Over on the Unofficial Gameological Discord, we’ve been discussing year-end lists and games-of-the-year and all that lovely jazz one thinks about on the internet during the month of December. Collectively, the chat came up with these fifteen categories to run down our key thoughts on games-of-the-year, and so, without further ado, here are mine:
[A game on your backlog that you swear you’ll get to eventually.]
I trust that Outer Wilds is fantastic. My Twitter feed was lit up about that game for weeks, and it’s from my absolute favorite publisher whose name doesn’t end with -tendo. I moved across the country this year and had to downsize a few electronics in the process, so I haven’t really had time for a full-on PC game, nor have I even booted up my PS4 in months. Next year, I’m sure I’ll play this and love it a whole bunch. Just got away from me this time.
[A game that everyone else loves that you just couldn’t get into.]
God of War. I skipped it in 2018, when pretty much everyone agreed it was the best game of the year. I gave it a shot in 2019 and, well... is it pretty? Yes. Is it an impressive piece of tech and storytelling? Sure. Is it fun? Not for me, at least. Maybe in 2020...
[A game that you enjoyed in the moment, but looking back you no longer enjoy.]
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the concept of Untitled Goose Game, as well as its aesthetic and basically it’s whole dang vibe. It’s just that the game ultimately felt… kind of shallow. Okay, I’m a horrible goose… then what? Perhaps the game was just overhyped by its high-degree of meme-ability (which, also, was super fun in the moment), but I have a hard time imagining going back and harassing all those people again. Then again, I’m about to bring my Switch on a road trip to see my sisters and nephews, so maybe I’ll get some fun out of watching THEM be horrible geese.
[Not a bad game. Just a forgettable one.]
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, boy howdy, that sure was a thing that I spent money on, wasn’t it? I seem to remember mashing buttons a bunch and watching colors flash and goofing around with which heroes’ powers played well with one another, but… I honestly can’t remember if I finished this game or not. Sure, it was miles better than Ultimate Alliance 2, but then, that’s not much of a bar to clear, is it? I’m sure I enjoyed this game, I just don’t have any lasting memories of it.
Say what you want about the inexcusable pricing model for Mario Kart Tour and its myriad of in-app purchases, the game itself is pretty darn delightful. They’ve taken the core Mario Kart experience and distilled it down into bite-sized chunks that can be played in a few minutes with a single thumb. The only way it could be easier to control the karts in this game is if the computer drove for you and you only needed to tap the screen every now and then to fire a weapon, and some people have even tweaked the controls to do exactly that. Everyone knows Mario Kart. Everyone loves Mario Kart. It’s fitting that Mario Kart Tour is the easiest-to-play and most-fun-to-play of all of Nintendo’s mobile efforts to date. With no energy timer or life system like other free-to-plays, you can essentially race all day long for free. It’s just a shame the way the game approached its in-app purchases, is all.
[Free, the very best price there is.]
I’m choosing to interpret this as a free-of-charge update for an existing game that added new features worthy of praise. Maybe that’s too broad a net, but it’s 2019 and all “content” is “downloadable,” so these words officially don’t mean anything anymore. That said, Pokémon GO really shook things up in the back half of 2019 by finally dropping the series’ long-running foils Team Rocket into the game. Introducing mini-boss fights to standard Pokéstops meant trainers had to be ready to brawl even when they weren’t at gyms, and it added a slightly harder edge to an otherwise light-hearted and casual experience. You never had to fight Team Rocket if you didn’t want to, but it was nice to know there was a fight waiting for you if you were up for a challenge.
The final stage of Sayonara Wild Hearts, “Wild Hearts Never Die,” is devastatingly beautiful. This grand finale is broken up into three acts, each with their own musical motifs, where the instrumental first and third are dense and thematic, but the pop vocal second act is where things get really special. There’s a story-related twist (no spoilers), and sure, a somewhat predictable and familiar twist, but still my heart ached as the scene progressively revealed itself. I was simultaneously filled with sorrow and hope, a sense of achievement and an understanding of loss. I felt the totality of the human emotional experience and I’m not ashamed to admit I bawled my eyes out as the credits rolled. The confrontation in “Wild Hearts Never Die” shook me, and it will stay in my mind for a long time.
Not only does Sayonara Wild Hearts boast my favorite music from any video game this year, but according to my Spotify year-in-review the Sayonara Wild Hearts soundtrack is my most-listened-to album of the year. An impressive feat, considering the soundtrack has only been out for two months, compared to the eleven months I’ve had to listen to everything else. Self-described as “a pop album video game,” Sayonara Wild Hearts rocks an original album’s worth of tunes from past Simogo songsmiths Daniel Olsén (Year Walk, Device 6) and Jonathan Eng (The Sailor’s Dream), a collection of emotional electronic pop bangers inspired by the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, CHVRCHES, and Anamanaguchi.
