Looking back I think I played more games in total this past year than any other previous year in my life. This was partially due to me finally buying myself a gaming PC (I had previously owned only Macs and consoles), but also because I believe there was just an amazing glut of smaller-scale, yet incredibly creative games being released this year that were just easier to play through.
Below you will find a short cross-section of my favourite games of 2018, all of which were chosen with the idea of either formal or conceptual novelty in mind. Many of these are not necessarily the most graphically or mechanically complex games, but nonetheless they all managed to make me rethink my own conceptions of what a video game can be, and the range of experiences and emotions they are capable of producing. Now without any further preamble, in descending order here are my top five games of 2018:
Hunt: Showdown has a lot of small, intertwining, and subtle elements that for me come together to positively differentiate it from what has now become the standard battle royale formula. The most obvious of these—and what consistently makes me think of X-COM and Darkest Dungeon (two of my favourite games of all time)—is the way you can kit out and level up your hunters, and then in turn how all of this progress can then instantly be lost through the game’s permadeath mechanic. Together this all works to add a truly horrific edge to Hunt’s Lovecraftian gothic aesthetic and forces you to really contemplate the risks you are taking as you attempt to hunt down your next target.
I don’t think I will ever forget the time I ran in on another duo of players attempting to take down a boss, shooting one of them before proceeding to rapidly flee the area and hide in a nearby forest. To this point, as a solo player, I had only ever been promptly dispatched when confronting another duo of players. After it was clear they weren’t chasing me, I snuck over to the closest extraction point, ambitiously hoping to ambush the duo before they could successfully exit the level. When I actually managed to shoot both of them and steal the bounty they had collected from the boss, the moment was one of frantic, nervous elation as I realized that now I was the one with a target on my back and had to figure out a way to safely exit the match as fast as possible. I love horror games, but Hunt elicits a strange mixture of immersion, curiosity, ambition, and fear like almost no other game I can think of.
Heaven Will Be Mine
Worst Girl Games / Pillow Fight Games
Heaven Will Be Mine was released in the summer of 2018 during a time when I had coincidentally been going through Diebuster, a short-run anime mecha series written by Hideaki Anno, director of the much more widely known Evangelion series. HWBM and Diebuster both share a lot of the same qualities that caused them to really make a distinct and memorable impression on me. The clearest of these similarities is that they are both short narratives experiences about female protagonists flying humanoid robots through space, battling against alien forces with ambiguous origins. More significantly though, they both also intentionally abstract their storylines using a mixture of visual and textual methods that have the end result of creating something poetically affective. HWBM has some truly amazing writing that deftly blends self-serious sci-fi world construction with charmingly believable and accessible dialogue. However, what I really love about it is how it also seems to prioritize tone rather than explicit exposition. To understand the stakes of the universe being presented here, you will need to play through the game with each of its three main selectable characters, each time parsing new elements about each of the factions they each subscribe to, their histories, and the nature of the interstellar war that is going on. However, even after seeing the game’s multiple endings, just like HWBM’s impressionistic art style, much is still intentionally left up to interpretation. I have played more than a few visual novels before, but HWBM feels almost like a genre of its own, closer to the experience of a satisfyingly complex poem or work of video art that reveals something new every time you sit down with it.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
CD Projekt Red
Like many other people, I really enjoyed the Gwent mini-game within The Witcher 3 and because of this was really excited when CD Projekt Red announced they would be turning it into its own free-to-play card game. I played Gwent quite happily all throughout its beta period (mostly with a monster deck geared around the Wild Hunt and Frost mechanics for those interested), however I would keep on hearing about this fabled single-player campaign that always seemed to be just around the corner, perhaps to be sent down the pipeline in the next patch. Eventually to my surprise, it was revealed this would not be an additional mode but an entirely separate game, one that apparently would be as grand in scope and length as many popular CRPGs. Although all of this history with the franchise, and specifically with Gwent, had me prepared to like Thronebreaker, I was not prepared for how thoroughly it would end up sinking its teeth into me. The game not only constructed an interesting narrative around card game battles, but also unexpectedly worked to formally experiment with its own rules in order to produce a substantial sublayer of optional puzzle battles that often reminded more of programming than combat. These puzzles, in combination with the pleasing linear style, engaging voice acting, smart integration of deck mechanics with character choice, and rote yet satisfying camp upgrade system, all come together to make Thronebreaker stand substantially apart from the card game and CRPG genres that it's drawing from. Having spent nearly 40 hours with it over the course of a couple weeks (a pace of play very rare for me), I was very aware of this unique hybridization of genre afterwards when trying, and ultimately failing to find something comparable to play next.
Matt Makes Games
I sat on this game for a long time throughout 2018. I knew that I would like it, but I always seemed to have another platformer that I was trying to finish. I also usually like to weirdly try to balance the types of games I am playing at one time. When I finally got to it, like with Thronebreaker, the pace at which I played Celeste instantly accelerated in comparison to many of the other games I was playing. Looking back at my experience with Celeste, it was this element of acceleration, speed, and momentum that I think I will remember most fondly. Specifically, I would emphasize the final section of the game, after the emotional climax but before Madeline has actually reached the summit of the mountain she has been trying to scale. Here the composer Lena Raine’s incredible soundtrack shifts to reflect the fact that both Madeline the character and you the player are both fully aware that you can and will soon reach the top of the mountain. This last section is difficult, but the music pushes you to keep slingshotting yourself up to the next checkpoint, to keep making forward progress because the end is within sight. Typically, when I know I am about to finish a game I might play in longer spurts than I might normally, getting caught up with the narrative arc of the conclusion and also just being excited to be done and start a new game. In Celeste, this was amplified by a euphoric combination of player empowerment, musical accompaniment, and excellent level design. More so than perhaps any other game this year, the final level of Celeste felt like an absolute sprint in the best possible way—where I felt breathless, proud, and just plain happy afterwards.
Return of the Obra Dinn
So many positive things have been written about this game already, and if you haven’t already heard of Return of the Obra Dinn yet all I feel compelled to do is zealously recommend that you at least look into it. With that in mind, I can’t recommend that everyone actually play The Obra Dinn, as it definitely requires a very specific detail-oriented mindset and potentially vast depth of patience. But if you are the type of person who likes logic puzzles and/or whom the idea of going to an escape room seems like a fun time then you owe to yourself to give this game a try. I played it over the course of couple nights with my partner, and the deduction and mental gymnastics that we found ourselves doing to solve the cryptic ship’s many interlocking and unfolding mysteries were truly unlike anything I have done in any other video game I have ever played. The game creates an arcane rule system for itself that relies on the player’s ability to make connections across disparate sets of discretely presented visual, audio, and textual information. At first, the enormity of what it asks of you seems completely impenetrable. As you inevitably make slow progress, however, you will develop your own cognitive and mnemonic tools to aid you along your journey down deeper into the lower holds of the ship. I know I am not unique in saying this, and that it may sound like excessive hyperbole, but The Obra Dinn really does represent how much space has still been left unexplored in terms of what a video game can be.
As I mentioned in my introduction I got myself a gaming PC this year, and alongside that, I also finally convinced myself to start learning game design (more specifically to start taking courses on how to program with Unity). This decision was only further propelled along by a collection of small, short, and minimally made games that were both creatively inspiring, but also felt within reach in terms of their scope and design as benchmarks to aim for in terms of educating myself. Paratopic, Minit, and Yume Nikki all got my creative juices flowing. Hopefully, someday in the future, I will be able to produce something even remotely comparable to these excellent video game experiences.
Andrew Bailey can be found on Twitter, he is also working on his PhD in game art history.