I invest in video games about as much as I do books, and they can be a fascinating and bewildering creative medium. So, it feels appropriate to make a list of those I’ve played in 2018, and do a little talking about what makes them special (and frustrating). This is a broadly rendered list: It includes games that were released in 2018, but it also includes games that were released in 2017, or 2005. Broadly, though, it mostly focuses on games I played for the first time in 2018, not games I came back to or replayed — though that rule is not hard and fast. Also, in terms of bias, I tend to largely be drawn towards roleplaying games, strategy and tactics games, and narrative games, though there will always be exceptions. Enjoy.
Additionally! I realized that this got pretty long. Each game included here is paired with a kind of mini-review, and some of those got much longer than others. Below is arranged an overall list, so you can click through and find what you’re interested in. Or, feel free to read the whole thing — but get ready for me to talk a whole, whole bunch about how cool mechs can be. I’ve also rearranged it to conform to more of a ‘game of the year’ format since, you know, it’s December 31st, 2018. Turns out, I only played (and actually enjoyed) pretty close to 10 games this year anyway, so — slapdash Top 10 list it is, I guess! Lastly, I’ve excerpted my top 4 games, and included links to them below, because my write-up for each of them got especially long.
Below is my final list for 2018. The written blurbs below it are presented in reverse order (last shall be first, first shall be last, etc.). Enjoy, and hopefully, next year can be good for playing games and maybe even for life in general, this time.
2) Prey (Yes, I did cheat, and no, I cannot decide between the two)
5) Butterfly Soup
7) Titanfall 2
8) XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
9) Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
10) Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords
10. (Nabs the spot because I love it, and revisiting it was fascinating, so I don’t mind cheating a bit) Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (Obsidian Entertainment, 2004/2005): I already wrote quite a bit about this game here — few games that I’ve played have made me think about them from so many different angles, and if you want to read some wrestling with Star Wars’ morality, centrism, and and interventionism, I’ve got you covered. But more briefly, here: KOTOR 2 is a very good game, but also a profoundly flawed game, narratively, mechanically, and technically. It is the poster child for “tantalizing promises never quite delivered”, to the point that modders took the effort to painstakingly recreate elements of the game that had been left unfinished or removed due to time constraints. The story of the Jedi Exile, returning to charted space and to a world where both Jedi and Sith have been cast in different lights, and trying to make their way through complexities of Force, politics, and friends, is a powerful one. Unlike the rest of the games on this list, which I played for the first time this year, KOTOR 2 is a game I’ve played a couple times before, and enjoyed a lot previously, both as a Star Wars story as well as on its own merits. However, it had been a long time since I’d last engaged with it, and it felt due for a reappraisal, especially since I now had the opportunity to play it with the proper restoration mods in place.
I won’t belabor it too much, but replaying KOTOR 2 after at least 5 years reaffirms and recasts an opinion I already had: KOTOR 2 is an excellent, if heavily uneven, subversion of the original Knights of the Old Republic game, as well as of the Star Wars mythos as a whole. It plays with morality, with the ways in which the Jedi and Sith exist within the galaxy and how people see them, the role of the Force and how it affects free will and people’s fates, and so much more. Sometimes it does this deftly, sometimes not, but what it has is a willingness to take on easy assumptions and difficult questions head-on. For that alone, it’s worth the ride, but combined with well-sketched characters, a complex and interesting narrative, and some fun, strange circumstances, it remains one of my favorite games of all time.
9. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (Arkane Studios, 2017): One of two Arkane-created immersive sim style games I played this year, Death of the Outsider is in many ways a culmination of a series that did more than most to redefine its genre. Arkane is well-known for their immersive sims — games that create complex sandbox/puzzlebox areas, introduce unique worldbuilding, and flirt around with player agency through actions in the world — and Death of the Outsider, which stands as a quasi expansion/quasi standalone work from 2016’s Dishonored 2, is in some ways a logical conclusion of the series as well as the genre. Once again returning to the sunny, seedy, whale-oil and wind powered island city of Karnaca, Death of the Outsider empowers the player character, the disaffected, vengeful rogue Billie Lurk, to begin a journey to reshape the world to its core. This journey is largely a successful one, though at places motivation and characterization are sketched too thinly to be wholly believable. All in all, though, Billie stands as a compelling protagonist who interacts with an intriguing world in complex and thought-provoking ways. Additionally, from a technical standpoint, the game makes use of Dishonored’s trademark supernatural abilities and intricate settings better than ever before, always allowing multiple paths and and points of decision in clever and memorable ways. Though we may not return to the world of Dishonored anytime soon, Death of the Outsider stands as a reminder that games that care about actions, consequences, and learning without holding the player’s hand still hold water.
8. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen (Firaxis Games, 2017): I played the original version of XCOM 2 when it came out in 2016. It was a perfectly serviceable experience; a tactical management game where I still got to defend the earth from aliens, build a squad of troops I could get attached to, and tear my hair out in frustration at cruel and arbitrary percentage-to-hit chances. It updated 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown in some ways, and frankly, regressed in others. I quickly forgot about it once I’d put a 50 hour campaign of arbitrary frustrations, strange difficulty curves, and a forgettable story behind me.
The War of the Chosen expansion, released at the tail-end of 2017, is a thorough revamp of the original XCOM 2 that fixes or ameliorates nearly every problem I had with the game. I won’t go into the details for fear of bogging us all down in minutiae, but with a more interesting narrative born of the introduction of consistent, nagging, evolving antagonists, better pacing, more reason to invest in your characters and more reason to fear for their safety, a smoother difficulty curve, and much more, the game is improved in nearly every way. War of the Chosen takes the game from a mostly fun but often frustrating experience to something tight, tense, and memorable. For those interested in tactics/strategy games, especially those with sci-fi trappings, it’s a worthwhile experience.
7. Titanfall 2 (Respawn Entertainment, 2016): I can’t believe I totally forgot to include this game the first time I made this! Honestly, that’s totally wild to me; in terms of nearly wholly positive gaming experiences in 2018, Titanfall 2 is really up there. With an engaging story, smooth, fast-paced gameplay that feels good no matter what you’re doing, a couple great character performances, and a beautifully realized world, the game’s story campaign has a lot going for it. Plus, it’s hard to say no to jumping into AI-enabled mechs and fighting against the evils of authoritarian space capitalism and its rampant obsession with the cruel march of technological progress. Though I’m definitely not without gripes — the make-up, in terms of character diversity, of the cast feels like it’s several years out of date, and the stakes of the narrative were a little unclear (plus, the game’s file size was so, so amazingly huge) — overall, it was a hugely positive way to spend a weekend. In many ways, it felt like an elevation of the first person shooter genre, by combining the flexiblity of mech and pilot combat into one, hugely upping player mobility in a satisfying, intuitive way, and contextualizing it in a world that was easy to spend time in.
Two things stood out in particular, however. The first was the pacing. In an era where we often seem to get either the 30 hour campaign, padded by side-content of varying quality and mired in highs and lows of momentum and quality, or the three hour campaign that skips along the surface from one shallow setpiece to the next, Titanfall 2’s campain knows where to start and where to stop. The ten hours I spent with it were perfect — never overwhelming, never dragging, a consistent joy one moment to the next. And this plays into one of its other great strengths, one that’s been touted a lot by others: The game’s ability to move on, to not overstay its welcome when it plays with something clever or fun. One particularly memorable sequence, which I won’t spoil, represents both the game’s narrative turn as well as seemingly a mechanical one, providing the player with a brand new tool that seems almost too incredible to believe. It’s wonderfully realized, incredibly fun to experiment with, and just a clever, creative idea that seems like the sort of thing that could either be an entire game on its own or that might be cut in development for its overambition. And yet, here it is, existing, providing something fascinating and different, and then, when the time is right, going on its way. Titanfall 2 does this consistently, demonstrating a confidence in its abilities, mechanically and narratively, to add things in or take them out as appropriate. It’s a tremendous boon to the pacing and flow of the game, and makes what otherwise would’ve been a good experience a great one.
