Here’s our list of the best games of 2019. This is the intro. Feel free to imagine that it discusses whatever trends or themes you think defined the year. That’s what the intros to these kinds of lists typically do, along with hinting at some of the specific entries below in pithy or cloying ways. It always reminds me of that part at the end of Walk Hard where Eddie Vedder introduces Dewey Cox at the awards show and lists all of his generic nicknames—the kind of faux-profound puffery that hopes to impress people but is mostly just a hollow way to look smart while filling space. Did you know that a certain number of games this year shared some similarities, either incidental or fundamental, that are in no way unique to this year or each other, and that that’s enough for me to draw a tenuous and surface level connection between them? Rad. 2019: what a year for games and the people who have to hit word counts about ‘em!
I like many of the games below. If I don’t then my assistant editor, Holly Green, does, or our wayward editor-at-large Cameron Kunzelman does, or at least one of our writers Dia Lacina, Natalie Flores and Dante Douglas (fare thee well, friend—may the Riot winds guide you right) do. Mostly though I’m the one. I’m the one who did the list. I typed numbers in front of names and then pasted the code for image embeds beneath them. I didn’t write all the blurbs but I sure as heck copy-pasted the ones I didn’t write from the reviews we ran throughout the year. This level of detail might seem unnecessary but I believe in being entirely transparent. Trust in the process: the process of ranking games.
Now sit back and let our list do the thinking for you. Thanks for your support and here’s to a bangin’ 2020.—Garrett Martin
Mortal Kombat 11 goes out of its way to break down the barrier between experts and regular players. It reduces the imperceptible into easy-to-follow, step-by-step chunks that anybody can learn. Of course simply knowing how to count frame data doesn’t mean most players will be able to do it that effectively with any regularity. Also, it’s entirely possible that new meta techniques will be discovered by the fighting game community as they continue to look for advantages, once again leaving most players out of the loop. And perhaps NetherRealm intentionally baked new meta tactics into Mortal Kombat 11, knowing that the most dedicated players would quickly find them and pass them around clandestinely like they once did these other techniques.
For now, though, Mortal Kombat 11 blows up so much of the mystery around fighting games. I’ve been playing Mortal Kombat games for almost 30 years, but this is the first time I’ve really played one the way fighting games are meant to be played these days.—Garrett Martin
For the last two months my nights have all ended the same way: with me staying up way too late playing Dear Reader on my phone. On the hardest setting, Dear Reader turns excerpts from some of the most important works of literature (all in the public domain, naturally) into stressful word puzzles. Blanks need to be filled, words need to be rearranged, letters need to be guessed, and along the way you’ll basically be reading Cliffs Notes on dozens of books you probably should’ve read in high school. The sheer volume is almost overwhelming—not just in terms of books (I’ve currently unlocked 31 volumes, ranging from Moby Dick to the works of Sappho), but also the variety of different types puzzles that become available. I’ve poured dozens of hours into this mobile game, and I still haven’t reached the end of either.—Garrett Martin
Obsidian is on to something good with The Outer Worlds. The writing has an irresistible humanity, and the factions, skill system, and dynamic companion interactivity offer a beautifully complicated depth that makes me mourn the loss of Fallout 4 all over again. With it, I don’t have to miss Fallout: New Vegas anymore—I can just enjoy what its core features have become. So far, this new horizon looks promising.—Holly Green
Fallen Order stacks some of the best parts of Metroid, Dark Souls and Uncharted inside a Star Wars trenchcoat, but that isn’t the smartest thing it does. That would be how it squarely centers on the stress and trauma of its characters. PTSD should be rampant in this universe, considering war is all anybody seems to know, and yet within the Star Wars canon it’s rarely been focused on as keenly or depicted as clearly as it is here. Its lead characters aren’t all that likable, for reasons that are both intentional and unintentional, and that is a flaw; still, they feel a bit more human than what you normally see in games and Star Wars stories, and that, combined with the guaranteed to please gameplay formula, makes Fallen Order a Star Wars highlight.—Garrett Martin
Neo Cab let me have some of the most captivating conversations I’ve had in videogames—conversations that delve into philosophy, toxic friendships, justice, beauty standards, and even quantum physics. This is where Neo Cab’s excellent writing shines brightest. Even though the conversations are only as long as a cab ride, Los Ojos and its people quickly feel real. It’s not a long ride, but it’s a unique one that made me feel seen and even healed. Its several systems gracefully combine to create a cog that you want to keep turning until you reach the end. Ultimately, most of us are just cogs in a larger machine operated by those at the top. Neo Cab chooses to see the importance of the little cogs, and that’s why it’ll stick with me.—Natalie Flores
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 interference 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.—Holly Green
