Is it 2020 already? It is, isn’t it. I suppose I owe y’all some sort of top ten list of games and I’ve been slow to deliver so you’re here to make sure our transaction comes to a satisfactory end.
Well, set yourself down. I ain’t one to renege on deals I’ve made, not while my good name is the only true asset I may have left to barter with. I’m sure I have that list o’ games somewhere ’round here. Just give me a shake of a lamb’s tail to clear out some of this mess and find it.
10. A Short Hike
I played A Short Hike on Steam, where it can be purchased for $7.99.
Some co-workers who will wax rhapsodic about Breath of the Wild for hours convinced me to give it a try last year, and it just turned out to be too much game for me. However, I think the way that game makes them feel is captured in miniature in this cute, charming capsule of a game.
A Short Hike is, ostensibly, about taking a short hike as a bird named Claire to a mountain peak in order to get cell reception. But it’s also a game that urges the player to explore the island they’re on (and beyond) by continually having characters bring up interesting waypoints to discover. It’s an adventure where the goal is never forced, so exploration and discovery end up being the real goal. It’s a world where there’s always something or someone interesting in each little nook and cranny.
It’s a fairly short, greatly satisfying world to explore and provides a wonderful balance of focused drive and relaxed exploration.
I played ETHEREAL on Steam, where it can be purchased for $9.99.
Most puzzle games need a little something else to make them special – a bit of story or a charming character or a sarcastic voiceover. It is a rare feat, then, when a puzzle game can be pure yet feel like more than glorified Sudoku. I’m always happy to find a puzzle game that doesn’t have much more to offer than its puzzles but is still able to keep me playing, because that shows off the strength of its puzzle design.
Starting with essentially two simple movement rules, ETHEREAL eventually uses its level design to introduce new complications. With each new rule, the puzzles became harder, yet never feel unfair. The game looks great, flipping between colorful panoplies of shapes and lines and stark black-and-white patterns reminiscent of chess boards.
So, come on down, ETHEREAL, and take your place by such puzzling joys as Hexcells, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and (ooo…foreshadowing) this year’s #1 game.
I played Fortnite on Epic Game Store for free.
I know, I know, Fortnite did not exactly come out in 2019, but it did undergo a large update, give itself a subtitle (Chapter 2) and, as far as I can tell having never played it before, release a very large update, including a whole new map. If nothing else, it got me to give it a try after having dismissed it for so long.
And oh my, what a perfect distillation of a game designed for our times. As a free-to-play live-service game, it works in a different realm than the other games on this list but shares a few commonalities that make it stand out in the free-to-play space. By far, the biggest reason that it makes my top 10 list is that it somehow manages to invite exploration and discovery in a game built around time limits and confrontational multiplayer. The new world is large and interesting and the designed challenges are about helping players discover all the new places there are to explore in that world.
Secondly, Fortnite – due to its massive success and playerbase – is able to offer an experience that feels less competitive, lower stakes, and therefore – to me, at least – more fun. In most shooters, I’m at the bottom of the barrel. In Fortnite, there are so many people playing that most rounds make me feel like a pretty good player! A few years ago, I still remember how cool it was to be able to come home a week after watching The Last Jedi and travel to Crait via Battlefront 2. Having lightsabers appear as surprise weapons in Fortnite just before Rise of Skywalker released? That’s exactly the kind of fun cross-brand late-capitalism synergy that I can at least enjoy, even while somewhat cynically rolling my eyes.
I think, with Hades, Supergiant Games has solidified its place as one of my favorite dev teams. It’s hard to follow up Pyre (my 2017 game of the year), but Hades manages to be a room-based action rogue-lite (…shudder, even typing that description out makes me skeptical about liking it) that I actually want to play!
It’s because, of course, Supergiant has figured out how to inject their special narrative sauce into any game they make. The cheeky characters, nuanced relationships, and brilliant music and voice acting all put the game a tier above others of its ilk.
Unlike with Pyre, I’m not the biggest fan of the action gameplay, but the tantalizing story tidbits and slow improvement I make is enough to keep me playing one more round than I expect to every time.
6. Untitled Goose Game
I played Untitled Goose Game on Epic Game Store, where it can be purchased for $19.99.
If there’s one game on this list that managed to break out of the video game bubble and penetrate the larger cultural consciousness, it was Untitled Goose Game.
To its credit, it’s a wonderfully made game: charming visuals, satisfying puzzles with a touch of stealth mechanics, a license to be a complete and utter jerk because you’re a goose and no one seems to mind all that much anyway. For those of us that spend so much of our time worrying and wanting to put kindness and love out there in the world, it can be truly freeing to be innocuously horrible.
The official language used to advertise the game really gets it right: “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” That horribleness (and yet the lack of actual damage done, even in this virtual world) really does offer the best of both worlds, and any game that can survive going viral in the way it did while still feeling like its a humble little indie project is doing something right.
Heaven’s Vault is quite long and I haven’t finished it, but I’ve played enough to know that it is pulling off a bit of a magic trick. As someone who makes games, it’s all the more impressive that I can’t quite figure out how it’s done.
Before I get to the trick, I should praise its interesting world, troubled but empathetic characters, and linguistic translation puzzles that sometimes make me feel like I’m actually translating an ancient language in the real world. If you’ve got the time, Heaven’s Vault is like an older relative full of interesting stories to tell you.
Oh, but the magic trick? It’s that the game has clear moments of player choice (dialog options, travel choices, inventory management) that affect how the game responds and how the story unfolds. And yet, and yet, it truly feels like the story I’m experiencing – my very particular path through this world – is really the only one written, the only true story. It’s a phenomenal illusion.
I played Wattam on Epic Game Store, where it can be purchased for $19.99.