6. Stellaris (Paradox Interactive, 2016): The second of three strategy game fixations this year, Stellaris is the space strategy game I’ve always wanted, yet somehow believed would never exist. It’s also a game fraught with notable issues, from design to moral positioning. To front those issues: The galactic-scale roleplaying in the game, cool as it is, also encourages roleplaying of political philosophies and decisions on a galactic scale that can shade into very uncomfortable territory. The question of “well, if they’re space fascists, not real fascists, it’s okay, right?” has plagued science fiction storytelling for a long time, and Stellaris does little improve that debate. Additionally, from a design standpoint, there are so many moving parts, so many little things, that sometimes elements of the game simply don’t work, or if they are working, it’s entirely unclear what they’re doing or how they’re interacting with anything else that’s going on. This can lead to frustrating situations where it’s entirely unclear why the xenophilic political faction that’s always loved you suddenly is only neutral, or why the militarist faction you’ve always pushed to the margins are suddenly raring to go, with the people roaring their support. This lack of clarity can muddle the game in strange and irritating ways.
All that said: The ability to play a galactic civilization, of your own making, in ways that are so unique and customizable that you generate fascinating new interactions and stories with every game, is remarkable. The game, especially with Paradox’s commitment to shaping, changing, and renewing it over the course of its lifetime, is an achievement, if a wobbly one.
5. Butterfly Soup (Brianna Lei, 2017): Butterfly Soup is an endlessly charming visual novel about being gay, loving/tolerating baseball, and living as an Asian-American teen in 2008’s California. Centered on four teens attending high school in Oakland, it primarily focuses on Min-Seo, an impulsive and prickly Korean-American who throws a mean knuckleball, and Diya, a shy, peerlessly athletic girl afraid of confrontation, and their budding relationship. Filling out the cast are Noelle, a sickly and somewhat stuck-up Taiwanese-American girl who works hard to be the best student in school, and Akarsha, an Indian-American teen playing class clown and anime addict who tries to pretend she doesn’t care about being the second-best student in school. Though there are some heavy backdrops, with California’s controversial Prop 8 and varying levels of parental pressure and disapproval, and the game takes care to give its characters weight and worries, Butterfly Soup is fundamentally a very funny, very cute game that wants its players to laugh, root for its characters and their journeys, and come out cheering when Diya and Min-Seo finally kiss at the end. Though as a game written and edited essentially by one person it lacks certain elements of polish, Butterfly Soup nonetheless succeeds far more than it fails, and proves itself capable of a universality many would readily assume impossible. It’s a game that cares about perspective, and particularities, unashamedly — and it invites you, with open arms, to do the same.
4. Life is Strange/Life is Strange: Before the Storm (DONTNOD 2015 , Deck Nine 2017): I’m placing these games in the same category, both because one is a prequel to the other using pretty similar mechanical touchstones, and because I played them in extremely rapid succession. I could, and probably will, write whole reams of analysis and navel-gazing about the original Life is Strange, but this isn’t the time or the place. Man, this game did a lot to me. Woof. Anyway, for at least a bit of context: Life is Strange is a teen drama, following outsider and budding photographer Max as she reconnects with childhood friend Chloe and digs into a supernatural mystery. Its prequel, meanwhile, focuses on the exploits of Chloe previous to the events of the original game (during the period of Max’s absence), and on her relationship with another young woman, Rachel, who is an important feature of the original game’s mystery.
Simply put: Life is Strange is a game laced with extremes, which the incredibly tumultuous fandom reaction back in 2015 more than proves. For me, despite playing it several years later and already knowing a major spoiler that should’ve blunted my emotional reaction, it caused me enough turmoil that I spent the following week emotionally drained and feverishly thinking of ways to alter the ending to my liking, which, if you know me, is not how I typically interact with fiction. Shortly after, I played Before the Storm, and the prequel — despite strong writing and examination of some things the original danced around — did nothing but deepen my unrest (and investment).
I could talk plenty about the series, the experience playing it — the sometimes stilted teen dialogue, the awkward puzzle sequences, Max’s unique supernatural mechanic — but it hits home either way. Despite hiccups, it accesses something genuine about the teen experience, while also dealing with LGBT issues, creating an interesting mystery, and fashioning relatable and memorable characters. But it also fundamentally misses the mark: It is at times exploitative and gratuitous in its depictions of suffering and loss, it deals with marginalized communities at times clumsily and carelessly, and it falls into tired, age-old tropes that it could have averted. But, one way or another, the series will stick with me for a long, long time, whether I like it or not.
3. Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games, 2017): Horizon Zero Dawn was an interesting project for me. I made the (for once in my life) impulse decision to pick up a PS4 while it was on sale back in November, despite never having really owned a console previously and despite not really being sure of exactly how I would use it. The one thing, out of everything, I was certain about, was that I was going to play Horizon Zero Dawn. I’d wanted the game since it had been announced several years earlier, obviously missed the train when it was released in 2017, and, though I’d heard scattered good things about Aloy’s journey, hadn’t had the opportunity to engage much with it since. In fact, more than a lot of games I play, I really went in solely on the strength of the pitch — cool female protagonist! robot dinosaurs! post-post apocalyptic Iron Age world! — and of my own momentum to do something with my new toy. Frankly, from what I knew, it very easily could have been a disappointment, a gimmicky and forgettable action game with a few interesting moments.
Fortunately, Horizon is far less gimmicky than it has any right to be, far more ambitious, and far better. Though far from perfect, it touches on things mainstream game releases rarely do, and does so with heart, poise, and intentionality, all contextualized in worldbuilding and environmental design that sells its themes and carries the fun of the game through till the end. Also, though there are caveats, it has a deeply enjoyable and unique combat system that — even for me, as someone who has what I’d call as ‘basic’ competence with console controls —carries through effectively till the end. As said before, the game is certainly not perfect. Issues with clumsy deployment of Native American cultural heritage, a somewhat confusing menu system with obvious oversights (why is it never fronted that you have to get better versions of weapons to access different ammo types?), strangely limited climbing and traversal mechanics that feel like bizarre hand-holding, and facial animations that go from decent to uncanny depending on how far you are from the main plot, all spring to mind.
All of these are issues I hope are resolved in any sequel the game receives. But Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative of environmentalism, corporate greed, automation, motherhood, fatherhood, and the complexity of culture and history remains striking. With a surprisingly deft hand, one that understands both which beats to hit and how they should be struck, Horizon takes you through a meaty narrative that weaves both an interesting world, with its remains of the old and continuations of the new, with Aloy’s personal story of struggle, survival, loss, canniness, and triumph. This narrative is combined with enjoyable combat verbs — knock over a robotic T-Rex with a mess of trip wires; blow off its cannons and use them against it! — and, most importantly, a drop-dead gorgeous world. Through lush river deltas, sun-bleached plateaus, and geothermal vaults under icy mountains, the grandeur of the world shines through unabated. This, more than anything, carries the themes of Horizon Zero Dawn through, in ways unexpected and touching throughout. When I look back on this game, I’ll remember two things: Standing in a dusty, rimed-over vault, both Aloy’s eyes and mine welling up as the puzzle pieces came together in terrible symphony, and standing atop the tallest mountain in the world, awed as the volcano before me belched flame and smoke. I have many more thoughts on the game, and on its fundamental message and choice of theming, that I’ll hopefully put elsewhere, but for now, those memories are enough.
2. Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017): The other of the aforementioned Arkane immersive sims, Prey is one of my favorite games I’ve played in a long while, and in most years, would probably have reached the top spot on my list. A dark sci-fi thriller set on a post-cosmonaut space station with strange experimentation and stranger, darker results, the game alternates between tense survival-horror game, complex interlocking puzzle box, and fast-paced first-person action sim. Integrating choice and morality-based elements cleverly with a story that touches on corporate excess and short-sightedness, humanity’s tendency to overreach, and the value (or lack thereof) of human empathy, the game largely threads a needle between effective and engaging mechanics and a compelling and responsive narrative throughout its 50 hour runtime. And this is to say nothing of the wonderful art and level design that Arkane is so well-known for, of its perfectly tailored music and sound design, or of any of the many other carefully crafted components that make this game so great. And all of this barely touches on the characters, who are not arresting or over-the-top in the way that many game characters are, but in their restraint remain believable and interesting in their own, very human ways. There are very few things about this game that I would change — maybe some of the crafting elements, maybe a minimization of backtracking, maybe a more even spacing for certain story elements — but ultimately, I came away deeply satisfied.
