We’re back once again at the end of the year, and what a strange year it’s been for gaming. As a designer, I finally got the chance to put my skills on display with my production courses where I designed and programmed a VR yoyo combat adventure and a fighting game where the goal is to die instead of kill the enemy. However, that’s just a shameless plug because I’m proud of what I’ve made and what I’ve learned. In terms of the general gaming industry, though, the heavy hitters of the generation were all pushed back to the first half of 2020 and the next console generation is coming soon after. This left us with a year of great games, but no game that stood out as the clear Game of the Year like with God of War or Breath of the Wild.
While I personally didn’t play as many games as last year that blew me out of the water, I found this year to be extremely refreshing because of the innovative and risky ideas that developers presented to us. Last year, instead of just talking about my favorite games, I discussed my favorite design ideas behind them. This year, I’m continuing that trend to look deeper into why a game hit me so hard. These aren’t always going to be the most innovative or creative ideas, but they’re the aspects of each game that brought the entire experience together for me.
12. – Disco Elysium – Skill Conversations
Starting off the list is a game that’s in a similar situation as Persona 5 was two years ago. I’ve only recently dug my teeth into Disco Elysium, but I can firmly say that I normally would never play this game and might not finish it, but the design of it is beyond intriguing. The game heavily leans on tabletop RPG mechanics, but from a much more modern point of view that has fun with it and focuses on commitment to your character over world-building, though the setting and lore are certainly top-notch as well.
The most interesting design aspect from the time I played was the stats/skills. Players have 4 major stats broken into 6 skills each, where each skill is essentially a part of the player character’s personality and thought processes. The game runs stat rolls constantly, so choosing where to place your numbers is important to playing the character you want. However, during interactions, the player will get to somewhat talk to the parts of themselves that make up these skills to make more informed decisions. Starting to say something harsh to someone may cause Empathy to chime in and tell you to cool it, or Encyclopedia might inform you of some lore that’s pertinent to the decision you’re about to make. This makes the player feel much more involved in the character they want to be, rather than grafting themselves onto a blank slate. In the few hours I played, those conversations really changed how I was approaching an encounter, and this system is really what’s driving me to keep going in the game.
11. – Telling Lies – UI and Time Limit
Telling Lies is the type of game that you really have to want to explore in order to get everything out of it. Coming off the heels of Sam Barlow’s previous masterpiece of similar ventures, the game tasks the player with typing keywords into a database of videos and combing through the hours of footage to try and piece the story together. This time, though, there’s multiple characters and a much deeper storyline than in Her Story. The game’s high production values also help make the experience a lot smoother, even though Her Story wasn’t rough to begin with.
However, the part of the game that really struck me was that feeling of voyeurism and urgency employed by the meta-narrative. The player controls a woman named Karen who is sifting through this database with a sense that there isn’t much time to do so. The game’s UI is stylized like a modern desktop to immerse the player into this digital library. The player is constantly reminded by Karen’s reflection on the screen or music playing from another room that they are just someone looking in. In addition, Karen’s frantic need to finish quickly and the inevitable cut off when that time limit is reached adds a strange sense of urgency to the game that I totally didn’t expect. Once I realized that my time might be limited in comparison to the relaxed nature of Her Story, I started searching through things and trying to come to conclusions much faster than I would’ve otherwise, which placed me exactly into the shoes that Barlow laid out for me.
10. – Baba Is You – Rules
It’s undeniable that Baba Is You is one of the smartest games released this year. What starts as a simple block pushing game evolves into a brilliant showcase of logic and metagaming. There isn’t much else to the game besides its charm and brilliance, and that’s fine by me. Mark Brown did a much better job than I ever could explaining the game in this video, but I still wanted to give it the shoutout it deserves. Every level of the game challenges the player to break their understanding of how things work. My biggest issue is that its puzzles are relentless. I prefer puzzle games to have some build up and testing before moving on to new ideas, but Baba Is You has you changing your perspective every level, which made the progression feel exhausting at times. My favorite levels are the ones that have the same layout but very slight changes to the rules, which allows for some sort of continued thought that is missing elsewhere in the game.
9. – Death Stranding – Walking and Bridge Link
Death Stranding is the type of game you get when you give the weird indie dude millions of dollars to make his dream game. The game’s weird by all accounts, and is incredibly difficult to describe. I don’t even think I’d want to describe it, as it felt amazing to just get to experience the whole game and what it had to offer on my own. Obviously the game is gorgeous, features a cast of extremely talented actors, and most of all makes you believe in the world that has been set up, even if it is ridiculous at times.
The core gameplay experience of the game is what really caught my attention, though. Making the game the most literal definition of a “walking simulator” was bold of Kojima, who made it clear that the combat aspects of the game weren’t the core of the experience. For the most part, I think it works to create that sense of journeying and improvement as you see the sights of the world and work to make your next trip more efficient. There were absolutely times that the game felt like it was actively working against that sense of progression, but I still think that the idea of weight management and route planning is an experience worth taking.