This game is pure joy and that’s really all you need to know to understand why it would be on my list.
If you must know more, it’s that it’s funny and cute and full of moments that made me smile. It’s a game about holding hands and climbing on top of each other and turning different foods into different colored poops. It’s weird in the best possible way.
You either want to play Wattam now or you never will. Make your choice.
One of the bigger surprises this past year for me was how impressed I was by the launch of Apple Arcade. I didn’t realize how much I’ve been hungering for small games on my phone that have a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Of the set of games that released during the launch window, Assemble with Care stands out. It combines the simple, enjoyable storytelling of the Professor Layton games with the mechanical satisfaction of games like Car Mechanic Simulator. Despite the potential awkwardness of this mash-up, it works! The game is able to take advantage of the touch controls along with being expertly designed for play on a smaller screen.
While it doesn’t quite capture the heart like Florence did a year ago, it is a refreshing reminder that short mobile games can be just as satisfying as epic AAA titles when crafted with care and attention.
2. Ape Out
I played Ape Out on Steam, where it can be purchased for $14.99.
In some ways, Ape Out is like the edgy, raunchy sibling of Untitled Goose Game, though the motivations attributed to each titular creature are quite different. The goose is horrible because it is a goose and it knows no better; the townspeople are but hapless victims of its innate obnoxiousness. The ape is horrible because it seeks revenge and because the cruel gun-wielding humans have intentionally harmed it. The goose is glib. The ape is angry.
In other ways, Ape Out is like a condensed, more pure version of Hades. The action is non-stop, the visual palette is striking, and the audio design here is also top-notch.
And that’s probably the cherry on top, along with its most pretentious feature: with each smash, each shot, and each body part being flung at an unsuspecting gunman, a completely unique jazz album is being constructed. This means that while the underlying score is always thematically consistent, the individual notes and meter are determined by the specific actions being taken on that playthrough. It’s very smart and – perhaps more importantly – very well-implemented such that the framing of each set of levels as a new jazz album comes across as a superb artistic achievement.
1. Baba is You
I played Baba is You on Steam, where it can be purchased for $14.99.
The best puzzle games have moments in them where, as a player, you feel like Neo from The Matrix when he discovers that he can simultaneously see the 1s and 0s and the image that they translate to. Those are revelatory moments, when discovery not only means finding a solution but also understanding that the world can be seen through different lenses and that the game has now taught you how to switch between two such sets of eyes.
Baba is You is stuffed full of those moments. It is, no doubt, a very challenging game. There are levels that feel impossible, that seem like a mistake must have been made and that there is literally no solution, only to crack open to reveal a simple, elegant solution once I had reconfigured my mind a bit.
And for a game designer? What a wonderful playground to be able to frolic in, to be able to turn game rules – tools we use every day – into the physical puzzle pieces needed to progress. Baba is You is an absolutely lovely and mind-bending game that dares me to be smarter than it, but not like in a mean way.
Well, that’s that. That’s the whole dang list.
What’s that? You want more? Ah, of course you do. It’s all right, I’m sure I can dig up some extra tidbits here and there.
- If I’d played more Afterparty, I’m sure it’d be on this list. It’s the follow-up to Oxenfree from the same dev team with a more absurd premise and jokes that remind me of The Good Place.
- I’d also give 2019 honorable mentions to Elsinore (Hamlet time-loop!), The Outer Wilds (space exploration time-loop!), and Creature in the Well (pinballish rogue-lite puzzler?).
- Looking at those games, Xbox Game Pass is really an insane value. You could be playing Afterparty, Outer Wilds, Outer Worlds, and Creature in the Well right now as a part of that subscription. I’ve been playing Overcooked 2 with my son on it. It is a huge value add to my gaming landscape.
- I didn’t play Death Stranding, Disco Elysium, Hypnospace Outlaw, The Outer Worlds, Planet Zoo, or Noita, but those were all 2019 titles that intrigued me and I’d love to get around to at some point. Those first three in particular are games that I have high hopes for.
- Of the three games I said I had good feelings about from last year, I genuinely enjoyed The Gardens Between, felt GRIS was pretty but a bit muddled in terms of emotional direction, and enjoyed Ashen‘s design decisions but decided that it wasn’t the game that was going to make me like Souls-like games.
- Looking back, I really should have placed Celeste higher. I still think about it a lot as a really strong intersection of player, character, and astounding use of the emotional impact of video games through their mechanics.
- Thinking back on “games of the decade,” it’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 9 years since the release of Portal 2, which may be one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
- I can’t really recommend simulator games as something everyone (or maybe even most people?) would enjoy, but I do find it calming sometimes to play things like House Flipper, PC Building Simulator, or Plane Mechanic Simulator.
- It’s a 2018 game, I think, but I also really enjoyed the time I spent this past year with Equilinox. There’s a little collection of these smaller, calmer, turn-based, indirect “simulation” games now, which include Simmiland and ISLANDERS. These games allow for low-pressure exploration of a small space, giving the satisfaction of filling out an almanac of entries as the player tries different things. They remind me of Reus without the ticking timer, of an evolved attempt to capture the primal satisfaction of Doodle God.
- As a follow up thought, as the years go by and as video games have grown and experimented with new ways to play, I’ve found that I am much less patient with games that have what I would consider too much gameplay. I completely understand who these games are for, but I now seek out smaller, shorter experiences that are designed to surprise and delight, but also to show me what’s interesting about them in a succinct amount of time.
Right then. I think I’ve delivered all I promised, and glad to have done it as well. I hope y’all have a great year.
What’s that? You’re still here? Oh, fine, take these letters!
Ya happy now? Oh, you are? Well, that’s dandy then. We’re all dandy then.