I find it hard to summarise my thoughts on gaming for the previous year, partly because it’s been an eclectic mix of tragedies, tedium and triumphs, but perhaps the overall word that comes to mind is “unadventurous.” What’s good was good, but very rarely was it surprising (with a few exceptions I’ll be getting to in a moment). Gaming feels like it’s running further than ever into safe, unchallenging places, where even quality products are made not by experimentation and innovation, but by refining well-known formulas to the point of… well, making them feel formulaic, a problem that is already coming round to bite a few major companies in their grossly overbudgeted behinds.
Still, quality has shone through despite this, sometimes by bucking the trend of predictability and sometimes by pushing head-on through it, and today we celebrate those who did just that.
- The Red Strings Club
A little-known entry to start off with, an independent cyberpunk Steam game based largely around booze and banter, mixing the perfect drink to manipulate your customers’ minds and gaining information to use against others. Though its world goes somewhat undeveloped and the decision not to have a third act is… bewildering, to say the least, what’s there is unique and memorable enough to be worth trying out. If nothing else, you might learn how to make a decent cocktail.
It’s been out for a while, but only came out of early access this year, so we’re counting it as a 2018 release. Put simply, Subnautica denies a lot of the obvious trends and tropes of survival games to its advantage: it has an interesting premise, a fixed map with surprising variety, a unique aesthetic and a natural sense of tension and development as the plot progresses from start to end. Coming face-to-face with a luminescent coral reef gives a sense of eerie wonder matched in intensity only by the fear of flicking on your light in dark waters and seeing alien horrors descend on you.
- Hitman 2
Though little more of a expansion pack for the previous game and generally in need of a bit of evolution, it’s hard to deny Hitman 2 manages to capture the same impish pranking and black humour of the 2016 game. Yes, whether feeding drug lords to hippos, shoving illuminati leaders into iron maidens, or flapping about Miami in a giant pink mascot costume while Agent 47 wears his constant expression of stony-faced seriousness; it’s all delightful fun broken up by the occasional muffled gunshot or impromptu toilet-drowning.
- Shadow of the Colossus: Remastered
I try not to put remasterings and reboots on these lists if I can help it, but at the end of the day Shadow of the Colossus is still as hypnotically enchanting as it was over a decade ago, and even now there really isn’t much out there like it.
Yes, a few of the colossi don’t quite live up to the standard (Headbutt-Henry and his Crumbling Columns of Doom come to mind), but Phalanx, the giant balloon tapeworm, is still one of the greatest boss fights in all of gaming, and most of the other titans aren’t far behind.
- Dead Cells
Another one to make a break from early access, and Dead Cells was a game I couldn’t help but be utterly hooked by for about three months; a 2D rogue-like Metroidvania platformer with a combat system flexible enough to bend without ever breaking. At times it becomes too difficult for its own good (last I checked, there was still a bit of balancing needed overall) but the simple core loop becomes a lasso that’s very hard to escape. It’s never been so fun to be a piece of snot swinging a sword, including Cloud from FFVII on that list.
- God of War (2018)
This was a good year for exclusives (by which I mean, a good year for bloated corporations holding games hostage in an utterly anti-consumer practice) and the adventures of Kratos and his pet goblin was undeniably part of that. Yes, God of War is a good game, albeit with some notable flaws, mainly that it feels like a three-hour plot stretched over a fifteen-hour story, and like The Red Strings Club it also declines to have a proper ending, though did just about stretch to a hand-waving “to be continued.” Nonetheless, hacking Draugr to pieces is fun, the relationship between the Ghost of Sparta and his mini-me is well-handled, and it’s still hard to think of a franchise that can convey sheer scale and size any better than this one.
- Into the Breach
Ah, the makers of FTL: Faster Than Light have done it again, with an incredibly compelling set of mechanics that had me hooked from the start and thinking about them even when I had to leave. Don’t be fooled by the Pacific Rim premise; Into the Breach is more cerebral puzzle game than brutish combat brawler, artfully moving your mechs around to evade and control your enemies. You’ll spend ages staring fixedly at the board before committing yourself to a strategy… And then realise in frustration that you forgot about the sodding push effect on that attack, and everything’s gone wrong now. Time quietly make my exit and abandon that timeline to chaos, I think.
