January 2, 2020 | by Solon
Solon’s GOTY List For 2019

Hello, my name is Solon, and I’ve spent the entirety of this year investigating as many games as possible for this list. This was an incredible year for my specific type of quirky games and it gives me hope for 2020 to be even better! Indie game production feels like it’s reached a near-healthy equilibrium in spite of the inherent lack of protection and resources. Local artistic communities have sustained many of the developments of this year’s best games. The big corporations’ stranglehold has loosened further as they continue to put out rushed, broken games-as-services like Anthem (UNIONIZED GAMES ARE BETTER GAMES). Meanwhile, game development continues to become more accessible to smaller groups of people as the tech-divide between personal computing and professional development shrinks more and more, indie teams can reasonably develop in VR now! In 2019, we didn’t have to worry about future-tech because next-gen consoles were too far away and instead developers got to focus on making great games with the current tech. And that means a lot of great end-of-generation games. It’s a year of plenty after a few rough years and a year of the creamy middles with remakes and new digital storefronts at a premium, and that means a lot of games. Somehow, I was able to narrow down the massive list of this year’s games to simply a mega-sized twelve of the most important games of 2019.

 

12. Superliminal

While plenty of games try to be everything to everyone, Superliminal is a game that is precisely about one thing: perspective. Superliminal is a very simple box-on-switch style puzzle-platformer that cribs its style from The Stanley Parable and Portal. It’s a well-tread presentation in indie gaming, but Superliminal uses this as a container to explore a very “simple” mechanic: any object you are holding adapts to fit the perspective of your view. So if you hold a can up above you towards the ceiling, it will look big and far away, but if you hold it towards your feet it will look close and small – it’s all about perspective. It’s like that level in Super Mario 64 where you can be Giant or Tiny Mario, but done in real time. Alice In Wonderland meets Kirby In Dreamland.

You can knock Superliminal out in an evening, or just under three hours. It pushes through seemingly every possible iteration of this idea without lingering too long on any one style or scenario. There’s a little bit of sci-fi, a little horror, some silly fanciful sections, but there is a special moment right in the middle where you get to just take a break, and I really appreciate that. It’s just a lounge with a calming blue light that reminds me of the old indie Unity projects from 2015 that were just funny light boxes at the advent of itch.io. It’s a really nice intermission. So are the funny loading screen pranks. It’s always good to watch the loading bar shoot past where it’s supposed to go. From one angle, you could overlook Superliminal as a game wrapped up in the shadows of similarly styled games, but if you adjust your approach, you’ll see that it stands proudly on the shoulders of giants. It’s just a matter of perspective.

 

11. Apex Legends

At the beginning of 2019, Respawn Entertainment suddenly came out with a Battle Royale that nobody knew it was making. Normally, that would be cause for uhh… no celebration whatsoever because BRs are hyper-consumption machines, so why would it matter to me that another company pulled the One-armed BR Bandit? Apex Legends was made for simple and approachable team-play, and not for one person to try to be the lucky hero who got all the good drops faster than 99 other people. Each gun has a personality, and even the ones you dread having to use are pretty fun! It’s a good sign when the weapon people don’t want to use is the hand-shotgun, usually that’s the one that breaks the game! It’s pretty to watch everyone fall from the dropship. Every character has refreshing movement options to keep combat fast-paced like Quake or Halo, even though the map never changes. And most importantly, You Don’t Need A Microphone To Strategize! The world of gaming has forever-changed due to Apex Legend’s pinging system that can help you strategize with your comrades with the simple press of a button and a lot of smartly coded contextual highlighting. Soon, it’s going to be hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have pinging, and we can always thank Apex Legends for making it much less necessary to suffer through toxic kids hogging up mic-space for attention, and instead get to enjoy nice kids attempting to explore legitimate strategic tactical options. The only drawback and reason I stopped playing this game was the aggressive microtransaction reward system that comes with the BR territory that gives me many more reasons to not pick the game up again rather than incentivising me to play more. That’s fine though, we can instead just wait a little longer for Titanfall 3. Thanks, Respawn, for a fun 2019!

