I’d be lying to you if I told you I felt up to ranking the best games that came out this year the way we, and everyone on the internet, tend to do annually. I played a shit load of games this year. So much so that I don’t think I even care to sort out which of them is “the best of the best.” Games are good, folks. But even good games can be troublesome. Maybe in their execution, or the discourse (or lack thereof) surround them.
This year, I dedicate my written list to games I have something to say about. It won’t be ordered or ranked, but a game wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t like it more than most of what came out this year. There are more than ten games on it. I hope you don’t mind.
There a plenty of games that I loved that aren’t on this list. I just don’t have anything insightful to say about titles like Dead Cells or Into the Breach, even though I’ve clocked dozens of hours in both. I’d rather not waste your time with the standard “it good” ramblings.
You’ll notice that “Required Reading” is back. These are pieces of writing about particular games that I think are worth reading to help fill in some perspectives on some games. Not every entry has one this year. Frankly, not everything written about even the most popular games is all the all that interesting.
Anyway, let’s get this bread.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
WTWTLW is a game I’ve written a lot about in 2018. Which is interesting considering how little anyone else did, it seems. I don’t know how to make this game a success. I don’t know how to get people to see just how interesting and truly special this imperfect game is. This sort of lost helplessness is only a fraction of Johnnemann Nordhagen must be feeling in 2018.
Listen, those of you reading this GOTY list are just a fraction of the people who read Irrational Passions as a whole. Folks who log on to IP at all are such a minuscule part of the video games internet. But I you can spare the time to be here, I implore you to spare a couple of bucks and give Where the Water Tastes Like Wine a try. It might not be your sort of video game. But it’s such a strange game that there’s no real way to know until you boot it up.
Required Reading: Year in Review 2018 Letter Series: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine-WTWTLW Knows That Marginalized American Grumps Tell the Best Stories by Jarrett Green, The Plight of the Word Doctor – An Interview With Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s Laura Michet by Jarrett Green, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Postmortem by Johnnemann Nordhagen
God of War
As a discussion of how parents can overcompensate to keep their children safe, it misses maybe more than it hits. As a conversation surrounding the how to properly respect and carry forward the empathetic legacy of the generation before you, it fails. As a whole reinterpretation of the eons old Norse myth, it’s an astounding work that does wonders for some aspects, and horrors for others.
All of God of War’s big narrative faults begin and end with how it treats its mothers. It something you’ve heard a lot about if you are in the Waypoint orbit, thanks to frequent contributor Dia Lacina. It’s probably not something you want to consider. That’s your prerogative. As the son of a single mother – brother of a twin sister and an older brother with special needs – I can’t ignore it. A stereotypical mother doing the lowbrow things we expect is one crass but ignorable thing that we would all probably just chalk up to bad characterization. In 2018’s God of War, too many of us have spent too much ink and time justifying it as dark and brilliant character work.
Dead female moral compasses and crazy hover moms are NOT clever characters, anymore. It’s the Magical Negro of female characters. You can read people gush endlessly about to many things God of War does well elsewhere. Some of it I agree with, which is why the game is on this list to begin with. Cory Balrog earnestly wrote and created what made sense to him from his lens. This list isn’t in his lens.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen made when describing Bad North to folk on the internet is when people call it a “chill alternative” to the RTS. I find that definition lacking. FTL could be considered a “chill alternative” to space RTS, by that definition. I know no one who would agree with that, either.
FTL is a pretty good analog to Bad North. They operate similarly – simple mechanics of combat under the choose-your-own-adventure sort of procedurally generated over map. In FTL, there’s a lot of different locations and myriad possibilities for what can happen in them. In Bad North, every island is a combat scenario. The elements are simple and vague, but they all matter. Repetition is it’s own teacher that reveals each of your potential unit’s strengths and weaknesses.
Games don’t talk to us this way anymore. They don’t trust you to be smart enough to get it by yourself. I love Bad North because it makes me look and listen. It makes me consider every option and alternative, and lets me com up with my own answers. This won’t work for every game, but is sure as hell works for this one.
We make one kind of video game, these days. Third person action base with open-world elements. Sprinkle in a liberal helping of collectibles. Add some rough-chopped stealth sections. Simmer over a basic-skills combat system and volia! Your AAA action game “makes you feel like <insert your favorite superhero/smarmy swashbuckler/cyberpunk cop here>!”
Yeah, I’m cynical over Spider-Man. Partly because I watched Into the Spider-Verse around the time I wrote this, which is the most interesting and refreshing superhero movie in at least a decade. Insomniac Games has been a sure-handed staple of game design and development for most of my life, and the game they made was completely competent and fun. But considering this is the same company that made the Resistance series, maybe the most ingenious FPS of the PS3 era, I expected more. More than just more colorful, whimsical Arkham, at least.
