The year of 2018 felt strange for me as a gamer and a designer. This year was undeniably great in terms of the games that came out, but I for some reason felt like I was not as wowed by the games I anticipated as I thought I would be. However, when writing this list, I found that this year gave me tons to pick apart design-wise, as well as many games that gave experiences unlike anything I’d had before. I was blown away while playing some, actually thinking to myself about how much I loved the design.
Last year, I made two separate posts about my favorite aspects of design of that year, followed by my actual favorite games of the year. However, this year I wanted to unify things and dig deep into why I chose to put these games on my list. I’m definitely going to be overlooking some amazing ideas, but I feel like this list encompasses a lot about what I loved about 2018, so I’m sticking to it. I hope you give these games a try, and I hope you were able to appreciate the games you played this year as much as I did.
Gris is a game that I have slowly been making my way through since its release last month, and while I can’t say I’ve been blown away by its gameplay, the art style and music are almost unmatched in terms of pure beauty. I have taken screenshots of very few games in my life, but Gris has joined that short list because it simply sets up so many places where I just can’t help but stare.
Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a game that I couldn’t justify adding to this list, but one that I have enjoyed every second of. Crash Bandicoot was a much larger part of my time growing up with my PS1, but having now played both remade trilogies, I can safely say I’ve enjoyed playing the Spyro games again more. The amount of care that’s gone into breathing new life into these games has made them look as good as my rose-tinted glasses would like to believe they looked so many years ago.
Detroit: Become Human was very close to making the list, but was just barely nudged out, unfortunately. The game wasn’t new or innovative in any way, really, but the stories were genuinely entertaining and engaging, and I loved how the game visualized the many different options the player is given. I especially loved the fact that sometimes you simply didn’t have enough time to see everything, making you focus hard on what you wanted or needed to check out. It was a small part of making the player choices feel more meaningful.
The Gardens Between was a game I was excited about since its announcement, and it really delivered on exactly what I was hoping for. The game was short and stylish, and the time-manipulation gameplay was utilized pretty well. The story fell a bit flat, and I felt like none of the puzzles were really that challenging, but I still enjoyed my time with the game.
Super Mario Party was a game I really wanted to include on the list specifically because I wanted to talk about the high-fiving mechanic. I am super glad the series is back out of the car and utilizing the Switch well, but the high five is something I never expected to love as much as I did. It’s really silly and stupid, but it actually brings players together, boosts morale, and has a nice incentive in some extra coins to help even the most stubborn of players join in. It’s a subtle, yet very smart change to keep the party together.
#10 – Donut County – The Hole
Starting off the list is a particularly silly game that I picked up, beat, and put down, fully appreciative of the experience I’d had. Donut County is extremely cute, genuinely funny, and a very simple game that holds a lot of charm. It gets in and gets out with everything it has, which is greatly appreciated in a year with so much to play and an ever-shrinking pool of free time. Solo developers have gotten an increasing amount of credit in recent years, so I commend Ben Esposito for his dedication to this idea.
The gameplay of Donut County reminded me of Katamari in a way, where destruction will cause it to grow, but it was utilized pretty well in the various levels of the game. Filling the hole with water and making a stew, shooting things back out of the hole, and setting trees on fire are all memorable uses of the hole. Unlike The Gardens Between, I finished the game thinking that they had utilized the hole in pretty much every way I could feasibly think of. It was an extremely simple system, but there’s a lot of fun in seeing an entire lounge chair with someone in it slide into oblivion.
#9 – Beat Saber – Modifiers
Having just picked up a PSVR, I didn’t expect a VR game to make my list, but I played a decent bit of the game on a friend’s Vive during the summer, and I’m here to say I’m a believer. The PSVR song list is limited, unfortunately, but I’m excited for some song packs in the coming year. There are also some really well-made and engaging maps for songs I enjoyed before getting into the game, such as “Angel Voices” by Virtual Self and “Pop Stars” by K/DA. The game is simple and addictive, and even if you look like a fool playing it, you feel like a badass.
Something I don’t think many people really appreciate about the game are the modifiers that not only can make the game harder if you’re running out of challenging songs, but also ones to make songs easier so that you can work your way up to finishing the normal thing. These modifiers really add a lot of diversity, accessibility, and challenge to the game that only affects the arbitrary score goals. In addition, the campaign utilizes the modifiers really well to create a very nice difficulty curve with a variety of different challenges like reaching a certain score threshold or making less than a certain amount of mistakes.
