2019: My Games of the Year

Prize won for “Most Extremely Video Game Moments”

Let’s begin this with an apology: For me, 2019 was the year of the third person action game. Over half of the games on this list fit that bill, which is, frankly, embarrassing. There is a massive breadth of wonderful games with fascinating and innovative mechanics that open up a vast array of unique experiences out there, and I was drawn in by the siren song of one of the most well-established, honed, and best-understood genres around. I mean, come on.

And yet, though I wish I’d spread my reach a little further, I’m actually surprisingly satisfied with how my 2019 in video games went. First, I had fun. I really liked a lot of the games that I played this year, and on some level I can never regret letting that be a priority. But second, my fall into the third person action genre also represented my unexpected but extremely welcome awakening to the world of the Souls-like. My assumptions about my own competence, my patience, my ability to understand small things to make smart decisions, were all called into question, in ways that were affirming and revealing. 2019 will not be the last year I play video games, and I am confident that each year to come will bring new joys and revelations, so long as I continue making the effort to try things that don’t come easily to me. It’s trite, but that was a 2019 life lesson too — and if it came in part from a bunch of games about death, decay, and repeated failure, then so be it. Petty shame is just so 2010’s, and I think we’re all secretly ready to leave some of that postmodern irony behind. Let’s get to it.

10. Untitled Goose Game (House House, 2019): “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” This beautifully written line of copy succinctly describes a wonderful, silly game that has already taken the world by storm. At this point, I think everyone has heard the legend of a very unpleasant goose and its quest to moderately annoy everyone in a quiet, unsuspecting English town, and I’m so glad. I never finished the game, but solving the various challenges with friends — stealing a boy’s glasses, locking him in a phone booth, watering the gardener, playing dress-up with a statue — was in and of itself an experience worth memorializing. I’ve heard great things about the ending, and I feel like I should take the time to just blow through the rest at some point, but even as is, it deserves a spot. The understated style of humor, the sharply honed gameplay and art direction, the fantastic secondary content, and the way it encourages fun with friends come together to make a brilliant little experience.

9. Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019): The first third person action game on my list, Control is a very cool game. Excellent art direction, snazzy psychic powers (everything from levitating to throwing chairs at people), lots of fun genre trappings (SCPs! Internal monologues! Gravelly dudes in your head smoking cigars! Inverted pyramids giving you orders! Creepy chanting people floating in the air!), and a general sense of poise and purpose that many games lack, make for a very enjoyable ride.

Following the fantastically performed Jesse Faden as she accidentally takes charge of a federal agency tasked with keeping the weird and unfathomable away from people, Control is as much a story about bureaucracy and the creep of daily ordinariness as it is about floating flame eyeballs and evil hive minds. It draws heavily on alt-reality genre trappings, mostly to great effect, while telling a fun, campy story that is performed enthusiastically enough by its major players to elevate it to something more. Much of the humor and contextualization of events occurs in a plethora of carefully spaced notes, messages, videos, and other collectibles — which might be a recipe for disaster if they weren’t so often such fun, well-written little tidbits. Once you beat the ‘final fight’, it has one of the best two hour sprints to the finish I’ve seen in a game, with one particularly stand-out sequence involving a Walkman that many others have already sung praises aplenty of.

It fails to sneak higher on my list for two reasons. One: It’s just really not my genre. It plays so heavily with the tropes, falls back on them so often, that for me it started to get a little exhausting by the end. There’s a mold in the basement that seems to be eating everything from the inside? Sure, why not. Someone has to stare at a refrigerator at all times to keep it from going berserk? Yeah, okay. A lot of that stuff is fun, and a fair amount of it worked for me, but at a certain point I just started to feel a little numb to it. But I acknowledge that’s in part because it wasn’t really made for me.

Two: The combat is…fine? It’s cool in concept, and it never truly grated on me, but that’s in part because I quickly realized I didn’t want to stretch things too far and did my best to avoid combat heavy sequences and quests whenever possible. The loot system is bloated and feels pointless, the wave-based random enemy quests felt empty, the game often got a little hitchy when too many things were onscreen, and the game encourages you to fall through the floor way, way too much. It didn’t make me dislike the game by any means, but after the precision-tooled combat of some of the other games on this list, it did take the shine off a little bit.

