Thanks, videogames: we really needed you this year.
If you want to avert your eyes to the outside world, double lock your mind and focus on anything but modern day life, videogames can be your friend. We’re not advocating that anybody do that, of course—it’s not healthy or smart, and such resignation would represent a clear victory for the forces of fear that Marianne Williamson promises to defeat with love. But we’ve all got to do something to stay stable in this world we live in, and the power of games isn’t just the escapism they provide but the ability they have to influence our moral and philosophical thinking. The best games aren’t just “fun” but have something to say, as well, even if that something is as simple as “hey, build a Mario already, for crying out loud.”
2019 is only half over but it’s already been full of games that meet both criteria, the tactile physical thrills we hope to encounter with a controller in our hand, and the intellectual and emotional resonance that makes a game stick with us long after we put that controller down. It’s been a good year for games so far, and here are the 20 works most responsible for that.
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
Apex Legends burst out of the gate with a ferocity that the battle royale genre hasn’t seen in a long time. This wasn’t the pioneering-but-clunky first attempts at the genre like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, nor was it the slow-but-unceasing dominance of Fortnite: Battle Royale, Apex is something different. Apex Legends feels like a game from ten years in the future, where our understandings of the battle royale genre have moved beyond the petty bugs and design foibles of today.
Instead, Apex Legends oozes polish. It’s fast, it’s relatively bug-free, it looks and sounds incredible, it has a game-changingly good contextual communication system, and perhaps most interestingly it’s managed to graft a character-focused roster onto a battle royale design more elegantly and effectively than its closest genre competitor in Call Of Duty’s Blackout mode or representation-discourse-regular Overwatch.—Dante Douglas
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
The unwinnable-for-plot-reasons boss fights aside, Devil May Cry 5 never wants the player to feel any less than like they’re the coolest person on earth. While the game isn’t overly easy, health and upgrades are plentiful, every character has multiple options to handle any situation thrown at them, and the checkpointing system is gracious. Before every boss fight you are given a chance to upgrade and heal back up. In boss fights, if you go down you can use basic red orbs or special gold orbs to get right back into the fight. And this game is constantly tripping over itself to give you all the orbs you’ll ever need. Devil May Cry wants you to be the ultimate badass, and it’s going to give you every opportunity and tool it can.—Dia Lacina
’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
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
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
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
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
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