Specifically enjoyable and tied to that progression is the Bridge Link asynchronous multiplayer. Inspired by the messages of the Dark Souls games, players can help each other out in a variety of ways besides just leaving cool icons for suggestions or warnings. Players can also build structures in the world like bridges and watchtowers that will populate other players’ games to help them out. There’s something really awesome about building a community at arm’s length where you feel like one piece of the puzzle without seeing much beyond a few Likes. While I don’t think the game will be remembered as one of the all-time greats, I think the ideas it plays around with are enough to inspire a lot of developers in fun ways.
8. – Observation – UI Design
I didn’t hear much buzz about Observation beyond its initial launch, but it remains one of the most thrilling and engaging narrative experiences of the year to me. The game gives players a chance to control an AI aboard a spaceship that’s tasked with helping an astronaut on board get the ship back on track after a mysterious collision. The atmosphere of the game is impeccable, with beautiful visuals and audio that really sell the retro-futuristic ship. From start to finish, I was gripped by the 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired narrative and its wonderfully-written cast.
The game’s name means everything, though. As an AI simply doing as commanded, the player becomes an observer of the events that unfold in front of them, even if their actions have a hand in everything. The thing that sells this most, though, is the UI design of the game. The player switches between cameras, interacts with menus, and sometimes explores the ship in a mobile sphere, and all of the time it’s done through simple interfaces reminiscent of Alien with static and glitches that further push the player into this passive role. The interfaces and UI are a barrier between the player and the game that keeps them in their observer role, but also immerses them further into the context. Figuring out how to navigate these interfaces you’ve never seen before is half the fun of the game, but a narrative experience like this is only enhanced by that feeling of being part of the world you’re in.
7. – Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order – Combat and Abilities
I’m a bit confused when it comes to placing Jedi Fallen Order this high up. If I’m honest, this game held some of the most frustrating moments I’ve had in gaming in a while; not from difficulty, but from game feel. A lot of parts of the game feel imprecise to me, from the sliding and platforming to some aspects of combat, to the point I put the game down many times because it felt like the game was against me at all moments. However, it is quite easily the best Star Wars game out there, with amazing world-building and characters. The game wears its influences of Dark Souls and Metroid Prime on its sleeve with pride, and it does a pretty good job combining the two into something enjoyable.
Now I know I said the combat was one of my problems with the game, but I feel like the game does a great job giving players a variety of tools to tackle the many different enemy types. Not only are there many lightsaber moves and dodges, but the player can also use Force powers like pushing and slowing time, allowing for a much deeper system than the power fantasy of The Force Unleashed. Something I personally dislike about Dark Souls combat is its slow nature, and I found that the combat here felt like the perfect blend between deliberate movements and fast action for what Jedi combat should be. Somehow, though, it manages to keep that balance of supernatural strength and vulnerability that I feel is necessary to making a good Star Wars game: give the player the staple tools of the series, but don’t make them feel like an unbeatable god.
6. – Pokemon Sword and Shield – Max Raids
I talked a lot about my fascination with the new direction that Game Freak took on the most recent Pokemon games in my previous blog post, so I’ll keep this relatively simple. In terms of the max raid battles, I haven’t had as much fun with a Pokemon game since the 5th generation. Sitting in a room with friends just chatting, watching a movie, and taking on the various interesting raid bosses is a memory I won’t forget anytime soon. The feature does a great job incentivizing itself with EXP Candies and the rarer TRs, but simply the act of working together with friends was enticing enough, seeing as cooperative experiences in Pokemon are rare. There’s also always that one friend that catches the Gigantamax Pokemon with a Great Ball when everyone else fails, and I didn’t know how to naturally fit that into the discussion here, but goddamnit Dakota I really wanted that Snorlax and you’ve already got 3, so please trade one to me.
5. – Grindstone – Grindstones
Apple Arcade changed everything about premium mobile gaming this year, and I’ve played plenty of the offerings, but none has kept me coming back as much as Grindstone from Capy, makers of Superbrothers and Below. This is especially impressive since I traditionally get extremely bored with match-3 type games. Things like the fun style of the game, its well-paced level progression, the versatility of play options, and the constant introduction of new interactions to keep things fresh are all factors in making the game something I’m eager to jump back into when I get a free minute.
The one smart decision that I think makes the game stand out in the genre is the use of the Grindstones themselves. When a player reaches a chain of 10 creeps or higher, they’ll spawn a Grindstone onto a random space. Chaining onto a Grindstone allows the player to switch the color of the following creeps in the chain. For example, if I start connecting the red creeps and get to a Grindstone, I can then start connecting yellow ones. Getting that first Grindstone on a level is incredibly difficult sometimes, but once you have it, the snowball effect takes hold and suddenly you’re mowing down 20 creeps in a single turn with ease. The Grindstone adds a level of forward-thinking and strength to the puzzle that I wasn’t able to grasp in other match-3 games, and it really allowed me to feel smart when I managed to squeeze out the win condition through careful planning.