Grindstone borrows RPG elements and a few roguelike concepts (although you don’t really lose anything when you die, thankfully) and injects them into a color-matching puzzle game; your character has to slice and dice his way through a grid covered in enemies of different colors, but can only chain together kills with creatures of the same color. If you can kill 10 or more enemies of the same color in a single chain, a special gem will appear on screen, which will let you chain kills from your current color to one other color, opening up the possibility of massive chains that can reshape the entire board in a single move. It has a simple set of rules that it explores in exhaustive detail across 150 different stages, steadily forcing you to rethink your approach as new enemies and new obstacles are regularly introduced into the mix. I can’t think of anything in any other game I’ve played this year as satisfying as running through a massive chain in Grindstone, slashing through 30 or more enemies in a single move while also knocking off some of the stronger special monsters or cracking open a treasure chest along the way. Grindstone is a thoroughly confident game that understands exactly what a certain type of player is looking for from mobile experiences, and then goes above and beyond all expectations to make that a reality.—Garrett Martin
If you always thought Tetris would be better as a brutal war of attrition, pitting you against dozens of other players to see who can emerge from the block-strewn battlefield as the sole victor, well, Nintendo has good news for you. Tetris 99 turns the classic puzzler’s competitive multiplayer mode into a full-fledged battle royale game, with up to 99 different online players competing directly against each other. It plays just like the Tetris you know and remember. Blocks fall from the sky, you can turn them and move them right and left as they fall, and the goal is to use those blocks to form unbroken lines at the bottom of the screen. If you complete two or more lines at a time, you’ll send junk rows over to one of your 98 opponents, cluttering up their field and driving them closer to the end. You can target specific opponents with your junk rows, or anybody who’s close to going bust, or even just random people. (Really, Tetris 99 doesn’t care whose day you ruin.) And at the end there can be only one survivor. It’s like Fortnite or PUBG in puzzle form, wrapped around what’s probably the most famous videogame in the world.—Garrett Martin
Type Dreams is a beautiful and elaborate game, both stylistically breathtaking and thematically enthralling. Featuring all the antique touches of Victorian era filmmaking, from the plinky honky tonk piano soundtrack to the occasional flicker of an ancient video reel, the game pits you against some of the world’s historical fastest typists in various tests of speed and skill. There are several types of modes and contests and competitors to choose from, and each pose a serious challenge even for those who speedtype on a daily basis; personally, I’m not great at it so far but I’m still completely enchanted.—Holly Green11
Yoshi’s Crafted World is almost a kind of therapy for me. It’s like gaming detox. When I was fully overwhelmed by the stress and frustration of Sekiro, a retreat to the warm environs of this beautifully crafted world made all the difference. To use a metaphor that Yoshi’s presumed target audience has to be too young for, Yoshi’s Crafted World is the soothing chaser to the harsh shot that is Sekiro. The two have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are both videogames, but they unintentionally complement each other so well that I can’t really imagine playing one without the other now. And Yoshi’s Crafted World will no doubt have the same palliative effect when combined with any angry, serious violent spurt. It’s a game for all seasons and emotions, and almost entirely because of that glorious grade school aesthetic.—Garrett Martin
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.—Holly Green
Gato Roboto packs all the action and adventure you expect from a Metroid-style game into just a few hours of play. If you aren’t a completionist in thrall to the bewitching allure of that 100%, it’ll take even less time. It’s in and out before it turns into a chore or starts repeating itself, which sets it apart from most Metroid acolytes and even some official Metroid games. And although we wouldn’t advocate for an abridged Super Metroid or Metroid Prime (or even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), most games that follow in Samus’s bootsteps aren’t designed well enough to justify their length. Gato Roboto is here to remind those games that aimlessly dragging on and on isn’t a crucial part of the Metroid recipe.—Garrett Martin
Super Mario Maker 2 has the same impact as the original, only with an updated set of options. It still leaves Mario exposed, not just giving you the tools to design your own levels but walking you through the process step by step. Sure, it’s not how these games are really made—you won’t be doing any coding or creating any art assets—but you can still learn some of the basics of level design, and have the freedom to follow or flout those rules as you see fit.
Freedom is the foundation of Super Mario Maker 2, and that freedom is a big reason why it’ll be hard to go backwards to a traditional side-scrolling Mario game after this. It lets us break the game apart and put it back however we see fit, and no matter how seamlessly Nintendo glues it all back together in the future, we’ll still see those cracks and see how everything fits into place. Even if Nintendo was still designing side-scrolling Mario levels as ingeniously as they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we would simply know too much to once again feel the way we used to feel about them.—Garrett Martin
Sunless Skies is a slow and deeply tonal game, its rich soundscape and florid prose drawing me in from its outset, immersing me in its science fiction of sky-trains and outer colonies of a thinly-stretched Victorian empire. It’s a game that feels both intensely modern and intensely otherworldly, with conflicts between factions illuminating greater questions about the role of empire and control. It’s also, notably, a game built around semi-randomized chunks of the world, lending each adventure a customized, specific feel.
