I’ve heard more than a few people express a sense of frustration with the quality of games put out in 2019. It’s the tail end of a console cycle, of course, with both the new Xbox and PlayStation set to release about a year from the publishing of this article. Now is when all the stragglers start to roll out; all the games that seem like they should be next-gen but somehow aren’t, yet will probably be released as remasters for the new consoles in the coming months and years.
Maybe it’s because I find myself to be someone who generally loves almost all video games, but looking back at the past year, I’ve found it to be packed with great releases at all scales. Short and sweet? We’ve got those! Big and incomprehensible? We’ve got those too! 2019 is the year that those madlads at CD Projekt Red managed to put a true behemoth of a game, being the excellent The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, onto the Nintendo Switch for goodness’ sake. There’s no rules anymore.
Much like my Top 10 Games of the Decade, I found myself equally in agony over the ranking of this list, and somehow ended up with 25 games I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with. If you’ve listened to our podcast episode for The Posties 2019, many of these will likely not come as a surprise. I enjoyed immensely the opportunity to go back through the games I loved the most this year, and spend a little bit of time reflecting on why they helped make 2019, and the end of the decade, a knockout.
10. Death Stranding
There is a lot that could be said about Death Stranding, though somehow it feels like the discourse keeps waffling between “is it good?” and “is it bad?” I can tell you that it is unequivocally both at the same time. It’s a beast of a game that it feels like it shouldn’t work when it does, and should work when it doesn’t. But there is just something about it; playing Minecraft recently, I found myself peering down into a ravine and wishing I had Sam’s climbing rope and ladders to scale into the abyss with safety. In as much as Todd Howard once told us, back in 2011, that we could see a mountain in Skyrim and climb it, Death Stranding feels like the logical, decade-end conclusion of that promise, and one whose systems speak to a fascinatingly complex (and extremely literal) iteration of the “walking simulator.”
Yeah, the story is really bad. It’s hamfisted and lacking in subtext. When it comes to its handling of female characters, or just the sheer concept of women in general, it is easily Kojima at his worst. Did you not think we could outdo ourselves after Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet fiasco? Think again! Yet, to its benefit, parts of its ridiculosity somehow become so-bad-it’s-entertaining, if even laughable, and perhaps that is what kept me going in Death Stranding’s longest hours. More than that, I found myself walking away with a sense of appreciation for the asynchronous multiplayer aspect woven into the game’s fibers. Watching roads being built before my eyes as I traversed parts of the map, bridges over BT-infested areas appearing precisely when I needed them most—there were a lot of moments that spoke far better to the point Death Stranding wanted to make than its writing did. I am left to wonder in the quiet moments of the game, the ones I love the most, with open road before me and timefall behind me, if Death Stranding deserves some kind of credit just for trying, even if it is a messy, chaotic, overwrought try.
9. Devil May Cry V
Listen, you can come at me and tell me that “Devil Trigger” is a bad song, and maybe you would be right about that. Instead, I implore you to imagine a game with the sheer audacity to make “Devil Trigger” not only a battle song, but the only battle song, played on an endless loop in a game built almost entirely around super sexy stylish combat. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of an interloper when it comes to the Devil May Cry franchise; I originally was introduced to the series by a friend in high school obsessed with Dante, and at the time I found the games to be perfectly fine. To the original series’ credit, the games themselves improved over time as stories and characters became more complex, the settings less boxed-in. But I won’t lie: DmC, the more grimdark re-imagining of the Devil May Cry series released in 2013 by Ninja Theory, is still my favorite under the franchise’s umbrella.
What I still love very deeply about mainline Devil May Cry games is that they are often wacky as hell (pun thoroughly intended)—something I thought Devil May Cry V embraced with unrepentantly open arms. From “Devil Trigger” starting and restarting on a loop to Nico’s van dropping into locations entirely inaccessible by anyone, least of all a Winnebago, Devil May Cry V is top-to-bottom fun. The addition of three playable characters creates great variety in combat scenarios, with series veterans Nero and Dante feeling as punchy and stylish as ever. Newcomer V, an Adam Driver look-alike, added much needed nuance as a generally non-combative character, instead using summons and spells to slice and dice enemies with as much style as his forebears. But don’t worry: Dante is still one hot piece of garbage, the women are all still tenuously clothed, nothing really makes sense—and I love it.
