This list will be more unburdened than the last as far as prolegomena go, but I would like to highlight one obvious thing: possible spoilers for all the games discussed below.
5. Celeste by Matt Makes Games
Celeste heartbreaks with its loveliness. It’s such a sweet, quiet, unpretentious story, painted in beautiful visuals, graced with phenomenal music. It’s also one of the best single-player platformers ever made, with capital P Perfect controls, godeye precise inertia/momentum, and a deeply satisfying, eminently doable difficulty curve. With Towerfall, Matt Makes Games created something I admired but couldn’t love. Here, with Celeste, they made something that’s even better mechanically, but has the heart and art to match.
4. Crusader Kings II by Paradox Development Studio
Everyone has a Crusader Kings II story. Mine is the tale of Dubchoblaig, the Spider Queen; I won’t recount her long and bitter life here, because if you’ve looked into CKII you’ve heard such tales before. CKII broke out of the Paradox clique and into a wider audience based (mainly) on this endless narrative fecundity. I can’t add a lot to the discourse except to confirm that, yeah, it really does create these epic (in the old, not the roflcopter sense) tales, spinning out characters, events, micro- and macrodramas, births and deaths of kings & kingdoms, desperate wars and overwhelming crusades for the entirety of your 60, 70, 80-hour playthrough. If you have any sort of imagination at all CKII will devour your life. It’s also free now (but buy the Way of Life expansion before your first game).
3. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice by FromSoftware
After crafting and honing a phenomenal melee combat system in the Souls games, FromSoft went on and made an even better one in Sekiro. No game, ever, captures the riverine poetry of a sword duel better than this one. Nearly every encounter comes at you with lethal threat, bare death, pushing you to incredible-feeling feats of awareness and reflex; key encounters end with you crowned Conqueror, adrenaline networking into hot wires and glorious burning fractals beneath your skin. As much as I love (most of) the Souls games, Sekiro makes me want to tell From: Never Look Back.
2. BattleTech by Harebrained Schemes
Soldier through the laborious, vague, lumpen, unhelpful tutorial and drab first mission. When BattleTech shifts into gear it becomes an engrossing tactics game that constantly presents you with crunchy, high-stakes battles. I can play engagements out over and over again in my mind, because the palimpsesting tactical considerations make them so tangibly there. And once you finish BattleTech‘s mostly superb campaign you can play again in Career Mode, living the unencumbered, de-training wheels’d life of a merc, cruising around a galaxy as wide and dangerous as a shark’s mouth, with a crew of lovable rogues and a hangar full of badass ‘Mechs.
1. Slay the Spire by Mega Crit Games
Slay the Spire is, to paraphrase Mary McCarthy, a creation of perfect beauty and symmetry. McCarthy was talking about Nabokov’s Pale Fire when she wrote that sentiment. Slay the Spire is objectively better than Pale Fire.
It’s a deckbuilding roguelite dungeon crawler that takes card game precepts, alloys them with the possibilities of a digital playspace, and creates something so good, so tight, so endlessly fresh and surprising that I feel like I could – and will – play it forever. I love each of the classes. I love the art. I love the enemies and bosses, even the ones that are fucking insufferable assholes. I don’t know if I love the music because I’ve never listened to it (update: it’s good but not great). Slay the Spire is so good the only complaints I have are requests: more classes, beta access on the Switch version or if not than at least cross-platform saves. For a certain type of person, Slay the Spire will be as primordial and eternal as chess.
Best Video Game Podcast: Cane and Rinse
The more I listen to Cane and Rinse, the more I appreciate just how good it is. A great cast of contributors with truly different viewpoints on the games provides refreshingly nuanced, multifaceted texture to the discussion. Cane and Rinse also provides an incredible amount of extras for its Patreon supporters while asking for so little in return. Go listen to them, and support them if you can.
Worst Game I Played This Year: Red Dead Redemption 2
It’s important to stress how shitty RDR2 is, both as a game and as one of the most visible representatives of ethics in the games industry. Kotaku’s report on the crunch culture at Rockstar gives an evenhanded account of what went into making this game. When a trendsetter like Rockstar creates a massive critical and commercial success despite reports like this, it gives the All Clear to other companies, signalling that nobody – not consumer nor critic – will take any action against unethically-produced games. Kotaku themselves reviewed the game, glowingly. This is the most insidious form of FOMO: nobody, no matter how moral, is willing to take a stance on something if it means even the possibility of missing out on something.
And RDR2‘s also a bad game. Yes, on a graphical level their vision of the West is (for now) superb, but with a titanic budget bouyed by meticulously extracted blood, sweat, and tears, how could it not be? Underneath the glamour the game is shambolic, infuriatingly conventional. From the flat-feeling gunplay to the non-operational survival systems, this game clanks and clatters under mechanics that are bland or worse. RDR2 has graphics from a year in the future but gameplay that was outdated 10 years ago. Rockstar also squandered the best character they’ve ever written with a story that rapidly devolves into the most drawn out, pewling instance of fan service I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Image Credit: Anailis Dorta