Spider-Man is a character who has been reinterpreted and re-purposed dozens of times, and the need to fly so close to established video game norms with such a sure fire license in hand seems like a miss. I spent at least 30 hours swinging, punching, looting, and quipping through a New York under siege, and never felt like I was doing something I haven’t done somewhere else before. Even if Marvel’s Spider-Man does it all better, it’s not so much better that I feel like I won’t be doing this same thing next year in some other Next Big Game.
Required Reading: They made that one videogame again but this time it’s called Spider-Man by Matt Leslie
The Banner Saga 3
Maybe the hardest thing to do when trilogizing anything is getting the ending right. So many people have attached themselves to your work, personalizing it in their own ways. Every long term fan is a unique set of expectations ripe to be let down.The Banner Saga is no different.
There was a lot of talk about how to fix what could be considered institutionally broken about the series. The lack of parity between your split parties, the incredibly slim enemy types, and the utter helplessness you might feel when you don’t see the death of a signature character coming. The Banner Saga 3 doesn’t do too much to fix most of these things.
But it’s always been a series elevated by it’s desperately grim story. For those who’ve been around with the series since the beginning, watching the last remnants of civilized life tear each other apart in Aberrang is a bittersweet payoff. The Banner Saga is truest to it mission statement here: even at the literal end of the world, people cannot and will not pull their shit together.
The flip side – that it only takes a handful of hard-nosed do-ers to fix what’s broken – is the other half of this epic’s mantra. Like a Jigsaw torture trap, painful, gruesome sacrifice can free us from the darkness. In a year that constantly reminds us that maybe the power we’d hoped to gain by awaking the darkness within us is caustic and not worth the damage, it’s messages like this that I’m happy games aren’t afraid to send.
I’ve already written extensive feelings about Euclidean Skies in my review for a few months ago. I won’t spend too much time here belaboring the point. If you like the concept of physical puzzles, as well as the tactical acumen required in board-game-turned-video game puzzles like from the likes of the GO series, then run, don’t walk, to Euclidean Skies
I still remain floored by it, and you might also.
Required Reading: Review: Euclidean Skies by Jarrett Green
Return of the Obra Dinn
If games could be art, Obra Dinn is our best argument for it. Not only because of how it looks and how it sounds, but how it uses every single micro element as a step towards it’s overall vision. Like a great painting or a brilliant novel, everything in Lucas Pope’s instant classic is there for a reason.
As a murder mystery, Obra Dinn is as suspenseful and surprising as movies like The Wailing, tv shows like True Detective, and books like Night Film. As a logic puzzler, you will never feel as brilliant as when you figure out who killed what and how just by taking note of the kinds of clothes they wear or where they spent most of their time on the ship. Obra Dinn is smarter than you, but trusts that you can learn with the best of them.
You have not played a game like Return of the Obra Dinn in your life. It will be a long while before you play a game that’s anything like it in the future. One of the biggest casualties of the Indiepocalypse has been true innovation in the shadow of full-of-heart homages. May Luke Pope continue to fight to make the medium of video games the unique, weird, and undeniable creative medium we were promised for years to come.
Required Reading: Why Return of the Obra Dinn is my game of the year by Lauren Hudson
Give game design genius the easiest job a puzzle game guy could get – make a Tetris game – and he’s going to absolutely over do it. Tetris Effect is like one of the really long, warbling Christina Aguilera vocal ad libs from the 2000s. No one else can find a way to make classics the National Anthem both sound powerful and take twice as long like The Lady Who Wasn’t Britney Spears.
Mizuguchi flexes on the mic with Effect, and like Aguilera at a ballpark, keeps the lyrics of Tetris mostly the same, but makes them all feel new. Maybe the best feature to be added to the decades old classic since the block shadow is having a pool of two blocks to choose from, that can be swapped at any point during a block fall. A little change that makes everything better, like taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The feature you all heard about, though, is the visual/audio feast that really only the director of Lumines could provide. The story of humanity over a 27 level journey that is inspiring and touching etc. Listen, I’m not here to yuck your yum and tell you that that isn’t awesome. What I will say that it’s ubiquitous Effect on people might be more of a testament to how truly dour 2018 was.
Required Reading: Tetsuya Mizuguchi interview: Taking Tetris on a PS VR acid trip by Jason Wilson
Super Smash Brothers Ultimate
The Hypebeasts do a poor job at describing what makes Smash good in favor of what makes Smash feel good to them. A record store full of old remixes might play on old heart strings. It’s understandable to hear a theme from decades ago and get fond memories of the first time you heard it. But this isn’t the first game to feature old remixes, especially when we are right smack in the middle of The Remake Era of video games.