 

10. Ring Fit Adventures

Dragaux is a mean, sexy bully and I have to stop him with my body… 

The tech industry is always looking to games in order to ‘gamify’ an active lifestyle, developers have pillaged and plundered the entire rhythm game genre in search for this El Dorado. Go figure that all Nintendo really needed was a large, hot, angry dragon, good design philosophies, and to not guilt the player constantly. Ring Fit Adventure is a JRPG first. It uses the game-length and level structure to inform the aesthetics and mechanics of working out as opposed to Wii Fit, Just Dance, and other similar games. I’m literally just playing Dragon Quest but with a tension ring as the controller. Instead of rock-paper-scissors with elemental weaknesses, enemies are weak to four exercise types: arm attacks, core/abdomen attacks, leg attacks, and yoga. But the real magic to it is that I’m secretly being co-opted the entire way to push myself more and more: ‘this level has a bunch of red enemies weak to arm exercises,’ ‘now that my arms are tired the next level is blue enemies’, and so on… As I level up, enemies become stronger and I have to do more reps per workout to do more damage. I have to equip more advanced techniques to keep from losing as many hearts per battle. And between each session the game kindly checks in to see if I’d like a cooler workout or a more intense one if I can handle it.

I’d say that most workout games are unapproachable, but Ring Fit Adventures is absolutely charming! Inside the fanciful pun-filled world are enemies made out of exercise equipment like the yoga mat-ta ray that looks like a manta ray but will slip under foes to heal them. You’ll find giant enemy crabs that look like dumbbells and later fight Dragaux equipped with one in each hand. The consumable powerups are all juices that you make by squeezing the controller like you are juicing your items, and it finds a way to make you want to constantly use them and not feel like you need to hoard items you accrue. The wildest thing though is that this game is LONG. It’s got about 60+ hours of playtime to it to beat the main story which means assuming you only play for about an hour a day, there are months of time to spend engrossing yourself to the world. You even unlock expansive tech-trees after fifteen hours in. The level of RPG detail in this game is nuts! I will let you know if a late-game twist finds Dragaux and I working together to defeat an even greater (and hotter) enemy to the Fitness State.

 

9. Hades

 

Why were there so many games in 2019? Well, one reason (and this is only going to make the wealth of games larger in 2020) is that Epic Games Store has challenged Steam’s monopoly on gaming, allowing for a second high-profile digital storefront that can compete at Steam’s level to help get games out there. One of the first big games to take advantage of that and release on EGS was Supergiant Games’s Hades; an Early-Access action rogue-lite about the son of Hades, Zagreus, trying to escape the underworld in search of his mother. Where most games in this subgenre like Binding of Isaac or this year’s Dicey Dungeons look at the loop of unending-defeat in a nihilistic way, Zagreus immediately identifies an alternate opportunity that each new road is a chance to build new relationships with helpers, enemies, and even his father Hades himself. So even when Zag fails, he carries with him the strength he’d gained from that latest run in order to steel himself to try again. This optimism is carried throughout the pages upon pages of discussions you can have with the entire pantheon of greek gods and heroes who are trying to help you, which makes every run of the game seem more like a serialized TV show as much as an intensely difficult game.

And the combat? Oooh the combat. Every god that gives you powerups feels uniquely their own, so if you start a run with the bow and start getting Hermes’ speed upgrades, you know you are going to be fast and need to move around a lot. If you start with the shield weapon and get Zeus and Poseidon to argue over whose power-ups are better leading to the super-powerful powerups, you are going to have a Captain America build with a lot of damage-over-time power. Whatever choices you make during your chance to escape the underworld, every one of them feels powerful and dying only makes you want to start over with a new fresh canvas to build on again. As Hades has grown in early access, it’s only more and more clear how incredible the team at Supergiant Games is. They really can do anything they want!

 

8. Pokémon Sword & Shield

This game would have been somewhere on this list even if it was an absolute pile of garbage. Arguably, it tried really hard to be! The bottom line has always been that you can collect, trade, and battle Pokémon while plugged into an HDMI. That’s all that matters. So Pokémon can be on your TV, livestreamed, or still carried with you portably like it always has been. That’s incredible and life-changing! We’ve only just started to see how this impacts the world from the recording of someone getting two shinies hatched back-to-back (0.0004% chance), to the ongoing investigation of massive exploits that makes advanced parts of the game easier to play. I’m assuming by next year that Pokémon will finally land as a local esport now that it won’t require The Pokémon Company and complex hardware to have the setups to put on a show.

