I thought that 2019 was going to be a slow year for video games. After the blockbuster years of 2017 (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, etc.) and 2018 (God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, etc.), I was kind of ready for a little reprieve. Surprisingly, 2019 was full of fantastic games that were barely on my radar before they came out.
It was both thrilling and exhausting to have this litany of games come as recommended must-plays from people I trusted. Every year, I seem to have less and less free time, which stresses me out. There were so many overlooked games that I didn’t have time to play, and I’m sure I will look back on this list as incomplete. Alas, there is only so much time in the year, and I am only human. Please forgive me for this failing.
This game of the year (GOTY) list is going to get into plot spoilers for the following games: Death Stranding, Hypnospace Outlaw, Outer Worlds, Control, and Outer Wilds.
10. Death Stranding
The story of Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima at his worst. The plot is indulgent, plodding, and often nonsensical. Except for one notable exception, women in this game have no agency beyond being baby-making machines and tarnished sexual beings. It’s so bad y’all. I can’t even tell you how fucking stupid this game is because it would take another 1,000 words to describe what exactly “The Last Stranding” is and how it was never explained until the last minute.
Forget about the story. The reason that Death Stranding makes this list is because of ziplines. You see, playing Death Stranding is a chore. Dodging or fighting the ghostly Beached Things (BTs) is a stressful experience that never gets easier. Many remote outposts have no roads or easy to walk paths. Ziplines are a late-game item that allows you to fly over BTs and other enemies quickly.
Building a network of ziplines across the world of Death Stranding was one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I had this year. I hated sneaking by BTs and walking across the giant map. Ziplines were my reward for putting in the time trying to understand this story and thinking strategically about my resources. Every open-world game should have ziplines that let me fly around while my ghost baby laughs maniacally.
Other things that make Death Stranding bearable are its beautiful graphics and commitment to being a literal walking simulator. The game is powered by the same technology that made Horizon Zero Dawn, so it isn’t a surprise that it looks great. The slavish dedication to creating a world where players must watch where they step is admirable even if it is sometimes annoying.
Seriously though, who the fuck thought the concept of “still mothers” was a good idea?
9. Devil May Cry 5
Sometimes, I want to turn my brain off and wail on some bad guys. Devil May Cry 5 revels in this brainless fun. I got to play as a demon hunter who has a motor on his sword that he revs to do more damage and a prosthetic arm that has an engine in it so that he can fly. Nico is a daisy-duke wearing merchant who drives her van into the bowels of demon-infested territory. And by drive, I mean that she comes flying out random holes and falls from the sky. It’s ridiculous, and I love it.
The ridiculousness of this game is epitomized in the 21st-century masterpiece that is “Devil Trigger.” I didn’t like this song when I first heard it, but the game assaults you with it constantly. When you are playing as Nero, this is your battle music. Every time you get into a fight, it starts playing “Devil Trigger.” It’s audacious. It’s over the top. I got Stockholm syndrome and caught myself humming “Devil Trigger” while not playing Devil May Cry 5.
Devil May Cry 5 also has an intricate fighting system with three different playable characters who each have their own combat system. While not every character is as fun to play (I’m looking at you, V), I can respect the developer’s commitment to trying something new. I enjoyed using most of the prosthetic arms that Nero can equip, and upgrading my skills was fun.
I also appreciate how lame and dad-like they made Dante. He’s gone from being a cocksure punk in the original trilogy to a guy who listens to Slayer while picking up his kids from soccer practice. I’m glad he is still rocking out and using his big-ass sword.
8. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Game Boy Color version of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening won me over because of how weird it was. There was a village of talking animals that was never explained and the hint system involves calling a guy over the phone because he is too bashful to speak in person. The game isn’t afraid to be cute and strange.
The Switch version of Link’s Awakening takes this cuteness to a new high. The plastic-like aesthetic of the game’s characters sets up the world as a toy box that doesn’t need to make sense. Chain Chomps in a Zelda game? Sure! What if Kirby was an enemy? Go for it! Goombas— YES! This game is a relic from a time when Nintendo was much less precious about mixing its intellectual property, and it’s a great treat.
