The promise has been made.
2018 kind of blew ass for video games. Indies were good as always, but the AAA industry hit what legitimately feels like an all time low this year. I always wonder to myself whether this is the reality of the situation, resonating with multiple people across the industry, or if it’s just my own particular and specific tastes. This year however, I think it really is just plain to see how fucking /dire/ the game industry is getting. While John would absolutely pull me aside to say “Hey Rose, Game of the Year is about positivity! Also stop cussing” I feel like this year, it’s impossible to not talk about the horrendous nightmares that capitalism and a patriarchal society hath wrought, before we talk about the wonderful things that put them to shame.
This was a year that saw the release of two “titans” of AAA gaming with Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War, and both cultivated a toxic and depressing culture around them. God of War was a game that forced the classic prestige redemption story onto one of the worst written characters of all time, and tried to play it without any sort of real introspection, leading to all sorts of great things like a meme about how Kratos dehumanizes his son. Fun. Red Dead Redemption 2’s critical reception painted a grim picture of not only the game industry, but how much more gaming journalism still has to grow with most outlets basically handing Rockstar a card that says “abusing your workers is worth it.”
Both of those were real bummers, and with plenty of other problems like loot boxes continuing their rampage, DLC practices getting worse and worse, and so many other issues with companies like Sony or Valve, you couldn’t be faulted for getting all nihilistic about the game industry. For all that horror though, a lot of works have become smarter and smarter. Games have started to explore more realistic depictions of trauma in games even not wholly about them. We’re starting to see less and less judgemental games, with things like non-binary gender options in stuff like Battletech becoming closer to the norm, less token narratives about queer characters, and more and more repressed creators getting their chance to shine.
2018 sucked, but there’s still plenty to be proud of *amazing godly segue voice* like these games right here!
I used to play the hell out of all of the licensed Spider-Man games. Web of Shadows, Spider-Man 3, Spider-Man for the PS1, I loved them all, especially if they let me be the cool edgy Spider-Man. I never liked Spider-Man 2 though! Maybe my brain is just wired to dislike a lot of open-world style games, but I never really enjoyed the full sandbox style experience. When Insomniac came out and said they were making a game like Spider-Man 2, and showed things that made it look like a heavily scripted Arkham-like, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.
Damn though, Insomniac really went out there and made probably the best damn Spider-Man game that has ever existed. Spidey is a little too coppy, and the side activities are a little under-developed, but if you want to play a game that makes you feel like Spider-Man, this is it. From the on-point web slinging, to the fluid and fast combat, or even just the goddamn way Spidey himself immaturely jeers at the supervillains, it’s sublime. I’m hesitant to go begging for every superhero game to try and follow suit, considering the last time something like that was widely considered we ended up with endless Marvel cinematic hell, but if more licensed games could be treated with the same amount of care and thought, that’d own.
9. Heaven Will Be Mine
I wasn’t really a super diehard fan of We Know The Devil. Chalk it up to my lack of an interest or experience with catholic power structures in a lot of America. You know what I do like though? Surrealist art and gay shit, which Heaven Will Be Mine brings in absolute spades. The music is entrancing, the art is mesmerising, and the stories about trauma being written from an immensely relatable and realistic queer perspectives continually impress. Also this game has a ton of polyamorous representation which, hell I never get any of that, y’all.
8. Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion
Splatoon owns, I don’t need to tell you that. With every month that passes, the series grows more and more fresh and stylish, and the Octo Expansion is no exception. Operating completely outside of the game’s multiplayer and original single player, the Octo Expansion adds a whole new layer of 80’s pizzazz to an already colorful and vibrant world. Instead of opting to retread the pretty rough and largely uninspired story component of the base game, this expansion plays out like a gauntlet of dozens of quick and unique challenges. Add onto that a bunch of new bangers and a whole slew of funny and engaging dialogue, and you’ve got a slam dunk. Also, Octolings rule.
7. Destiny 2: Forsaken
The original launch of Destiny 2 kinda sucked ass. With a combination of too much streamlining and not enough content, most players fell off the proverbial space gun horse. Forsaken followed the same exact format the original Destiny did with the Taken King expansion, which kind of blows because it absolutely fixes the game, but why did it have to wait? I didn’t really care about the stupid fucking robot, nor was I impassioned by the incredibly trite liberal revenge plot. But damn, I love to throw knives in space. The PvP is mostly better too, and while I’ll never play the raid, they put in a giant evil dragon, so that’s cool. If Activision repeats the same broken-then-fixed formula with Destiny 3, I will throw rocks at the sun.
6. Fate Grand Order: Camelot
Fate GO’s writing was pretty bog-standard mobile game slop for a good while. Then Camelot came out and I was like “damn, they really did it”. Bringing back the original Fate author Kinoko Nasu, the story was really great and had an amazing selection of twinks. This chapter also featured a great example of how developers can integrate difficulty into a narrative in an engaging and successful way. Gawain’s fight was a hell of a thing, but it was cool to see a fight in the game actually require some minute thought, and battles like that made the harsh atmosphere actually feel thematically appropriate. I love the round table, I love skeleton grandpa, and I love stupid Ozymandias and his stupid DIO voice. Fate GO is good now.
