In all honesty, I love a good year-end list. It’s not that I’m interested in superlatives, but that I enjoy seeing how people cataloged their year. I’m doubtful that there’s such a thing as an objectively good piece of media (except Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; that game is a masterpiece), but I do believe that examinations of subjective good-ness provide a lens for examining where we are, personally, as individuals and as a group.
Anyway, here are my favorite games of 2018. I liked them and maybe you will, too.
RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN
Developer Lucas Pope has a knack for highlighting hyper-mundane activities and elevating them into gameplay. In Papers, Please (truly one of my favorite games of all time), the player took on the role of a border control agent, having to process increasingly detailed bits of information in just-as-increasingly short amounts of time. While punished for any small mistake, players were pushed to consider the moral implications of their actions, as well as how tyrannic political rises truly are propped up by drudgery..
In Pope’s new game, Return of the Obra Dinn, the player takes the role of an insurance adjuster .They are tasked with going on board a recently recovered ship (the titular Obra Dinn) to figure out what happened to the sixty-some-odd members on board, all of whom have mysteriously disappeared. The adjuster has a log with each member’s name, group photos of the crew, and a mysterious pocket watch. The latter object transports the adjuster to a still image that shows the final moment of each (though not all) crew member’s life on the Obra Dinn. From there, the adjuster must move through these explorable freeze-framed memories to figure out everyone’s name, what their role on the ship was, how they died, and, possibly, by whose hands.
What follows is a puzzle box of a game, an elaborate visual logic puzzle. Just connecting names to people is difficult, since the brief snippets of dialogue before each scene rarely reveal a given name. Rather, it’s more likely to find the name of one person overtly, then have to extrapolate the rest through knowledge of ship relationships. For every three fates correctly guessed, the game seals those destinies. It’s just enough to keep one satisfied, while also preventing the player from brute-forcing their way through pure guesswork. Rather, I found myself examining minute details (including character’s shoes and specific bullet trajectories), trawling through the few crowded group scenes, and making a few lucky guesses.
Pope received some criticism for the visual style of the game, which is done in a two-color pixelated motif that hearkens to old computer monitors. I had no such issue with it. Besides being unique, I found that this style created just enough visual confusion in a few of the more active scenes to contribute to the pleasing difficulty of the puzzle solving.
Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t as politically overt as Papers, Please, but the relations on the ship definitely lent some uncomfortable moments, as known power structures on the boat become clearer (due to class, race, or happenstance). There was also a deep gut feeling of unease, as the player becomes more attached to the stories of the crew members, only to reduce them to an insurance number, either to be paid out to their living family, or requested as payment due to the crimes of the deceased.
Mostly, though, Return of the Obra Dinn is an exquisitely-crafted puzzle that gave me real moments of exuberance each time I found a tiny clue that allowed multiple small pieces to finally connect.
THE RED STRINGS CLUB
This summer, I picked up a handful of games whose theme mostly centered around artificial intelligence and its relationship with humanity. I enjoy a number of these games (Subsurface Circular, LOCALHOST, and, natch, Portal), but really fell hard for Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club.
Here’s a snippet of what I wrote when I included it in my summer game recommendations:
Combining noir storytelling, a cyberpunk setting, point-and-click puzzle solving, bartender games, and ceramics (???), The Red Strings Club puts the player in the middle of a conspiracy thriller about the ethics of forcing humans to obey their better selves. I don't want to spoil it, but halfway through the game, I was sitting pretty tall on my high horse of theoretical morality, when a series of questions made me turn my back on everything I had established up to that point. The game pointed out my hypocrisy, before moving on and asking me to make a drink for the next customer at the bar.
I found it beautiful, affecting, and the slowest of slow burns
A stand-out game in its own right, I also want to take a moment to commend Deconstructeam’s itch.io channel. They regularly put out equally beautiful and touching short games, some of which are later pieced together into full-length pieces. Deconstructeam is something very close to my heart: a group of artists who have no qualms throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. From this year, here are a couple games I played on their itch.io channel, all of which stay pretty firmly in Destructeam’s preferred cyberpunk lane:
Eternal Home Floristry: The player takes the role of a one-armed hitman, hiding out and recovering with a florist who happens to have the final patch of earth capable of growing real flowers. Orders come in for bouquets, and the player can choose which flowers to pick and send along. The flowers they pick will affect the people who receive them, through the player never actually sees the result of their actions. Instead they hear through the grapevine (as it were) about the results of their choices, from patched friendships to solidified blood feuds. As the flowers become more scarce, the pain of pulling them from the ground only grows, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think.