#8 – Hades – Ambrosia
I just released a piece about Hades and how I love dying in that game, so check that out here for more, but suffice to say I’ve enjoyed my time with the game so far. The gameplay loop is satisfying, and it’s hard not to love any of the charm and care put into Supergiant’s games. I’ve taken a bit of a break, but I know each update will pull me right back in to keep trying to escape the underworld.
One thing I really enjoy finding on my runs are the Ambrosia items. On the surface, these items are just a way to get Keepsakes that enable perks, and it’s always fun to see what new Keepsakes can be obtained. However, I really appreciate the connection that grows when a player gives a character a gift. I was compelled to give every character a gift, even the ones I didn’t particularly have an interest in, so that I could get a Keepsake in return. However, I ended up growing to like some characters more after giving them some Ambrosia and seeing them very thankful for the gift. It was just a personal touch that I felt developed my relationship with the characters in a smart way.
#7 – Celeste – Badeline
Celeste is a strange game for me, because it came and went in my gaming schedule without me really connecting to it much. It was the only game on this list that I had trouble coming to grips with in terms of my real opinion about it. However, upon a lot of reflection, I realized it was because the game didn’t break much new ground, but instead refined the 2D platformer into easily one of the most well-designed in the genre’s long history. The story was deeply connecting and enjoyable, and it integrated well into the tight and challenging gameplay. I never became frustrated by my many deaths, which is a testament to how Matt Makes Games really wanted the player to get right back into the action as quick as possible.
The piece of design I picked out from Celeste was the “antagonist” of the game, Badeline. Madeline’s negative mirror image tortures her throughout her climb of Celeste Mountain, constantly telling her it’s pointless, but eventually comes to terms with Madeline about the necessity of both of their existences and their clear strength when working together. I thought the narrative was really well done, and it was really driven home when Badeline joins Madeline in the final level to help her reach new heights with a second jump. The gameplay felt so neatly tied to the story in that level, and it put a nice wrap to a thoroughly enjoyable game.
#6 – Shadow of the Colossus – Grip
Yes, I know, very bold to put a remake on this list, and so high up at that. However, I’ve said it to everyone I know: Shadow of the Colossus is my favorite game of all time. I absolutely love the experience that that game has given me so many times over the years. I have been working on Platinumming it for years. I would never include this game on this list if the PS4 remake didn’t take up as much of my time as it did. All of the shrines, all of the time attacks, and just experiencing the game as a whole again, but in beautiful HD, has been a treat I rarely, if at all, get in my time playing games.
It’s unfair to compare a game from many years ago to games released this year, but my favorite mechanic of this game has always been the grip meter. Holding the shoulder button to hold onto the walls and colossi is a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but it fully immerses the player into the feeling of clinging on for dear life as a gigantic, hulking creature tries to shake you off. Hearing the meter run low and seeing the animation of the colossus wind up to try to shake again is heart-pounding in the best possible way. I’ll stop raving about this game now before I go on for paragraphs upon paragraphs. Get the remake and play the game if you’ve never experienced it.
#5 – Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – Character Representation
Smash Bros. has always been the game that has brought my group of friends together since we all met. Late night tournaments, trash talking in the group message, and discussing strategies are just some of my fondest memories with my friends, and it’s all thanks to Nintendo’s gaming summit that is this fighting game series. Ultimate brings everything you could ever want as a player in, and my friends and I have already played countless hours together.
Something that doesn’t get much discussion is how faithfully these characters are translated from their games to the fighter, and the newcomers for Ultimate show that off to a high degree. Inkling’s ink meter, in addition to their variety of weapons and costumes, show off the rich style and fun shooter gameplay that the Splatoon series has to offer. The bulging eyes of King K. Rool match really well with moves that look like they were ripped frame-by-frame from his boss fights in the Donkey Kong Country games. Isabelle’s adorable animations and silly items portray her sweet character very well while diversifying her from the Villager’s moveset. There’s clear love and care put into designing these characters that make them feel amazing to fans of their series and intriguing to people who have never heard of them before. It’s just a testament to how much of a museum the series is for gaming’s biggest and smallest names.
#4 – Moss – Quill/Player Interaction
Last year, I placed Persona 5 pretty low on my list because I hadn’t played enough of it to know how much I’d love it, but I knew I liked it enough to fit it somewhere. Having beat the 100 hour experience early this year, I can say I regret how low I placed it. A similar situation came up after receiving my PSVR headset a few days ago and playing the first hour of Moss. I will not be making that same mistake again.
