I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Over the past few years, I’ve found that the way I play games has changed pretty dramatically. When I was younger, it felt like I had nothing but time to play video games, and I used to revel in sitting down with lengthy RPGs, or playing season after season in a sports game. Somewhere along the way, things have changed for me pretty dramatically in my late 20’s, real life has taken over to a great degree and my time to play games has diminished seemingly more and more with each passing year. Around a year ago, I was starting to wonder if it even made sense to continue trying to follow and work within the industry so closely, afterall, with only a couple hours a day to myself, it seemed like my fate was to just become the kind of guy who plays one game (likely Dead by Daylight in my case) most of the time, with maybe one or two other big games thrown in over the course of the year.
So I’m kinda surprised I wound up playing as much stuff as I did this year; and even more surprised that I’ve come out the other end more excited for games and where they’re potentially heading than I have been in years. The stuff I stuck with this year was all stuff that actively made me want to stick around, and that actually helped me in finding the right balance in my life to continue to play lots of cool stuff while maintaining an existence outside it. I also started a new podcast with Chooch alum Ryan, where we watch Borat every week. Maybe my choices haven’t been so good.
Heck, I didn’t even get to play all the stuff I wanted to this year – my PC died at the beginning of November and after getting the run-around from a supplier for the past six weeks, I’ve been forced to miss out on a bunch of stuff I really wanted to play, like Remnant, Disco Elysium, and smaller titles such as 198X and Alt-Frequencies, games I hope to eventually get to in the new year.
There’s been a not-insignificant number of folks out there recently opining that 2019 absolutely stunk when it comes to video games, but I find it difficult to agree. Sure, there wasn’t really a widely-accepted de facto torchbearer for the industry this year, but there was a greater scope of games for all tastes than we’ve ever had before. The industry’s still not perfect, and disgusting business practices regarding development and monetization still run rampant, but I feel good about where things are going compared to the last couple of years, and hopefully things’ll keep trending up in the future.
10. Final Fantasy XIV
I know, I know, FFXIV didn’t release this year, but it’s my list and I put something like 200 hours into it since picking it up for the first time in June so I figure it’s gotta be here somewhere. I always thought I’d hate MMOs. Absolutely nothing about the formula seemed appealing to me, the endless fetch-quests and the repetition of having to kill wave after wave of samey enemies in order to level up felt to me as an outsider like the least fun way a person could possibly spend their time. When Shadowbringers was set to release over the summer, it was impossible to avoid talk about XIV anywhere online, and I just so happened to be on vacation from work, with nothing else really going on. So I gave XIV’s free trial a shot, and much to my shock, I found myself quickly becoming deeply engaged in the game, its world and its systems. It even got me to try out a bunch of other MMOs, like Black Desert, ArcheAge, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Blade & Soul and the abysmal Elder Scrolls Online. I think I’m gonna be one of those people who’s always playing some kind of MMO now, which seems wild to me, and while XIV is likely to always be the one I go back to (someday I’ll actually finish Heavensward), it’s been a cool gateway into a genre I’d dismissed for years and years. Holler at your boy Roastbeef if you see me hanging out on Brynhildr sometime.
9. A Plague Tale: Innocence
Yo man this game has rat tornados in it that’s dope as hell.
8. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sometimes a game just makes you feel good, and man, does Sayonara Wild Hearts make me feel wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of pop music in general, but something about the way the game’s soundtrack combines with its visual flair and the speed of the experience is enough to let me overlook the flaws of this not-really-a-rhythm-game-actually and just revel in the moment. It’s the ultimate vibe game, the kind of thing you sit down and immerse yourself in for the hour or so it lasts and come away from just feeling fine afterward. It’s not big or particularly clever, but Sayonara Wild Hearts is definitely some kinda treat.
7. The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan
Until Dawn blew me away when I played it for the first time a couple of years ago; it’s the only full-length video game that I’ve ever sat down and completed in a single sitting. So when Supermassive announced The Dark Pictures anthology, I was all-in on the series and concept. The first installment, Man of Medan, isn’t quite on the level of Until Dawn, but it does still do a fantastic job of paying homage to the kind of crappy horror films that the Hollywood machine just doesn’t give us enough of these days. It’s brilliantly paced and understands exactly what it takes to mix the worlds of movies and video games successfully in a way that David Cage could only dream about, while the cast, led by a brilliantly hammy performance from Pip Torrens, do an excellent job of replicating the kind of energy you want from your shitty horror flicks. It may not be quite as good as its predecessor, but Man of Medan is a strong start to this new series.
6. Kind Words
2019 was a tough year for me on a personal level. My dad suffered a stroke and almost died. Shortly afterward, my own mental and physical health fell to the worst levels they’ve been in my whole life, and for a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue to work, either at my day job or for Chooch. I wasn’t even sure if I’d make it to my 29th birthday in September. Silly as it may seem, a game like Kind Words was something to hold onto, a space where I could scream anonymously into the void, and vent my frustrations, anxieties and worries to complete strangers, before (usually) receiving some encouragement back from those same faceless folk. Things are better now, I just recently received the all-clear from my doctor and my father’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous, but it’s hard not to be thankful to the strangers who offered me some kind words when I needed them most.