8. Luigi’s Mansion 3
If Nintendo won’t crown 2019 as the Year of Luigi, then I, in all of my auspicious power and influence, most certainly will crown it the Year of Gooigi. Yes, would that I could have a backpack vacuum that contained the ectoplasm essence of myself that I could use to reach money left in drains and pass through poorly-constructed, absolutely not OSHA-compliant wall fixtures.
I admit, I always was more of a fan of the concept of Luigi’s Mansion games than the execution; I never had a Gamecube as a kid and thus, never played the original Luigi’s Mansion until its re-release on the Nintendo 3DS. I found the controls mapped awkwardly to the 3DS handheld, and I never ended up getting as far in the game as I would have liked to, as I’m always a sucker for a little bit of cartoon horror. To my absolute glee, Luigi’s Mansion 3, the first Luigi’s Mansion game released for the Nintendo Switch, instead takes pages from the brilliant Super Mario Odyssey as it builds out thoughtful puzzles and willingly embraces increasingly weird and delightful level design. While I can’t say that Luigi’s Mansion 3 doles out anything you haven’t seen before, it is such a crisply delivered package of solid goodness that I can’t say I really mind very much at all. Easy to pick up and put down, fun to play solo or cooperatively, constantly surprising, and thoroughly packed with hidden secrets, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is delightful way to spend your gaming hours.
I would also make the irrefutable argument that any game that allows Toad to drive a bus should automatically be considered for game of the year, but that’s just my two cents.
7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
When Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was first teased a few years ago, a lot of people on the internet thought it meant that we’d get what many were really hoping for: Bloodborne 2. Bloodborne is a very dear favorite of mine and I, like many, would love to see another follow in its lineage, but it raises a lot of questions as to what From Software could really bring to the table to elevate a game already so exquisite.
Enter: Sekiro. An enormous departure from From’s most recent games, being, of course, Bloodborne and the Dark Souls trilogy, Sekiro feels exactly like From at the best they have ever been, and certainly at the most technically masterful. Where Dark Souls 3 may have lacked poise, Sekiro is all about it; combat is grueling, precise, and immensely rewarding. Traversing the world, full of zippy verticality, made me feel like Samurai Spider-Man in every way I could possibly hope for.
The caveat I’ll admit to here is that Sekiro is a beast I have been grinding myself up against most of the year; I am terrible at it. It’s pretty unrepentantly hard. There are times when I wanted to throw my controller into the TV. I can’t say that I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like sometimes feeling like they want to throw their controller into the TV. But I find that Sekiro is, while difficult, also immensely compelling. Beautifully acted (I recommend using the Japanese voice cast for this one!), cinematically directed, and with a fascinating story of revenge, political intrigue, and one extremely supernatural child, Sekiro feels like a traditional Japanese folktale come to life.
6. The Outer Worlds
I am a big fan of Obsidian Entertainment, as someone who is also a big fan of 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas. Olivia summed it up far better than I can in her excellent games of the decade write up: one of the most compelling things about New Vegas was that it presented no easy, black and white answer the same way that Bethesda-led Fallout games tended to. In place of “choice good” and “choice bad,” there were a lot of morally grey factions and characters that helped the stakes feel more significant, and the conflict more realistic.
The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s Fallout-in-space-without-the-Fallout-brand-name, is an interesting evolution of this formula that focuses less on conflicting political systems and instead rides fully into the horrors of late-stage capitalism. Workers suffer under grueling conditions that always favor company interest, product suffers to save costs, the system suffers under class warfare and gross negligence. I’d argue The Outer Worlds toes the black and white line a little more closely than New Vegas may have done, yet it still manages to very cleverly subvert expectations. Indeed, the strength of the game is often in the strength of the supporting cast—companions from many ideologies and walks of life help to make already difficult choices all the more difficult by challenging the player to think more critically about the weight their choices make. In place of black and white, there is more often the question of, “Is this thing better for the many or better for the few?”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Outer Worlds completely changes the game, but I have to give it immense credit for providing a lot of paths and outcomes to really challenge the moral compass a player might want to walk. When I made the choice to side with a corporation to save a group of people, the game was quick to remind me that my actions, though they had been valiant, still served an emotional blow to the people I thought I’d been a hero to. There is no easy solution to conflict, no direct good and bad. Whether it is the good of the many or the few, someone still has to lose so someone else can win.
5. Later Alligator
If it were possible to bottle up happiness, I imagine that bottle would contain only the purest essence of Later Alligator.
Created by SmallBü, the husband and wife animation duo behind Baman Piderman, Later Alligator is a sort of pre-murder murder mystery. You play as The Investigator, a private detective in Alligator New York City (where everyone is an alligator, obviously) hired by Pat, an increasingly paranoid and childish twenty-something who believes that he will be murdered by someone in his family at something he calls “The Event.” The game takes place over a few in-game hours, with time advancing incrementally as certain actions are taken, like traveling to different areas of the map. The largest chunk of time will be spent talking to the various members of Pat’s eccentric, vaguely Mafia-adjacent family, allowing you the opportunity to grill them for information about The Event. But no information comes free, of course; tips about The Event are given as prizes for winning minigames of varying slapstick hilarity, from plain Old Maid to a fully realized dating sim.
Later Alligator deserves immense credit because it is genuinely funny. Everything about it is funny. There is nothing that is not funny. I mean this sincerely when I say it; comedy, in any of its forms, is not easy to conjure and yet Later Alligator manages to do it so smartly and elegantly that I find it impossible not to recommend and even more impossible not to enjoy every minute of. Each of Pat’s friends and relatives is somehow themselves a fully realized character full of so much heart that it’s hard not to love every one of them, from Tall Jared and his haunted cellphone full of anime pictures, to Slick Mickey and his questionable skin condition (that he is very, very open about).
Time is short in the game but multiple playthroughs are rewarded and encouraged, with new endings to unlock and new family members to talk with. It is a game full of stand-out moments that never stops delivering on itself, never for a single moment eases up on the joy.
Oh and hey, The Knife? Call me.
4. Hypnospace Outlaw
By trade, I am a community manager and strategist, which essentially boils down to me running forums for a living. There is a lot more social complexity embedded in this role that separates it from merely throwing the ol’ banhammer around, but the concept is mostly the same. It’s kind of a weird job to have as I cut my teeth as a teen on the internet by participating in communities run by people willing to give their spare time over to supporting something they really believed in. It never seemed like something people could do for real actual money (spoiler: you can!).
Hypnospace Outlaw is somehow both catharsis from my day-to-day and intense nostalgia rolled up into one perfectly executed package. It’s the late 1990s again—a lawless time online full of looping midi autoplay, extremely low-resolution images, terrible gifs, and amateur web designers. Hypnospace Outlaw presents a satirical, alternate-timeline depiction of these early days; in it, players assume the role of a volunteer Enforcer tasked with basic content moderation on the Hypnospace, scouring webpages for illegal content, copyright violations, or anything that violates Hypnospace’s terms of service. At the surface it sounds a little bit like throwing the ol’ banhammer around, but what unravels is a delightful little mystery-solving puzzle game that oozes a great deal of love for the zinesters and mischief makers that made sites like Geocities so iconic and memorable.
It’s like a fever dream of the way the internet used to be, made only more authentic by its packaging; players surf the Hypnospace using a Windows 95-ish operating system complete with stupid music player skins, pop up viruses, and awkward user interfaces. I admit, it’s likely I found myself so attached to Hypnospace Outlaw this year because I am the right age for it, but I would be hard-pressed to believe that anyone couldn’t love what magic the game makes. It is in every way whimsical, silly, thoughtful and truly a love letter to the internet, with a surprising relevancy to the online politics of today.
I also haven’t been able to get “Granny Cream’s Hot Butter Ice Cream” out of my head for the last eight months. You take the hot butter, mix it with the ice cream…
3. Disco Elysium
My name is Rebecca and I am an unrepentant save scummer. It sounds terrible, I know, but I’ve found that the less time I have to play games, the more I feel this creeping urge to play them correctly. To walk the path of least resistance and see as much of the game as I possibly can in one go. I’m usually on the straight-and-narrow when it comes to video game morality, too, which means that I am all the more likely to roll back a save when I accidentally make a choice that maybe pisses off one of my dearest companions. Maybe, just maybe, I have a little bit of a problem.
Disco Elysium deserves a lot of credit for doing a lot of things very, very well, but perhaps more than anything, I am grateful to it for finally forcing me to confront my desire to always play a game “right.” There really is no “right” to Disco Elysium; it is a traditional RPG in the sense that chance is determined by a randomized dice roll instead of a skill cap, and failure is possible at any moment, even for checks that guarantee a high level of success. At first, I thought I would balk against this notion, but in Disco Elysium’s world, it feels so unbelievably right. Revachol, where the game takes place, is a messy, forgotten former capital under the strain of a labor crisis, thrown into even more peril when a gruesome murder occurs. You are a messed up, alcoholic cop expected to solve that murder…who also doesn’t remember who he is, can’t find his badge and gun, and may have thrown a shoe through a window. Maybe.
In a game of chaos, both internally and externally, in a game that confronts how messy and confusing it is to be a functioning human, it feels right to never know where the chips will fall. I could put my nose in a guide and prepare myself for every outcome but it would never determine how fate might decide something for me—an action, a conversation. I died of humiliation once because I could not pass a very easy skill check to step over a small concrete barrier. I reloaded a save to try it again and managed to fail the skill check a second time. And for once, I felt totally okay with that. I didn’t want to be so messed up, but I realized that maybe the game was telling me that I had to be, was forcing me to really confront the difficulties in just getting through the day. Video games often present the ideal world or present conflict without real teeth, yet Disco Elysium is willing to get messy in a way I have never experienced before and, as it turns out, in a way I was really craving.
2. Outer Wilds
If you’ve listened to episodes of our podcast this year, you’ve probably heard me say more than once that I thought Outer Wilds was one of the greatest video games ever made. At the same time, it’s also one of the most difficult to talk about meaningfully, as talking about it often spoils all the things that make it so great. I realize it sounds pompous to call it one of the greats, as if my personal opinion holds any real meaningful value over these kinds of things, but I am hard-pressed to find many other games that do what Outer Wilds manages to do.
At its core, Outer Wilds packages together immense scale, responsive physics, and impeccable worldbuilding in a way that outpaces games made by studios ten times the size of Mobius Digital with ten times the budget. It is a soaring, breathtaking tour through the final moments of a dying universe whose primary strength—though it has many—comes from beautifully crafted moments of serendipity. It is never just one, here and there. They are constant, they are gratifying in a way that it is hard to put words to. The feeling of learning and exploring and understanding grants even greater power to Outer Wilds’ swelling conclusion, leaving us to ruminate on the meaning of life and our place in the universe. As much as we are just small things with short lives, our existence is not forgotten, our accomplishments never meaningless.
Our own world feels short on time these days, and with a muddy, uncertain future ahead of us, I sometimes think Outer Wilds is one of those games that snuck in at the right time. My soul needed to know that we have a chance to make a difference now, even if it would only be meaningful to those who will come long after us. We owe them that much.
I felt like I was making an extremely audacious decision by assigning Control my #2 game of the decade, but I find myself feeling more empowered by the decision every day. There is so much to love about Control that whatever tedium remains gives way to a game that is smart in every way it could possibly be. From absolutely magnificent art direction and level design to an incredible cast of powerful characters, I firmly believe that Control will long stand as one of those touchstone games that will be an influence on what comes after it, whether it does so quietly or loudly.
I touched on this fact a bit in my decade in retrospect, but when I think long and hard about Control, I find that I am most attached to—and validated by—Control’s decision to tell a story of corporate horror from the perspective of the Bureau’s women. There is a brief sequence toward mid-game; a conversation between the player character, Jesse Faden, and Emily Pope, direct report of the Bureau’s Head of Research, Dr. Casper Darling. Jesse has an opportunity to question Emily’s feelings on Dr. Darling’s attempts to protect Emily from his work, and Emily responds so wonderfully matter-of-fact: “FUCK THAT.”
There are a lot of energies worth channelling in 2020, but Control reminds me that one of the most motivating for me is Emily’s. Don’t take things lying down. Don’t let others determine your feelings or decide what is best for your well-being. Take control.
And Now: A Series of Smaller Games You Should Play On Your Holiday Break
It’s been a great year for games from smaller teams, and perhaps one of the best we’ve been so lucky to have in the last few years. Here are a few of my favorites from 2019, all of which made a 10-game-only list almost impossible to finalize: Ape Out, Baba is You, Grindstone, Manifold Garden, Mutazione, Observation, Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Untitled Goose Game, WATTAM, Wilmot’s Warehouse.
Photo by Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash