2019 was a weird year for me. After getting hired here at Fanbyte, I tried to keep up with current releases to a degree that I hadn’t since I was a kid. I spent hundreds of hours playing Destiny 2, a game I only got into to broaden my utility to the site but ended up falling deeper into than anyone else here. Hell, I got a gaming PC. (Mostly to play Destiny 2.)
I never thought I’d end up in games writing, but I’m glad that it happened this year. So many titles managed to genuinely thrill me in 2019, from Apex Legends‘s team-based emergent adventures to Untitled Goose Game‘s slapstick antics. Even as I questioned whether video games matter at all or are ultimately just distracting products of no real value, siphoning away our precious time and attention by hooking into our lizard brain reward systems, these titles reminded me that games can be good, actually. Bless them.
I’m going to be honest: I gave up on Supraland. It wasn’t for the combat, which is at best serviceable and at worst infuriating. It wasn’t because of the unnecessary pop culture references, or the weak attempts at humour. No, I was able to push past all those, because Supraland is a fantastic first-person puzzle-solving game that scratches the old Portal itch better than anything else has in a long time. Really, a game that outright describes itself as a combination of Zelda, Portal, and Metroid has no right to be this good.
And so, I had a great time with Supraland right up until the last couple of hours of the game, when it turned out that I had missed an upgrade hours earlier that was only then necessary to progress. Since navigating the (very pretty) world is kind of a chore, I gave up. But everything up until then — again, with the exceptions of the combat and dialogue — was a delight.
9. Sayonara Wild Hearts
It fails as a rhythm game, its aesthetic feels a little confused at times (bikers plus tarot plus magical girls is a little overladen), and I wish it had been bold enough to not use any textual narration, but Sayonara Wild Hearts is still a beautiful ride. It sits comfortably alongside the deeper, more systems-heavy and narratively-driven games I played this year as something I was able to get through in just a couple of hours. And it actually made me smile despite myself with a few of its little surprises. Don’t worry about your score or collecting things, just enjoy the trip.
I love Brutalism (one of my favorite structures is the Roger Stevens Building at the University of Leeds), so it’s no surprise that I fell for Control‘s harsh geometric world. Its characters, too, are immediately likable, from the pragmatic Jesse Faden to the manic Casper Darling. I’ve only put a few hours into it so far, partly because of technical issues and partly because the actual gameplay of combat hasn’t quite hooked me yet. But every time I’ve stopped playing Control, I’ve ended up back in the Oldest House not long after. I wish there weren’t collection and crafting mechanics, but I guess those are almost mandatory for a single-player title in 2019. In any case, I’m going to keep pushing, because even the little I’ve seen so far has been enough to get it on this list.
Islanders is a building game that strips the genre down to its essentials, making it about two things — space and beauty. You place various structures down onto procedurally-generated islands, gaining points by looking for synergistic combinations. Get enough points, and you unlock another set of pieces, and so on, until you can’t hit the next point threshold. It sounds simple, but since you can only undo your most recent placement, there’s actually a lot of planning involved.
It’s a relaxing, aesthetically-pleasing game, one that invites you to make what you wish of it. My only issue with Islanders is its platform. This isn’t a game I want to play sitting at my desk — it’s one that I want to curl up with in a comfortable chair in the evening. I’m begging you, please port Islanders to the Switch.
6. Smile For Me
Most of the time, Steam’s recommendation system isn’t very helpful to me — it either shows me hits I’ve already heard of or completely unhinged sex games. Once in a while, though, it makes me aware of a game like Smile For Me. Set in an inpatient treatment facility slash group home for sad people called The Habitat, Smile For Me tasks you with solving a colorful cast of characters’ problems and cheering them up.
You’d think doing so would make the proprietor of the Habitat, Mr. Habit, pleased, but you’d be wrong. Throughout your adventure, Habit checks in on you via increasingly unsettling puppet shows set up like old VHS tapes. The game never quite crosses over to horror, though, and ultimately is a pretty lighthearted story about friendship. Smile For Me‘s world is so evocative and charming that I found myself wishing for a sequel as soon as the credits rolled.
