2018 is almost over, so it’s probably a good time to talk about my favourite games.
Last year I did a numbered list (well, two lists because I got a bit carried away), but this year the games I played became much more varied and I ended up having very distinct experiences, so ranking them on a hierarchy did not feel right.
So, here are some words about 9 excellent games I enjoyed a lot this year, in no particular order.
Lucah: Born of a Dream
Here is the problem with this game: it’s too good. I tried to write about it multiple times in the last few months, but it never felt right. I could never grip on to anything, find an angle or define an approach to it; there is no opening to burrow through, no crevasse to grab on to. It is a rare beast, a perfectly executed game.
Perfect games don’t really exist of course, but games like Lucah have a singular, unique vision that binds every aspect of the game. Lucah remains true to that vision throughout as each of its elements, perfectly aligned, reverberate and amplify themselves to a dark, thorny, unsettling and dread-filled crescendo of a game.
Lucah’s combat doesn’t just reach AAA levels of depth and polish, in many respects it surpasses it: the unreasonably diverse variety of ranged and melee attacks, the ability to customise sets of attacks and switch sets on the fly all combine into an easily understandable yet difficult to master combat system. Add to this the accessibility options that make enemies less brutal or your character more powerful, and you have yourself a combat system that is perfectly executed.
Lucah also has an engrossing story themed around religious persecution and purification, opening up wholly new perspectives on the second playthrough. Dealing with themes of loss, whether physical, mental or spiritual, the narrative pulsates with dread, fear and redemption. As a disclaimer I have not completed it fully yet, but what I saw of it is enough for me to sing its praises.
The art style, returning from melessthanthree’s previous works, is still dark and violent. Extremely simplistic but not simple, all jagged edges, straight lines and empty spaces, red streaks over a black canvas, the aesthetic is barbed wire in hell and I’m here for it. The sound design and music (get it here) are evocative of the same eeriness, as daunting and unsettling beats intermingle with the safety of its watery soundscapes, the uncertainty of its interludes, the playfulness of its drum riffs – a discordant affair.
All these elements interact in a way that is difficult to describe with words. Lucah is not my favourite game this year – at times it’s storytelling might get too obscure, or the fights might get too hard for me, but there is no denying its quality, its execution. If you are considering playing something that is different, intense, something to jerk you awake, to shake your GOTY list, there is no better choice. Play Lucah.
Best Old Game
Watch Dogs 2
My favourite thing about Watch Dogs 2 is the personality of the playable character, Marcus. He is written so coherently you could almost forget he’s not a real person. Marcus doesn’t feel like a focus-tested action hero or a vessel for quips generated by a team of writers whose end of year bonus is largely quip-related. More than any other character in any game I’ve played this year, Marcus felt like an actual human being.
In the intro mission, one of Marcus’ first actions was to backflip off the roof where the game starts – even though all I did was press the jump button. I was surprised – was that some sort of special move I just did without knowing it? Did I hold a trigger or something? No, that’s just Marcus, doing a thing, an unexpected thing, a thing that Marcus, a person, does.
I quickly grew to like his personality, and made sure to only use guns on the rare occasions when relying solely on non-lethal methods became too tedious, making an excuse for myself that this was “not canon” as a result. The whole 3D-printing guns thing was quite ill-advised.
Watch Dogs 2 has a solid AAA open world and a decent main story, but the game is carried by its warm, relatable, superbly written characters. Even Wrench! I loved what Ubisoft did with him throughout the game. Seeing Marcus and his friends involved in a few excellent side quests that celebrate community, marginality and some good old fashioned anti-capitalism was definitely one of this year’s highlights.
The Most Fun Time
Forza Horizon 4
Games don’t have to be “fun” for me to enjoy them, but once in a while something delirious comes along and reminds me of how I used to feel playing games as a kid. Forza Horizon 4 was by far the most fun I had with a game this year, constantly grinning ear to ear as I plowed through the open Scottish countryside.
This game has a knack for unwrapping great moments, whether you are drifting through a corner and passing 3 Ferraris on a dark, rainy night as Don’t Sweat the Technique kicks in, slowly rolling over a hill in a convertible Jag just as the sun sets and the electronica crescendos, or careening through the snowy countryside in a Big F’n Truck™ and destroying everything in your path to the hard-hitting drum & bass sounds of Hospital Records.