The puzzles can be a bit strange, and it feels old when compared to more modern games in the Zelda franchise. Additionally, the pervasive frame rate and performance issues ain’t cute. I don’t understand why this game has so many technical problems when other more graphically demanding games seem to work better on the Switch.
It’s worth picking this game up for the new version of the Animal Village song. Everything else is just gravy.
7. Super Mario Maker 2
I so badly wanted to play the original Super Mario Maker that I almost bought a Wii U in 2017. I had already bought my Switch, but I couldn’t wait to start building levels. Thankfully, my bank account and partner stopped me from making this tragic mistake. I resorted to downloading a Wii U emulator and checking out the unofficial Mario Maker subreddit to get my fix. Still, I felt like I was missing something.
Imagine my relief when Nintendo finally brought Super Mario Maker 2 to the Switch, along with a new single-player campaign. I picked up the game right around launch, and it’s been fascinating to watch the player-created designs evolve. The 20-second levels, strange puzzles, and horror-themed chase sequences are excellent examples of these new and popular level formats. The Legend of Zelda update has also completely changed what levels are popular, and I can’t wait to see how designers use these new tools.
While the single-player campaign is short, it’s still fun. We received 100 Nintendo designed levels that all illustrate the basics of creating a well-designed level. The game also includes a series of design lessons narrated by a pigeon. It’s a 100-level game design course that goes over the basics and explains that not everything needs to be a Kaizo-death gauntlet.
Super Mario Maker 2 originally was not this high on the list, but the new “Ninji speedruns” mode raised its place significantly. These speedrunning levels have multiple paths that only become clear after completing the same level many times. It’s exhilarating to watch the Ninji ghosts run the level and to pick up the strategies that the fastest players are using.
Ninji mode almost makes up for the ongoing trash fire that of online competitive racing. Nintendo, please fix the lag and make that mode playable.
6. Pokémon Sword and Shield
I’m a lifelong Pokémon fan, who keeps coming back for every other game. I loved Pokémon X and Y but skipped Sun and Moon. Grookey stole my heart in the first trailer for Pokémon Sword and Shield. Even in the shadow of “Dexit,” the newest Pokémon game still blew me away with its cute aesthetic and quality of life improvements.
For me, Pokémon games are about interacting with my adorable creatures, crushing gyms, and catching legendary animals. I am happy to report this game delivers on all these essential features. I was able to play catch with my Pokémon and make curry with them at my camp. The gym battles are framed as over-the-top soccer matches with crowds in a stadium. While there are only a few legendary Pokémon, I love my shield dog.
The aesthetic of this game is a mix of small pastoral towns in the United Kingdom and idealized coal town. You can customize your player character by equipping them with giant backpacks, gingham skirts, knit sweaters, and a million other vaguely British clothing options. I very much appreciate being able to give my character fiery eyes that show my blazing determination or rainbow eyes to express my blazing queerness.
The lack of a national Pokédex is a bummer, and I would love to know more information about how banked Pokémon will be brought forward. But I love the new Pokémon so much that I’m fine to chill with my Wooloo and ghostly Corsola. That being said, I do want the Squirtle line brought forward. How could you do this to my squirting turtle man Game Freak?
5. Magic the Gathering: Arena
Digital card games have become a borderline obsession for me recently. Out of all the digital card games I tried out this year, Magic the Gathering: Arena (Arena) was the only one that I stuck with besides my old standby of Hearthstone. I had played paper Magic the Gathering (MTG) in the past, but the rules were so complex that I didn’t have a desire to stick with it. Having a computer mediate these complex rules and show me the ropes has been immeasurably helpful. I would recommend that anyone who has had any interest in MTG give Arena a shot to learn the basics.
The game teaches new players by having them play against a basic bot in practice matches and a free deck of every color and dual-color combination. Compared to the starting grind of Hearthstone and other major card digital card games, MTG is generous. Granted, MTG has significantly more cards than Hearthstone or other comparable card games, so it all balances out.