Sunless Skies’ elements of randomization mean that each specific player’s games are ever-so-slightly different: while every playthrough will include the bustling bohemian flower-city of Titania and the octogenarian fungus-laden settlement of Hybras, their specific locations around New Winchester will shuffle. Sunless Skies, then, becomes as much about exploring the world as it is about interacting with characters.—Dante Douglas
There’s a message in Falcon Age that resonates and pushes back against many established tropes of the genre. The backwater planet, of course, is still a planet. Planets have ecosystems, are populated by people, and all people deserve a right to peaceful existence and habitation. Where other sci-fi media, even games that I enjoy, like No Man’s Sky, present a fundamentally adversarial and resource-collecting relationship to planets and the inhabitants of them, Falcon Age shows a different side of the story. The planet, along with the creatures on it, are shown as valuable members of an ecosystem, and the game’s limited scope means that the world still feels alive, and concerned with things on a greater scale than you as a player. It’s a comforting feeling, and a bold statement for a development team to make with its first game.—Dante Douglas
“Fun” is a nebulous, subjective concept that many critics try to avoid, but there’s not a better word that sums up why Sekiro’s repetition never becomes a problem. Sekiro’s tightrope combat—a delicate balance of patience, timing and precision that can swing from stately to furious in an instant—is so physically and intellectually satisfying, and such a consistently evolving challenge, that it never grows old. It retains the same kernel of sheer, unabashed fun that you feel from the first time you get a handle of its defense-oriented, posture-disrupting action, but slowly tweaks it through the steady introduction of new skills and techniques.—Garrett Martin
For all that Hypnospace Outlaw is a story about the past internet, it is as much a story about our own, current internet—the internet that grapples with questions of the role of moderation, of brand engagement in community spaces, with ads and branded content. Enforcers are unpaid, but are asked to do the work of anyone from community managers to police, with little to no explanations given to users. Copyrighted content is blocked with an iron fist, unless the copyrighted content comes from a staff member of Hypnospace, in which case rules are built to be bent.
The metaphors of Hypnospace Outlaw come across fairly clearly as the game continues: this is a device meant to monopolize time that you otherwise would be resting. It’s a more literal interpretation of the same fears that plagued parents in the early 2000s, of staying up too late on the computer and not getting good sleep. In Hypnospace, you can sleep and browse—so long as you ignore the mild extra tiredness in the morning. It’s the blue-sky optimism of the dot-com bubble reinterpreted through a near-sci-fi lens.—Dante Douglas
The thing about Judgment is that, whenever I put it down, rather than think more about the game and what I was just doing, I thought about the possibilities it represents. I thought about the game that comes next, and the one after that. The stories that aren’t packaged as exceptionally well-told neo-noir crime thrillers. I was thinking about what developer Ryu ga Gotoku could do in a game without combat, one just about food, how place is physically constructed and interpreted, or the space that women occupy in Kamurocho. In a way, I wanted Ryu ga Gotoku Studio to do something more daring. And then I realized, while mechanically and narratively this game is an iteration, its daring is in the willingness to honor the humanity in everything, and then impress that upon me as a player.—Dia Lacina
Slaughtering tons of dudes has never felt so morally appropriate before. Ape Out makes a statement about animal abuse by focusing on a gorilla lab subject’s violent escape from captivity. It has the mechanical precision and deceptively deep game loop of a classic arcade game, but with a gorgeous aesthetic based on Saul Bass art and jazz percussion. Levels are packaged as if they’re tracks on old LPs, and the whole game looks like the cover to Miles Davis’s greatest hits come to life. It looks and sounds amazing, feels good to play, and has a just and socially relevant message, to boot.—Garrett Martin
There’s a beauty to Shenmue III that I hope will not go unremarked on. A visual poetry that is simultaneously ungainly and stirring. Walking through the impressionistic fields of soft yellow and pink flowers in Bailu, seeing children practicing martial arts, all under the watchful ancient gaze of tremendous mountain ranges. Each person’s face in Shenmue feels unique (even when it’s not), emotive and full of life (even when gasping like a turtle). The framerate stutters at times, NPCs pop in unexpectedly, but the world feels alive, despite the limitations of budget and technology. It is genuine, honest. Opening a dozen drawers in Shenmue III is clumsy, awkward, and tedious. It showcases the limitations of the textures used, the lack of fluidity—but each trigger of the opening and closing animation is evocative. The emotional honesty of rummaging through a large dresser, which, when was the last time you thought deeply about what rummaging through a dresser even feels like? Shenmue III wants you to sit with those feelings.—Dia Lacina
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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