Open up my eager eyes.
As 2018 comes to a close, it’s time once again to think back fondly back on this year’s new releases: Monster Hunter World…Red Dead Redemption 2…God of War… Yeah, no I didn’t play any of these. Instead, here are the games I did play, the games I held close throughout this hellish year, that gave me hope and strength to fight on.
I stuck to five games because these were the ones I could speak about passionately, but I want to give an honorable mention to Into the Breach, Battletech, and Cultist Simulator. All excellent games worth checking out. Now, onto my top five games of 2018!
Deltarune was a big surprise this year, dropping out of nowhere for free in the middle of my midterms. I didn’t play it until a week after it came out, and so I made sure I was on full media lockdown until then. Boy was it worth it. Deltarune is another Toby Fox masterpiece. With new battle systems, new characters, and a new(?) setting, Deltarune is both the perfect sequel to Undertale, and a perfect commentary on it. Deltarune complicates the questions raised in Undertale, pushing on the first game’s core themes, to ask when violence might have a purpose, and how players are implicated in the outcomes they create. I fell in love with Deltarune’s charming cast of characters instantly, each one uniquely dorky and genuine. Having a crew of characters in your party made Deltarune feel much less lonely than the solitary experience of Undertale, and led to some excellent moments, both in the story and in the combat itself. The new battle system is a really clever expansion on the core loop from the first game. Each party member contributing unique actions kept the fight sequences just complex enough to keep me interested. While I didn’t fully understand the **lore implications** of Deltarune at times, it perfectly hit that ‘just creepy enough’ tone to keep me wanting to see more. Whatever Toby Fox is up to next, I’m interested.
As someone who spent much of my teen years in roleplay servers, creating and acting through OCs, I was immediately intrigued by ESC’s pitch. Set in two worlds, this interactive fiction game follows the adventurers of a roleplayer named Raine on an outdated roleplay server, and a hacker called The Navigator in a cyberpunk future. What I found was a gorgeous and utterly enthralling piece of science fiction. ESC is a meditation on our technology and our identity, and how the two are intertwined or in conflict. Who are we when we are online? What do our bodies look like, act like, and who controls that? It drew me in and embedded me in its strange dystopian vision of a world run on the subconscious. Along with beautiful glitchy visuals by Dataerase, and an incredible soundtrack by Lena Raine (also the game’s writer and programmer), ESC is a stunning game that I could not step away from.
As a computer science student, I spend most of my time during the semester cramming in hours and hours of writing code. EXAPUNKS took all that struggle of digging through documentation, figuring out algorithms, and debugging my mistakes and made it… really really fun. The latest game from Zachtronics, EXAPUNKS is yet another incredible game of logic puzzles with a clever aesthetic and utterly charming schtick.
Set in the radical future year of 1999, you play as a hacker, struggling to survive and earn your next dose of the medicine you need to keep your body alive. You hack pizza parlors, street signs, MMOs, and all manner of things by programming nanomachines called EXAs. The commands you can give the EXAs are limited, as are their storage space, which means puzzles revolve around you trying to get these dumb little machines to work together in perfect synchronicity to solve the puzzle as quickly and simply as possible. Your only aid in figuring out the puzzles is Trash World News, an in-world zine that you print out and assemble yourself at home. Flipping through an actual physical zine, filled with inworld advertisements, short fiction, and occasionally useful information, to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do next is super entertaining. The zine adds a sense of weight to EXAPUNKS’ weird anachronistic cyberpunk setting. With brilliant and perfectly frustrating puzzle design, EXAPUNKS distills everything I love about coding into one game. Digging through the zines, beating my head against tough levels, and trying to figure out just exactly how other players solved a puzzle in half the time, was amazing and kept me coming back to this game all throughout the year.
2. Heaven Will Be Mine
I could write about Heaven Will Be Mine forever. It’s been months since my first few playthroughs and I’m still thinking about this game. The beautiful political and romantic dance this game pulls off, pirouetting from philosophical texts to awkward lesbian flirting, has made it an enduring favorite of mine. Over this last semester I’ve been involved in trans activism at my school, organizing to address systemic issues in how the school’s bureaucracy overlooks us, but as with any community organizing, it’s hard as hell. Differences of politics, between ideas of how to best go about enacting change, can blow up into rifts and stop any forward progress before it even starts. It was when I was at my most frustrated with my own queer communities that I thought back to this game. Heaven Will Be Mine presents a messy, complicated, and political vision of conflict in queer communities, but one that reminds us, reminded me, to move and act with love and care. It’s a game I’m going to be thinking about for a long time.
If you had told me in January that my favorite game this year was going to be a super challenging twitchy platformer, I would not have believed you. By all accounts, I should’ve bounced off of Celeste. After minute 90 of being stuck on the same screen trying to get the perfect jump, I should’ve set down my Switch. After two hours trying to collect all the strawberries in one particular level, I should’ve just given up on it. Yet, something kept pulling me back, and kept me going up the mountain. Maybe it was the gorgeous pixel art, or wanting to see more of the wonderful storyline, or hear more of the bumping soundtrack, but I couldn’t put this game down no matter how many times I died. Celeste turns difficulty into something compelling rather than frustrating. Finally after dozens of deaths, having a screen click, suddenly pulling off flawless jump after flawless jump, and making my way in one fluid motion to the other side of the screen, is the best feeling a game has given me all year. At the end of the game I had 6,271 deaths, but I reached that fucking summit.