There are a few issues with Arena that I hope Wizards of the Coast addresses. The AI-controlled drafting mode often makes dumb mistakes. The client is also missing popular formats, like Commander and Pauper (outside of special events). Also, the abundance of expensive cosmetics, including card sleeves, pets, and hero portraits, feels a bit gross.
MTG is one of the most complex games ever created. You can literally create a programmable computer with paper cards. Arena is the most approachable and affordable version of this game.
But don’t play MTG. It will ruin your life and your bank account.
4. Hypnospace Outlaw
Hypnospace Outlaw is a simulator of a fake 1990s internet that never actually existed. In this world, people can surf an approximation of the early internet while sleeping. This fake internet is dominated by hyper-compressed gifs, basic text websites, and auto-playing music. Your job in this dreamscape is to be a cop who hunts down copyright-infringing content, illegal commerce, and other actions that break the terms of services.
The game unironically loves the old internet that was comprised of GeoCities text websites and auto-playing music. The graphical interface is obtuse and never feels like an easy-to-use modern UI. As the game’s plot unfolds, this interface starts to become even more overwhelming as you unlock more helpful “features” and get computer viruses.
As a child of the 90s, the internet seemed to offer unlimited promise and the gateway to the future. Once I got on the internet and accidentally installed BonziBuddy, I realized that the hope of the internet was a lie. But even though my dreams were crushed, it was so cool to build an HTML website. But, My Final Fantasy X website that was comprised of a table of screenshots still feels like the coolest thing I ever created. Hypnospace Outlaw helped me relive this experience by using the built-in editor to create a terrible facsimile of a web page.
One of the best things about Hypnospace Outlaw is the music. If you haven’t heard “Granny Cream’s Hot Butter Ice Cream” or “Hypnospace Is Great,” please do yourself a favor and listen to them now. These songs have dominated my Spotify most-played songs and have forever
ruined improved my song recommendations
This game was a pure shot of nostalgia with a plot that takes a turn into the melodramatic. The post-game mode of playing as an archivist who is attempting to fully backup the website is an interesting approach. It’s such a strange and genuine game that was unmatched by any other experience this year.
3. The Outer Worlds
As I talked about in my Games of the Decade List, Fallout: New Vegas still reigns supreme when I think about the best games of the last ten years. This unabashed love of New Vegas led to me following every piece of pre-release coverage of The Outer Worlds. I thought that Obsidian Entertainment would be unchained from Bethesda’s Creation Engine and make the game they always wanted. Unfortunately for me, The Outer Worlds was never going to be New Vegas 2. It’s disappointing to have your expectations crushed, but The Outer Worlds offers a good but much different experience than I expected
The Outer Worlds is a much more focused and shorter experience than a modern Fallout or The Elder Scrolls game. This more limited experience allows the developers to give the game a fine-tuning that the Bethesda-created games never offered. Using a gun feels like a modern first-person shooter (FPS) that is comparable to an entry in the Borderlands series. The highest compliment I can give is that when you pick something up, the other objects don’t float away.
The society in The Outer Worlds is a hyper-capitalist nightmare set on a distant solar system full of deadly creatures. The citizens of the world have been so brainwashed that they refuse critically needed medical attention from non-affiliated providers. The corporations are so villainous that I never planned on ever allying myself with them. But the characters do make some compelling arguments about why you should maybe not burn the entire system to the ground. The game convinced me to choose the centrist path and not try to be a true radical. Once the stakes of the problems in the game become clear, the game asks you to make hard choices and give in to the path of least resistance.
You can see everything in the game in about 35 hours, and everything can be wrapped up cleanly. With a high enough skill level and the right choices, you can avoid most of the bad endings. Beyond the unique items, player equipment boils down to Chest Armor 1, 2, and 3. Its limited scope does function well, but I do wish the game had a little more meat.
The writing, gameplay, and general polish of The Outer Worlds make it a must-play game of 2019. At the very least, you should get to know Parvati and listen to Ashley Burch’s amazing performance. Plus, the “dumb” character options are hilarious, including a hidden ending.
The moment you get the ability to fly in Control was when I realized that this game was more than just an art direction, storytelling, and graphical marvel. Flying showed off how complex the Oldest House was and the hidden locations throughout the world. Hovering over the Black Rock Quarry and the astral spike enemies is such a rewarding experience.