11:45 A Vivid Life: A woman drives to a remote spot with an X-Ray machine and a medical kit. She’s convinced her body isn’t her own, and she’s not sure what happened to it or whose it is, but she is determined to find out through some self-surgery. Is she going through a mental breakdown? Is she part of some government project? Both are good questions but the game posits a bigger one: who do our bodies belong to, and how are we made strangers from ourselves?
I don’t know how else to say this: Celeste is a perfect game. It might come in the familiar packaging of a hardcore platforming challenge, in the same vein as indie delight Super Meat Boy. But it’s not just a hard game that relishes being hard. Instead, it recognizes the emotions one feels when playing a difficult game and feeds that into the story of the protagonist: Madeline, a women with a steadfast desire to reach the top of Celeste Mountain, crippling anxiety be damned.
Just as a player might doubt their ability to finish Celeste, Madeline doubts her ability to climb the mountain of the same name. Celeste brilliantly marries the struggle of playing the game with the internal struggle of someone with an anxiety disorder, creating a deep bond of empathy between the player and Madeline.
Besides that, it’s a dream to play, with intuitive controls that feel hyper-responsive and light to the touch. Lena Raine’s soundtrack is so incredibly good that I’m listening to it while I write this. The visuals are gorgeous, with each new area of Celeste feeling unique and surprising. There’s also a not far-fetched argument that Celeste makes one better at gaming altogether.
Most of all, Celeste feels fair. It’s a hard game that knows its hard, and works with the player rather than against them. At seemingly the very moment I despaired at my high death count, a pop-up appeared in between levels, saying “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you're learning. Keep going!"
Playing Celeste was the first time I tried to play a game that purposefully made me anxious. Playing it, I developed actual real-world skills to combat my anxiety. It’s a form of gamification that feels helpful rather than exploitative. Games are inherently media forms that traffic in emotional manipulation. Celeste is a rare game, in that it pulls back the curtain to show the player exactly how it is affecting the player’s emotions. In doing so, it gives the player insight into these feelings and, as such, feels like a radical statement in its kindness. Celeste feels like something entirely new, despite its familiar wrappings.
INTO THE BREACH
Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game that plays a lot like chess, but with kaiju. The player controls a team of giant mechs dropped into arrays of landscapes and tasked with destroying the monsters that crawl out of the soil before they destroy the world. Here, I don’t have a lot to say on themes or underlying messages or theory. It’s just fun, despite it’s pseudo-apocalyptic motifs.
It’s a game of economy: the player has a limited amount of “power,” which functions as a health meter. At the start of each turn, the kaiju move, and the game shows you exactly what they’re targeting. One might go for a building, while another might target one of the player’s mechs. Once the kaiju move, the player can decide how they want to try to ensure the least amount of destruction possible. There are different teams of mechs, each with different powers. One team might be good at pushing mechs around the board. Another might deal high damage, while also damaging themselves in the process. Another might be very good at lighting everything on fire.
Regardless, every time a building is destroyed by a kaiju, the power meter goes down. When the power runs out, the kaiju take over, and the player has to restart in a new timeline.
Each playthrough on a timeline lasts little more than an hour (at most), but it’s easy to want to try again, and again, and again. It’s a game both enjoyed in small bite-sized moments and in long, lazy afternoons. There are more achievements to unlock than hours in a week, and each one asks you to consider playing the game in a slightly different way. (“Can you light 12 tiles on fire in one turn?” “Can you finish a run without upgrading your mechs?”)
It’s a game of more losses than wins, and the looming threat of losing control of a difficult situation is always on the brink. As the game progresses and difficulty increases, it’s more likely than not that you won’t be able to do everything you want (or need) to do in a given turn. So, Into the Breach is a game of questions and considered decisions: would you rather sacrifice one of your mechs this turn (and lose a pilot who has gained experience and, therefore, perks like increased move range) or do you have enough power to allow a building to be destroyed?
