2019 was an in-between year for video games. Many big releases were delayed, or not even announced, due to being (re)targeted for next year’s new generation of gaming consoles. A couple games were released that probably should have been delayed. But the other side of that coin was also evident in a slew of games that represent game technology and design carefully honed across the generation. And as the internet demands, it’s time to pick ten of them to honour.
Disclaimer: I have not played Gears 5, Resident Evil 2, Remnant: From The Ashes, Man of Medan, Manifold Garden, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Devotion, or most heartbreakingly, Disco Elysium. There are only so many hours in the year, particularly given the final item on my list - which is also a thousand-word essay, so make sure you’ve got a few minutes. Let's get into it:
10. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game of simple pleasures, executed to perfection. A rhythm music/action game about heartbreak, motorcycles, dance, swordfighting, and more, it surprised me how quickly it put me under its spell. With its electro soundtrack, pink-and-purple colour scheme, and constant sense of momentum, Sayonara is instantly likeable and earnest; its action accessible and enjoyable. Its story is simple and pure, its heart (ha!) is plain to see, and like last year’s Gris, it’s an emotional tale communicated metaphorically through mechanics and art design. Plus, a Queen Latifah voiceover encourages you along. Not for everyone - but if it’s for you, it’s really, really for you.
9. A Plague Tale: Innocence
A Plague Tale has major flaws, mostly centred around tropey moments like boss fights. But it breaks through those flaws with immense goodwill earned by its strengths. Given that the entire game is essentially an escort mission, with your plague-era teenager guiding her little brother through death, tragedy, and horrifying violence, it’s incredible how well it works. Thank the writing and voice acting for making the game’s characters worthy of being protected from the horrors in their lives. The plague rats are dreadfully terrifying, and even in the mechanical stealth sequences, the urge to keep your brother safe feels genuine. As things shift into the supernatural, the story starts to falter, but by then, the setup’s been strong enough to see things through. I wouldn’t call the game a “lovely” surprise exactly, but you get the idea. (review)
8. Super Mario Maker 2
The 2020 video gaming title (I hesitate to call it a video game) I’m most anticipating is, by far, the game-making toolkit Dreams, but in the meantime, Super Mario Maker 2 is more than adequate as a stand-in. An impressively intuitive interface conceals considerable power in the course-making “game,” enabling players to invent all manner of challenges to put Mario through. Run out of ideas? Visit the online course portal and discover just how many concepts never would have occurred to you. It’s almost worth it solely to marvel at the creativity of the game’s community, but ultimately, it’s the toolkit that’s the drawcard here. As with all creative tools, your mileage will vary based on your inspiration and imagination, but even if you just want to play some Mario, you’ll find a functionally infinite array of weird and wonderful ways to do that. You’ll also find some bizarre levels seemingly designed by sadists. That can be fun too.
7. The Outer Worlds
It always seemed a given, based on the talent involved, but The Outer Worlds is the best role-playing game of its kind in some years. Its characters are compelling, its fictional universe equally quirky and horrifying, and its sense of humour satisfyingly in sync with some of Douglas Adams’ best moments. The first-person Fallout style of gameplay is getting a little long in the tooth, admittedly, and the action is easily the game’s weak point, but The Outer Worlds’ dialogue, voice acting, and variety in quest design is where the heart of the game lies. It’s the first RPG where I never grew tired of finding new quests, and the RPG I’ve completed to the highest degree. What a great antidote to the ever more action-focused elements of the genre. What a great middle finger to late-period capitalism. What a great game. (review)
6. Untitled Goose Game
House House’s follow-up to its excellent multiplayer title Push Me Pull You has become a meme by now - hell, it had already done so by its release - but Untitled Goose Game actually is that good. Small but perfectly-formed, this Hitman-like chaos simulator, set in a quaint little neighbourhood, is at once warmly adorable and outrageously dickish. So unique and so damned funny is this game that it literally sold a Nintendo Switch to BMD’s own Scott Wampler (a week before a PS4 release was announced). And while one can sit down and play the entire game in a single shortish session, it’s such a delight to just potter around that your playtime can extend as much as you like - or to as long as it takes you to throw everyone’s possessions in the lake.
5. Baba Is You
The cleverest game of 2019 by a mile, Baba Is You is an indie puzzler with brains to spare that will certainly challenge yours. Though the basic concept seems simple - rearrange blocks of words to make, break, or alter the level’s rules and win/fail conditions - the execution forms some of the most fiendishly intelligent puzzle design I’ve ever seen. Full of “aha!” moments, and just as full of head-bashing frustration, Baba Is You completely upends how games like this work, making the rules themselves the tools you’ll use to solve puzzles. The ingenuity to come up with an idea like this - let alone build so many puzzles with so much confidence and variation - is beyond me. Makes Stephen’s Sausage Roll look like child’s play.
