This is a summation of the 10 games in 2019 that provided me with the most enjoyment, where “enjoyment” is interpreted broadly. As such, it’s inherently weighted by my own preferences (innovative narrative, adventure games, single-player). There’s a “top 10 games of 2019” list out there that makes a case for Remnant: From the Ashes and Apex Legends, but it’s not this one. I’ll also be publishing a collection of narrative games that came out in 2019 that I think are worth a look; there’s some overlap between the lists, but I didn’t want to limit that one artificially by number. Finally: I’ve gone in alphabetical order, except that I’ve saved my game of the year for last.
Control is stylish. From the heavy font introducing new areas, to the red light suffusing the Oldest House when enemies were present, to everything about Emily Pope, this game has an aesthetic. Before I get into the worldbuilding, which cemented its place on this list, I want to touch on what I really enjoyed about the combat. The FPS mechanics feel good, but it really shines for me in the Launch and Seize mechanics. It felt fantastic to be able to grab almost anything in the environment and toss it around; the physics in this game are second to none. Once you put a ton of points into Launch, you can toss a whole forklift at an enemy, and that’s hilarious. Seize is great too; grabbing some guy who’s trying to kill me and then making him turn on his team is deeply satisfying.
Finally, the way Control parceled out its health regen forces you into complex, constantly-shifting adrenaline-pulsing firefights. You can’t shoot while you crouch, but I think that’s intentional; the game forces you away from careful tactical positioning and into an all-out assault. There are genuinely hard places; some of the bosses do stand out as more punishing than others. But the level of difficulty felt earned, or at least not out of place; my frustration was never because random or senseless deaths occurred.
But this game’s worldbuilding is stellar. The messages left throughout by FBC agents (I still want an FBC shirt, by the way) are often hilarious; the letters you get from people writing in are even better. My absolute favorite, though, is how the Board talks to you in < synonyms / threats>, words that are sometimes correlated but often intriguingly divergent. It’s an entirely alien way of expressing meaning that is spooky, hilarious, and intellectually provocative.
9: Death Stranding
This is an extremely Hideo Kojima-ass game. I’m not here to mount a defense of the quest dialogue writing or some of the character names (though honestly at this point I probably could do the latter). But this game is fundamentally so itself, committed to all of its aesthetic decisions, that even the rougher spots feel like part of an absolutely wild whole. It starts with Kojima radically reimagining traversal in games; so much of the experience is monotony, is holding down a button and waiting for something to emerge: the destination; a BT encounter; another player’s construction.
It’s that last bit that feels the most satisfying to me; setting aside the game’s written storyline about forging connections, there’s something beautiful about spending 3 hours building a road and chatting with your friends, then logging on later to find 19,000 likes have been left by other players. You’re not just building this highway for you; you’re building it for you and someone else.
Death Stranding is a game where you can launch grenades of Norman Reedus’ pee at enemies (but also where the only damage that can be done is via his blood). It’s obsessed with bodily fluids, with excretion and absorption. Players have discovered that if enough people urinate in the same spot in the game world, mushrooms will spawn, which will lead to cryptobiotes, little creatures that restore your blood. I’m still not sure what I think of turning a simulated pissing contest into a multiplayer collaborative moment, but there is no other game that could have caused me to write these sentences. It is wholeheartedly and unabashedly and wildly itself, and I enjoyed my time with it.
I wavered hard about whether to put this on or not, but every objection I had was countered by another game on this list, until the only one left was “I have worked with one of the developers”. This is not a problem that is going to get any better throughout my career, so I might as well keep putting that big disclosure at the top and talking about what I love anyway.
