You know it was a good year for videogames when reviewing the past 12 months of releases makes you feel downright spoiled. Not only did 2019 start out strong, with some of my favorite titles coming out earlier in the year, but it also held steady throughout the fall to give us some unexpected contenders—along with a few much anticipated charmers—for one of the busiest but most interesting release periods in years. As the decade closes and I wrap up 10 years in games criticism, it seems fitting that 2019 was the finest year of gaming I’ve experienced yet. From the funny to the frustrating, the simple to the stupendous, here’s what I enjoyed the most in 2019.
What the Golf
Golf is boring. And rich people like it. I honestly don’t know which is worse. But the entire sport gets a sliver of redemption in the title What the Golf, a parody putt putt game that combines absurd physics and pun-inspired courses to actually make golf worth a damn. The challenges of its many trick shots are satisfying, and the constantly changing objectives keep things interesting. But above all, it’s fun, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all you need to really know when it comes to golf.
Pathologic 2 is a game so perfect in its weirdness and so committed to its hostility that you can’t help but respect it, even as its design makes it almost unplayable. While the game’s refusal to cater to certain conventions is off putting, it uses the player’s confusion and alienation to its advantage, seasoning the game with strong but deliciously bizarre writing that has the lucidity of a dream. It’s the type of game worth suffering through, and I mean that as a compliment. Pathologic 2 isn’t fun, but some games shouldn’t be.
What strikes me about Neo Cab is the thoroughness of its social commentary. Every implication of the world its designers have built has been thought all the way through. The result is a humanizing and profound comment on the intersection of tech startup culture and capitalism, and its impact on those trapped in the gig economy. I laughed and cried through Lina’s interactions with her riders, each displaying a remarkable intuition for authentic dialogue between persons of differing perspectives and social identities. Until Neo Cab, I’d never played a game that featured such honest and sympathetic conversations between female characters, and throughout its story, I felt so many of my own frustrations with job insecurity and social media playing out on the screen. Neo Cab makes me feel seen in a way that few games do and I cherish it for that.
Mutazione tackles several topics in the course of its five-hour experience, particularly the themes of traditional healing, outside interference and the perils of harboring a savior complex. Kai’s grandfather, while well-intentioned, triggers a chain of events that leads to tragedy, disrupting the emotional and spiritual health of the village. His intrusion is reflected in the slow but devastating disruption to the local ecosystem, a slow decay that isn’t addressed until his illness nearly leaves the town without a healer at all. It is only after Kai surrenders to the traditional wisdom of the elders that order and health are restored. Her grandfather’s method of teaching forces her to figure out the basics on her own, gifting her with an intuition that can only be learned through the trial and error process of hands-on work. In that way, the game is also a metaphor for her growth into adulthood.
Baba Is You
Baba Is You is a wonderful exercise in transitive 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 suit the player’s needs. The permutations of this concept and the resulting challenges are endlessly creative and surprising; there were certain puzzles that had such a delightful solution that I literally cried out loud. There are often multiple ways to solve levels that I can’t even find one answer for. Combined with the game’s whimsical, squiggly visual style and a light, affable soundtrack, I am completely charmed.
Untitled Goose Game
As far as modern game design is concerned, Untitled Goose Game is astonishingly uncomplicated. It lacks many of the conventions we’ve come to understand as “good” game design. And yet Untitled Goose Game was among the most entertaining games to come out in 2019, perhaps because it was so basic that it could be universally understood. The titular goose can only honk, evade and steal; the gameplay never gets more difficult than that. But the satisfaction of low-stakes mischief is more than enough. Untitled Goose Game is a welcome reminder that a game doesn’t have to be complex or difficult to be fun.
It’s fitting that Astrologaster is based on the stars, because frankly it’s a gas. It exhibits a merciless wit that is immensely effective in dismantling the romanticism and historical revisionism that often accompanies period pieces. But more importantly, it doesn’t seem too impressed—with the Church, with so-called literary greats, or with men, and in that sense, I identify with it a lot. Astrologaster takes no shit, but it doesn’t give any either.
Control is so good that I can’t even be mad at Remedy Entertainment for not making another Alan Wake game, even as one of Alan Wake’s biggest fans. The game beautifully capitalizes on that tantalizing push and pull between skeptics and the supernatural, a contrast that lurks around every shifting corner of The Oldest House, illustrated in the inherent sterility of a government bureau trying to formally observe and contain the anomalous and unknown, as if to tame chaos itself. It’s equal parts X-Files and House of Leaves, and both the lore it builds and the bureaucracy of its delivery is delicious, evoking a deep curiosity that cannot be satiated by the game’s mere end. It’s been a long time since I fangirled over anything, and Control reduces me to a simpering, cosplay wannabe mess.
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.
A good RPG gives its mechanics weight by supporting and facilitating multiple story paths. Disco Elysium’s complexity offers that narrative divergence in the form of Harry’s inner dialogues. There’s a primal antagonism to each aside, no matter what trait prompts it. It’s smirking and judgmental, snide, and self-satisfied, somehow detached as a third party observer even as it knows Harry more intimately than he knows himself. It knows him better because it’s willing to admit what Harry won’t, a self-reflection that can only be couched in interrogation, with a brutality that buffers a cognitive dissonance even in its honesty. It’s the sort of repentance that would redeem Harry if it wasn’t weaponized as another form of self-abuse. At most, it keeps the audience close, even as Harry’s behavior is profoundly alienating.
I don’t necessarily like Harry, but I get him. Like me, Harry can’t hide his dysfunction. When he stood, almost weeping, dressed in a wretched ensemble of black mesh, bowtie, lab coat and wingtip shoes as he sang karaoke in front of the cafe, I felt a sense of camaraderie. I wanted to comfort him, as if to say, it’s okay Harry, I am also a mess, and no one understands me or my motivations either. I, too, have a choir broadcasting my faults to the rest of my brain in perfect, four-part harmony.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.