Of course, it isn’t even close to perfect: this generation’s antagonists have downright nonsensical motivations. Most Pokémon don’t actually make sounds other than their single battle cry or animations other than their idle animation so they feel more like dolls than actual living creatures. All of the new Pokémon have half-eye sarcastic looks and strange, bulbous humanoid forms as if they are trying out to be Dreamworks’ new Boss Baby. Worst of all, the new Dynamax gimmick in battles makes for a good spectacle but has almost no strategic counters other than using it yourself, making most battles a nuclear standoff that has anyone who has ever written Godzilla fanfiction shaking their heads. Like I said though, despite the “growing pains”, Pokémon has finally grown up to play in the big leagues with home console videogames and I can only imagine this getting better with each new addition as long as Game Freak gives themselves the time to actually grow into their new platform.

 

7. Baba Is You

I never EVER would have thought I’d be putting a sokoban game in my top ten of any year. But dangit, it’s Baba! It’s not just the brain-meltingly difficult puzzles that made this a magical game in 2019, it is actually that I could hand my Switch to any adult or small child and I would get to relive those first magical levels vicariously through them over and over. That first section of levels is worth the price of the game alone, and it is probably one of the best and most honest openings a game had this year. I’m thankful that I don’t have tons of pride wrapped up in my mental ability because there is no way I could participate in most of the game without a walkthrough, but I’m very inspired by Baba’s 3-dimensional method of unlocking progress. Being able to get stuck on certain levels, move on in another world, and come back to those tough levels later is a novel way of handling how difficult this game can get. It allowed even someone like me to get to see most of the game’s best gimmicks, even if I wasn’t always sure what to do with them. Everything about Baba Is You is special down to its cute sketchy aesthetic and its unusually kind [undo] button. It’s not often I can say this but Baba Is You is a must-have if you own a Switch, just in case of a long train ride or flight.

Oh, also walkthroughs will have spoiler-free hints to help with solving puzzles if you struggle as much as I do. HUGE recommend.

 

6. Link’s Awakening

What really added to the hundreds of new games to have come out this year was all of the remakes and remasters, the best out of all of those being The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch. This game was not like other HD remakes that were about making games look and feel ‘real’ or ‘modern’. The team at Grezzo went the other direction with Link’s Awakening by using modern technology to reimagine the old Game Boy game in a way that highlights the dream-like innocence and childlike whimsy that the original clearly tries to convey. Link’s Awakening is about a boy who gets stranded on the island of Koholint after a heavy storm. To get off the island, a sweet girl named Marin tasks the boy to collect 8 instruments to awaken a deity who is the only creature with the ability to escape from the island. This well-tread Zelda style doesn’t get much more complex than that, you go into eight dungeons, beat them, and then it’s over. It doesn’t try to overdress the main quest specifically because the real fun of this game is anytime you find yourself off the beaten path collecting baubles or completing sidequests, this is a game whose Any% speedrun isn’t nearly as interesting as its 100% run.

Like a pop-up book or diorama, this game has cute surprises in every room and with the really amazing reimagination of the soundtrack, I found from time to time I would just sit and relax on the screen soaking in the moment. It’s a simple life. Link and Marin just want to relax on the beach, and I want to join them there too. This game is literally candy.

 

5. The Outer Worlds

It’s The Outer Worlds! This is the most basic video-games ass video game on this list and we all played it because of the most basic video-games ass deal ever: The Xbox Game Pass! The best deal in gaming at $5.99 a month! This game is financially accessible, visually accessible, and even uhhh ludically accessible? I dunno, it’s got good difficulty options and play options for different types of people. Anyways, I only say that it’s basic because this is the standard that all AAA games should be held to- It’s The Outer Worlds! It’s just Fallout: New Vegas but in space! Let me be more specific to The Outer Worlds though; the good vicar Max said “fuck” because he refuses to learn the French language and I heartily laughed for minutes. Felix has a drop-kick button I can press over and over. Opening up as the protagonist and sharing asexuality with Parvati was such a moving moment and helping her into a lesbian relationship was eye-opening and cool as hell. Nyoka allowed me to have justice in my life. Ellie-… SAM is a goddamn robot who jumps on people from space and then reminds you that cleanliness leads to a healthy lifestyle.