Control grows on you. Its story is an at-times bewildering mixture of dream logic, heady sci-fi, and deep lore dumps, its characters cagey in telling you much at all. Exploring its labyrinthine paranormal research facility yields strange, kaleidoscopic sights, from transforming architecture to possessed props to trans-dimensional creatures. Despite being slightly too complex for current gaming hardware, Control’s combat system is fluid and powerful-feeling, and in its best moments feels like the David Lynch superhero film we’ll never get. Best of all are the level design and setpieces, one of which ranks, for my money, as the single best gameplay sequence since the final act of Inside. A prime example of what can happen when a triple-A budget meets a singular vision. (review)
3. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Who would have thought EA’s first single-player Star Wars game would have a clearer, more thematically consistent story than the Star Wars movie released in the same year? In combining influences from a wide swathe of modern gaming, developer Respawn somehow created something that feels fresh - and feels Star Wars as all hell. The lightsaber combat is appropriately challenging; the levels immense spiderwebs of secrets; the setpieces as awe-inspiring as those from Respawn’s Titanfall II. But what makes Fallen Order so special is, shockingly, its story and characters. By focusing on the trauma inflicted by Order 66, the game reaches thematic and emotional cohesiveness I never would have expected - and introduces a handful of likeable new characters as well. That’s the best kind of surprise. (review)
2. The Outer Wilds
In case it isn’t already clear, I’m an enormous science fiction fan, and I’m a fan of games that invite exploration and offer new, unique game mechanics. So The Outer Wilds seems almost tailor-made for me. I bought it blind, based entirely on vague Internet praise, unaware of its time-loop structure, so while my first half-hour with the game was moderately underwhelming, my jaw dropped shortly thereafter. Capturing the joy of exploration, the terror of space, and the sheer weirdness of a swathe of sci-fi subgenres, it’s a game less notable for its central mystery than for its solar system full of strange artifacts and phenomena. As you dive through black holes, warp between dimensions, or wrestle with arcane puzzles, it’s a consistently eye-opening experience that reminds me why I love this genre so much.
1. Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
This is a cheat: Destiny 2 came out in 2017. I’m sorry if it shut out your favourite actual 2019 game from my top ten, but it’s unquestionably my game of the year. I’ve often stated, in my reviews of the game’s annual expansions, that I connect with this game on a personal level I never predicted (especially after the series’ rocky initial launch), but I’ve never really explained why. If you’re not interested in hearing my embarrassing personal ramblings, you’ve read the list already, so feel free to close this tab and move on with your life.
As I mentioned in my top ten films list, my 2019 has been dominated by mental health issues that at one point got serious enough to send me to the ER. But while several of my film picks deal directly with mental illness, Destiny doesn’t. What it did for me this year, though, is provide solace, motivation, and strength of will when I needed it. For an online shooter about space wizards, that’s surprising - so allow me to explain.
There are many fine stories hidden away in Destiny’s lore dumps and weapon descriptions - tragic, comedic, frightening, triumphant - but it’s the basics that touch my heart the most. Destiny originally launched with notoriously dreadful storytelling, but the most important world-building elements were intact. The Destiny universe is defined by Light, which for explanatory purposes is sort of like the Force: an energy that can be harnessed to great and powerful ends. Light does many things, but most importantly, it can revive the dead - in fact, your player character is technically a reanimated corpse from the very beginning. This resurrection process is facilitated by Ghosts, little floating robots who keep you company and bring you back to life, over and over and over.
Obviously, the Ghosts’ purpose is to justify why players respawn in a persistent online game, but if you’re at a low emotional ebb, it’s incredibly powerful. One of the first things said by your Ghost is “eyes up, Guardian” - a wonderful distillation of this idea, and sometimes exactly what you need to hear from a constant companion who lives only to assist and . As one of the game’s other NPCs Shaxx says: “the best thing about being a Guardian is you’re never truly beaten.” That means a lot amid constant defeat. My friend and creative partner gave me a 3D-printed Ghost for Christmas last year, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. With a Ghost by your side, you can always pick yourself up and keep going.
The game’s core conflict has a similar effect. It launched with a laughably simplistic notion that “we” serve the Light, and our enemies serve a counter-force called the Darkness. I’ve railed against that kind of binary thinking in s for ages, but it works in Destiny, not despite its vagueness but because of it. The concept of “darkness” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, and embarrassing as it is to admit, “fighting minions of the Darkness” can become a psychological metaphor. So important has that idea become to me, anyway, that when the game asked players to choose a side between the Light-protecting Vanguard and the morally grey, McConaughey-esque Drifter, it seemed almost offensive being asked to even consider it.
Most importantly, Destiny has granted human contact at times when I was otherwise isolated. I moved countries around the time Destiny 2 released, and it quickly became how I kept in touch with several of my oldest and closest friends from back home. Grinding repetitive activities is a surprisingly effective way to catch up and talk shit, but it can also be an emotional outlet. I’ve opened up my heart over my PS4 headset, sobbing out my darkest and innermost feelings even as I do something as silly as hopping around on a digital fucking tree. But it is precisely the game’s repetitive, instinctual nature that creates license to open up like that, and I’m thankful for it.
Anyway, Destiny is my favourite game of all time, but this year especially, it really came to my rescue. Yes, I’ve become a person who spends inordinate time in an online game designed specifically to be a timesink. But given there came a point this year when I mightn’t have had a chance to respawn, I’d rather be alive and online than dead and off. (review of this year’s expansion, for whatever it’s worth)
Let's play some more games next year.