8. God of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio, 2018): Never have I played a more triple A-ass video game. I mean this in every respect possible: On the one hand, we have a carefully fashioned third-person combat system paired with an equally competent loot system, beautiful and diverse environments, pretty cutscenes, a staggering array of unique animations, and a lengthy but not overwhelming run-time. On the other hand, we have a story about a grizzled man-dad struggling with staggering amounts of manpain and power of epic proportions seeking to protect and raise his son. Game, set, match.

What surprised me more than anything about this game was that…I liked it? I quite liked it, actually. Is Kratos, the burly man seething with anger who holds down the God of War franchise, my favorite game protagonist of all time? Hardly, but he’s exceptionally well performed by the inimitable Christopher Judge, his arc in the game is well-sketched, and he has just enough heart and soul to cross the finish line. Is the combat the best I’ve ever played? No, but it is really well-put together, the finishing moves look sick, and it’s a lot of fun to watch! Is Atreus, our young son in this game the most affecting version of that trope imaginable? No, but it is a very good one, one that consistently got me and my partner, who played it with me, in our feelings. Are the environments the most beautiful, the most visually arresting thing I’ve ever seen, in a AAA space or elsewhere? No, Horizon Zero Dawn still takes that prize, but it is very pretty, and that is something deserving of praise. And, you know what? I’m a big sucker for mythological trappings and reinterpretations, and a story in which Odin is the shitty, shortsighted, patriarchal arch-villain appeals to me at its core.

I don’t have much to say here — it certainly wasn’t as profoundly affecting in any respect as many of the other games further down on this list, but I liked it a lot, and that is deserving of praise in and of itself. More than anything, I hope it’s a pinnacle, a climax — the last bell ringing the beginning of the end of this style of triple A release, heralding something new.

7. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertaiment, 2019): It’s now time for me to eat my words a little bit. Turns out, there’s just enough space in my heart for at least one more competently designed and told AAA third person action game with a protagonist I’m not excited about — as long as it’s Star Wars. And in a year when other Star Wars content was, to put it delicately, controversial, a Star Wars story that understands both how to hit those classic beats as well as how to subvert them in engaging ways is a bit of a coup in and of itself.

The fact that it’s also a pretty fun game, which takes pointers from Sekiro and others in order to craft a parry/riposte combat system that simulates lightsaber combat smartly, and incorporates the Force in creative ways to overcome a variety of seemingly impossible challenges, elevates it beyond simply decent. While it’s not spectacularly innovative, it is iterative and smart, and the things it takes from other games combine into a cohesive whole that was quite often a joy to play.

But I don’t want to mislead you. The reason it takes the 7th spot, beating games that are probably “better” in some quasi-objective sense, is because it’s Star Wars, and it’s Good Star Wars. Jumping around a massive scrapyard for capital ships from the Clone Wars, driving an AT-AT, killing a giant bat monster, orbital-dropping to attack a secret facility of dark-side Inquisitors, along with a few surprises, keep a consistent and well-delivered feed of the Star Wars beats I crave. And the fact that it doesn’t just do the obvious stuff, but combines it with things like recruiting a ‘dark-side’ coded force-user with absolutely no judgment and critique of the staleness and arrogance of the Jedi, is enough to catapult is solidly into my good graces. If you like this kind of game, play it — you’ll probably like it. If you like Star Wars though, definitely play it — it has what you’re looking for.

6. Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, 2019): It’s extremely strange to me that two titles from Respawn, both released in the same year no less, both make it onto my list. But, Respawn makes great games, and I’ve spent more time in 2019 playing this one than any other, so I suppose it’s only fair.

Apex Legends is the best battle royale out there, and maybe the best battle royale I could conceive of. In fact, it’s the only one that puts the pieces together well enough for me want to play it much at all, and it’s a testament to Respawn’s skill as designers that they could elevate the format to that degree. The guns are unique and engaging to use, the first person perspective makes action feel tight and tense, the characters are distinct and their abilities are fun to use, while the environments consistently create an ecosystem for memorable battles. I will never forget the time that myself and a friend, with whom I played a lot of Apex, won the whole shebang without a third teammate by running, hiding, reviving one another, and barely shooting at all, only for it to come down to a single shot with a massive sniper rifle that wiped out the very last enemy on the island.

