moving Destiny 2‘s core story along, rather than taking a few months to explore a side plot, which most of the game’s previous expansions had done. (Not that Uldren Sov’s sad tale isn’t important of course, or that Rasputin isn’t super interesting, but we haven’t seen these pyramids since the main campaign, y’all. Pyramids over princes.)
Bungie has continued to make positive changes to the game’s core systems, and I never thought I’d say this, but even the addition of a Fortnite-style battle pass has done good for Destiny 2. I have more friends excited to play now than I did a year ago, and the storytelling that Shadowkeep does around Eris Morn is the best the game has ever had.
Admittedly, Guardians are currently in the middle of an unrelated mission on Mercury, and it’s confounding to me that Bungie has never once been able to tell a coherent story on Mercury, but that’s a topic for another post. Destiny 2 keeps getting better and Shadowkeep is the best it’s ever been.
#05: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Other than Metroid 2 on the Game Boy and Metroid Prime on the Gamecube, I’ve never managed to connect with Samus/Alucard games. Maybe my attention span is too short, or maybe I’m just not that enthralled by vampires, but for whatever reason, I’ve never made it to the end of Super Metroid, or Symphony of the Night, or any of their modern counterparts.
Save for Bloodstained. This game had enough hokey anime intrigue to keep me interested in its weird characters, and just enough fun dress-up items to keep me invested in searching for new ones. I know that a lot of Ritual of the Night‘s design comes from the old guard — acquiring weapons and abilities from enemies, for instance — and there’s no logical reason for me to love this game instead of the classics, but, well, here we are. The heart wants what it wants, and in this case, the heart wants a gothic anime heroine that can summon a flaming succubus to play a kick-ass guitar solo. Show me where that happens in Circle of the Moon or whatever and we’ll talk.
Putting aside Bloodstained‘s taught combat and satisfying RPG elements for just a second, it’s in its quiet moments that the game really shines. There are all kinds of hidden little secrets throughout the castle; my favorite is a touching musical performance from Miriam (the heroine) and one of her magical companions, which can only be experienced if you’re in the right place with the right magic configuration, and even then, only if you think to try something silly. It doesn’t unlock a new ability or anything like that, it’s just this beautiful little libretto on a moonlit night. Chef’s kiss.
#04: Tetris 99
Never in a million years would I expect something this fun to make it through the boardroom gauntlet required to publish a Tetris game.
Tetris 99 is the kind of brilliant, wholly unnecessary idea that dumbasses like me spout off on podcasts and Twitter. It’s the kind of idea that never makes it past big wigs and bureaucrats, who only want safe, free-to-play Tetris on phones or whatever. It’s too good of an idea to have ever become a reality, and yet here we are, blessed by this thing that no one asked for, but everyone loves.
I don’t really have any deep philosophical insights into Tetris 99, but it doesn’t really ask for any. It’s a simple concept, flawlessly executed, and I just love it to bits. I love that they keep adding fun themes to it. I love that it has daily quests, for crying out loud. Tetris 99 is wholesome and uncomplicated and that is such a desperately rare thing for something to be in 2019.
#03: Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard
Speaking of wholesome and uncomplicated!
You may not know this if you don’t follow my Twitter, but I love frogs. They’re kind and patient and are the only creatures free of original sin. Looking at a frog makes me happy in ways that almost nothing else does, and once this video game thing goes off the rails, I hope to end up at some kind of frog-based publication. My first-ever post on Fanbyte was about frogs, in fact. So naturally, I am a big fan of Grace Bruxner and company’s Frog Detective series.
I was worried that the Detective‘s whole bit might not play as well a second time — that the first game’s brevity was perhaps its strongest point — but these fears were unfounded. Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard improves on the original formula while maintaining the irreverence and playfulness that made it such a joy to begin with, which is no small task for such a small frog.
Frog Detective 2 follows in many of the same footsteps as the first game, The Haunted Island, A Frog Detective Game, in that it’s less of a real mystery and more of a series of excuses for silly jokes (or “joaks,” as the Detective calls them). It takes the blueprint of a noir detective drama and colors it in with Crayola markers, applying googly eyes with reckless abandon.
The Detective’s magnifying glass serves no actual purpose at any time, for example. It lets you zoom in a little bit, but you never need to do this to solve a puzzle or anything — you just have a magnifying glass, because that’s the kind of thing that a real detective would have in a real detective story. The whole game feels so earnestly like it’s playing pretend, which isn’t something I’ve ever really experienced before.
All games are about playing pretend, right? So what is it about Frog Detective that feels so innocent, so authentic? Is it that Frog Detective isn’t loud or obnoxious in the way that most kid-friendly media is? Is it the wholesome simplicity of the low-poly characters and environments? Is it the Detective’s wide, reassuring smile? Friends, I just can’t put my finger on it. Worm Club has tapped into some kind of lost, subconscious conduit that no one else can access, and honestly? Thank goodness. I don’t think we could trust anybody else with power like this.
#02: Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts is the only game brave enough to answer the question, “What if Thumper was a gay Dreamcast game?” It’s a short, beautiful journey through one person’s relationship history, abstracted into blues and pinks and strobing landscapes that whiz by at a thousand miles per hour. Its bulletproof aesthetic pulls as much from 1960s anime as it does classical ballet, and of all the hundreds of music games I’ve played over the years, Sayonara Wild Hearts does the best job of communicating a message through gameplay.