Moss is high on the list because it’s the game that’s blown me away most in VR so far. Trust me, I bet Astro Bot: Rescue Mission would also be here if I’d had enough time to play that, too, based on what I’ve heard. But playing the small bit of Moss I have so far has opened my eyes to the potential of VR games beyond just more immersive first-person experiences. It feels like I’m able to peer my head into a Studio Ghibli film, which is something I never knew I would adore. The game is a playable storybook, and I’m super excited to keep playing it at my own slow pace in order to take it all in.
My favorite bit of design with the game so far would easily be the interaction between Quill, the mouse heroine, and the player. The player is not just a bystander in this game, but an active participant that must interact with both Quill and the world to move forward. After solving a puzzle, Quill would raise her hand and I was able to tap my controller in order to high-five her (apparently I really appreciate high-fives this year). Another moment I hold fondly is taking a bit of time to solve a puzzle in a room, and Quill waving to get my attention and then pointing to the enemy and object that I needed to utilize. These moments were incredibly small, but I totally forgot about the real world in those moments and I felt a real dependence on Quill.
#3 – Florence – Small Interactions
If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I’d be more drawn to a 45 minute mobile game than most console or PC games released this year, I’d have called you insane. But here we are, with me putting all of my praise into what is one of my favorite stories told in gaming. Florence doesn’t dilly dally as it tells a story that many will relate to with some really nice art, a beautiful soundtrack, and simple interactions. I was deeply moved by the story, which made me ask my girlfriend to play it, which in turn caused her to cry, so clearly there’s something here that creates a range of emotions for players.
What really caused me to be as invested as I was in the game was the very simple and small interactions that made use of the mobile device very well. Brushing your teeth by swiping back and forth and choosing what objects to put on display and which to put into storage don’t seem like compelling gameplay systems in any right, but Florence chooses to tell a story and use these small tasks to really bring the player into Florence and Krish’s relationship. I wrote about it in my piece earlier this year, but my favorite interaction in the game was when Krish and Florence were just going on their first dates, and the player had to connect puzzle pieces in order to create a speech bubble for Florence. At first there’s many pieces to put together, but as they go on more dates and conversation becomes easier for the characters, the puzzle also begins to get easier with less and less pieces to connect. It’s a good example of why the interactive nature of the game made it a much more effective story than if it had been told in another medium.
#2 – God of War – Leviathan Axe
As someone who’d always been interested in the series but never had the drive to pursue games, I wasn’t fully sure what I was getting into when popping in God of War. What I ended up getting was an extremely polished game with engaging combat, an interesting and complex set of characters, a gorgeous semi-open world, and simply a fun experience. You’ve most likely heard it all already.
I was originally writing a piece for this blog about how feedback essentially made the Leviathan Axe such a fulfilling weapon to use, but after many popular outlets putting out similar pieces, I decided to scrap it. However, now’s the time to say that this axe can go down as probably my favorite weapon in any game I’ve played. Everything from the camera work to the animations to the sound effects make every slash and slam feel weighty and powerful. And don’t even tell me that pulling back the axe like Thor with his hammer isn’t the most satisfying thing in gaming this year.
#1 – Return of the Obra Dinn – Memento Mortem
I was surprised to see Return of the Obra Dinn release late last year, but the concept seemed intriguing and I had greatly enjoyed Lucas Pope’s previous game Papers, Please. What I got out of that experience was nothing short of brilliant and gratifying. The fact that the game was fully created by Pope, from the striking art style to the interesting story to the jaunty and fitting music, is nothing short of inspiring as a designer myself. Everything comes together in the game to make the player feel as close to a detective as I’ve ever played. I even wrote about it a bit ago if you’re interested, found here.
The best mechanic, by far, is the pocketwatch called the Memento Mortem that takes the player back to the moment of a person’s death. You’ll hear the last words they spoke and heard, and then you’ll be transported into an interactable vignette where you can explore to find clues about the identities of the 60 crew members and how they died. An insane amount of time was most likely spent setting up these small scenes to give small bits of information about the crew, and figuring out what information to look for is half the fun in uncovering the mystery of the ship. I’m beyond impressed by how intelligent the game made me feel when I would follow what seemed like a very small detail into a correct deduction.
Well, that’s my top 10 for the year. I hope you had a great 2018, because there was a lot to love about gaming last year. Here’s to another promising year!