At the time of this writing, it is Jan. 2, and I have not yet even begun to process 2018. For me it was an extremely busy year. I spent the last 12 months challenging myself to become a better writer, improving my consistency, conducting more interviews, taking more risks and spending more time on the unique games and stories that appealed to me the most. It was the most active effort I’ve ever made in my decade as a games critic.
The result was a body of work that I can hardly believe is mine. There was no shortage of things to write about, whether it was violence in videogames, the emerging low poly horror game scene, or the escalating series of disasters that is Fallout 76. As with every year I look back and reflect on what I wrote, there are countless articles I wish I could re-edit now, but I suppose those sort of growing pains never go away. At the very least, I can close out 2018 knowing I didn’t waste a single moment.
Here are the games that left the biggest impact on me this year.
Like the recent Paratopic, Concluse proves that while game design is often obsessed with “pushing the envelope” mechanically and visually, abandoning certain styles and techniques the minute the technology allows us, that doesn’t mean those methods are no longer useful, or that the games they’re used in are any less valuable. Rather, they can be repurposed and used perhaps even more effectively than they were before. Everything old is new again, and in the case of Concluse, that is a very good thing.
Paratopic takes place from three different perspectives in a surreal dystopia where media is contraband and rumors suggest the government is selling electricity to aliens. It sounds bizarre, and it is; in fact, singling out any detail from the game feels dishonest, as it can only really be understood or enjoyed in context. The game first caught attention months ago for its visuals, which quickly built up hype as being distinctively unsettling. Its dated polygons are tinged with a distorted color loss that makes it feel like a well worn VHS tape losing key data with every viewing. Combined with the way it rapidly switches between tangentially connected (but equally indecipherable) plotlines, and those long drives along a darkened highway peering five feet into the night, the game feels almost Lynchian. Which I suspect is the best endorsement I could ever give anything.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee are the first core Pokémon games to grace a console and, in a sense, the first Pokémon games. Modeled closely after the original Pokémon Red, Blue andYellow from the ‘90s, much of what made up the originals is alive and present in this Nintendo Switch revival. It provides the perfect opportunity for novices to understand the full scope and balance of the Pokémon universe, both by offering a starting point for newcomers and by tapping into the mechanics of the lucrative mobile phenomenon in Pokémon Go. So how does a game built entirely on the sensibilities of one released in 1996 hold up in 2018? Pretty well, actually. The core premise of catching and batting Pokémon still holds a lot of tension, and the new refurbishing details are a nice little face lift to seal the deal.
Just Shapes & Beats is cool in a way that is just unfair. It’s like being able to play my SoundCloud playlists as a videogame, or as I put it two years ago, like playing a music video as a videogame. For a game with such short levels and simple pretense, a perfect harmony between length, price and difficulty has been adequately achieved. Whether you’re a bullet hell aficionado who blasts through the main campaign in a few hours, or a fumbling novice preserving through each level by sheer luck, Just Shapes & Beats is the whole package.
Emerging this past summer as the macabre, campy and deliciously evil counterpart to Stardew Valley, Graveyard Keeper stole our hearts by combining dungeon crawling and crafting to deliver a medieval management sim that’s as fucked up as it is fun. Whether you’re wooing a corrupt priest, making candles from human fat, or just dumping bodies in the river, the busy work in Graveyard Keeper is truly ghastly business. But there are so many games that let you harvest food, and only one that lets you harvest cadavers. For its inventive and dark spin on the genre, this game is, you could say, a keeper, and definitely one of the year’s best.
The beauty in the Life is Strange games is that they’re quiet and contemplative. When I’m in one, I feel encouraged to stop, take a breath, slow down, and enjoy the scenery. In my job, I often pressure myself to take on too much and wind up playing games too fast or not enjoying the real world outside my own front door. It’s very difficult to do that with Life is Strange. A strong value for human life comes through in every moment of the game, not just for the life of the characters, but in a sense, for yours as well.
Similar to last year’s Gorogoa, Gris is a latecomer in terms of 2018 releases, but also too smart and beautiful to ignore in a year-end roundup. Written as a metaphor for grief and loss, the game is a basic puzzle platformer, but designed with an intuitiveness that is immensely gratifying in its smoothness and fluidity. Channeling a deep sense of isolation and melancholy, the game’s stunning environments are awash with the rich and warm textured tones of a watercolor painting, with the finer pen and ink details of a storybook illustration, bringing to mind games like Machinarium in its style and artistry. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I’m not sure I deserve a game like Gris. It’s one of the loveliest things I’ve ever played.
I like games that allow you to reflect on the multiple decisions you made and contemplate what might have been. Life is Strange comes to mind; it was interesting to see the percentages reflecting what choices other people made as they played the game and imagine how my playthrough might have gone had I done things differently (with sometimes heartbreaking results). I wonder sometimes if there’s another me in an alternate timeline, benefiting from all the good decisions I never made in this one. Sometimes I think she’s looking out for me, a omniscient future self reaching out from the fourth dimension as an invisible hand guiding me towards the slightly better path in hopes I fuck up just a little less. Maybe there’s multiple copies of me in multiple timelines, all failing or thriving in their unique ways, and when you line them up they form a sliding scale of human suffering. Maybe it’s like the ending of SOMA and I sometimes I just have to be happy for the me that is hurting just a little less somewhere else far away.
Florence is refreshing in that it frames a past relationship not as a failure, but rather, an event that can be cherished even if it doesn’t end on ideal terms. Its redemption narrative is based not on trying to salvage what might not be worth saving, but of growing and moving on. It’s an empowering message amid so much romantic fiction that encourages women to self doubt, self neglect, and suffer for love. And it reminds me that I can make the decision to be okay.
There are plenty of games out there, mostly point and clicks, that ask the player to solve a major mystery by piecing together clues from the environment. But few provide such a challenge. Return of the Obra Dinn reminds me of geometry, with all its theorems and proofs, where the goal is to figure out the relationship between all the figures and elements of the equation until a conclusion can be drawn. Often it requires holding several pieces of partial information in suspension, following the trail of thought until even just one tiny, solid sliver of detail unlocks a key to the whole cypher. The tension is addicting, each victory a triumph no matter how small…It’s like a game of murder sudoku, with a stylish, almost swashbuckling, flair.
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.