2019 was a year of conflict in the games industry and community. We witnessed the start of a war for the very heart of PC Gaming’s soul as fiery Steam fanboys fought tooth and nail against clicking a different icon on their desktop. We saw developers endure horrific online abuse for accepting financial support from Epic to help create their games in exchange for timed exclusivity. I personally don’t care what launcher my games launch from, as long as they launch and they’re good but what do I know. There’s also amazing indie titles free on Epic every week so maybe Steam users just get off on dumping money into Gabe’s bank account…
The games industry is reaching the place the film industry did in the 40s and 50s when growing workplace mismanagement and abuses pushed workers to form labour movements that led to film crews and actors unionizing. We’re seeing organizations like Game Workers Unite have huge groundswells of support and official trade unions being established, most notable being Game Workers Unite UK which has received support and solidarity from other long-standing unions in the incresingly not-united United Kingdom.
All of this will continue into 2020, as big money from companies like Epic disrupts the Steam monopoly and union-busting efforts from studios like EA and Activision push a deeper division into the heart of the games industry. But while all this is happening, studios are still making games. And a lot of the ones made by indie developers are actually good!
So through all the muck and drama of the past year, I want to highlight the top-notch games I got a chance to play. Experiences that I think show off the best of this medium and anyone who hasn’t heard of or tried should notice. I played 50 video games released this year and curated a selection of my 10 favourites to share with you.
I also tried making a video this year to accompany this post, and ended up spending way too much time on it.
I hope you enjoy!
~ 10 ~
If you put Super Metroid in front of someone for the first time, after that person has played a platformer or Metroidvania developed with more modern design sensibilities like Guacamelee! or Hollow Knight, they probably won’t enjoy it. But what Super Metroid, and the nostalgia it carries for so many people, represents is the isolating feeling of exploration, the gradual powering up of one’s abilities and the tense boss fights won with a sliver of health remaining, barely achieving victory after failing so many times before. All of that is captured in Gato Roboto, and it actually feels good to play.
You’re a cat, you’ve crashed your captain’s ship by sitting on the keyboard and now you’ve got to suit up and save the day. Dive into the beautiful monochromatic laboratory on which you’ve crashed and explore the winding corridors, one platform at a time. Gato Roboto doesn’t fuss around, you know what you’re doing from the get-go and it delivers tight platforming, great little boss fights and an hilarious script I think anyone can appreciate. Platforming sections are mixed up by forcing players to exit their cat mech suit to progress through certain areas making you incredibly underpowered and the game becomes a bit of a bullet-hell. It’s tight, cheap and well worth your time, especially if you love speedrunning or finding every collectable in the world’s many nooks and crannies.
~ 9 ~
You don’t really understand what you do in Superliminal until you see it in action. By moving objects around a space from a first-person perspective you change the size of those objects relative to where you moved them from. This is the core mechanic you’ll then use to solve increasingly bizarre, brain-busting and sometimes hilarious puzzles through the game’s 2-3 hour playtime.
I beat Superliminal in one sitting, and in an industry increasingly valuing quantity over quality when it comes to what you’re doing moment to moment one of my favourite things a game can do is present an interesting premise, mechanism or style (in this case all three) and deploy it in a game that doesn’t drag on for 50 fucking hours to justify price of admission. It’s interesting, it’s deliberately designed not to waste my time and it gets in and out before it can become boring. Bravo.
~ 8 ~
I forgave this game’s abysmal performance on my Xbox One because of how awesome it was. I sat through minutes-long load times, a stuttering frame rate and a few crashes because this game is fucking rad (and I’ve seen how it’s supposed to work on PC). I loved just floating around the Bureau of Control, discovering each of this game’s amazing side-missions, collecting and reading redacted company files and mowing down the game’s antagonists called “the hiss” with Control’s exceptional third-person combat.
I’ve never seen Twin Peaks, the television series everyone keeps comparing this game to, but I think I’d enjoy it if the story is nearly half as engaging as Control’s psychedelic, 4th wall breaking adventure through a pseudo-FBI headquarters. I’ve also heard that Twin Peaks closes off with a disappointing, unsatisfying conclusion to its story… and it also shares that with Control– although with the teased Alan Wake crossover DLC I think they’re prepping something more interesting to close out with.