Especially played with friends, Apex makes for satisfying anecdotes and thrilling jolts of adrenaline as plans go spectacularly right or disastrously awry, as split-second decisions cascade into far-reaching consequences, and as team-play either makes or breaks a tough engagement. The trappings of the Titanfall universe give the game a little extra zest, but underneath it all it’s just a tense, greatly fun competitive experience that avoids the true stress and obsession of a League of Legends or an Overwatch. It’s just a good game.

The only reason this isn’t higher up the list is because I wanted this lady to marry Sun Ren so, so bad and the game wouldn’t let me. You think I care about historical accuracy when such a juicy opportunity presents itself? The bandit queen and the warrior princess? Come on! I —

5. Total War: Three Kingdoms (Creative Assembly, 2019): This is the best strategy game I played in 2019, and it’s just about the best strategy game I could imagine for its setting, mechanical objectives, and lineage. It’s a game about massive armies clashing in glorious, historical devastation, and about logistics and empires on a massive scale as they continue to expand and seek to control things beyond their scope, but it’s also a game that evokes the sweeping, romantic brushes we so often paint the past with. While that may be a problematic tack to take in real historiography, it makes for a wonderful game in which relationships are forged in blood and broken in fury, in which old allies become your most persistent and deadly foes, and in which every time a character dies, it can have repercussions that reverberate across all of China. It’s a tight, well put-together game that nails both the nitty gritty of strategy at a macro and micro scale as well as understands why the great man theory of history has always been so alluring.

Three Kingdoms is so, so good at generating stories. I could talk about the way Liu Bei betrayed me, finally showing his true colors by taking the capital and fortifying the Yangtze River into a near-impenetrable barrier, one that would take all my armies and then some to fight past. I could talk about the petty lords demanding I vassalize under them, only to be crushed for their arrogance. I could talk about the dozens of men who offered their hands Sun Ren, princess and heir to my kingdom, only for us to turn each of them down. I could talk about the time that Sun Ren hid among the trees with her cavalry and managed to rout an enemy force twice the size of mine nearly on her own power, killing over 300 enemy soldiers personally. And I could talk about how, when I had conquered every single polity in China save a single commandery in the far northwest corner, my leader Sun Jian finally died at nearly 100, leaving his daughter to unite China in his stead.

Put simply, if you like stories, and if you like strategy games, and especially if you have any affinity for historical China or for the much-loved and much-mythologized Three Kingdoms period itself, this game is absolutely for you. While I only played a single 60 hour campaign, it’s still easily one of my favorite games of the year — and yet another example of a game that feels in some way like the pinnacle of what its kind could conceivably be.

This game still has the best bullshit fantasy weapons and armor of anything I’ve seen tbh

4. Dark Souls III (FromSoftware, 2016): And here we are. What we’ve all been waiting for, I’m sure. Dark Souls. FromSoft. The true locus of my third person action shift. Let’s get to it.

While not the first FromSoft game I played this year, Dark Souls III cemented what I loved about my initial foray while also diving into some themes and aesthetics that are extremely, personally my shit. Cycles of death and decay, heroism and hope, brilliance and foolishness, all wrapped in the trappings of a fantastical, dying world itched at my brain with every moment of play. In terms of what it made me think about, in terms of how it presented its questions and the troubles of its characters — kings and paupers, dragons and damsels — it is probably the most interesting thing I played this year. The conceit of the game, that you are yet another hero fighting to prolong a dying age while wading through the heroes who failed — or succeeded, then fell anyway — in the past is deeply compelling to me, and in many ways is the kind of story I aspire to create.

But it fails, on some level, to meaningfully elevate. Compared to what I had faced before, the boss battles were comparatively easy, the tactics simple. Though the level design was strong, it rarely required truly out of the box thinking to traverse or use to my advantage. Having not played previous Dark Souls games, the lack of innovation didn’t bother me much, but it still doesn’t quite compare to the best From has to offer. It’s still a great game, one that made me do a lot of thinking in a lot of ways, and you should read my piece about the way it frames death and failure mechanically in the context of the cyclical nature of the setting, but there are better out there. Which is saying something, really, because this game is very, very good.