A time-looping adventure game where you play Ophelia attempting to avert the events of Hamlet, Elsinore trades on information that you can discover and then disseminate to the other NPCs, who will then act on that information. Sometimes you will not want them to act on this information in the ways that they choose to. It is a learning experience! The game essentially becomes about information management–what does this incarnation of Ophelia know; what would you like to divulge, and to whom, and when. There are a number of different endings you can uncover before having to commit to one; I spent a lot of time wavering over what ending I’d like to commit my Ophelia to. None of them are straightforward; all involve sacrifice of something crucial. Which feels very Shakespearean to me. I know there was some player sentiment that they’d prefer not to have to start a whole new game over to experience the ramifications of an ending they didn’t choose; this design decision, too, feels very Shakespearean to me.
7: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Fire Emblem absorbed me for what feels like most of the summer. I enjoyed the tactics part more than others did, I think, but also I’m not playing this game for its robust tactics system. I’m playing this game for the balance of these headstrong, doomed idiot children and their older, wiser, traumatized versions. And also to set them up with colleagues/teammates/etc that will complement them, whether or not the game validated my readings of those relationships. (Though Fire Emblem does validate the time I spent making those connections, by making NPCs more effective when next to characters they have a high support rank with.) I probably spent almost as much time sending FE memes to friends as I did playing the actual game.
Plus the teatime minigame rules. As does really everything to do with relationship building (both between Byleth and their charges, and NPC to NPC); the preferences system and how to use that to set up successful interactions, dinners, etc.
6: Outer Wilds
I actually haven’t finished Outer Wilds, because I get stuck in a frustration cycle of landing badly and dying. There are only so many times I can find hilarious failures amusing before I want to just move on, because the story in this game is so good. I’ve taken to watching Let’s Plays on lunch breaks occasionally just to get some more. But despite my sporadic frustration, I always want to go back to this game to explore just a little bit more.
5: Outer Worlds
I don’t want to say “it’s just Fallout New Vegas in space” because that feels reductive to both teams’ efforts, but the Outer Worlds feels like coming back to a great deal of what felt good about those games. But it probably wouldn’t be on this list without its worldbuilding and NPCs. Spacer’s Choice is a horrifying, grasping bureaucracy whose cheerfully grim slogans sketch out the terrible confines of Space Capitalism our characters find ourselves in. This culminated for me incredibly early in the game when I tried to get the Moon Man behind the counter to drop his shtick for a moment, thinking I was being kind by connecting to him as a fellow human, and instead provoking him into an unwanted emotional breakdown. I have never felt so bad for a corporate mascot.
This review would be incomplete without mentioning Parvati, of course, and her relationship with Jun that you can encourage. It’s a truly lovely romance that embraces Parvati’s asexuality (the revelation of which is another high point in the game) with nuance and care.
4: A Short Hike
A late entry onto this list, A Short Hike is a charming, relaxing adventure game about climbing a very tall mountain very slowly. Or at least you can choose to climb it slowly; the game is rather agnostic about how you get to your ostensible goal. But the real heart of the game is in the side quests along the way, and the hilarious dialogue that accompanies them. I laughed more playing this game than almost any other game this year.
I went in expecting a short game that I could breeze through quickly and enjoy a decent amount, but found myself utterly charmed by the world and the writing. It’s not a long experience, but it is absolutely delightful.
3: Sunless Skies
Another disclosure: I have worked with and/or am friends with a number of contributors to this game. But I genuinely do think that Sunless Skies, the sequel to Sunless Sea, improves on many (though not all) of the design issues its predecessor had, and blazes new ground while doing so. It’s still the same general resource-management survival-in-a-bleak-world game, and travel does feel faster but not significantly so, and so for players who bounced off the first, they may find the second still not to their tastes. But.
In Skies, the fragmentation of the map into four regions (with a general hub) leans into multiple writers having a hand in shaping the narrative. What emerges is a nonetheless coherent meditation on the limits of a mechanistic and determined empire against any number of unknowable concepts: the vastness of space; mutual trust and obligation; the human heart. There are a number of standout stories; other players’ opinions will vary, but I found myself equally amused and horrified by Kieron Gillen’s Incognito Princess, recruitable as an officer, and unsettled by what’s happening on Brabazon when you look a little closer. (Speaking of looking a little closer, do enjoy the boardwalk on Worlebury-juxta-Mare.) And Carillon, with its very particular qualities of spiritual refinement, is worth a visit.