5. Hypnospace Outlaw
If you’ve been following this site for a while, you know that if there’s an easy way to my heart, it’s giving me the tools to play around with a recreation of the early days of the internet, so in many ways, Hypnospace Outlaw is something of a dream for me. Okay, it’s not quite the era I’d most want – if it’d gone for an Emily is Away style recreation of the mid-00’s as opposed to the late-90’s it’d likely be my #1 – but what it does, it does better than I could have ever asked. It’s garish, ugly and full of purposefully bad design, but that’s exactly what I want from that era of cyberspace. Playing Hypnospace is like reliving my first days of having access to the internet, and I absolutely love it.
4. Resident Evil 2
I’ve got a ton of fond memories of the original Resident Evil 2, and, truth be told, I wasn’t sure that Capcom could nail it with this remake. While Resident Evil 7 was a huge step in the right direction for a series that had seemingly lost sight of itself, RE2 seemed like it was taking a big risk going back to the over-the-shoulder perspective and gameplay of the previous generation of RE titles. Turns out that my worries were pretty much unfounded, however, as RE2 may just stand as one of the best remakes of any game. The changes made to the original’s story and formulas are broadly for the better, while the increased focus on the behemoth that is Mr. X pays off beautifully in the first half of the game. This is Resident Evil at its best, gripping and tense yet not afraid to embrace its campy nature and weirdo cast.
I’ve got a confession to make: Control was my first Remedy game. I might’ve touched a demo of the old Max Payne games at some point, and I played about half an hour of Quantum Break before deciding I hated it, but this was the first time I actually sat down and played through a Remedy game for real, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve missed out on something in a big way. I love everything about what Control is going for, it’s ambitious in a way that feels increasingly rare among “Triple A” games – a daring and wholly unique spin on both third-person shooters and Metroidvanias that revels in its own weirdness and pathos without ever really coming across as pretentious. The art direction is phenomenal, the gameplay is silky-smooth (well, except for some of those boss fights), and the game’s use of FMV is masterful. I’m a sucker for cheesy real-life footage being used in video games, and Casper Darling and the Threshold Kids are among the best examples games have to offer. I’m probably gonna finally play Alan Wake pretty soon.
Devotion is a great game, and it’s also 2019’s biggest bummer, both in ways it intended, and ways it didn’t. When Red Candle released Detention a few years ago, I fell in love with the game, its sense of time and place and especially its intense, foreboding, oppressive atmosphere. Devotion continued to build on the foundation Detention laid with aplomb, and I don’t know if a game has ever done a better job at conveying quite such a sinister atmosphere in such a small space. The apartment you wander through time and again places you directly in 1980’s Taiwan and the dysfunctional, broken home of its inhabitants. It’s a shame the game can’t be purchased anymore following the reaction to a silly Easter egg jabbing at Xi Jinping, because in what was a strong year for the horror genre, Devotion really stands out as a classic whose potential, ironically given the game’s subject matter, may never be realized.
1. Dead or Alive 6
Look, I know. DOA has a horrendous reputation as series, and while a lot of those elements have been seemingly toned down for the game’s most recent iteration, they’re still present. Despite all the unsavoury stuff around the outsides though, I cannot help but absolutely adore Dead or Alive 6. I’ve spent the last three or four years trying desperately to get into fighting games, I’ve bought into pretty much every single franchise from Street Fighter, to Tekken, to MK and Soulcalibur, and for whatever reason, none of them ever stuck. But when I decided to give the open beta for DOA6 a try in February, something was different. Something clicked. I tried out a few characters at random, and by the time I had my third or fourth fight I hit upon one that just felt right. From that moment I was in on DOA, a series that I’d only ever played the second installment of briefly at a friends’ house as a kid and barely knew anything about.
It doesn’t matter to me that the story is complete Calvinball, an impossible to follow mess with dreadful writing, acting and a timeline you need to be a NASA guy to make sense of. I can even mostly accept the game’s over-the-top level of fanservice and cheesecake, because it just plays so unbelievably well. Between the game’s incredibly comprehensive tutorial and command training, as well as the brilliant Quest mode which rewards you for learning its various concepts, DOA6 is an immediately accessible fighter that doesn’t even require you to be able to do a half or quarter-circle to get in and have fun at a low level, while having all the depth in the world for those that want to dig deeper into its systems. Sure, the community’s not huge, and I’ll almost certainly never be anything more than an 0-2 scrub, but I can make good players actually have to earn their wins and always have fun in the process. DOA6 may not have made me think or feel like some of the other games I’ve played this year, but it’s by far the most actual fun I’ve had in years.