Since the exhilarating launch of Apple Arcade in September, I’ve been compulsively checking the App Store every week to see what, if any, new additions have popped up. The most pleasant surprise of the bunch, for certain, has been Takeshi & Hiroshi, a short-n-sweet dungeon master RPG from Oink Games. Alternating between the equally charming stop-motion puppetry of its story segments and flat 2D graphic design of its dungeon-crawl segments, Takeshi & Hiroshi tells a sweet tale of family bonds and opening up to the people around you. Also, dragons.
We’ve all had hard times. It can be tough to talk to friends and family about what you’re going through, from everyday stresses to existential despair. Thankfully, Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to) came along to offer a friendly ear. Players can write totally anonymous letters about their own woes and read the letters written by other players around the world. If you want, you can write back to the author of the letter with your own words of support and encouragement, and every time you open the game, you’ll receive the latest responses to your own letters. Plus, writing and responding to letters will net you collectable stickers, room decorations, and totally chill tunes to relax to. Kind Words encourages players to open their hearts to one another, and to keep coming back to support and be supported.
The rules of Baba is You are fairly straightforward. In fact, they’re all written right there on the screen. The problem is, those rules change. They change from stage to stage. They change when you interact with objects in the room. They change when you rearrange the words to make whole new rules of your own. What starts as a cute and charming puzzle mechanic quickly reveals itself to be hair-pullingly frustrating, as a few simple rules make the stages increasingly more impossible-seeming, which is why actually solving those puzzles provides some of the greatest thought-reliefs one could experience all year.
I only played a little bit of Return of the Obra Dinn in 2018, but the bit I played was good enough to make it my second-favorite game of the year. 2019, however, brought the console port, and with it, my ability to finally sit down and play the whole dang thing. What a masterpiece! The less you know going in, the better. This is a storytelling experience that absolutely must be... well... experienced!
In a post-PUBG climate, the very concept of the battle royale feels passé. Who would have thought that all the format needed to feel fresh again was the original falling-block puzzle game? Tetris 99 pits 99 people against each other in real time to make a game of Tetris that is way more fun than it has any right to be. People are unpredictable. People are vicious. Tetris is cold, calculated, and unfeeling. Put those two together and you’ve got arguably the best multiplayer experience of the year.
A representative of Annapurna Interactive mentioned to me that Telling Lies has something like nine hours or full-motion video. I’ve watched maybe half of that in my two playthroughs so far, but so much of it is fascinating. Trying to piece together the mysteries, to form a timeline and narrative of the initially disparate clips of webcam recordings, it’s the most a game has ever made me feel truly immersed in its material and like I am living a part of the game myself. Even after reaching the end credits, I would wake up the next morning thinking of new avenues I should have explored or characters I should have researched further. Sam Barlow is a game creator who has continuously challenged the boundaries of gameplay narrative, and with Telling Lies he has reached a new high water mark. I can only imagine how infuriating the experience would be to play as a group or an onlooker—arguing about what words were important and which threads to follow in which order—but as a single player, sitting quietly and allowing the game to take over my mind and envelope my thoughts, I have a hard time thinking of any game that was more engrossing.
I love Sayonara Wild Hearts more than I have loved any other video game ever. It has everything I want or need in a pop culture experience. The game tells a story of heartbreak and self-discovery through The Fool’s Journey of the major arcana, which is neat if you’re familiar with the tarot and totally inessential knowledge if you don’t. Gameplay jumps rapidly between a variety of retro arcade experiences, from the racing-on-rails of Sonic Adventure to the skybound flying ring capture of Panzer Dragoon to the rhythmic target practice of Rez to the highway driftathon of OutRun and beyond, all without skipping a beat or betraying its cool neon biker aesthetic. It’s not too long, deliberately the length of a pop album, so the game never wears out its welcome, but the infectious soundtrack, effortlessly cool aesthetic, and score attack ethos give the game a ridiculously high replayability factor. Sayonara Wild Hearts manifests a fantasy world that feels oh so familiar yet completely alien, a world that I want to curl up and rest inside of but also run away from as fast as I can. It’s a game I will carry with me until the day my brain no longer functions, and even then I believe it will shape what dysphoric dreams may haunt me. Sayonara Wild Hearts is forever imprinted on the core of my being and I’ll never be able to wash away the stains, nor do I particularly want to.