And this continued wide-eyed wonder at the ever growing cast of Smash-ers, where people breathlessly praise the very concept of adding a character from old Nintendo series’ as some sort of new innovation in 2018 is silly. Smash is 20 years old, and has been doing basically the same thing across five different consoles that whole time. I know this year is fucking horrible, but let’s just take a deep breath.
Ultimate is only the second Smash I’ve owned and already is the Smash I’ve put the most time into. Ultimate has found maybe every single way possible to modify and shake up the act of playing a round of the game. It’s World of Light mode is reminiscent of the pleasant, opioid mindlessness of Dissidia’s dungeons, with more candy-coated Easter Eggs. It’s all just sugar sprinkles over the tried and true core game that will never not be, at the very least, good.
I’ve played maybe every Hitman game besides 2016’s reboot, and the only ones I’ve come away with more than just a “meh” feeling about is Hitman GO and this year’s Hitman 2. The elevator pitch is too good to ignore. These particular targets need killing, and it’s up to you to figure out a way to do so. There’s no strong narrative mission forcing you beat by beat to do the job. It’s just your Agent 47, an exotic local full of folks minding their goddamn business, and you manipulating the various ways death happens when those two things collide.
Every step is a piece in an elaborate puzzle full of micro-ecosystems and mini-scenarios that can fold you closer to a mark, or repel you away like the invader that you are. It absolutely has it’s frustrations. You can play a mission for upwards of an hour, just to die because you didn’t see a camera in the distance that alerted folks in a watchtower of your presence. But when you succeed under increasingly difficult odds, you feel like a brilliant assassin out of an Ian Fleming novel.
It’s not really an elaborate clockwork machine, where you set all the gears and springs and watch the murder tick away. It’s more like a tox boy, with a teacher encouraging you to make mistakes and get messy.
Hitman 2 is the Magic Schoolbus of video games.
Required Reading: Hitman 2 Is Best When You Break It by Luke Plunkett
I’ve never rooted more for a studio’s obvious budget constraints then I did for whatever stopped Dotnod from turning Vampyr into some gaudy, over cooked open world game. Every bit of this game feels like someone wanted it to be bigger, but they had to edit it down to the bare essentials of the vision to stay on track. Vampyr remains one of the most interesting and truly unique RPG experiences this year because of it.
The combat is goofy but serviceable, there’s no fast traveling and ALOT of backtracking, animations aren’t great and the enemy types are very limited. The incredible focus on investigative dialogue, round and complete characters, and a sneaky woke story about early 20th century immigration-phobia in England makes this effort from Dontnod especially memorable. Getting to know the weird fixtures of local bars and neighborhoods is truly compelling. Mostly because these people are well-written, but there’s always that more self-serving, fiendish motivation in the background: to make them all the more delicious when you embrace them.
Enemy power spikes heavy towards the end of the game, and drinking blood is far and away the most efficient way to get strong enough to face them. So you pick off some of the nerdowells and obvious villains first. Then you have to start choosing who your real friends are. Then your really real friends. All the while knowing that taking people from their communities suddenly will only accelerate their collapse in the face of the impending plague, other immortals, and holy jihad by vigilants working to purge the city of people just like you.
No other RPG uses systems that work at odds to create tension quite like Vampyr does, and it’s a shame. It works so well that I almost want to see what the AAA version of this game looks like.
Required Reading: ‘Vampyr’ is a Deeply Flawed Game, But That’s Exactly Why It’s So Memorable by Patrick Klepek
Monster Hunter World
I’ve been playing Monster Hunter since number 2 on the PSP, waiting for everyone else to get why this shit was so goddamn good. Many people, way better than me, have tried to crystalize what makes the experience so unique and rewarding. Boiled down, there are no real alternatives to the sort of loop Monster Hunter provides.
But it was hidden under layers and layers of janky, impenetrable garbage for so long. You could never blame someone for giving it an hour, stumbling over the menus and the weird controls for cameras, and the nonsensical damage stats and just quitting. Finally, Capcom did the explaining themselves, and even though there are plenty of remnants of that old world tomfoolery, the game we have now is the best version of it, by far.
I’ve played them all. Bought systems I would never purchase otherwise just to get my hands on them. I was gonna be content regardless. But being able to play with so many first timers, who can enjoy the same sort of inside jokes, memery, and general comradery that is unique to a Monster Hunter game with me is what matters most about this version. May they never be dumb and niche again.
Required Reading: Should vegetarian gamers go on virtual killing sprees? By Keza MacDonald, Battling the Beasts of ‘Monster Hunter: World’ Feels Dynamic and Desperate by Austin Walker