Video games had an incredibly strong year, casting a bright spotlight on some genuine artistic beauty amidst a burning world. One takes hope where she can these days, and there are such vivid greenshoots in video gaming that one cannot help but feel a bit less despair when beholding them.
With my end-of-year lists I always strive to highlight games beyond the triple-A sphere, but triple-A gaming also had an unaccountably good year despite its rapidly accelerating self-consumptive tendencies. The Outer Worlds, Control, and Jedi: Fallen Order all merit great praise and remind us that there is a bright creative spirit in gaming, in spite of the industry’s ructions.
But if there was a trend that was really amplified this year, it’s the fact that many indie games were resurrecting and redefining genres that were either written off or oversaturated. That, too, is worth ample critical praise. There is a whole universe of life waiting for us in puzzle games, adventure games, RPGs, and visual novels that leave me excited for what’s coming next year.
Without further ado, and, as always, in no particular order, here are my five:
A game that takes so many cues from a classic film ought not have felt this fresh or inspired, but Observation–which wears its 2001 inspiration on its sleeve–has proven to be one of the year’s most incredible gaming experiences. Its strikingly original premise is to put you in the role of the out of control space-station AI. Now you get to be HAL-9000, creatively manipulating a sequence of station functions in order to waste some hapless astronaut. Except, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s original story, there’s an intriguing twist to all of it that complicates the morality of the story–a tale that is at once rich in detail and Spartan in its simplicity. There are stunning cinematic moments as well that offer a brilliant lesson in how to use cutscenes to spectacular effect. It all comes together to make Observation a pearl necklace of terrors and wonders.
In acting as a postmodern deconstruction of RPGs Disco Elysium became the highest celebration of them. Literally–this is an extraordinary baked game. There were a lot of ways that the game could have the equivalent of a pretentious philosophy bro on LSD reclined in a beanbag whilst slurring about how profound Zizek is. That it manages to avoid this while still teasing along some very serrated edges indeed is nothing short of a triumph. Disco’s dialogue plays with some classic RPG mechanics in ways that are truly artful–choices can lead to everything from fuges to wild lunges at elderly women to shooting yourself in the foot to repetitive motions that eventually kill you. It’s a luridly strange sci-fi noir murder mystery that probes existential territory none too delicately–and yet manages to feel graceful all the same.
This was my earliest contender for game of the year. My expectations were managed after I first previewed the game at GDC some years ago, but the final product has a flavor that reveals more complexity the longer you sit with it. This adventure game about a space archaeologist trying to find her mentor’s missing colleague goes to so many astounding places with its mechanics and story. Much of the game is built around deciphering an ancient language, a surprisingly revelatory exercise that contributes to the look and feel of an ancient world that manages to be both Medieval and sci-fi all at once. But its story, cunningly thematic in its loop-like shape, is just incredible. The world of Heaven’s Vault is charming and adventurously original, peopled with intriguing characters who are far more than the 2D cutouts that define the game’s distinctive pop-up aesthetic. Inkle surpassed themselves with this one. Heaven’s Vault is a 21st Century take on the classic adventure game genre that not only proves it’s not dead, but affirms its wild and wondrous afterlife.
In the game’s relatively short development cycle, its story about being the last human rideshare driver in a fictional city dominated by driverless cars has only felt more current and more urgent. If Heaven’s Vault gives us a fresh take on the adventure game, Neo Cab is a radiant revision of the visual novel. Told through a sequence of vignettes in the form of different fares, and with a dash of resource management thrown in, you exercise choice in part through who you pick up, where, and when you decide to stop, as well as whether you prioritize personal contacts over fares. It’s slick, beautifully done, and shockingly well written at times with biting satire of tech culture, urban progressivism, late capitalism, gender norms, and much besides caught in the game’s low cyberpunk glow. On that note, this is a game that remembers what that punk part of “cyberpunk” means and lays the stress on it. Neo Cab a neon satire of the gig economy that is not to be missed.
I almost hesitated to put this one here because this game has pole vaulted its way into the top tier of so many peoples’ recommendations and I prefer to highlight those games that don’t benefit from widespread mainstream media coverage. But it nevertheless deserves to be highlighted as a plucky, creatively simple affair with humble origins that has now brought joy and HONK to millions of people. It is also a triumph for Australia’s vibrant video games sector, which I’ve had the pleasure of writing about on and off for a few years now, and for its model of government funding. Without the aid of Film Victoria, as the creators have noted, this dorky game couldn’t exist. That, too, deserves to be highlighted. But what else can we say for UGG? As a minimalist puzzle game, it’s incredibly cute and fun, blessed with memetic qualities while also being a perfect little party game. Only in 2019 could an obstreperous goose brought the world this much joy.