5. Death Stranding
Like Control, I actually haven’t put nearly enough time into Death Stranding as of this writing. Maybe the fact that it’s here nonetheless makes me a Kojima mark, but I’m fine with that. I will take a game with a strong authorial presence over a committee-designed product every single time. And Death Stranding is Kojima through and through. Its grandiose story may not fully land, but that’s never been the point with his games for me. Death Stranding, like the Metal Gear series to a lesser degree, is a study in intimacy. I can’t think of another game that actually cares about its protagonist as much as it does.
4. Bee Simulator
Over the last decade, the “simulator” tag has become synonymous with physics-based joke games. So when most people see the title Bee Simulator, they probably assume it’s another one of these. That’s a shame, because it’s so far from the truth. In face, Bee Simulator is a gorgeous story of a bee searching for a new home for her hive in New York’s Central Park. It’s got voice acting, hand-drawn cutscenes, and a score by Mikolai Stroinski, whom you may know from his work on a little game called The Witcher 3. The sense of speed and scale as you zip around collecting pollen is a joy, and the game incorporates some natural science education about bees and their relationships with the rest of the world. Bee Simulator is an earnest little game, and I hope its title doesn’t prevent people from seeing that.
3. Luigi’s Mansion 3
I was never a Luigi’s Mansion person. My GameCube launch pick was Rogue Squadron, and I only played about a half-hour of New Moon, using it to try and distract myself in the wake of a terrible breakup. (It didn’t work, but I don’t hold that against the series.) But Luigi’s Mansion 3 impressed me when I saw it at E3, so I decided to help cover it for the site.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but what I got was a gorgeous, lovingly-crafted experience that responds to every one of your questions about the environment with “yes, and.” “Can I vacuum that curtain off the wall?” Yes, and there’s a ghost hiding behind them and now it’s shrieking around the room about being caught unawares. Luigi’s Mansion 3 isn’t just one of the best games of the year, it’s one of the best titles on the Switch, period.
2. Baba is You
Baba Is You is a true galaxy brain game. The core action of moving around and pushing blocks is so simple that nearly anyone can do it, but it gradually builds upon its foundation in surprising ways. This is a game that can feel frustrating when a puzzle seems impossible, but then makes you feel like a goddamn genius when you figure it out. Can’t escape from impassable walls? Change the rules so that you control the walls instead of Baba, and march the whole structure to the goal. The goal is out of reach? Push things around so that Baba Is Win and you automatically beat the level. From a design perspective, Baba Is You is an incredible accomplishment — it’s hard enough to design a regular puzzle game, but one where you can change the rules of the game itself? I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for designer Arvi Teikari to put together, but I’m glad he did.
1. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium is the most human video game I’ve played in a very long time.
Taking the role of an amnesiac detective, you’re tasked with solving a murder with the help of your new partner and shining star of a human being Kim Kitsuragi. But that’s anything but a straightforward task, and it’s one that will draw you into Disco Elysium’s fictionalized post-Communist world populated by people mostly just doing their best to try and get by. Your stats and skills are all rooted in the world and your role, eschewing the RPG standards for things like “Electrochemistry” and “Savoir Faire.” Each of your many skills chimes in during dialogue, sometimes offering helpful hints and sometimes misleading you. Factor in the Thought Cabinet system, whereby you can fixate on various ideas that pop into your head, and you have a game where the mechanics are perfectly tied to the narrative.
Disco Elysium is by turns tragic, funny, and touching. If you have any interest in narrative video games, you need to play it. It’s the kind of game where I almost immediately wanted to do another playthrough once the credits rolled, but still haven’t because my first time through the game now feels canonical — in the religious sense. I’m not sure if I ever will. Love you, Kim.