4. – A Short Hike – Feathers
A Short Hike is absolutely the reason I purchased access to the Humble Trove earlier this year, and I have zero regrets for doing so. I’ve followed the game’s creator, Adam Robinson-Yu, on Twitter for a while and I have eagerly anticipated the game for its cute animal cast and creative shaders. When it arrived, it was the perfect palette cleanser amidst a sea of long action games. The writing in the game made me laugh multiple times, and the overall message fits well into using the game as a short breather from whatever you’re facing.
Since the game is about exploring and talking to the locals, the Feather system is a pretty nice mechanic that ties the experience together. The player character is a bird who can glide around everywhere from higher vantage points, but their stamina limits how high they can climb without a break. Golden Feathers that raise stamina are found through the camp shop, talking to people, or finding them hidden away, so the player is rewarded for taking their hike and participating fully in the experience. Without the feathers, the player might be compelled to just run up to the top of the mountain and actually lose the entire point of the game. Locking the exploration with the feathers feels simple, but it’s also a natural and effective way to just get players to chill out and enjoy what’s being offered to them.
3. – Resident Evil 2 – Camera Perspective
The first Resident Evil remake set a standard for how to take care when bringing a classic into the modern era, but 2019’s Resident Evil 2 raises the bar tenfold. The game’s core design holds up remarkably well for being over 20 years old, and the team is able to maintain a lot of the atmosphere and tension with a modern presentation. Scares are around every corner and the lack of ammo really helps keep the game feeling desperate until the very end.
Capcom’s decision to completely change the game’s camera from the classic fixed perspectives to an over-the-shoulder view was incredibly risky. There was a lot of potential to lose the magic that made the original so good, after all. Instead of just changing the camera and calling it a day, the game’s scares and challenges are shifted to fit with this new camera angle which adds a whole new type of dread to the game many have played countless times. Not only does it feel much more modern to play, but it brings the player closer to their character. Horrors can now be placed just out of natural view, like behind you or on the ceilings. Shooting is more accurate, but zombies sway unpredictably, making those headshots hard to line up. After playing the remake, I can’t imagine going back to the fixed cameras again.
2. – Control – Levitate and Launch
My most anticipated game of 2019 turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. It’s difficult to describe why I like the game so much since most of the reasons are “they made this stylistic choice and it aligns with my interests very well”. However, I think the game in general does a great job of creating a confusing world of strange humor, shifting architecture, and stories that I’m interested to explore. The visuals of the game are crazy and enthralling, from the bubbling loading screens to the rotating brutalist structures. In particular, I’ve never seen a visual effect like the distortion that puffs out of enemies when they’re killed. The side quests into the depths of the bureau flesh out the world a lot, and I was always compelled to dig deeper.
Combat in the game felt particularly fun, and that was down to the psychic abilities. More specifically, the Levitate and Launch abilities that let me fly around levels and throw objects into enemies were incredibly empowering and felt just right. The animations, timing, and sound effects were just as good as the notably-juicy axe pull in God of War, in my opinion. You can die in Control in just a few hits from these supernatural monstrosities, but I never felt ill-equipped for the task because of the power I held.
(As a side note that’s somewhat unrelated, no where are these powers shown off quiet as much as the Ashtray Maze, which sends the player through a dizzying labyrinth of sliding and duplicating architecture and allows them to absolutely wail on enemies. The rock music playing only intensifies the feeling of being a badass, and it remains my best memory of the game.)
1. – Outer Wilds – Ship Log
My Game of the Year, to anyone that knows me, is usually clear by the time I write this list. I have shouted my love for Outer Wilds from the heavens and have coaxed multiple friends into trying it, usually to copious thanks for sharing the experience. Simply put, Outer Wilds is unlike anything I’ve ever played. Having an entire solar system to explore and discover was amazing, and I constantly found myself in awe of the interesting planet designs and beautiful sights to see. The environmental storytelling of an ancient race draws obvious comparisons to Metroid Prime‘s Chozo, but this game makes that learning and information the actual core. The addition of the time loop really allows for a sense of urgency and planning for each “run” that I found exhilarating. I hate to say much about the game, so I’ll keep this brief.
With a game so focused on information and remaining hands-off, it would have been extremely easy for the team to just leave everything up to the player to keep track of. However, I think having the ship log was the smartest design decision. The game collects the important discoveries made and gives the player the option of seeing the information in two ways. The first option is based on the planet the discovery is related to, which still allows intrepid explorers to analyze the data without distraction. The other option is to lay everything out in a big web based on the information’s overarching connection to the story as a whole and to other pieces of information, which is how I played it. In this way, I was able to understand everything I was finding in the larger context and be guided very slightly when I was struggling to make progress. By keeping the information in this way, the developers were able to keep players on track and assure them what information was actually valuable to their success. It’s such a small detail, but to me it tied the entire experience together.
Like I said above, 2019 felt like it bred creativity and fun in the midst of a blockbuster drought, and I am super glad that we got that before the onslaught that is the first half of 2020. I highly recommend looking into all of these games, but if you don’t play Outer Wilds I’ll be very disappointed in you! Have a wonderful end of the year and I hope to post more in the coming months.