Games of the Year — 2019

Mike Kelly
9 min readDec 16, 2019

This has been one of the more challenging years for me. Just before the year started, I left my job of 5 years to travel my own path in game development and as a freelancer. It hasn’t been as successful as I would’ve liked, but even in this short time it has made gaming feel all the more miraculous to me — these games we play are the result of years of work and thought, and the fact that any games exist at all should be a blessing to us.

10. Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to)

It may be a misnomer to call Kind Words a “game”. There are few mechanics, no win or lose state, and not much of a narrative. However, Kind Words excels in the one task that it devotes itself to — using technology to cultivate empathy. The idea is simple — you write down a problem, concern, or situation that is causing you stress, and then cast it to the electronic ether. On the other end of that divide, your message is placed in front of other players, real people, who write back words of encouragement. These anonymous internet strangers take the time to feel your pain and lend a helping hand. I had been going through tough times, and when I received multiple replies urging me onward, hope swelled in me. In our dark modern times that are increasingly defined by the more horrible aspects of the internet, a game that uses it to bring light into your life instead is a rare gift indeed.

9. CrossCode

I initially saw CrossCode in a roundup of “new indie games” and I dismissed it as just another retro-styled RPG amongst hundreds. However, what lay within was not only a smooth-controlling action RPG with cleverly designed puzzle mechanics, but also a heartfelt story about humanity, the faces we put on in the virtual world, and perseverance in the face of an existential unknown. This game was clearly a labor of love — every item and location feels like it fits perfectly with the game’s conceit of you controlling an avatar in a virtual world. The dialogue sparkles, from laugh-out-loud jokes to silences laden with pathos. It’s rare that I finish a 30+ hour game hungry for more, but whatever happens next in this world, I will be there.

8. Heaven’s Vault

When Inkle, one of the best game studios out there for narrative games, announced the follow-up to the remarkable 80 Days as a 3D space archaeology adventure game with a mechanic built around deciphering an ancient quasi-pictographic language, I was skeptical that they could pull it off. But pull it off they did. Heaven’s Vault follows Aliya Elasra (“El”), a sort of freelance archaeologist, and Six, her robotic companion, as they seek to rediscover the stories of past civilizations in the nebula they inhabit. It is a beautifully realized setting filled with mysterious places and items to discover, charting the far edges of physical and temporal existence. Every location has something to discover, every discovery adds to the body of knowledge you have accrued, and every bit of knowledge enriches the world. It’s a triumph of storytelling and worldbuilding.

7. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

With Bloodstained, Koji Igarashi returns to the genre he helped define to create one of the apex examples of the form. Bloodstained layers a deep combat system on top of a sprawling world rife with surprises. However, it transcends its dark gothic tone, giving itself the freedom to have fun— you can wield a lightsaber, battle giant housecats with horns, and dress up your character with purple wolf-head sashes. The irreverence even bears out mechanically, as the game lets you break its carefully constructed rules with powerups simply because they think it would be cool to have you fly around a castle upside down throwing lightning. In other games this could end up with a tonal disconnect so severe that you’d balk, but instead Bloodstained’s wonderful idiosyncratic attitude makes it a constant joy and surprise to play.

6. Baba Is You

It’s a rare game that spirals out from an elegantly simple core mechanic and gives rise to hundreds of head-scratching puzzles. In Baba is You, the rules of the game are listed out on the playing field as movable blocks that can be manipulated to break or re-form those rules. For example, say you are trapped in a space surrounded by walls and a rule that says “WALL IS STOP”. However, once you physically push that sentence apart, the walls no longer impede you and provide an escape to the exit. Or you can change the wall from “STOP” to “WIN”, and a simple touch on the wall clears the level. Or you can change the sentence to “WALL IS PUSH” to make the wall movable. Or you can… and so on — the possibilities are myriad. It’s a game that requires you to think laterally about every situation, and how to change the rules of the game itself to succeed. Every victory is fleeting, and every solution drives you to the next seemingly-impossible puzzle, but Baba is You remains utterly surprising and challenging.