- Spider-Man (2018)
I agonised for ages about whether to give this game second or third place, and in the end I reluctantly gave the bronze medal to Insomniac’s web-whipping, wall-crawling adaptation of Spider-Man. Yes, the story has its problems, the Mary-Jane-Morales stealth sections are now infamously tedious, the new costume design is a little “meh” and the game is probably too easy even on the hardest difficulty, but I can’t deny that the basic mechanics are a blast, a combination of acrobatic, free-form movement and frantic, elastic brawling. Hell, the impact web alone would’ve gotten this game into my top ten. Thwip!
- Red Dead Redemption 2
Cards up front: Red Dead Redemption 2 is not as good as Read Dead Redemption 1. It’s less focused in everything it does, suffers from a case of too-many-cooks, of being overbudgeted, but mainly of coming after the overpraised mess that was GTA V. And yet it’s hard to deny that RDR2 has a lot of strengths, with a strong central cast of characters, an incredibly underrated soundtrack, a detailed world and shooting/exploring gameplay that’s just fun enough to make you forget it really isn’t that innovative.
Perhaps its best strength is the relative grounding of tone. Whereas GTA V was a mix of teenage sneer, stupidity and sub-par satire, Red Dead 2 takes itself and its ideas a bit more seriously, and consequently you just might find yourself caring about its cast as people, not punchlines. Who would’ve thought it?
- Return of the Obra Dinn
I know you’ve probably not heard of this one, but stick with me as I tell you about the adventures of a nineteenth-century insurance agent that – no, don’t go yet!
Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game, pure and simple, a genre that’s so rare that it almost doesn’t exist. Oh sure, some games will tell you they offer investigative work, but all you get is a cereal box puzzle or a glowing line to follow before it just gives you the answer. Obra Dinn actually lives up to the promise, presenting a compelling mystery full of betrayal, excitement, blood and seamen (you heard me) and asking you to properly untangle to the web of events that lead to over sixty people going missing at sea. The ability to walk through frozen tableaus of people’s deaths is a fascinating one, and the only thing I really dislike about the game is how short it was, over and done with before ten hours had elapsed and leaving me whimpering for more. And while the plot might not be as elaborate as Red Dead’s or the gameplay as complex as Spider-Man’s, it almost doesn’t matter, because Obra Dinn is the only game on this list that would actually make me punch the air in satisfaction when I got everything right, and when something is engaging me that much, nothing else can compare. This is my game of the year, and frankly by quite a wide margin.
Hope you all have a good 2019 (a hope which seems less and less likely with each news cycle), and a special thanks to those who still read this site even when events keep me from adding new content anywhere near as much as I should. However, in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to ask you for something – a favour, if you like, that could maybe form the basis of one of those new years resolutions everybody’s already abandoned by now.
This year, don’t do the obvious. Don’t buy the game that’s marketed to high hell, especially if it’s something you suspect you’ve seen before, instead look for the game that might be a little more out there, a little more peculiar. Gaming had been falling into a rut for a while, but now the danger is that all our loot-box, multiplayer-only, hamster wheel games are so well-polished we don’t see how little they matter to us in the long run, because they’re serviceable… but that’s all. Red Dead Redemption 2 has a lot of strengths and is certainly worth playing through, but it didn’t really surprise me, and so I couldn’t give it the gold. Obra Dinn, contrarily, is something new that bucks every trend going, and consequently I don’t think I’ll forget it in a long time. Even Red Strings Club and Subnautica probably wouldn’t be on this list if they weren’t held aloft by their own unique fascination. And the problem with something being only attractive and functional is that we forget what it’s like to be really… well, moved.
So this year, expand your pallet. Enjoy the big company games – they can still be good, even in this era – but buy something different or a little less obvious every so often, just to keep the industry remembering that games don’t have to be a process, a service or a product. They can also, funnily enough, be art.