2: Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game is not just a game but a phenomenon. I’m always interested in when non-gaming friends excitedly ask me if I’ve heard of [insert title here], and this was far and away the game the most people wanted to gush about to me. I dressed as the Horrible Goose for Halloween.
There is really nothing I can write that captures the experience of the game better than playing it, or perhaps reading this piece by Daniel Lavery. Untitled Goose Game has unabashedly stolen its spot on this list, and quite rightly so.
1: Disco Elysium
I’m not stealing Bruno Dias’ excellent bit, though I am tempted. I’m also not firing up the game, which is what I want to do every single time I discuss it. Which happens a lot these days.A CRPG in the spirit of Planescape: Torment about an amnesiac detective struggling to solve a case before the world around him goes (even more) to shit, Disco Elysium has an irresistible mechanical hook–the protagonist’s skills speak to him, providing unique insight depending on where you’ve put your points in. Because everything in the game is based on dice roll checks against your existing skills, in addition to the usual moments of skill checks, you often end up rolling against yourself.
The writing has been lauded by everyone I know who’s played it, and I’m here to add to that. It’s screamingly funny, and the game encourages you to take some of the stranger options, both by hinting to you (both diegetically and via UI) that you can act like a total weirdo, and by making it irresistible not to. I have literally dozens of screenshots of moments that have made me laugh aloud. A significant number of them involve Ltn. Kim Kitsuragi’s responses to my detective’s bullshit antics.
EMPATHY: I would also take a bullet for Ltn. Kitsuragi.
YOU: I thought we weren’t doing this.
The white check/red check system has also enabled my terrible exploratory instincts, especially when I know I can come back to a check later if I fail. My curiosity has been piqued by a number of white checks, including one early game success that changed how I saw one character completely. By contrast, I am still haunted by one red check failure in particular, which was extremely small in relation to the game’s major plot points. And yet.
Which leads me to the places where the writing is melancholy, gorgeous, unsettling. Disco Elysium isn’t just good at deploying whip-sharp comedy (though it is very, very good at that). Empathy checks often make me feel warmly towards the NPCs whose emotions I’m picking up on, but also towards my protagonist. The extended Visual Calculus scenes offer a meditation on a particular moment that often turns toward the yawning abyss of sorrow which suffuses the protagonist and his terrible, falling-apart world.
Everything Half-Light ever says is terrifying.
It’s Inland Empire, though, that most reliably gets to me, although Shivers comes in a close second. Alternating between stark and lyrical shades of melancholy, Inland Empire seems to serve both as imagination and a deep outpouring of internal, almost subconscious, emotion. I picked a low-Psyche build at start and have spent the entire game regretting it, because Inland Empire gives me the strongest sense of who my character is and what he’s lost.
As a detective game, Disco Elysium leverages its innovative central mechanic to tell a truly unique story that’s constantly compelling me to explore further. I’ve been watching this game develop over the years, and I bought my copy on the first day it was out. But even though my hopes have been high for a while, this game exceeded them. I don’t think I’ve gone from “I’m enjoying this” to “this is an incredible experience” to “I will buy anything this studio puts out” so quickly. I genuinely think that Disco Elysium is not only a genre-defining game but will be a touchstone for game designers for years to come. Plus, any game that contains a Heraclitus reference–in the original Greek–is pretty much a lock for my game of the year.
Best music and aesthetic: Sayonara Wild Hearts
If the controls (on iOS) hadn’t frustrated me so much it might have made my top 10 list.
Best game that puts me on tilt: Teamfight Tactics
I don’t wanna talk about it.
Best game I worked on and thus cannot recommend, but you should all play anyway: Pathologic 2
I genuinely believe this game cuts through the tired “can games be art?” question with a resounding “yes”. This is the Anna Karenina of games. You can quote me on that.