I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
With each passing year the pile of games grows higher and higher. Diamonds get buried in the deluge of release dates; live games swell and surge with patches and expansions; we all tell ourselves “I’ll get to those games later, when I have the time,” only to be confronted with the reality, at year’s end, that there will never be time. The games will never stop. There will always be more games, more patches, more content, more and more and more. With that in mind, I thought it best to provide less; to eschew the traditions of excess all too familiar to us who subsist in Capitalist Hellsocieties around the world, and give you just five of my favorite games from 2019.
I was watching my brother play Warframe back when it first launched, and the only memory I had of it was “Wow, this PvP game looks neat; it’s a shame I’m not interested in PvP games.” For years I had assumed Warframe was a PvP-only game, based on the 2-odd minutes I watched my brother go at it.
Well, the joke’s on me because it turned out to be one of my favorite games of 2019. I’m years late to the party, but that hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly enjoying my time with Warframe. Being a free-to-play game, it has a lot of grinding and timer mechanisms in place. In a year filled to the brim with new games, having to wait for weapons or Warframes to finish building meant that I could take breaks from the game to play other titles. Obviously, those timers are in place to encourage you to spend money, but I’m a patient sort, and using them to my advantage rather than getting frustrated with waiting felt much easier on my brain.
Warframe has an art direction and visual design that speaks to me in ways other “spacey, shooty” games never did. I’m not going to claim that it’s “better” than any Halo, but I certainly enjoyed Warframe’s PvE elements more. It’s a game I look forward to playing more of, as the narrative is much more impressive than I would’ve expected.
4. Dicey Dungeons
I’ve always had a fondness for dice. One of the items I ordered at my elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair was a booklet accompanied with dice whose pips were bordered with bones, and whose six side was replaced with a debossed skull (yeah, I was all in on my brand before I even knew what I was doing). When I traveled overseas, I would purchase dice whenever I could find them. My brief college experience was stressful to say the least, and throughout it I took to bringing along six d6’s in my pocket, to hold and fiddle with to ease my nerves. Dice have always given me a sense of control, despite their entire purpose being to remove control from those who cast them.
Which is kind of funny when you think about how Dicey Dungeons starts with Lady Luck herself turning her contestants into dice creatures for her dungeon-themed game show. Featuring a phenomenal chiptune soundtrack by THE Chipzel, Dicey Dungeons fully explores its mechanics of rolling dice and using items to outplay adorable opponents. Each character has their own gimmicks and playstyles, and the finale is worth sticking to the end for. Also, it has a skeleton with a big sword in it; an absolute masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.
3. Dragon Quest Builders 2
I started this decade playing Minecraft, and I never would’ve guessed in a million years that I’d end it by playing a delightful block-building game that wasn’t Minecraft, much less one spawning from Dragon Quest of all franchises. Akira Toriyama’s art style is not one of my favorites, but Dragon Quest Builders 2 warmed me up to it immensely. It was helped by my fondness for Dragon Warrior Monsters for the GameBoy Color; seeing old and familiar monsters, fully modeled and rendered, posing just like they did in that game, with all the same sound effects, was like stepping into an idealized variant of that game.
The two games don’t have many comparisons beyond that, but DQB2 is a fine game by its own merits. Many folks struggle with open-ended building games like Minecraft because a lack of direction or narrative motivation gridlocks their brain, preventing them from enjoying the act of building for its own sake, and DQB2 sidesteps this completely by having clearly defined goals and blueprints for the player to build at their leisure. Most of the game is one extended tutorial on showcasing the numerous systems at play with its building mechanics, but it’s all packaged in an easy-to-follow narrative with charming writing and down-to-earth characters. You’re encouraged to take things at your own pace; build what you want when you want; get creative or stick to the script, and in a game like Dragon Quest Builders 2, that’s the best of both worlds.
2. Baba is You
Baba Is You is a game that broke me down countless times, and it’s one of the most clever puzzle games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. When I say it “broke me down,” what I mean is that all too often I would play a level and be unable to complete it; I’d get frustrated and quit out of the game, only to stop myself two minutes later. “Wait a minute, I never tried X, let me go back in.” Then, my third eye would open and I would see all the parts I glanced over before. It was astounding how often Baba Is You forced me to reevaluate how I approached its puzzles. Sometimes it’s not the pieces themselves, nor the connections they make, but their pure physicality that gives you the final click needed to solve the level.
Its visual design is absolutely adorable, its puzzles are relentless and considered and crafty, and some of the later moments and mechanics carry a lot of emotion for a game with no direct narrative. I think about the time I first broke the “Baba Is You” rule, and the eerie wind sound that plays as the puzzle lays before you; desolate and destroyed, with no way for you to interact with it anymore. I think about the ways new pieces get used, often to comedic or absurd effect. I think about the mini-narratives each level provided, and how often you have to rely on automatons or bugs to help you reach “Win.” I think about the first time I was able to make “Skull Is You.” I think this might be one of my favorite puzzle games of all time.
Baba Is You And Good.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
What else can I say? You could read my review of Shadowbringers on the site; you could listen to the six goddamned hours Rose and I recorded combing over everything the expansion contains. But if I had to sum up in one sentence as to why it’s my Game of 2019, it’d be this: Shadowbringers has one of the best personal stories I’ve ever experienced in a video game.
Throughout Shadowbringers, you learn the forlorn history of a parallel world on the brink of utter annihilation. You learn of civilizations long dead, of local traditions cut short, of ways of life long forgotten. You experience the impact of a global catastrophe, and despite being a hero who has won battles and killed gods and stood up against injustices, you can only hope to save what remains. You cannot save everything, and you cannot save what has already been lost.
For most of Final Fantasy XIV’s story, you are a champion of the people; you stand up when they are pushed down by oppressors; you shield them when they are threatened by hungry gods and the evil empire alike. With Shadowbringers, however, the fate of two worlds rests on your shoulders, and you are no Atlas. The game balks at the notion that one person, no matter how powerful or experienced, can bear the weight of the world by themselves. It is only through the combined strength of collaborators and cooperators, of families and friends, that the impossible becomes possible.
We live in a time when the powers that be fail to safeguard our own planet’s health. A time when the rich commodify and curate cultures and communities. A time when it’s all too easy to feel powerless as an individual. The message that working together is the best (and often only) way to save the things you care about is a resonant one.