There’s one anecdote I can share that really encapsulates what cemented me on this game. In roughly the middle third, after following a quest chain begun towards the beginning of the game, I was suddenly presented with the option to leave. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that leaving — leaving behind a space station that has devolved into utter, horrifying, haunting chaos — has been looming over your head for the duration of the game. You’re not a soldier; you’re not some hardboiled, old-school video game protagonist from a Doom or Wolfenstein title who has the power of ~being the hero~ on their side. Why should any of this be your problem? Why are you expected to deal with the horrors of this place? Why not just leave?
And the game lets you do just that. It lets you press the button and take off, leaving the whole awful mess behind you. That, if you want it to be, can be your ending — there’s no scripted cutscene that turns you away, hand at the tiller steering you from this path — nothing but the remonstrations of a man who knows he needs you to save him and his goals, and your own convictions. And for a while, I sat there. I listened to the music playing, looked out over the station from my perch. And I turned away: Not because the game made me, or simply because I wanted to continue the story, but because the game had done the work to convince me otherwise. But maybe it won’t do the same for you, and in some ways, that’s the beauty.
2. Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, 2017): Night in the Woods is a small game. Primarily designed by three people (Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry), paid for largely through crowdfunding, it’s a tale about a small town and small town problems. It’s the story of Mae, a 20 year old only child and college dropout, returning home to a failing former industrial town and running full-on into the relationships, locations, and crises she’s left behind. The pasta place down the road is closed. Her father works at a stand-in Walmart, his old, union mining job gone. She’s forgotten that her friend’s mom is dead. People wonder, subtly and unsubtly, why she’s back, how she failed, how she could abandon the opportunity to leave and create a new life.
Represented as anthropomorphic animals in a clean, warm artistic style, the game uses light platforming, puzzle solving, and choice mechanics to support what is largely a narrative game. The most meaningful choice in the game is a simple one, grounded in day-to-day life: Does protagonist Mae (a somewhat scruffy black cat) spend time with fast-friend Gregg, the energetic, quasi-anarchist fox with a penchant for impulsive pranks and life decisions, or with Bea, a sober and wry crocodile with a hammered-in sense of pragmatism? This choice, more than anything else, frames the tone and character beats of the game, offering different but dovetailing visions of what Mae’s homecoming might look like. In my playthrough, I primarily hung out with Bea, reforging a complicated relationship in a parade of mistakes and confrontations about the differences in our lives. Though I’ll avoid spoilers, what I can say is that the Bea route is one of the most grounded, heartfelt, honest, and affecting character narratives I’ve encountered in a game, and that the work it does giving weight and clarity to its young protagonists rivals and often surpasses the best young adult fiction. Mae and Bea are both carefully and lovingly sketched characters, with real flaws and real power, and their journey intertwines with a balletically clumsy grace.
Though its characters carry the game, Night in the Woods’ narrative, theming, and worldbuilding all do a superb job of complementing them. Light on the supernatural elements until it isn’t, light on the mysteries and narrative thrusts until it isn’t, Night in the Woods wants you to savor its uniquely bittersweet experience without lingering too long. Woven through is an indictment of what the world, especially one structured around profit, does to the margins — the ways in which it continues to push, push, push till the people in those spaces are barely able to exist at all. What happens to the people who don’t get cell service, simply because no one cares enough to give it to them? What happens when the guiding powers, natural and supernatural, leave, for good? What happens when people realize they’ve been forgotten?
Though it has shades of cynicism, and it’s far from a happy game, on some level Night in the Woods believes in people. It believes in fallibility, in getting back up again, in meaningful connection, in doing the small things. There’s hope here — but it’s a hope in ourselves, in those standing next to us, not in things lofty and far off. As Mae painstakingly and clumsily reminds herself of the people and places she cares about, we remember the things that are important to us in return. They may not be enough, but also, they have to be.
