The promise has been made.
2018 was a bit of a blur for me when it comes to video games, because quite honestly, I didn’t play a lot of things that I allowed myself to get too attached to. It was the year I started really committing into media journalism as a side gig and it became this tricky balance in which I was obligated to spin everything I consumed into some sort of pay-off—and that obviously didn’t go well. I was obsessed with capitalizing and monetizing even other parts of my life in ways that were unhealthy. I sacrificed games I wanted to actually play and other recreational activities I simply wanted to enjoy because I prioritized things that ended up not being that important to me.
By the time I realize all of that, we have entered 2019. Our news cycle is on this constant up and down roller coaster of announcing horribly dismal events, or once in a while, something decently okay. I had no time to waste by simply constantly counting numbers and quantifying every aspect of my life to feel productive. When I realized I deserve to have no-strings-attached fun, I felt better and made more thoughtful choices naturally. 2019 was a pretty improved year for me when it came to balancing my work life and free time, and although it is still not quite ideal, I hope to carry on this positive perspective for something even closer to perfect into the neo-20s.
My background in video games coverage originated from solely covering indie, niche titles, and this list reflects that. Although there were other titles that could have easily made this “Top 5” list a “Top 10” instead, I wanted to hone in and focus the attention on specifically naming titles that might be missing from the mainstream conversation.
This will be my first year celebrating Game of the Year with Video Game Choo Choo and I couldn’t be any happier to out my shameless preferences to all you fellow weirdos.
5. AI: The Somnium Files
I adore really stupid and ridiculous games, and AI: The Somnium Files definitely fits that bill.
In a near-future version of Tokyo, a secret agency called ABIS investigates crimes by exploring the subconscious dreams of persons of interest (called psyncing). Kaname Date is part of this agency, assisted by an artificial intelligence embedded into his left eye prosthetic named AI-Ball. (Alternatively, she is also called Aiba because one will soon discover that this game really loves wordplay that would put the English localization teams of the Ace Attorney and Pokémon games to shame.). Confronted with a case that involves those closest to him, Date is forced to face questions he has never answered about himself that may connect to a much bigger mystery.
At its core, AI is essentially a complex visual novel that will branch based on the decisions you make. Controlling Date, you examine scenes and must interrogate different NPCs to gather information. You will inevitably have to further discover details through entering dreams, which are conveyed as terrifying, surreal visualizations of a person’s psyche. As they say, you can do anything in dreams, and the game doesn’t hold back about all sorts of weird things that must happen (Aiba is your avatar) to progress in what I would call its own Silent Hill nightmare version of MikuMikuDance.
Being the product of Kotaro Uchikoshi, the brains behind the Zero Escape series, AI is definitely one of the more unique games I have had the privilege of trying out this year. It receives some credit because a fictional 12-year-old girl briefly made gamers™ really mad, but at the same time, it is not above anime trope bullshit and sometimes falls into those traps that should be worthy of criticism. For instance, Date, the main character, can at times be just utterly frustrating and annoying, though this is balanced with other compelling, interesting characters—such as the game’s actually well-rounded and decently written women. Although AI: The Somnium Files is a game that would be difficult to recommend if you are looking for a more serious, grounded mystery adventure, I implore anyone already open to suspending their disbelief for this wacky world of the Somnium to psync along with me.
Gris is what I would consider to be a very therapeutic, healing game. It was technically released at the tail end of 2018 and I am glad its impact was able to prolong its visibility into 2019.
A girl wakes up in the palm of a giant statue and when the statue starts to crumble apart, she drops onto the colorless earth below. Many things are unexplained, and you are left with the responsibility to lead the girl through a vast, wondrous world and discover her innate potential.
Developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital, Gris’ beauty is through its minimalism. Not only is much of Gris’ storyline left unsaid for you to unravel, the world itself starts off pretty empty and gray (title drop!), which slowly becomes more complete—more colorful—as you progress. As you collect more skills, you will have to put them to the test through platforming mechanics and puzzle solving.
Gris is such an immersive experience—very much like an interactive film!—and it had strongly impressed me with how smooth every scene transitioned and cinematically coordinated with its music. Its visuals are tenderly rendered through highly illustrative and flat, 2D animation, emulating ink and watercolor on paper. Because I was only slowly learning more and more details about this world as I progressed, I had to keep moving forward, wondering where this allegorical journey would lead me.
Gris is show, don’t tell, at its finest. It is easy to not only get lost in the gorgeous art, but within something itself that feels like I am peacefully falling asleep into a lucid dream.
3. Yuppie Psycho
I like exploring horror concepts and reading spooky stories, but I am a huge scaredy cat when it comes to playing actual horror games myself. Yuppie Psycho never got too overwhelming to the point where I had to put it down, and I ended up truly enjoying it! Its real strengths as a horror game were simply not in just flashing blood and other shocking imagery, but in ideas that were disturbingly too real.