~ 7 ~
I’m hard-pressed to name another game this year that had me laughing out loud all by my lonesome the way this one did. It’s an incredibly sincere and almost childish game that bares the personality and wit of its writer and designer: Grace Bruxner. Now, I hate the way our industry creates “auteur” game designer celebrities like Hideo Kojima, David Cage, Tim Schafer and others. While they have all created prolific games, yes, they were aided by teams of dozens and sometimes hundreds of incredibly talented artists, programmers and designers. But Frog Detective, I’m quite comfortable saying, is a Grace Bruxner game- co-developed with Thomas Bowker, of course.
Frog Detective is genuinely one of the most endearing, witty and delightful games I’ve played in years. While I solved the first case back in 2018, Frog Detective returned this year with a new thriller… the case of the invisible wizard. It’s short, about an hour or so to complete, but as I say again and again- games should strive for quality, not quantity. And that hour I played was Quality with a capital ‘Q’. Brilliant writing, terrific characters and an hilarious climax- Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard applies the old addage “brevity is the soul of wit” to everything but its title.
~ 6 ~
Ah, Grindstone, you beautiful bastard of a game. Free from the multiple premium currencies that plague the matching genre. Unbound by the level design geared to force players into shelling out cash for progress. Untainted by advertisements upon each and every death. You, dear Grindstone, are a beacon of hope in a genre I thought was lost to the freemium marketplace. Only you, Grindstone, could provide me with refuge from the droll of day to day activities like bussing and going to the bathroom.
Grindstone… you gorgeous, disgusting game about strategic monster slashing and satisfying skull bashing. I’ve never put more thought into a loadout in a game but you, with your simple 3 slot setup and dozens of weapons and armours, provide so many strategic options. I shall sing your praises until the end of time! And I shall not renew my AppleArcade subscription until your sequel releases. You’re a damn fine videogame, dear Grindstone, the best mobile game released this year- no matter what The Game Awards say.
~ 5 ~
There’s a point in Untitled Goose Game where you’re instructed to steal a child’s glasses. It seemed simple enough, but to acquire this child’s glasses I had to get him to trip- by untying his shoes. And not only did I trip him, but where we were standing he fell face-first into a puddle. Drenched, battered and now blind I tormented this child, chasing him into a telephone booth so he had to call his mother for help, stealing his toy and putting it back on the store shelf so he had to buy it back from the store owner. This would most definitely be the point in his life a therapist 20 years from will fixate on, drawing all of this person’s anxieties, pain and self-doubt back to this one traumatic day a goose fucked his shit up.
And that’s just one person. Goose fucks up an entire town’s day, and I still don’t know why. The science shows geese aren’t actually that antagonistic, that this aggressive persona is something we’ve projected onto them. So then why? Why traumatize the villagers. Why destroy a priceless vase, push a bucket onto a man’s head, honk to make someone hit their finger with a hammer… for the fun of it? For the fantasy of ruining the lives of so many people and facing no legal recourse? For the thrill of stealing someone’s valuables and hearing the smack of webbed feet as I flee the crime scene, just out of arm’s reach? Yes, actually. That’s exactly why.
~ 4 ~
Before someone starts whining “yOu CaN’t CoUnT A dLc As A gAmE oF tHe YeAr” you should know there’s over 40 new levels in Celeste Chapter 9: Farewell, an entirely new original soundtrack composed by IGF award winner Lena Raine and if you suck as much as I do roughly 20 hours of new content here. That’s enough to be one of those filler, in-between AAA games where the publishers consider it low stakes enough to put black people on the cover.
Celeste Chapter 9 is aptly named “Farewell” as it’s a goodbye from the small team of developers bewildered their 2018 platformer touched as many lives as it did- including mine. But it’s not a goodbye you can receive unless you truly demonstrate you know this game as well as they do. That you understand how wavedash chains and almost pixel-perfect jumps are what make this game one of the tightest platforming experiences ever crafted by mere mortals with computers.
