In some ways, 2019 feels like a placeholder year. Many of the biggest upcoming releases (cough, Cyberpunk 2077, cough) have slipped to 2020. A lot of big publishers and studios are clearly in a holding pattern, developing as-yet-unannounced titles for the new PlayStation and Xbox consoles slated to launch next year. This is not to say that there haven’t been great games this year; there have. Just that it’s difficult to not look to the horizon.
There are, in my experience, two categories of games you can play in 2019. There are what I call “forever games”: titles that are constantly changing and altering and adding new stuff with each patch. These are your Fortnites, Destinys, The Division 2s, and whatnot — games, usually shooters, that act like treadmills. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the indie scene has never felt more diverse and robust, offering a slew of smaller, highly directed experiences that address themes and ideas not often present in mass-market titles. As far as I can recall, this was the first year that video-game fans could take control of an anarchic goose. That’s innovation.
Ape Out is the story of an Ape who gets out. You watch from overhead as it rampages through labs and skyscrapers and freighter ships, grabbing his captors and throwing them against a wall with such force that they splatter into mush. But Ape Out isn’t a particularly violent game. It renders all of this in an art style heavy on sharp angles and silhouettes, reminiscent of Saul Bass. The violence is additionally tempered by the game’s great audio design, which replaces otherwise gory sound effects with instrumentation (a cymbal crashes whenever you smash an enemy to pieces). It, in effect, turns Ape Out into an improv jazz session as well as a good challenge.
Apex Legends complicates the battle-royale formula and puts a fresh spin on it, showing the genre still has plenty of potential left. Instead of every player having the exact same skillset, different characters can boost each other in different ways. If your aim sucks, for instance, you can focus on playing a support class and healing your teammates when they’re injured. It’s fast, frenetic, and a welcome change of pace from Fortnite and PUBG.
I feel like I’m still recovering from the ways Baba Is You wrecked my brain. Most of my time in the game was spent staring at the screen, trying to work out the hybrid sliding block/logic puzzle it had presented to me, and often feeling like the stupidest person on earth. And then, with enough poking and prodding and experimentation (and sometimes — full transparency — Googling), the solution presents itself. That makes you somehow feel like the smartest person in the universe and even dumber for not having seen the answer sooner.
Cadence of Hyrule is styled as a Zelda game, and it kind of is, but it’s really just a skin placed over Crypt of the NecroDancer, a dungeon-crawling RPG that requires the player to move and fight in time with the music. Mostly it functions as a testament to the timeless aesthetic of the Zelda series: simply skinning another type of game to seem like Zelda makes it instantly more appealing. It’s got some killer remixes, too.
Eliza is a visual novel that tackles all matter of thorny subjects, including but not limited to: the ethics of Big Tech, burnout and crunch in software development, mental health, solutionism, gentrification, and workplace harassment. Its story is told with detail and care, even if you can see the final act’s minor twist coming a mile away, and its voice acting is well done.
Gears 5 ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s still a Gears game, with the chainsaw guns and the jaw-dropping graphical detail. But it also takes chances with its gameplay structure (there’s an open world, albeit an admittedly lifeless one) and complicates the legacy of its formerly one-dimensional characters in ways that suggest meaningful signs of life in the Gears universe. One assumes the next game will take even bigger swings.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a game that makes you play as a content moderator, and I loved everything about it. The game takes place in an alternate reality 1999, on a Geocities-like platform called the Hypnospace that users can only navigate in their sleep using software known as HypnOS. You are tasked with rooting out malfeasance ranging from copyright infringement to illegal e-commerce to cyberbullying, and you do so by clicking around and reading profoundly ugly, era-accurate webpages full of low-res pictures and garish fonts. It’s incredible, and nostalgic in all the right ways, and a compelling fictionalized demonstration of how difficult platform moderation really is.
Look, sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and watch a cast of meatheads stomp around and travel through time and tear each other limb from limb. Sometimes you want to watch a man rip his opponent’s arm off, swing that severed arm like a bat, sending their opponent’s head straight into the air, and then when the head drops back down, whack it with the arm again so hard that the skin left on the skull flies off like the leather of a baseball. Sometimes, you just want a video game that can offer dozens of slapstick, comically intricate moments of violence like this.
Observation offers a compelling take on the “lost in space” scenario: Instead of playing as a distressed astronaut, you get to play as the corrupted Hal 9000–like artificial intelligence that controls the ship. The game hits well-worn beats of the genre, but its twisty story and lo-fi analog aesthetic do a lot to create a tense atmosphere.
We’re basically talking about Groundhog Day in space. Outer Wilds takes place in a tiny universe composed of tiny planets. Every 20 minutes or so, the sun explodes, setting you back to where you started. Your objective is to figure out why that explosion happens. Doing so involves visiting each planet, which are little puzzles of their own: a water planet covered in tornadoes that shoot its floating islands into orbit every so often; a bramble planet full of blind, man-eating space fish; and so on. Outer Wilds provides a great mix of inventive settings, immersive space travel, and sci-fi mystery, but it’s also a chill game about exploring the universe.
Telling Lies is an enormous expansion of the keyword-search video-hunt game style that director Sam Barlow established in 2015’s Her Story. You get an enormous database of found footage that somehow involves an undercover cop and the three women in his orbit, and are left to determine exactly how they relate to each other and what happened to each of them. It’s an immersive, fuzzy type of storytelling that leaves the player to discover its sequence of narrative events in whatever order they please, jumping around in time and space, following hunches and instincts. Its ambling, free-flowing nature that lets the player choose where they want to go is like nothing else this year.
Most games run out of dialogue. Often times, if a player takes longer to complete a task than the game has accounted for, the game’s characters clam up, having exhausted their voice tracks and leaving the player fumbling around in silence. Trover, for better or worse, never shuts up. Written and performed by Justin Roiland of Rick & Morty fame, Trover Saves the Universe is what one might get if they wrote aimless Twitch commentary directly into a game. It’s not exactly fun to play, but it’s balanced out by the fact that you’ll constantly hear new conversations. Some jokes land, some definitely don’t, but as an interactive experience it’s singular.
There is a simple elegance to Untitled Goose Game, which lets you play as a horrible goose who runs around a small village terrorizing residents, damaging property, and honking incessantly. With dedicated buttons for honking, grabbing, extending one’s neck, sprinting, and flapping wings, it offers an effective simulation of what it’s like to be a goose who just wants to watch the world burn.