All of these characters made this game so incredibly special, but also none of them would be here if it weren’t for good design fundamentals: the clear lighting design that naturally guides the player, questing systems that expand without overwhelming, and a very kind difficulty curve that allows for a wide amount of experimentation and doesn’t lock you out of trying out lock-picking or shooting a random guard on accident (…on purpose). Most importantly, I got to roleplay as my “Dumb” self and it felt really empowering. There is an option to play the game with a negative intelligence modifier and it unlocks a bunch of “Dumb” dialogue options that usually gets NPCs to bemusedly underestimate your character in an endearing way and most of the time it let me skip difficult skill checks or get old ladies to pinch my cheek and say I’m adorable. Which I am. It also let me fly my ship straight into the sun, and that’s the real roleplaying I want to do!

 

4. Control

SCPs are like scary, spooky folklore, and there’s plenty of parts of Control that are kinda spooky or scary like that too- but for a good chunk of the time? Control is just nice. Blast some zombies, open some crates, and watch the funny FMV man dance for a minute or two. Actually, can we talk about FMVs for a second? FMVs. Full Motion Videos. We’re in an era of gaming where you can put FMVs in your game as a flavor and it isn’t jarring, in fact, you SHOULD put FMVs in your game. Don’t make it the whole game because that has its own technical design problems, but it is okay to give your game little a FMV. Just a little. As a treat! The rawest power of the FMV is in its ability to ground a fictional world within our reality to force unexpected comparisons between the game world and our world. In the case of Control, it brings the high-level scientific research of the Federal Bureau of Control into office spaces and leads you to question if maybe the musings of a mad scientist with a penchant for film production is actually telling real truths about metaphysics or if he just wants to be the next David Lynch and does Lynch exist in the world of Control and if he does are all of these ghosts floating around huge Twin Peaks fans and are they real or just an emulation of my own imagined peaks-ian reality and maybe I’m not real but their own projection an- oh sorry… lost control for a second. Anyways, the FMVs are powerful in Control. It’s a really good game, other than bossfights being way more trouble than they are worth, especially the optional bosses. I stopped most side quests after getting to the bosses and dying a few times.

 

3. Anodyne 2

Anodyne 2 has me so emotionally twisted and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I started playing it. It was cute having the PS1 low-poly style and the SNES 16-bit style, and I’ve got a cool button dedicated to transforming my body into a car, but when the rubber actually hit the road this game hit every emotion I had. I haven’t played the first Anodyne, and I didn’t need to, but this sequel is about a tiny egg girl named Nova who was just born and tasked with purifying the world of “dust”. Your moms, the gods who hatched you, want to use this task as a teaching tool so that you can grow up dutiful and obedient. They love you so much, they want to see you safe, but they also want you to carry out this duty for them so they can activate the Anodyne. So as you go into people’s minds and collect their ‘dust,’ ala Psychonauts, you start to meet people who have become broken beyond recognition from this process. You want to help people with their pain but you are duty-bound and can only help them with their most immediate problems. This limitation eats at Nova and rapidly ages her, but as the game wildly escalates she starts to come into new powers that awaken her and you are given the choice… Activate the Anodyne? Or defy the people who gave you life and raised you?

The exploration of motherhood in Anodyne 2 is its most potent theme. How do you be a good mom? If your moms raised you with a plan and then you defy that plan, does that mean you could be a better mom? Or will you just have your own agenda that you push onto the next generation of mom-hating kids? Can the world itself be a parent? I can’t think of many games that explore these types of themes and so for Anodyne’s whole game to be about what families can look like (the families we can and can’t choose) and how that defines our own character, it is refreshingly grounded for a video game. Go play Anodyne 2, it’ll make you laugh, cry, and think a lot about stuff. I highly recommend it along with the rest of Sean Han Tani’s annually-growing catalog of games.