1. BATTLETECH (Harebrained Schemes, 2018): If you were to look at any given review of BATTLETECH, at any analysis or write-up, you would see one word, every time: Attrition. And it’s apt — the game endeavors to model a world in which war is brutal, slow, with an intermittent staccato of action punctuating what is otherwise the pound, pound, pounding of death machines. Thus, it is a game about giant robots, which you send into battle in mercenary desperation, as well as a picture of war and pain that avoids the sugarcoating and glamorizing that so often permeates video games (and depictions of fictional violence in general). In doing so, it captures the spirit of the original BattleTech tabletop games that preceded it, and functions as a check against the floatier, quicker, more instantly gratifying formulation for tactics games often seen.
But also? The game is just fun. Combining a surprisingly diverse, full-throated, and well-told (if simplistic) story campaign with deep but largely accessible mechanics that invite you to keep digging deeper, it always seems to reward more playtime. BATTLETECH creates an ecosystem where it’s easy to spend your time, tinkering with your mechs for maximum effect and wonky strategies (what if I gave this 95 ton mech only machine guns?), telling yourself stories about the cast of colorful pilots who come and go from your mobile base of operations, and, of course, wading through fights to the death against numerically superior foes in icy tundras and martian wastelands. After over 150 hours, I’m still thoroughly excited for more, and it’s among the few games I’ve played recently where I’m truly eager for new content. In fact, one of my few caveats with this game — which does have some technical troubles and a couple of other minor hiccups — is that it’s too easy to play too much of, and buyer beware spending hours you should dedicate to other things building mechs or blasting them apart.
I’ll conclude my thoughts on this with an anecdote (skip the next few paragraphs if you’ve heard enough). I’ve dropped my squad of four into a windy, moonlit night in a backwater desert. I advance towards a long canyon, knowing that my enemy waits on the other side. Trying to avoid taking them head-on, I order my soldiers to the right, wending their way over plateaus and through gorges towards a large, multi-tiered mesa standing on its own. My enemy has yet to detect my presence — I might be able to get the drop on them, or as much as you ever do in this game.
And then — as soon as I round that mesa, as soon as I really reach my destination — the penny drops. Sensor contacts, to my right. The enemy reinforcements are here, and they’re coming in directly on my flank, on top of me the second they enter the field. I scramble to turn my squad around, bracing myself. I barely manage before I discover it with horror: The enemy reinforcements are almost exclusively composed of the heaviest, toughest, deadliest mechs in the game, and they’re already in range.
What follows is probably one of the toughest, and most rewarding, gaming experiences I’ve ever had, as I slug it out frantically with the reinforcements, the mesa screening my back as my original enemies close in, knocking enemies down with missile salvos and taking desperate headshots with manic fervor. As one by one my troops fall back to avoid annihilation, mechs burning and missing limbs, pilots driving through blood haze, I find myself face to face with my last opponent, a relatively nonthreatening medium-sized mech with a few lasers, perched on the mesa that had been my salvation. I send in my own medium mech, ordinarily my long range missile platform, relatively undamaged but out of ammunition, to punch the thing to death. I reach its perch. I go to make my move. And discover, to my horror, that the game has somehow found the only spot on the mesa to which there is no adjacent space. Any melee is completely impossible. Most of my mechs are held together by hope and determination, and most of my weapons are out of ammo anyway. Only one mech, a heavy that barely deserves the name which serves ordinarily as a sort of melee-focused scout, has working weaponry, and it’s barely holding together.
I make one last desperate gambit. The heavy, with its two lasers, jump-jets its way to the top of the mesa as the enemy continues to focus on my missile boat mech, which is now in tatters. I drop down directly in front of the enemy, staring it in the face. I call my shot, what arsenal I have aimed directly at its seductively vulnerable cockpit, the 17% hit chance icon burned into my retinas. I pull the trigger. The mech goes down. I yell in triumph, then relax for the first time in three hours. And moments like this — not canned, not repeatable, for you and you alone — are exactly what makes BATTLETECH so, so wonderful.
Other Games: Star Wars: The Old Republic, Fallout 4, Civilization VI, Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, Destiny 2, Overwatch
Playing: Tacoma, Hitman 2, Marvel’s Spider-Man