If you’re persistent enough to perfect every screen section by section, almost like a pianist perfecting each bar of a song through repetition, then you will be rewarded. Every time I land at the end of a screen I’ve spent half an hour rehearsing is such an amazing feeling of accomplishment. This chapter is platforming perfection, and with every screen cleared you’ll understand why it’s so deserving of its own spot on the list.
~ 3 ~
You can’t buy a soundtrack for APE OUT– that’s because there isn’t one, or rather no soundtrack composed in the traditional sense. Instead, YOU are the composer- the Ape is your pen, the stylish environments and vistas of this unsuspecting world are your staff and the splattering blood of thrown enemies your ink with which you put the notes down.
Every action you take in APE OUT feeds into the game’s reactive music system, deploying frantic symbol clashes, screeching trumpets and driving drum fills as you ramp up your destruction. At the end of APE OUT you haven’t merely beaten a game. You’ve composed an entire jazz album wholly unique to your playthrough. Every level a one-of-a-kind recording created by your route to freedom, littered with the percussion, bass and brass of your warpath.
This game doesn’t rest on its laurels, although it does feature a gorgeous scratchy art style and frenetic, exhilarating combat. It instead takes a genre that I’ve become oh so familiar with this past decade, top-down action-arcade games, and strips away everything except the pure, unadulterated core. APE OUT puts the primal power of an ape wronged in your hands and begs you to go apeshit on everything and everyone.
~ 2 ~
Late-stage capitalism is truly a hellscape. A growing unstable gig economy, rampant wealth inequality and a laughable housing market where my landlord thinks a 25% rent increase is “appropriate to meet the demands of the current housing market.” But it’s also birthed one of the most polished, most perfect FPS experiences I’ve laid my hands on in Apex Legends, a game I’ve sunk 250+ hours into and haven’t spent a cent on.
That’s right, this fantastic game that gave me so much cost me NOTHING. It gave us the ping system, something I’ve instinctively tried to do in every multiplayer game I’ve played since and been disappointed every time when it was absent. The mid-game respawn that lets you be the clutch teammate who brings it back against all odds (something Fortnite ripped off within weeks, along with the ping system). And who could forget the cast of endearing, hilarious and at times intimidating characters whose personalities struck a chord with my friends and I so hard we still recite lines to each other, even in other games?
If this mecca of diegetic game design served to me for $0 down, subsidized by a microtransaction-fueled marketplace where gamers buy skins for guns they’ll forget about in a year, is another symptom of late-stage capitalism well damn, maybe constant housing anxieties are worth it…
Just kidding they’re absolutely not. Nova Scotia please pass rent control laws soon I’m scared.
~ 1 ~
The world of A Short Hike is not unlike many games I’ve played before. With a range of activities and pastimes very obviously riffing on Animal Crossing, a cast of weird and interesting anthropomorphic characters who very much reminded me of Night in the Woods and a thematic platforming premise serving as an allegory for personal growth that reminded me so much of my favourite game of last year, Celeste. And what a lineup of games to reference.
A Short Hike is Comfort Food: The Game. I know that anytime I feel down or need a pick me up, this game will be there. This is a game I’ll be booting up many times throughout my life to escape the cruel world to fly around its scenic mountainsides and babbling brooks. To fish with my animal friends, dig for treasure and explore the beaches for shells.
A Short Hike is also the game that I think could serve as one of gaming’s great ambassadors to those uninterested in traditional genres like shooters or MMO’s. This game holds a place on my proverbial shelf where I pull off games to recommend to those in my life who want to get into games but can’t master the first-person controls I find instinctive after using for years. A Short Hike earns the top spot on my list by being the very best games can be, and it’s a game that will stand the test of time, looking and feeling just as good in 2029 as it did in 2019.
Thank you so much for reading! I’d love to know what you think of my list, if there’s a game you’re going to check out now or one you think I missed that I should play. I really appreciate every person who takes the time to read my work and I’d love to know what you think in the comments below!