 

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Oh Hypnospace… The world of Hypnospace is so quaint and delightful, it gives me a very specific kind of escapism all of its own. You know how everytime you write or create something you have to think about the marketability of your words and actions before you get to publish your feelings? You know that constant banging in the back of your head about how you need to maintain a public ‘brand’ and how it relates to your identity? Where you have to build masks over yourself before you feel like you are ‘fit for public consumption’ and those masks become you, more than you… get to be you? Paying for an internet service provider should come with a therapist as part of the package. Yeah, late capitalism doesn’t exist in Hypnospace Outlaw, and instead you get to see and interact with people being themselves. Hypnospace empowers people to create in a dream-like state their most basic fantasies (which is mostly spent just trying to find friends and build small communities). As an observer of these different online tribes, I get to see the music of Freezr rise and then crash. That little brat ZANE_ROCKS_14 is making up fake girlfriends again and drawing superhero comics where he’s the hero. The Goodtime Valley is organizing a protest against when I removed a cartoon duck from their pages by request of the copyright holder. It’s just another day on the net and it’s really nice-oh… Who is this Professor Helper? I should download that, it’s like a little Banzai Buddy joke, haha that’s fun! We should bring back desktop pets We should bring back desktop petWe should bring back desktWe should bring bacWe should brWe should bring back desktop petWe should bring back deskt-

[HypnOS user #11442’s reality headband has been fried]

[HypnOS user #11442 is now in a coma??]

[Oh no]

 

Hypnospace is such an impressive game from how it tells stories without characters even being able to talk to each other to the ridiculously expressive desktop system that lets me put icons, tools, and stickers wherever I want. My favorite toy is the high-maintenance tamagotchi that floats around the in-game desktop and poops itself to death unless you constantly feed it. I use a few of the corpses as part of my desktop art. The style and multiple albums-worth of songs are entirely their own, the characters are fresh and absurdly funny, and the bottom line is that I get to escape to a world where I don’t have to worry about my public persona. People are allowed to make mistakes, be cringy, get messy, communicate ideas without worrying that you’ll get put on a government list, all inside the abstracted cultural world of cyberspace. And the tradeoff is sometimes you get your brain melted out your ears by a virus-laden download. Oh well!

 

1. Eliza

What if there was Uber but for therapy? If you could pay $30-40 to have scheduled appointments with a deep learning robot, would you do it? Eliza is a very mature visual novel that sounds like a setup to a dystopian science-fiction scenario, but it is more firmly rooted into investigating the present day mental health needs of individuals and the tech-industry’s internal societal machinations. Eliza’s themes are appropriately timed in 2019 as juggernaut tech companies are uprooting industries by reducing the scale of jobs to gigs, illegally quashing any movement on labor rights, and abusing the private data of their users – these are impossible problems to fathom as an individual, but Eliza fits them all neatly into its branching narrative and puts a human face to these systems. Matthew Burn’s writing is impeccable down to every minute detail of Seattle life, but the highlight of the show is actress Aily Kei’s mastercraft performance of the protagonist Evelyn, a character who is fully voice acted through each of the five main routes. Whether you play as a transhumanist tech-savior of the new era, a stay-at-home partner to your cookie making manager, or a sapphic cyberpunk DJ running purely on impulse, Evelyn can be all of these and more through the caring writing and voicework. There are no blank slate protagonists here. 

Zacktronics has gained a reputation over the years for making intensely intellectual games about high-level concepts that usually demand some sort of electrical engineering and computer science degree to even participate in. But finally with Eliza, I’ve been able to have all the Zacktronics niceties of complex character development, wonderful ambient sound & music mixes, snappy menus and UI design, and especially esoteric bits of world-building like the phone with an isometric home screen, lifestyle apps, and a unique take on Solitaire that nearly ate multiple evenings of my life. This is the Zacktronics game that I’ve been wanting all along! All of the strong fiction, without the need of a doctoral degree!

In a game full of you doing emotional labor for others, it is incredible seeing the growth that Evelyn makes along her own journey. Everything starts with her forcing an end to a 3-month depressive event. As Evelyn navigates the fraught intersection of healthcare and technology, she opens herself to the struggles of real people and it changes Evelyn in subtle ways. She starts texting more complete sentences instead of one-word responses to friends, she interjects more when she sees people hurting around her; it’s almost imperceptible until you notice how far being a conduit for robot therapy has actually been your own therapy all along. It also humanizes what it’s like working in a gig-economy in ways that other similar games lack. You have a life outside your job, and the banalaties of the job are shown as genuinely enjoyable!

You’d be hard pressed to find a more dynamic and fun visual novel that makes you think, but there is also no better game to represent the complexity of the year 2019 more than Zacktronics’ Eliza, and that is why it is my Game Of The Year.

Solon

You made it all the way down here? Great job! And thank you!

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