Ah! Where did you come from!?

3. Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015): I actually like Bloodborne less than Dark Souls III. It’s a great game, a really great game, but it was often frustrating to play and it didn’t know how to push my buttons in quite the same way. But, as is often the way with these things, your first is the one you remember — and, when you’re positing yourself as a critic, the stuff that sticks in your brain is always the stuff that ends up actually mattering. Ephemeral experiences, good as they may be, rarely get the shout-out. And Bloodborne most certainly left a lasting impression on me.

I’m highlighting Bloodborne here for a few reasons. Yes, in part it’s because it has an striking Lovecraftian setting that sticks in the mind’s eye, and because it evokes feelings of death and decay and madness in a compelling and disturbing fashion, and because it tells a rambling, unsettling, mysterious narrative about the end of a world in equal parts due to human evils and failings and the mindless, yawning apathy of the great beyond. And it’s in part about how it subverts the isolation it imposes on the player by allowing them to communicate with other players, albeit only in arcane whispers written in code. But, as interesting as its explorations of bodies and monstrousness and corruption and misguided heroism are, they’re not why Bloodborne makes it to the number three spot on my list.

It’s here because Bloodborne completely reframed my relationship with difficulty and challenge. Playing Bloodborne after assuming for years that ‘hard’ games just weren't for me, that I’d get too frustrated or not have fun or just get too stuck to go on, and having it prove me wrong on all counts, was a revelation. It taught me a valuable lesson, both about persistence and patience even when something takes hours and hours (screw you, Orphan of Kos, screw you, random shark head anchor man, and especially screw you Martyr Logarius), but also about re-framing things in my own head and shifting the windows for failure and success to meet reality. It was able to do this because it’s an exceptionally well-designed game, tuned to near perfection, and ruthlessly fair. When a game is so good it helps teach you a life lesson, it deserves at least a top three spot.

Sometimes it’s just all about anime lesbians and that’s that

2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Intelligent Systems/Koei Temco, 2019): Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favorite game of the year. Second only to Apex in terms of time spent (clocking in at around 200 hours of playtime in 2019), it has generated by far the most personal emotional agony, the most excitement, the largest amount of fuzzy warm feelings, and definitely the largest amount of excellent secondary content of anything I’ve played this year. If we were going solely by the degree of attachment I feel to the game and the time I spent with it, Three Houses far outstrips all competition. The fact that I played the whole game once, taking me about 80 hours, and then immediately turned around and did it all again from a different perspective demonstrates that.

It is, unfortunately, a little bit of a mess. It’s a shade too long, with information parceled out a bit too haphazardly across it’s 4 routes. There are some weird, unpleasant anime moments. It’s too straight; up to and including heavily implying certain characters are gay then pulling the rug out from under you. The tactical battles are fun for a while, but do get repetitive, and often have severe difficulty spikes and troughs (fuck you, Ashe/Rhea/Catherine paralogue that kept one hit killing my characters on the last round of the fight, forcing me to restart the mission 3 times). Byleth, the main character, is somewhere between a cipher and an actual character and never quite gels because of it. And, once you put all the pieces together, the story is a little wobbly, and the game isn’t particular special to look at. These keep it from taking my top spot, if only because I’d feel too guilty giving it the honor.

But it’s still my favorite game of 2019. In part, that’s because it tries to tell a complicated story about betrayal, politics, national identity, and irreconcilable differences through the prism of a story about teens, dragons, and ancient magic, which I always love. In part, it’s because I love the conceit of seeing things from different perspectives, of shaping the world with small choices, of seeing people you cared about in a different life get hurt because of what you’ve done. But, more than anything, Three Houses thrives because of its characters. It sketches full-bodied, affecting character arcs at every turn, transforming even characters who I truly cared nothing about, or even actively disliked, into people I felt a drive to help flourish (hi Lorenz, hi Ferdinand). The teacher conceit is critical here, too: The game makes you spend so much time with its characters, carefully turning them into the warriors they need to be to survive, and that time serves to make their scripted character moments that much more impactful. It’s a remarkable achievement that, in a game with literally dozens of characters, there are only a sparse few who I don’t at least have some fondness for. It does this by providing strong, interesting scaffolding on which the player can hang whatever they feel is most dramatic, most heartbreaking, most sweet and silly — there’s always, always somewhere to go, and the source material is rich with inspiration. It’s not an RPG, but it’s close to one, and it manages it in a tactics game with an absolutely massive cast. That’s impressive, and the fact that I still see and appreciate jokes about Lysithea being a k-pop stan on Twitter, or searingly melodramatic art of Byleth cradling a bloody Edelgard in her arms now, months later, is a testament to how much the game excels in this arena.