Yuppie Psycho takes place in a dystopian 90s society, in which Brian Pasternack somehow lands a job at one of the world’s largest companies, Sintracorp. Brian comes from a rather underprivileged cusp, and after quickly experiencing horrifying conditions that no one else seems to be bothered by at the offices, his time at the place becomes uncertain. Unfortunately he finds himself quickly cornered into his first assignment: hunting down a “witch”.
Initial impressions of Yuppie Psycho can harken a lot to other 2D adventure horror games like Ib, but as previously mentioned, the game has much more added complexity. Brian has to navigate the different floors of Sintracorp and not only will he be absorbing sordid details through his co-workers, but will have to potentially pit himself against the dangerous beings that lurk in the darkness of the different offices by solving puzzles. The game does such a great job at the jarring juxtaposition between its otherworldly elements counteracting with the mundanities of office life. For instance, a basic mechanic would be essentially preparing and combining foods to make healing items. Normal. Meanwhile, you need to photocopy your face with some sort of witch-cursed paper to save the game since the paper encapsulates your soul in some way. Not normal(?).
I appreciate how immersive the game was by avoiding cheap thrills and being scary where it was appropriate. This is all the more enhanced with an excellent soundtrack by Garoad that knows how to convey nostalgia and panic all at once. It is also brutally funny with pure, deadpan delivery, truly creating an accurate representation of the very real anxieties that can come out of the white-collar workplace, but translated into literal horror.
2. Later Alligator
Later Alligator is a nauseatingly delightful and charming game that can only be best described with every single other synonym for the word, “cute”.
It is a point-and-click adventure game comprised of puzzle mini-games similar in vein to titles like Puzzle Agent and the Professor Layton series. Patrick the alligator is convinced his family is scheming to kill him and enlists your help to trek through Alligator New York City and get to the bottom of what exactly is going on. As a private investigator—which, worthy to mention, I only noticed this genius pun while I was writing this—you have to talk to the different alligators to coerce more information on Patrick and help them with some sort of problem through a mini-game.
It is incredibly simple through and through. But for that reason, it is a strong, solid game by never overstepping its bounds and asserting its identity—especially so clearly through its visuals. Later Alligator was skillfully animated and designed by the team of Smallbu Animation, led by husband-wife animators Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera. These lovingly executed visuals and the game’s strong sense of humor grabbed my heart in loving and caring about every single one of these gators.
Even after finishing the game, I can’t help but keep replaying it to obsessively collect everything and discover any other fun piece of eye candy I could have missed. It’s like visiting and checking in on real friends you made in a very real city. But they’re alligators. I sincerely just want them all to be happy in their simple, alligator lives. I hope The Knife finds the love he deserves!
1. Disco Elysium
As a frequent player of tabletop RPGs, Disco Elysium panders to me like the disgusting nerd I am. It is a refreshing take on the traditional RPG genre by fitting it squarely in a context that is relevant to the grand socio-political conversation of our times.
Whereas many of the more significant titles of this genre are often set in high fantasy realms where combat sometimes becomes an inevitable choice, Disco placates you in a more believable world riddled by poverty, crime, and corruption running amuck that can easily be a reflection of our own reality if things go even more sideways than they already are. Pure conversation and thoughts are your main ammunition, and solutions are presented by a better understanding of human nature.
I am a huge proponent of more text-heavy games being part of the larger conversation on video games. Visual novels have a stigma as is, and there are definitely some gamers™ that need to read a damn book once in a while. Especially with such a turbulent year filled with louder discussions on social issues, it was inevitable that our zeitgeist hastily responded. I felt that many pieces of media that came out this year, although admirable, were too on the nose in asserting their own social commentary to the greater discourse. Others just expressed opinions that were just outright laughably wrong.
Disco Elysium, on the other hand, is coherent and doesn’t speak down on you. It is the type of playing experience that can make you laugh, cry, and go through the entire wave of emotion all in a single hour playing instance. With credit due to Michael Kurvitz and his writing team at ZA/UM, Disco Elysium is such a well written game that manages to come from a place of high literacy and sensitivity to human emotion, knowing where to be touching and clever without sneering and making assumptions about you. It can be gut-busting in all the truly ridiculous ways based on the choices you make, all the while being respectful and careful in handling topics such as war, addiction and bigotry. This was a thoughtfully produced game, interestingly not holding back with its obvious, direct projection and commentary of more recent events.
The developers are also just hardcore. Hard. CORE.
Disco Elysium can undeniably be heavy and tackles difficult topics, but it manages to avoid falling too far deep into mockable, edgy nihilism. Even if you may not consider yourself to be a fan of text-heavy games and may prefer something on the more lighthearted side, it is something worthy of at least trying out because it may just surprise you. After all, it did for many of us.