Seasonal changes turned out to be a legitimately great feature, the races and challenges were lots of fun to do, and I even got into manually tuning the pressure in my tires to get the drifting sensation on asphalt just right. I really enjoy this aspect of the game – you can have a ton of fun just blowing through races and passing 5-6 cars by crashing into an obstacle at full speed, but you can also get quite deep into more “serious” competition by upping the difficulty, competing online or in the excellent Rivals mode that will push you to the brink of your abilities without the pressure of a live online race.
The photo mode was similarly outstanding, as I spent hours trying to get the perfect shot (and then making a thread of them on twitter), tinkering with filters and reimagining the game space as an abstract painting come to life. What a game.
Best False Game
Return of the Obra Dinn
Obra Dinn is a phenomenal game, there is no question about it. There are so many interesting threads that one can pull at here – the naval setting, the puzzle mechanics, the role of the insurer, the history of the East India Company, the multinational nature of the crew and so much more. I will write a more in-depth piece on Obra Dinn early next year, but for now I wanted to highlight its not-a-game nature.
After spending about an hour and a half with the game, having uncovered the vast majority of the scenes, I had only identified a few people. I was a bit startled, and, honestly, frustrated – I was waiting for it to click, for it to reveal itself. After getting some encouragement on Twitter, I realised the problem: I was approaching Obra Dinn as if its a videogame, but it really only takes the form of one. It was not going to reveal itself – I was the one who had to find a solution to it. Obra Dinn is an investigation, to play it is to employ the same patterns of thinking I used when researching my obscure PhD topic.
In realising this, I quickly came to grips with the game and understood just how deep this investigation went. The story opened up, I identified everyone and enjoyed myself immensely. Games like this do not come around often – in fact I can only think of one other game I would compare it to (more on that next year). Obra Dinn is a unique experience and I cannot recommend it enough – just make sure to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Best Experimental Game
All Our Asias
This is a terrible category name but I couldn’t come up with anything else, so, there it is.
I’ve written about this game at the beginning of the year in a great amount of detail, so there is not much left to say. The game is incredibly evocative – Sean Han Tani nailed the PS1 era visuals, composed a phenomenal soundtrack that should definitely be getting more attention, and wrote a story that can teach us a lot about identity and intersectionality.
This is what I appreciate most about it – I spent quite a lot of time thinking about how nations are imagined, and how concepts like “Asia” and “Europe” have been constructed during my PhD. While this game is niche, it is not as niche as a PhD dissertation, so I was really happy to see very similar ideas transferred into a game that people will actually play. And if you haven’t yet – it’s short and free, you’ve got no excuse!
No Man’s Sky NEXT
At some point I will probably write about what No Man’s Sky means to me – I loved it at launch so much that I didn’t care about it deleting my saves, constantly glitching or being unable to keep a consistent framerate. I was lost in it, fully immersed, and in awe. In many ways No Man’s Sky made me fall in love with games again, and that is not an exaggeration – a story for another time though.
No Man’s Sky NEXT brought me back in a big way. Having not played since launch when I got my fill of it, I came in to a completely overhauled game with a ton of new systems, better inventory management, graphical improvements, an amazing photo mode and a new story. It was magnificent.
Building a base on a ringed tropical paradise, getting my first freighter and buying frigates to scour the universe for resources (those mission logs are some of the best writing in the game), getting an exotic ship and using it to travel to new and weird worlds that I have never seen before – it was like playing the game for the first time again. I look forward to diving back into it when more updates drop and experiencing that universe all over again.
Honourable Mention: Warframe’s Fortuna
The Most Human Game
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and The Island of Memories
Like I said, play The Missing, support Swery, and encourage yourself and others to build empathy. If my own life experience is any indication, we can grow to become more empathetic, people can shed their cynicism and it is possible to move from a state of centrist misanthropy towards a place of acceptance, healing and understanding. Play The Missing, turn off your analytics and let it connect with you.
I really don’t have much more to say – but if you have played it already or if you don’t care for spoilers, I would highly recommend reading this personal essay/review of the game by Nadia at Timber Owls. She says so much more than I ever could about the central conceit of The Missing, its potential impact and the care with which Swery and The White Owls portrayed a journey of someone fighting for their identity in a society that marginalises them.
Not sure how that all happened, but December saw Below, Gris, Hades, Just Cause 4 and Mutant Year Zero all come out almost within a week of each other – all potential contenders for this list. While I would love to play these games eventually, I opted to spend my limited funds on Ashen, and it did not disappoint.