It reminds me of playing chess with my dad, and the moment before I would take my finger off a piece a just moved and commit to my choice. He’d meet my eyes and ask, “Is that where you want to move?” Into the Breach relishes that moment when you decide to take your finger off the piece because, for good or bad, it was the choice you made.
Gris would be a winner on its art style alone. It looks like a watercolored animated film in the style of The Secret of Kells. The screenshot above is from a section of gameplay and not, as I originally thought after watching the game’s trailer, from some sort of hyper-produced cut scene. When I first opened the game, I literally spent a few minutes having my character jump around, just so I could watch the flow of her jacket and skirt swoop around as she arced and landed.
Gris uses color as a storytelling method, with an opaque story of loss that leaves the player’s character in a world of black and white. As she navigates puzzles, she slowly adds color back to her world in layers. It’s a simple trick, but one well-executed, with new colors emerging in blotches and swoops and revealing new layers to the world.
In its unique art style and beautiful wrapping, Gris reminded me a lot of perennial favorite Monument Valley, a game which remains close to my heart for quiet moments of introspection and puzzles. However, I’m sometimes looking for a little more of a challenge, which Gris was happy to provide. None of the puzzles ever had me tearing out my hair, but a few were difficult enough to make me feel a little ping of self-pride when I figured them out. There are occasionally optional harder puzzles to solve, clued by glyphs that react once they’re reached. But solving this harder puzzles isn’t a requirement to finishing the game, so they act as a little cherry on top for folks looking for something extra.
With its short run-time and idiosyncratic style, Gris feels like a gift, like something that landed outside of your window and sang a you a song when you least expected to hear it.
Listen, I can talk a good game about playing thoughtful indies or whatever, but the game that I spent the most hours on in 2018 is, without a doubt, Dead Cells, a game I never thought I’d like in a million years, but here we are.
Dead Cells is a “soulslike metroidvania rougelike”, which is a super-douchey way of essentially saying that it’s hard (“soulslike”), involves 2D exploration and dungeon crawling through sprawling rooms and biomes (“metroidvania”), and places the player back at the start of a randomly-generated map each time they die (“rougelike”).
The player controls the Prisoner, a little lump of cells that makes its home in a beheaded body. At the start of each run, the player is presented with three randomized weapons: a shield, a ranged weapon, and a melee weapon. The choice in which weapons to pick up first sets the tone for the rest of the run, since the randomized weapon drops forced the player to adapt their play style to what is available: if an ice bow drops, the player can freeze enemies at a distance and control the speed of actions; if the player has the assassin’s blade, they’re encouraged to roll and get behind enemies, since the weapon does more damage when backstabbing.
Further, the choice in what to pick up and what to leave behind is a core mechanic in Dead Cells. The player can hold no more than two weapons and two technical assists at any given point in time, so in order to take on something new, something must always be left behind.
As the player moves through different levels, the difficulty increases. The player can travel through the world in a couple of different ways in order to reach the final boss. However, each path offers something new. One path might give the player access to a special upgrade. Another route might have bigger loot drops but much stronger enemies.
What connects any run, regardless of direction, is that the player will likely die a lot. Dead Cells offers a solace: when the Prisoner inevitably dies, they will keep access to whatever upgrades they’ve accumulated over their past run(s). So, each time the Prisoner sets out, they do so with increased powers and access to better weapons, giving each run just an edge of an advantage over the last. Further, even when the player defeats the final boss, it unlocks new ways to up the difficulty, leading to more challenging runs and even bigger payoffs.
The flow of the game is incredible, which makes sense given how long Dead Cells was in development. It feels weird to include it on this list, since I had logged nearly a hundred hours well before the start of 2018. Dead Cells has been out in early access since early 2017 and, during that time, I enjoyed watching its developer, Motion Twin, make both small tweaks and substantial overhauls every few months. With each new patch, they included notes on what changed and why. Often times, those changes were brought about by reactions the players had to the game. With such a long and public early access period, Motion Twin had an immense amount of data on how people were playing the game and where they were getting stuck. So, when the game was “released” this year, it came with all the lessons learned from its past. Like the Prisoner, it too got a little stronger every time it started again, and it’s all the better for it.