5. Monster Hunter World
When it was first shown off, there were a lot of leaks going around that made it sound like Monster Hunter World was going to be a steaming pile of garbage. With a proposed focus on approachability, many feared the series would go the path of games like Paper Mario, with its soul torn out in the name of profit. Luckily, that was not the case, and Monster Hunter World is probably the best blend of complexity and ease of access that I’ve ever seen from a long-running series. Getting rid of annoying mechanics like paintballs and speeding up all sorts of animations and busywork, World is a fuckin’ blast. Though I have some issues with its focus on monthly schedules and limited events, they still let me dress up like Dante (but a hot girl), and that makes it GOTY material if not GOAT material. They need to put hotter dragons in, though.
Undertale owns. Anyone who says Undertale doesn’t own is still valid but I beg you to reconsider. I didn’t expect Deltarune to exist, but it does, and it’s amazing. I’ve spent a good part of the years following Undertale’s release almost buying in to the idea that it’s not as good as I thought, but Deltarune showed up, and made me go, “oh nah though.” The music is fire, the gameplay is as original as ever, and the writing constantly left me smiling and laughing. Rare is the game that has me finishing it in a single sitting, but I played Deltarune on Halloween and I could not stop. I’m excited to see what this episodic format means for the game’s future, but for now, I am satisfied with the knowledge that Jevil can do anything.
In the prelude to this list, I mentioned how games were becoming more and more mature by examining difficult subject matter. Celeste’s examination of mental illness isn’t anything groundbreaking or wild, but that doesn’t stop it from being absolutely necessary. By putting a narrative as serious and thoughtful as this into what could be considered a pretty standard game concept, Celeste helps normalize that it’s okay to talk about your problems. One of my favorite things that a game can do is have its mechanics intermingle with a metaphor or deeper concept. Celeste being able to translate the experience of living with depression or other mental illness into an enjoyable video game™ is a fantastic feat, and I can only hope more games follow suit.
As someone who isn’t particularly good at 2D platformers, I didn’t expect to enjoy playing Celeste as much as I did, but the mechanics are simple and getting back into the action is just so fast that I just kept wanting to try and try again. I love the concept of a mountain representing day-to-day life, as well as the feeling of accomplishment being able to mean so many different things. I also loved the entire soundtrack and how the harder versions of each level had a remixed version of the original songs to keep things perpetually fresh. Also, as someone with dissociative identity disorder, being able to relate to a narrative that wasn’t specifically intended to be about me still is wonderful to see.
2. Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is probably the best JRPG I’ve played in a good five years. It’s got it all; cool gay swords, beautiful environments, bitchin’ tunes, and one of the most lovable casts I’ve ever seen in a video game. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is sort of a chimerical beast of so many different systems and ideas, but none of them feel particularly overbearing and at worst, can just be ignored. Compare that to Red Dead Redemption 2, which forces you to do a whole bunch of bullshit in the name of “epic cowboy realism” and I’d rather play the game with the boob swords, thanks.
To be real though, I’ve always liked the Xenoblade series because of their inventive take on the open world format. It feels fun to explore, and around every corner there’s almost always something beautiful. At times, Xenoblade feels old fashioned with its very video-gamey style of world design – where every new place matches a specific element or concept – but that’s what I love about it. I would rather go to a whole new continent and have it feel fantastical with things like fluorescent lights or Cool Mecha Protrusions than “oh wow, the trees are a little smaller here.”
I think Xenoblade Chronicles 2 also makes a great case for how you can have your cake and eat it too. The game simultaneously blends serious and engaging plot points with doofy and largely inoffensive humor, in a way the just comes off as endearing instead of dissonant. I loved learning about Nia’s traumatic past just as much as I loved seeing Zeke do some chuuni bullshit. The story might do some pretty tropey JRPG shit, but guess what: it’s still fucking fun. I would rather play seven Xenoblade Chronicle 2s than half a Horizon Zero Dawn or a single minute of a God of War. Thanks.
1. THE MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
I don’t really know what else could be said about THE MISSING that I haven’t already said numerous times across so many different forms of media. It’s a game that truly surprised me and made me hopeful for the future of storytelling in games when it comes to minority groups. The fact that THE MISSING came from a straight and cis man, but managed to take into consideration the realities that people unlike him might experience feels like a breath of fresh air in an industry where games like Mass Effect have trans characters who introduce themselves with their deadname. Seeing Swery grow from someone who made one of my all time favorite games that always required a warning about its treatment of sensitive issues, into someone pushing thoughtful and learned reparations is fantastic, and makes me even more disappointed in how badly the rest of the industry handles social issues. A game that I thought I’d just be into because of its macabre mechanics instead made me weep and became one of my all time favorites. Hopefully the game industry takes a hint from this one.