This game is incredible, and I don’t really have any jokes about that

1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (FromSoftware, 2019): If Three Houses was my favorite game of 2019, Sekiro is the best. Those are kind of silly distinctions, I know — it’s all subjective, anyway — but on the merits of ‘most flawless execution of a concept’, Sekiro easily takes it. It builds on all the lessons FromSoft has learned from their previous games, taking things that were already industry-defining and making them even better. It’s a game about precision and focus, and its mechanics never betray that. It may be frustrating, it may feel limiting at times, and yes, it is incredibly difficult, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better tuned or more satisfying experience. Nearly everything in Sekiro fits together about as well as could possibly be expected, and that is a rare, rare thing. It’s not for everyone — in fact, it makes some changes to the formula that make it even more inaccessible than previous entries, which does I think deserve some criticism — but for me, it hit a near perfect balance.

The core of Sekiro is deceptively simple. You would think that designing an entire combat system around the humble parry would be a mistake, but, with the precise design sensibilities cultivated by their other games, it turns instead into a coup. Read your enemy’s attack, react as his blade descends towards you, and you will knock his blade aside, weakening his defenses as he is knocked off balance. Fail to do so, raise your sword a little too late or too early, and you will net either a clumsy block that knocks you off balance or a cut along the chest for your trouble. Try to dodge when you should block, and you will be punished mercilessly. Fail to attack, to put pressure on the enemy, and they will wear you down. Attack too often, too recklessly, and you will find your posture broken and a sword in your gut before you can blink. Sekiro consistently demands patience, balance, and care, while also always insisting that the way of a shinobi is to be the aggressor, not the defender. It takes a great deal of time and practice — ironically made more difficult if you imbibed the shield-blocking and dodging of their other games, as I did — but once it clicks, it clicks, and your ability to stand toe to toe with monster and man alike and trade blows with poise and efficiency will make you feel like an incredible badass. The first time you Mikiri counter someone, stepping on their spear as they stab out at you and then punishing them for the audacity of trying to hurt you, it feels amazing, and it’ll feel amazing pretty much every time after, too.

Combine this core concept with a bevy of fun abilities from shuriken to teleportation feathers, with traversal via climbing and grappling that makes movement in other Souls games look sluggish and laughable, and a beautifully simple leveling system gated behind bosses, and you have a game that simultaneously provides you with an engaging array of options and possibilities and also funnels you down a hand-crafted, authored experience unlike any you’ve ever seen. And, of course, because it’s a From game, it also uses those mechanics to weave a tragic, melancholic story about raging nationalism, twisted honor, lost innocence, and the powerful using the weak to their ends, in the context of a strange, beautifully-alternate version of feudal Japan complete with giant snakes, undying gorillas, and beautiful, haunted spirits. All this, in a beautifully realized world that blurs the line between real and fantastical, set to a gorgeous, moody orchestral soundtrack, makes Sekiro into something truly special. The final boss fight in the game, more than any final confrontation I’ve ever had, nails that feeling of closure and completion and challenge so many games are seeking, truly asking you to use and perfect everything you’ve learned over the course of the game to be successful.

Sure, you have to play as a pre-set character. Sure, it still has From’s tendency to obscure things, making its endings unnecessarily difficult to achieve. But those things are part of its charm, too. When you’re staring into the eyes of the man who will seek to destroy himself, you, and a whole kingdom of people in service of an ugly and doomed cause, everything about Sekiro comes together to make it the best game of 2019. All hail the best third person action game.

Storyteller and story-breaker. I think about different worlds too much, and try to make sense of this one. They/them. @lightwoven