Side note: Motion Twin is an exciting company in part because it’s a cooperative. Each company member has equal stake and equal say in the company. In an era of video game companies working their employees to the bone, Motion Twin is a model for alternatives for company structures.
Florence tells a familiar story in a way that feels both new and intimate. It’s the story of a relationship, from its enthusiastic beginning through its sad end. Like I said: there’s nothing new in this arc that isn’t also in some Lifetime movie.
Where Florence excels is in its use of medium. Specifically, I played it on my phone (something I rarely do), and was surprised by how well it utilized my phone as a framing device. Each moment in this relationship was executed in a mini-game style. When the characters cooked breakfast together, the player moves the pan to make everything sizzle. Or, as the characters try to work out their difficulties, the player tries to keep a photo of the two of them from drifting apart. Or, early in the relationship, the player puts together puzzle pieces in the shape of a dialogue bubble and, as the conversation continues, the puzzle pieces get bigger and easier to put together, replicating a growing comfort between the two.
Through all these small tapped interactions, there’s something additionally special about interacting with such a personal story on a device that we increasingly use for emotional closeness in our daily lives. Here’s what I wrote about Florence earlier this year in my summer games recommendations:
As a mobile game, playing it on a phone with headphones lends a certain special intimacy to the story that would be difficult to replicate on a traditional desktop.
Curled up on a late-night subway ride home, it was difficult not to feel deeply involved with the characters. Florence recognizes how much we use our phones for emotional attachment, and plays off that technological relationship in crafting a story about connection.
Like Celeste, Florence understands how the player is interacting with the game, using this knowledge to create something that feels supported and enriched by its medium, rather than just told through it.
In 2015, Toby Fox’s Undertale took gaming by storm, mainly due to one central conceit: though Undertale looked like a traditional JRPG where a character was faced with fighting a world of monsters, the player quickly learned that they didn’t have to kill any of the creatures they encountered. Instead, the player could talk to the monsters and convince them to stop attacking, thereby sparing their lives. By sparing monsters, the game became harder, since the player never accumulated any experience points. However, the “true ending” of the game could only be reached through this pacifist path. Further, this incentive flew in the fact of 99% of other video games, where killing creatures is a necessity to advance the game. (Imagine trying to beat Ocarina of Time without defeating Ganondorf.)
So, when Toby Fox surprise-released DELTRARUNE this year (a convenient anagram of Undertale, natch), folks like me were quick to gobble it up. It had a lot of familiar elements: many of the same characters were there, albeit with slightly different backstories; the gameplay was similar, though with more complex mechanics; above all, there was still that same reminder that we didn’t have to kill any of the characters.
In my playthrough, I was delighted by how much felt the same. What a salve for 2018, to have a game so insistent on kindness! However, I noticed that more characters than usual were reminding me about my potential to be kind. It felt repetitive to the point of pathological. And it started to seem that I wouldn’t have been able to hurt characters if I tried. Where was my choice? What did it mean to be kind if there wasn’t any other option? As I wrote in my original short write-up:
When I finished the game, I immediately searched to see if there were multiple endings, a la Undertale. There aren’t. There’s just one, and it wasn’t what I expected. (Though, perhaps I should have known. Undertale, too, told me everything I needed to know in the first 10 minutes, if I bothered to listen.)
Undertale’s 2015 release date feels a world away here in 2018. We’re living in a world where it might be easy to question the imperative to be kind, even in the face of those who wish to do us harm. DELTARUNE feels aware of this shift in public thinking, and serves as a response to (or, perhaps, intends to question) the thesis of Undertale. Again, Toby Fox seems to have made a game that asks us to examine our ability to choose. It just takes a different angle this time.
You’re a monster, at a monster high school, trying to get another monster to go to prom with you. You have a certain number of turns to try to win their hearts before asking them to prom. Play against your friends. Watch them all get rejected by the beautiful gorgon. The writing is fun. The game is purposefully dumb as heck. If you play your cards right, you’ll accidentally plan an all-monster orgy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