5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem has been Nintendo’s reliable and steady workhorse— a tactical fantasy RPG with memorable characters and permadeath. Three Houses, however, follows in the recent Nintendo tradition of expanding their franchises beyond the mechanical core that has defined them. This newest installment retains the nucleus of tactical fighting that made the series so memorable, but it intertwines that core with an explorable home base, branching story paths, out-of-combat skill progression, a Persona-like strategy layer based on the progression of a school year, and even a goddamn teatime minigame. Nintendo again boldly gambles, as it did with Breath of the Wild, and it has evolved the comfortable standby to an experience that begins to push into new areas of gameplay and storytelling.

4. Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds emerged this year from seeming obscurity to immediately enthrall me. Piloting a ramshackle starship that is held together with little more than twine and hope, you explore the worlds of a solar system in search of the remains of an ancient civilization. However, the true genius of the game is how absolutely nothing is gated. Everywhere and anywhere can be explored right off the bat, a level of freedom that most games are terrified to offer to a player. There are no locked doors, no invisible walls, nothing to impede you except your lack of knowledge about what lies ahead. Every journey out into the wilds brings you a lead, a fact, or a scientific principle that helps you traverse deeper into the mechanics of this strange universe. Even more remarkably, the story‘s themes of exploration and discovery feed seamlessly into the narrative, culminating in one of the most poignant and fitting endings I’ve ever seen. Outer Wilds is something special, and gaming is better for having it exist.

3. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

In 2011, From Software redefined the third person action game with the seminal Dark Souls — a sea change so profound that games have been chasing its success ever since. Now From has released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice once again rethinking game combat in such a fundamental way that they again set the standard. The deliberate combat that defined Dark Souls shifts from Western-style sword-and-board fighting to a cinematic back-and-forth struggle as you clash katanas with your opponents. Parries, dodges, feints, and counterattacks press your advantage on foes until their posture breaks and you end them with a single deathblow to the heart. From’s penchant for beautifully choreographed (and exceedingly difficult) boss fights remains, every small movement of your sword and body weighs heavily as you battle spirit dragons, giant apes, and spear-wielding samurai towering above you on horseback. Sekiro shows that From isn’t just a Souls factory, they will continue to expand the ways we think about playing games.

2. Control

As a long-time lover of the Max Payne and Alan Wake series, I had begun to worry that Remedy was past their prime, but Control is a confident, bold assertion that they can still make games that no one else dares to. You play as Jesse Faden, a woman seeking the truth behind her brother’s disappearance, as she infiltrates the Federal Bureau of Control, a secretive quasi-governmental organization housed within a brutalist office building in the heart of New York. The FBC is a bureaucracy that deals with all things paranormal — in fact, it is built within an existing structure called the Oldest House, an ever-shifting ediface that can only be found by people who know of its existence.

Everything is slightly off-kilter, from memos that prohibit anyone from bringing in “any object that is archetypal of a class of objects”, to the Finnish janitor (who might be God) unperturbedly sweeping the hallways, to the unknown nature of the malevolent Hiss, to the enigmatic Director who takes his own life to hand down his title to you within the first few minutes. Every note or item you find is a story unto itself — nothing is ever fully explained, but everything coheres to its own ruleset that you need to accept to move forward. You’re never fully in control, even when you’re fully in Control.

1. Disco Elysium

When the critical reviews of a game compare it to the landmark Planescape: Torment, you have my attention. Disco Elysium puts you in the mind and body of a beautiful disaster of a cop who wakes up in an alcohol-deprived haze in the city of Revanchol. The city is only a step above slums, a dozen years after its buildings and pride were decimated by a multinational force following a socialist uprising. The city’s inhabitants are broken, addicted to anything that lies within arm’s reach, and eroded to their core, even as they walk amongst the statuary and edifaces of the city’s past glories.

The game takes place only within a few city blocks and coastline, but every shadow has meaning, every silence a story. Disco Elysium isn’t just good writing, plot, and characters, though it does have that. The game turns its gaze onto a forlorn humanity in decline, and how we find meaning in a world that we ourselves have ruined through the slow decay of corruption, apathy, and despair. It is exceedingly honest in how it treats characters and the player alike, never pulling a punch when that punch can illuminate something about the not-too-distant society you explore. It’s a staggeringly human game, one that worms into the uncomfortable gaps in your mind and demands to be seen.

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Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.