There’s no tutorial in Sayonara Wild Hearts, for instance. You just have to pick it up as you go, because that’s how relationships are. The heroine survives by using weapons, vehicles and abilities that she either conjures herself, summons with the cards of the major arcana, or that are given to her by other Wild Hearts — sorta like how people cope with life autodidactically, or with the assurances they gain from faith, or with the behaviors they learn from those around them.
And in the game’s climactic finish, the heroine achieves true harmony by absorbing duplicates of herself dressed as the other Wild Hearts. This not only symbolizes how she’s been changed by her previous relationships, but also that in order to fully heal, she must come to terms with those changes.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is an engaging action game set to a virtuoso dance-pop soundtrack, with an excellent sense of timing and more style than any music game I’ve played since, like, Vib-Ribbon probably. But more than all that, it has a heart that it wants you to know and understand, and really, isn’t that what we all want?
(As a quick aide, this opinion is based on the PC version of Sayonara Wild Hearts. I tried to play it on iOS when it first launched and found the touch controls so loose as to make the game basically unplayable.)
#01: Outer Wilds
I don’t really know where to start with Outer Wilds. It’s not a perfect game. At times it can be genuinely frustrating, and there were more than a few spots where I considered bouncing on it wholesale, one of which I talked about in-depth earlier this year. The time loop really got on my nerves while trying to suss out some of the more complicated puzzles, and each exploratory trip into Dark Bramble felt like testing how close I could hold a needle to my eye without flinching.
A lot of these hard feelings come about because Outer Wilds doesn’t give you a perfect little player-centric world to scoot around in, it gives you a universe that is cold and unyielding. It is an indifferent clockwork machine on the brink of collapse that bears little regard for you and your tiny spaceship, or the mysterious writings that you’re working to catalogue. It could not be any less bothered with solving the mystery of the Quantum Moon, or determining the purpose of the ruined structure orbiting Giant’s Deep. It has no consciousness or desire or purpose, other than to inexorably spiral towards its own oblivion.
And at first, subverting that seems like the goal of Outer Wilds. Finding out why you’re stuck in a 22-minute time loop is part of that, sure, but the small mysteries you solve on each planet must inevitably lead you to prevent the total destruction of everything, right? Something, somewhere, must have gone wrong — maybe the Nomai experiment with the sun; maybe the appearance of the Interloper; maybe the illusive Eye of the Universe — something is causing the sun to go supernova, and if you can piece together what’s happening 22 minutes at a time, you just might be able to stop it.
Only, you can’t. The universe is ending because it’s the end of the universe, not because someone made a mistake, or meddled with something they didn’t understand. The Ash Twin Project didn’t make the sun go supernova. The Nomai were wiped out by random, tragic happenstance. And hundreds of thousands of years later, your time loop is the equally-unintentional result of a Nomai machine that activates by accident when the sun explodes.
None of it is willful or pre-ordained. There’s no solution to it, no way to avoid it, no way of preventing it. It’s just … time.
But in figuring that out, the player uncovers incontrovertible proof of love, of compassion and creativity, of yearning for knowledge and of the little moments of beauty that exist inside that cold machine. They get to be scared and frustrated and elated and overwhelmed and enraptured and a million other feelings that define existence. They get to have quiet moments next to campfires. They experience the traditions of their people and come to understand the goals and traditions of others. They spend a full 22-minute loop waiting for the planets to align, just so they can hear their friends play a little song together.
And on this scale, when you’re zoomed this far in on one creature’s moment-by-moment existence, the incomprehensible machinations of the universe just straight-up don’t matter. The universe does not have to embody some grand ultimate purpose for you to eat a marshmallow with an old friend. The sorrow you feel is real and legitimate, irrespective of how bad the cosmos feel for allowing it. Outer Wilds argues that things don’t have to be bigger than they are to have value.
So yes, in the moment to moment, Outer Wilds runs the gambit from transcendent to infuriating, but that’s life, you know? The joy comes from seeing how everything ties together — how people make everything tie together — in spite of there being no compelling cosmic reason to care. It is an exploration game about coming to terms with mortality, about finding peace in chaos, and a hundred other little morals that I don’t have the space to talk about here. It is an absolute triumph of design and storytelling, and not only is it the best game I played this year, it’s one of the best games I’ve played, full stop.
But What About Death Stranding?
Hell y’all, I dunno. I beat that game within a week of its release and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I know that I liked some of the metaphysical ideas in Death Stranding, but the most interesting applications of said ideas are mostly off-screen (see: Deadman’s whole deal). The concepts of the Beach and of Ha and Ka are way more intriguing than all of the cyclical extinction event umbilical cord dinosaur nonsense, and the best stories told in Death Stranding are the ones that seem to understand this.
If Death Stranding had been a series of vignettes about the ramifications of the Stranding, I think it would have been a much stronger and more impactful product than it is. Overwritten emails and brief hologram recordings were not enough to make me care about the hundreds of optional deliveries, and while the joy of successfully competing a zip-line network is undeniable, there’s just not much game there.
So if the game part of the game isn’t that engaging, and if the main story didn’t really do it for me either, why do I still feel like I kinda really liked Death Stranding sometimes? Why can’t I firmly sit down and say “No, I do not like this game?”
Honestly, I think it mostly has to do with Margaret Qualley. Her performance as Mama/Lockne is probably the best acting I’ve ever seen in a game, and while the climax of her story could have been handled with a bit more clarity, it was easily the best story the game had to tell. The scene where Mama and Lockne’s psyches are reunified — where she wraps her hands around her face and is finally whole — is definitely in my Top Three Video Game Moments of 2019™. Unfortunately, that’s a different list.
Happy New Year, y’all. I sincerely hope that 2020 brings you everything that you need to prosper.