I have seen a lot of people compare this game to Dark Souls – and although I never played the Souls games and I don’t particularly want to, I do enjoy labyrinthine open worlds and I do like the sort of obscure, mystical world building that Dark Souls trades in. That’s where Ashen is at its best, as well – its world.
The Souls comparisons are there – but for me Ashen’s world feels a lot like an Elder Scrolls game, specifically a kind of hybrid between Morrowind and Skyrim. While it is smaller and denser than these Bethesda worlds, Ashen evokes very similar feelings in me – the wonder and awe at the otherwordliness of Morrowind and the yearning to explore and escape that I had when playing Skyrim.
The more time I spend with Ashen, the more I fall in love with this game – and specifically this game. I don’t see myself starting Dark Souls, Hollow Knight or Nioh once I finish Ashen because it’s not the combat that draws me to it. If anything, I am enjoying this game despite its combat – I might grow to love it, but I really do miss animation cancelling. Instead, I enjoy the storytelling, the mysterious characters, the giant fish-bird things that fly in the sky, the desolate cities, the huge, dark caverns that require me to carry a light instead of my shield, the 3D platforming and much, much more.
If this was a numbered list, Ashen would be high up there.
My Favourite Game
I’ve written about Celeste before so there is not much left to say. This was my favourite game this year. I am not that into 2D platformers, I have no nostalgia for Mario games, I never played Spelunky, and enjoyed Super Meat Boy well enough but was never enraptured by it – Celeste, though, was a complete surprise.
Not only were the story and characters really engaging, and I especially appreciated the blending of text and sub-text I’ve written about earlier, but the game also made me into a completionist. I spent over 40 hours trying to get everything: I’ve done all the B-sides (no C-sides though, that was too much) and I’m only missing two strawberries outside of The Core. This almost never happens to me, and all credit goes to the game.
The soundtrack deserves all the praise it gets, and more – my favourite this year as well. Lena Raine has constructed a phenomenal collection of music, which for me is on the same level with Transistor, Bastion, Nier: Automata and the Hotline Miami games as one of the all-time best game soundtracks. Please go buy it and support her work, and consider getting the excellent B-sides album as well, it has a 2 Mello track so good that it makes the entire purchase worth it.
Similarly to Lucah, Celeste also has an excellent assist mode that offers a few accessibility options – there is room for improvement there but we certainly need more of this in 2019. And I haven’t even mentioned the art style!
I played Celeste at launch almost a year ago, and I can still vividly recall how much I enjoyed it. Not many games leave an impact this strong.
Just in case, let me spell it out – Celeste is my 2018 Game of the Year.
Final few words
I haven’t played as many games as I did last year despite this list being much more diverse, so there are a few games that could have been on here if I had the time/money to play them, specifically Hitman 2, Ni No Kuni 2, Monster Hunter World, Below, Gris, Hades, Frostpunk, Killer 7 Remaster, Let It Die, Vampyr, Battletech, Into The Breach and probably a few more. Hope to get to some them next year!
I want to also quickly mention:
- Forgotton Anne – an excellent game people should play, but I *actually* said all I wanted to say when I wrote about it earlier this year.
- YOU LEFT ME. – a gem of a small game about suicide, connection and hope.
- State of Decay 2 – I had quite a good time making up stories in this game. I hope it did well because the devs deserve it – the systems first gameplay and procedural characters combine in super compelling ways.
2018 has been interesting – having started this blog in late 2017, it has grown quite a lot throughout this year, and I am happy with where it currently is right now. I am looking forward to continuing writing here in 2019, being more consistent, and experimenting with the ways I approach games. I specifically want to do more shorter pieces and write more about history and academia in connection to games, which was the original idea for this.
At the same time, with one year under my belt, I am now ready to start pitching ideas elsewhere. I am not looking to become a freelancer, but I do want to reach more people with some of my ideas.
Anyways – thank you very much for reading this, and hope to see you in 2019!
Here is the final list:
- Celeste – My Favourite Game
- Ashen – Best World
- The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories – The Most Human Game
- No Man’s Sky NEXT – Best Update
- All Our Asias – Best Experimental Game
- Return of the Obra Dinn – Best False Game
- Forza Horizon 4 – The Most Fun Time
- Watch Dogs 2 – Best Old Game
- Lucah: Born of a Dream – The All-Rounder