10. Pathologic 2
Pathologic 2 isn’t a game that wants you to die. In fact, it explicitly cautions you against dying too much (trust me—don’t listen, the payoff is amazing). But it absolutely is a game that wants to kill you. Thirst, exhaustion, hunger, infection: These will all kill you.
You can also just straight up get killed.
And you will be killed.
All of these things will kill you, at least a couple of times.
Death fractures the reality of the game, leading to some truly marvelous writing and revelations about the nature of the world. Death will happen, yours, and that of townsfolk. Characters will die, major ones, quests will go incomplete, you won’t reach a patient in time (or you’ll botch their treatment). Time will march on, and the game will continue. But, oh, there will be consequences.—Dia Lacina
9. Heaven’s Vault
Heaven’s Vault is a sci-fi adventure starring a young historian named Aliya, who must travel around the galaxy to solve a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a professor on her adopted planet. In order to find him, Aliya has to translate the writing etched into artifacts she finds on various moons and at dig sites, each providing a piece of the linguistic puzzle that will unlock more clues to an emerging mystery. It is equal parts history and detective work, highlighted by a reverse engineering process that gives a surprisingly insightful look into the work that actual archaeologists do to decipher languages. As Aliya encounters new inscriptions, she must use everything from root words and context clues to good old fashioned process of elimination to figure out what they mean. Untranslated phrases are broken down into glyphs, which can be filled in based on those that are already known, or by those you can guess the meaning of based on how they relate to other glyphs. It reminds me, somewhat, of the ongoing efforts to translate Etruscan, a language mostly known from tombstones and ossuaries. Heaven’s Vault illustrates the creativity and intellectual flexibility needed to fill in the blanks when translating a language with almost no text examples. It almost makes you feel like a real archaeologist.—Holly Green
8. What the Golf
What the Golf finally makes golf tolerable by turning it into the most surreal and least predictable sport of all time. It regularly obliterates whatever expectations you might have from decades of legitimate golf videogames, preserving nothing from the real sport except for the basic concept of getting an object to a hole with a flag in it and a heavily abstracted approach to the traditional golf course layout. Even those aren’t omnipresent, though, as many of its dozens of holes eschew anything even remotely connected to golf. I don’t want to give too much away, as surprise is What the Golf’s greatest gift, but here are just two examples of what you can expect. Imagine what looks like a typical golf game, with an on-screen character holding a club at the tee, staring down a fairway that leads to the green. You touch the screen and pull back in order to control the power and direction of your swing. When you let go, instead of the ball soaring towards the hole, the character itself is flung deep into the fairway—or even the arrow that appears on-screen to represent the angle and strength of your swing. What the Golf pulls both of those pranks very early on, and then somehow consistently comes up with new, unexpected jokes throughout its surprisingly long run time. With bite-sized levels that each have three increasingly difficult objectives, and dozens of them in total to play through, this is yet another mobile game perfectly suited for either short, pick-up-and-play sessions, or long marathons. There are also entire clusters of holes that cheekily reference games like Super Mario, Super Meat Boy, Superhot, and even some games that don’t have the word “super” in their title. What the Golf is the rare game that tries to be funny and actually pulls it off, hilariously defying expectations with puckish glee.—Garrett Martin
7. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
This might be the best game I know I’ll never actually finish. The latest Fire Emblem game is massive. That’s no surprise—Fire Emblem games always eat up a lot of time—but Three Houses has fully established the relatively new social aspects of the series as a true equal to the tactical battles that have always been the main draw. I’ve spent at least as much time teaching my students, learning about their lives and personalities, and trying to make them happy as I have on the battlefield—and no, that is not in any way a problem. With class consciousness as a narrative backdrop, Three Houses is less of a straight-forward story than an impressionistic look at a large crew of characters united by tradition, obligation, and the need to save society as they know it—maybe while reforming it. It’s a smart, charming, sometimes brutal experience, and one whose 80 hours length per house guarantees I’ll never fully experience it. One house is good enough for me—unless every publisher in the business wants to take pity on us and not release any other games until, let’s say, 2021.—Garrett Martin
6. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium is a gloriously complex isometric RPG, starring a drug-addicted detective with memory issues in a town that has seen better days, that takes its cues from classics like Fallout or Wasteland. Stressing out about every last detail distracts from the tremendous depth built into the world of Disco Elysium, and I’m ready to stop over-preparing and otherwise manifesting my anxiety in videogames. If anything, it will make additional playthroughs, customized by the game’s peculiar set of character skills, an appealing possibility. I look forward to all the secrets that will soon unravel about Disco Elysium. But even better, I’m feeling comfortable with the mystery.—Holly Green
5. Telling Lies
Telling Lies takes the database exploration of Her Story and doubles down on it by asking you to not only solve a mystery but also to disentangle what is the truth, what is a lie, and then to determine where each of these lies exists in a hierarchy of morality. The whole thing barrels toward a conclusion that I saw coming from miles away, but that didn’t make it any less sad or horrible or anger-inducing. It’s one of the first true videogame thrillers.—Cameron Kunzelman
4. Baba Is You
Baba Is You is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking and problem solving, where the objective is to break the rules in order to win. Each level has a certain set of parameters, ie “BABA IS YOU” “WALL IS STOP” or “KEY IS OPEN” but the catch is that these rules are written out as actual words that can physically move around on the screen and be rearranged to win. I truly love this game; there were certain puzzles that had such a surprising and delightful solution that I literally cried out loud.—Holly Green
3. A Plague Tale: Innocence
This subtle, believable approach to characterization reinforces that A Plague Tale is an unusually patient and confident game. It lets its story unfold slowly, avoiding the urge to dole out increasingly elaborate set pieces with a predictable regularity. It never lets its pacing or sure-handed command of character become subservient to plot or the need for action or difficulty that’s assumed of videogames. Sometimes the notes a publisher sends game developers can be felt while playing a game—there’ll be too many action sequences, or ones that drag on for too long, or stories will feel truncated, as if a crucial plot point or bit of character development was cut out to make things move faster. That never happens with A Plague Tale, which maintains a consistent vision and pursues it at its own pace.—Garrett Martin
2. Outer Wilds
It’d be easy to make Outer Wilds sound like a mash-up of familiar influences. It’s built around a recurring time loop like Majora’s Mask; you’ll fly from planet to planet in real time in search of ancient secrets, as in No Man’s Sky; you’ll explore a variety of eldritch mysteries baked into this solar system, not unlike a new-fangled Myst. Those ideas are implemented in such a unique and seamless way, though, that the total package feels unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It focuses on a race of gentle spacefarers who build rockets out of wood in order to map the other planets that circle their sun and dig up answers on ancient settlers who left wisdom spread throughout the galaxy. The developers have clearly thought long and hard about the alien universe they’ve created, from the specific nature of its physical laws, to the culture of the creatures who populate it. The result is a game that feels appropriately alien, strengthening our desire to unlock its mysteries and explore its culture.—Garrett Martin
Remedy has worked hard to unite the mysterious and the mundane since at least Alan Wake, and Control is an almost ideal distillation of that theme. At its heart is the bureaucratic exploration of the unknown and unknowable, with the player stepping into the role of the new director of a government organization devoted to classifying and controlling unexplained phenomena. It’s an enigmatic and unpredictable quest not just into a nondescript office building that grows increasingly contorted and abstract, but into the heart of a conspiracy that spans the paranormal and the prosaic, and one that ultimately seems to have little use or concern for either the player or their character. In its depiction of humanity grasping for relevance and understanding in an indifferent and impossible to understand universe we see a clear reflection of our own existence. It’s a game of uncommon wisdom and depth, and one that needs to be played.—Garrett Martin