In Control, you play as a young woman named Jesse Faden, who has an entity living within herself named Polaris. Jesse has an unclear connection to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a government that oversees the protection of powerful supernatural items. These items may have powers that can change the world in the form of an “Altered World Event.” Control is a lore-dense game, and these basic concepts just the surface of what you can expect to learn.
Control has already widespread praise from the press for the way it handles the story’s dream logic, but it’s important to stress that the story is very good. The mystery of who exactly is Polaris, what Dr. Darling was trying to do, and how the Hiss took control is engaging. The set pieces, like the Ashtray Maze, are some of the best moments I’ve had this year.
Intense plot beats aren’t the only way that this game drips out plot points. The amount of lore that you can find in ancillary materials around the world is overwhelming. That is not to say that the lore is bad. I loved these dossiers and how much we are able to learn about the world. Listening to the Mirror Debrief interview reversed is a high-point of the lore that you can find in this world.
The world design in Control is another high-point of this game. I loved how the designers trust the player to figure out how to navigate the world by reading the signs and warnings placed around the world. Like the bureaucratic leaders at the FBC, the designers expect you to pay attention and not fly off into an abyss.
The technical issues on a base PlayStation 4 are inexcusable. This problem is especially pronounced during the already challenging Hedron boss fight, which only makes that battle more difficult. Eventually, I was able to get used to the slowdown and frame rate drops, but it’s such a disappointment.
There is so much more that I love about Control. The music is awesome, Threshold Kids is all I can think about, the hints about Alan Wake’s connection to the FBC are what I didn’t know I needed, and Ahti is still a thirst trap. I cannot wait to see how the DLC expands the world and what the eventual sequel will look like.
1. The Outer Wilds
The Outer Wilds is one of the most demanding and intricate games I have ever played. It’s a clockwork world that resets every 22 minutes. As the player, you must find clues, takes notes, and make your own connections about how these various clues fit together. The game doesn’t dole out the clues, and you are expected to go out and find them yourself. The only mission you are given at the start of the game is to go out and explore the world.
It’s best to play The Outer Wilds with as little information as possible. Solving the puzzle box and making those connections yourself is 90% of what makes this game interesting. Because less information is better, I want to talk about a few specific moments in the game that will stay with me forever. These will not make sense unless you have played the game to completion:
- Entering the Dark Bramble and seeing the giant anglerfish and then realizing that I could not go backwards. I didn’t expect to be scared by this game. I was foolish.
- Getting trapped in a cave that was filling up with sand and realizing that I had no way out. I kind of gave up and let the sand take me. It was horrifying.
- Shooting myself into the far reaches of space and thinking that I had broken the game. I didn’t figure out what I needed to do for like ten hours because I avoided the slingshot.
- Hanging out with Chert and watching him start to lose his shit as he realizes that the sun is going to explode. I felt bad for him, so I stayed and waited for the explosion to take us.
- Jumping into the Ghost Matter on Timber Hearth before talking to the Nomai statute and getting a surprise game over screen.
- Jumping from crumbling platform to platform on a planet that was falling into a black hole and then missing a jump and flying off into space. Then I just had to sit there for like five minutes until the sun exploded.
There are so many other moments in The Outer Wilds that I decided not to include in this list. Unlocking the story and learning more about what exactly happened is a gift that I want to give you. The Outer Wilds is on Microsoft Game Pass. You could play this game for $1. There is no excuse not to play this game. If I can break away from my Hearthstone addiction, I know that you can find the time.
Games That I Didn’t Get A Chance To Play
Here are a few games that I didn’t get a chance to play, but I’m sure would have been notable:
- Sekiro Shadows Die Twice: The Dark Souls of samurai/ninja games.
- Resident Evil 2 (2019): What did they do to my poor boy Leon’s chin?
- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: The Dark Souls of Star Wars games
- Disco Elysium: Shout out to Marx.
- Sayonara Wild Hearts: My favorite soundtrack of a game I’ve never played.
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses: Teatime and war crimes
Photo by Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash