I’m sitting down to write the final “official” version of this list on Monday, December 30th, when I think it’s finally safe to say that I’m not going to play and finish any more games in this, the year that was 2019. An earlier draft of this had a really wordy intro about my relationship with games this year, but I thought it was kind of boring, so I cut it! Let's just jump straight into the games, because there are a lot of them and they're all good!
9 - Spyro Reignited Trilogy: Spyro the Dragon
At some point in the year 2000 I went to Toys R Us with my grandpa and cousins and convinced them that instead of a Dreamcast, we needed to buy a PlayStation 2 (with copies of Crash Bandicoot 3 and Tomba 2) because it was “the most advanced thing ever.” Papa’s plan to get my cousins to spend time at his house with the PlayStation did not pan out, and I never got to finish Crash 3. Years later, I did end up with the pile of PlayStation 1 games we bought that afternoon, so I impulse purchased a busted original model PlayStation and a copy of Spyro 1 from a now defunct comic book shop 5 minutes from my cousins’ house. (RIP Epikos - it’s actually probably good that you got replaced by a frozen yogurt place, or I’d be drowning in bad Batman comics.) That game was fun to play, but it was mega old and definitely showed its age. Finally, back in July, this problem was solved when remakes of all 3 PlayStation Spyro games came to the Switch. I’ve only played the first one right now and have almost 100% completed it, but I’m ready to say that it’s the best collectathon I’ve ever played. It’s a good, chill, low-risk time with all these little bite size levels to glide around in with podcasts in the background. The flight levels are just difficult enough to be exciting, and the third world - the ice one - was a perfect handful of platforming levels. Good game!
8 - SNES on Switch
( Switch )
Alright this one is definitely going to be shorter - it took Nintendo way too long to do this, and Donkey Kong Country 2 isn’t even in this thing yet. The world is cruel, but Mario World and Yoshi’s Island are both still incredible games. Eventually I will finish Super Metroid, and eventually, the good version of Wario’s Woods (the SNES one) will be on the Switch. Until then I will continue to play Kirby Superstar and the first 10 minutes of Star Fox 2.
7 - A Short Hike
( PC )
Thinking about it now, this one kind of feels like Spyro? Another good chill-out game with solid music and a fun gliding mechanic. The low-fi GameBoy look is really cool, the dialogue is really cute and fun, and it feels like an inspirational exploration platformer with the climbing from Breath of the Wild and the vibe and look of an Animal Crossing. Also, the sunhat you buy from the craft lady on the island is incredible. More sunhats in games in 2020!
6 - Riven
( PC )
Near the end of 2018 I briefly dated a girl who was into the same dorky stuff I am. On one of our dates she mentioned that one of her favorite games was Riven (the sequel to Myst), and she had beaten it like a dozen times. I had not beaten Riven even once because it was too hard. When we stopped dating, I decided to finally beat Riven, not to prove that I could too, but uh, because of some other completely unrelated reason that had nothing to do with me feeling bad for myself. For the month of January, I fell into what I have since dubbed “the puzzle hole.” I created a notebook of incomprehensible diagrams, maps, and scribbles, and when my friend Ryan came to visit me, he said he found me hunched over my computer, mumbling to myself with a wild look in my eyes. I think I genuinely scared him when I tried to explain how I’d decoded the game’s number system.
Anyways, Riven is a really good game that goes in a completely different direction from its predecessor, Myst (which I sped through as a refresher right after I finished Riven). While Myst was basically a password protected PowerPoint presentation with clunky puzzles and cutting edge 90s computer generated graphics, Riven feels like a living, breathing world. It’s not really a game of puzzles in the way that Myst is (honestly, I think there’s only like one actual flat-out puzzle), it’s a game of learning how to navigate a place and its history. Additionally, I think this game still looks great, mostly because of its inspired, grandiose, “prehistory steampunk plus the medieval Catholic church” art direction. This game was like 6 discs when it came out in the 90s? It’s gorgeous and I love to look at it so much that I’ve got the Ghen shrine as my phone background. The last bit of this game has some sort of animal puzzle that’s actually pretty terrible and almost gave me an aneurysm, but the end itself made me get genuinely teary-eyed in a way we’ll revisit later. Here’s a quote from the epilogue to chew on until then:
And now, I am at rest, understanding that in Books, and Ages, and life... the ending can never truly be written.
5 - Sayonara Wild Hearts
Speaking of games that made me teary-eyed, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a magical playable animated music video for an Icelandic electric-neon-pop concept album about getting dumped so hard it breaks the universe. This game owns, not necessarily because of the game part, which I think is just passable, but because of the sheer spectacle of it all. Each track gives you just enough interaction to keep engaged in the ups and downs and side-to-sides as stuff on screen spins and flips and explodes into prismatic crystalline representations of realizing that maybe learning to love yourself is the first step to being able to love and be loved again. I do wish that the album mode you get after completing the game was unlocked from the start and was the "default" way to experience Wild Hearts, but honestly that's kind of a minor complaint. The vocal tracks are the standouts here, and the finale is just amazing. Watching the heroine get stripped of all her powers but the longboard she rode in on, and then using that to skate in and around each of the tarotic manifestations of each of her flaws and shortcomings - mmf. GOOD GAME.
4 - CONTROL
I haven’t finished CONTROL yet, but I have so enjoyed my time with it. The story is starting to lose me a little, but I can’t stop thinking about this game’s world and the things that populate it, and I know I’m not alone. Maybe it’s something about the completely broken post-truth internet conspiracy theory mood of the past couple years, but exploring the pitch of “What if the headquarters of a secret paranormal federal government bureau got possessed?” with incredibly tight 3rd person shooter action and really really good superpowers just hits in a way that feels fresh and exciting almost in opposition to a AAA space dominated by sequels. Everything in this game is a delight; flying up and over giant angular slabs of brutalist concrete architecture, flinging forklifts into walls, reading a bunch of supplemental documents about a haunted refrigerator - I love this game. In fact, I love this game so much that I upgraded my Xbox One S to an Xbox One X (what a naming scheme) to deal with CONTROL’s terrible console performance and load times at launch. Even though the bosses in this game are awful and the checkpoints are not great, everything else in it (especially those big fonts) is so good. I’m gonna finish this game soon, and then I’m gonna trick some of you into playing Anomaly with me, because that game seems extremely cool.
3 - Dicey Dungeons
( PC )
What if a deck building game was a rainbow cartoon gameshow that let you throw a triple charged spike boomerang into a pile of slime before transforming into a bear? I will never understand Magic: The Gathering, but I will never forget accidentally not dumping my last roll into the vampire killer stake and then getting merc’d by Dracula. The stat effects in this game ALONE are a joy, and that’s saying something about stat effects! They usually suck! This game is just so well-designed, it’s a pick-up-and play readability miracle, with so much variation and depth, where each run is a new adventure. I love it. I love it! Also the music slaps and the art is so dang good. Oh my word, Dicey Dungeons.
2 - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare  (Multiplayer Only)
First of all, yes, I have only played the multiplayer mode in this game. I’ve heard almost no good things about the co-op spec-ops mode, and although I might get around to the campaign eventually, it is nowhere near even the middle of my to-play list. So - bearing in mind that I haven’t even touched 2 of the 3 modes of this game, it feels kind of wild that the Modern Warfare reboot is my second favorite game of this year. I wrote briefly about how much fun I was having with it right after launch, and that fun has only continued to grow since then. Growing up, the closest I got to owning a Call of Duty game was the Wii version of Goldeneye (which honestly had some pretty good maps), but I spent a couple of early high school sleepovers playing splitscreen Modern Warfare 1 or 2 and Black Ops at friends’ houses. Aside from the agonizing time spent watching some friends slowly and meticulously build loadouts (I’m looking at you Gabi Garcia), I have really good memories of those games. When I bought an Xbox in late 2015, I picked up Black Ops III to play with a couple friends, and enjoyed it for a bit, but couldn’t recapture that magic, and spent most of my time going 0 and 20 in that weird future version of NukeTown.
In the lead-up to this game, there was a lot of talk on gaming podcasts about how serious and groundbreaking the campaign was going to be, and that seemed kind of interesting, and I started thinking, “Well, I’ve got a pile of GameStop gift cards that I gotta use before that place goes under...” so I rolled the dice and pre-ordered it. When the game finally came out, I was working late nights prepping for an audit at work, and absolutely did not want anything to do with a stressful, morally grey action movie campaign, so I begrudgingly decided to dip my toes into the multiplayer, and was hooked. After two years of trudging through slower, more methodical battle royale games where I always felt like I was dragging my team down, Modern Warfare’s lightweight, consequence-free, frenetic deathmatches felt like a breath of fresh air. Honestly, in terms of enjoyment, the fact that I can kind of hold my own in Kill Confirmed and Domination comes second to just how good it feels to play that game. Every weapon feels slick and sharp and solid and immediately easy to grasp, which again, refreshing in comparison to a game like Fortnite, where none of the guns never felt quite heavy(?) enough, and I could never keep track of which one was currently on top of the meta. Nothing against that game, I think the way it constantly shifts and transforms to stay fresh is amazing, and I’ve had a ton of fun playing it, but I think my time with Fortnite has drawn to a close, and that’s ok - because the crossplay revolution that it ushered in continues with Modern Warfare.
Even though online multiplayer “walled gardens” are (and always have been) completely arbitrary, there is something magical about how easy it is to jump into lobbies with PC, PlayStation, and Xbox friends all at the same time. Now that I’m kind of out in Tennessee by myself, video games have been essential to me keeping up with some of my friends on both coasts, and it’s honestly a relief to be able to do it with a game that I absolutely love on in the background. That this game makes it so easy for me to continue to cultivate lifelong friendships might be why I’ve got it at spot number 2 - but also, Shoot House is an incredible map, and a few weeks ago they ran a mode called Cranked where you got faster every time you killed someone and then your heart exploded after 30 seconds! Perfect video game.
1 - Outer Wilds
When I went to go see Inside Out with Carter Ware a few summers ago, I jokingly told him that if he cried, I would not drive him home. 90 minutes later, the two of us were sobbing, and something inside me broke. Since then, almost anything even slightly emotional will make me cry. Sad banjo music while walking through the tunnel under the Atlanta airport? A single solitary tear rolls down my cheek. A warm starry night sitting next to my friends around a campfire? My eyes are watery and blurry as I hold back tears with a really funny looking frowny face. That one Apple Music commercial with the airpods and the dancing? I am a snotty mess. I say all of that to explain my earlier mentioned reactions to Riven and Sayonara Wild Hearts, and to preface me saying that the ending of Outer Wilds made me weep in an entirely new way. I’ll get to the how and the why of that reaction a little later (because it is kind of spoiler-y), and start with my explanation of why I love this game, my pitch on why you should play it, and my argument that this game is the true successor to Riven.
In Outer Wilds, you play as an alien from the small, woodsy, Pacific Northwest planet of Timber Hearth. You are the newest astronaut of the Outer Wilds, the planet’s Sierras Club-esque team of space explorers - currently spread out throughout the solar system, each equipped with a handmade instrument, all playing different parts of the same song from back on Timber Hearth. You wake up by a campfire, with your friend roasting marshmallows, reminding you that today is finally the day that you’ll make your first trip to space. You make your way around the town as folksy banjo music plays, talking to the 10 or 12 other people who live there - all of them excited for you, all of them rooting for you to make the planet of Timber Hearth proud with whatever it is you discover. As you make your way to the observatory tower to pick up the launch codes for the shuttle, a newly discovered relic from a precursor civilization - a statue - opens its eyes and links itself to you. Everyone is confused, but they wish you a safe trip, and watch as you take off. Minutes later, you die as the sun goes supernova.
And then, you’re back at the campfire, waking up to your friend roasting marshmallows and everyone wishing you a safe trip. Somehow, you’ve been caught in a time loop by that statue, and it’s up to you to take the tools that you’ve been given - a jetpack, a camera drone, a radio, and a brand new translator tool for deciphering writing from those precursors, the Nomai - and explore the completely simulated 5 planet solar system to figure out why.
You fly around in your tiny spaceship, making your way to each of the planets, talking to the astronauts about points of interest, exploring Nomai ruins, and playing around with the natural phenomena and bits of abandoned technology that you find there. A mix of folksy music and synths accompany your journey as you do everything you can to solve the mystery of the time loop and the supernova. Every 22 minutes (or sooner if you die) the sun will explode, and you’ll be back on Timber Hearth, ready to go again. Each time you learn something new, it will be added to your ship’s computer - which functions as a sort of red yarn and thumbtacks rumor board. And honestly, that’s about it - Outer Wilds is kind of weird as a video game, because there’s no powers to unlock, no upgrades to purchase, no additional wrinkles that get added after a couple hours of gameplay. Much like Riven, this is a game of exploring places and their histories. Everything is open to you from the start, and the only thing that changes as you play is what you know - about the solar system, about the Nomai, about the loop, and about the supernova that always ends each 22 minute loop.
Time loops aren’t a new thing in video games, but in every other looping game I’ve played, they come with a sense of dread and urgency - they’re a hassle, and for the most part they don’t add to the experience in any way other than acting as a powerful narrative framing. Not the case in Outer Wilds, where instead of feeling limiting, the time loop feels freeing - giving you a way to experiment without fear of failure. There will always be another loop, so you can try to land on that busted space station, or fly into that black hole, or see what happens if you try to skip your ship around the sun’s powerful fiery orbit. This does mean that the opening of the game can be a bit aimless, but a little poking reveals dozens of threads to pull at and follow, all of them the perfect length to be focused in on and tackled in a single loop. My game of the year in 2018 was Return of the Obra Dinn, because it made me feel like a detective. In much the same way, Outer Wilds made me feel like an explorer. It got its hooks in me in a way that only a few games ever have. And up until I finished it on Saturday night, I thought that was going to be the end of the story for Outer Wilds - just another game on a list of games that I loved and then forgot about. Wow was I wrong.
How do we wrap our heads around the ultimate shape and size and impact of our place in the world? Can we? In either the second or the third Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book, one of the characters, Zaphod, gets put inside something called the “Total Perspective Vortex,” which is designed to zoom out, and give the person inside a true sense of how miniscule their place in the universe actually is, driving them insane. Of course, the thing backfires, and Zaphod instead concludes that this thing has shown him what he always knew - that he is the center of the universe. In a completely un-narcissistic way, I’ve always kind of related to this bit, because try as I might, I can’t grasp that sense of my own spatial or temporal smallness when I look up into the stars, and that has always made me feel bad. Video games feel kind of like the worst version of this thing that to me, feels like a sin, because the worlds of games almost always do just revolve around you in a way that’s rarely acknowledged, and is pretty much never critiqued. I think that’s why it feels so crazy that Outer Wilds decides to just swing for the fences and tell a story that is ultimately about the briefness of human experience in the face of time on the cosmic scale. Even crazier is that it manages to do so without falling into hopelessness or nihilism. The final sequence of Outer Wilds makes it clear that this is a game about coming to terms with inevitability, but not being defeated by it. In some ways, it feels like something that can only come out of the kind of crummy circumstances we’re living in right now, and it begs to be experienced - if Riven posits that the ending might not be written, Outer Wilds instead states that actually, it for sure is written, but at the same time it demands that we continue to write our own stories in the interim.
So, as the year (and the decade) draws to a close, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. That’s it for now, I’m so glad I finally sat down and wrote this, so until whatever comes next, stay safe, and keep finding stories to experience and enjoy.