Crime

The Writing on Games ‘Top Five Games of 2019’ List

Usually at the beginning of these year-end
videos I either have some big spiel about how amazing a year it’s been for games,
or the lack of great releases leads me to get personal about the existential crises
that emerge from running a YouTube channel about them. And as I sit down to do this for the fifth
time (woah), I kinda feel somewhere in the middle. For a good chunk of the year I thought we’d
bounced back from an underwhelming 2018 with whole bunch of incredibly solid games but
looking back on the year as a whole, it’s odd how little an impact a lot of those titles
seem to have had on me personally; a lot of games I enjoyed playing at the time but now
struggle to feel any kind of way about, some games I liked but not enough to finish and
the occasional critical darling here or there that just happened to do absolutely nothing
for me.

I think this mindset is reflected in my video
output this year—with just as much of a focus on older titles as 2018, and a surprising
amount of time spent with games you might consider not so good—examining the things
that made them unintentionally interesting. Coming into 2019 I really didn’t think I
had the energy to give to games like this but weirdly, the time and effort that went
into those videos didn’t feel like wallowing in negativity to me. If anything, it was energising—I think those
pieces made for some of the work I’m most proud of on the channel. They allowed me to reflect, to explore what
I value in media, forced me to be more creative in my writing and, ultimately, storytelling
ability.

And when I look at the games that really did
stick with me this year, the ones that ultimately made this list, it’s a similar pattern that
emerges—not always the most perfect or polished titles, but the ones that encourage exploration,
reflection and player expression. And even with that in mind, while it’s becoming
ever clearer that 2017 really was a standout year for the medium, it was still pretty difficult
narrowing this down to five games. And so, without any further ado, let’s get
into the Writing on Games Top Five Games of 2019 (That I Played, Obviously and Also This
List is Purely Based on My Own Personal Opinion and if Your List is Different That’s Fine)
With Some Honourable Mentions Thrown in For Good Measure. And to begin, at number five we have ACE COMBAT
7. There were a good few comments on my initial
review of this game timestamping specific sections of gameplay and how tense it made
people feel just watching, where a first person machine gun run saw me perilously low to the
ground, or an unexpected lightning strike would send me cascading towards seemingly
certain doom, forcing me to push on the analogue stick as hard as I goddamn could while upside
down.

And it’s all down to the fact that, despite
a story whose unbearably dull delivery does a disservice to the wild anime nonsense it
depicts (I mean I still can’t get over the fact that the lore of this series stretches
back to the 1100s) the narrative created through Ace Combat 7’s gameplay made for some of
the most genuinely thrilling moments I’ve experienced in a game all year. Those moments where you’re acting on sheer
instinct; you come out the other end wondering how the hell you managed to survive it all.

And it’s how the game makes you work for
those moments that makes them so tense and exciting—the game’s inspired less-is-more
mission design limits your reliance on things like special weapons or your radar, turning
merely a game where you fly planes about into this massively dynamic set of levels whose
scenarios can range from all-out bombast to stealth missions requiring the utmost precision;
each one constantly forcing you to rethink strategies you’d otherwise take for granted. It’s also one of the more punishing games
I played in 2019; where one screw up, a mere clipped wing at such high speeds, can cost
you upwards of twenty minutes of progress. It can be incredibly frustrating, sure, but
thanks to the game’s immensely snappy and intuitive controls, these ridiculous manoeuvres
are made all the more rewarding when you pull them off.

It may have made me want to break my controller
at points, but there’s no denying that whenever I look back on my time with Ace Combat 7,
I’m consistently overwhelmed by the urge to take to those skies one more time. And at number four we have A SHORT HIKE. This game is about as close to “doing what
it says on the tin” as you can get. Here is a title that tasks you with getting
to the top of a hill—an objective that can be conquered in about an hour and half if
you go in totally blind.

It also happened to be charming beyond words,
asking the question “what if Breath of the Wild was just one mountain” and answering
it with a game that captures all the joy of climbing and exploration in 2017’s epic
within a gorgeous, colour-drenched, deliberately pixelated package, replete with a soundtrack
recalling nothing if not the whimsy of a game like Klonoa. There’s a refreshing focus to everything
you do in A Short Hike. You need phone signal, the top of the mountain
has phone signal, you go get phone signal. There’s no deep, dark secret to the island
you’re on, it’s just a cosy environment you run, climb and glide around, housing a
bunch of anthropomorphic animals like yourself going about their day. It’s a fun little romp. But this simplicity masks the game’s real
heart that made itself apparent to me at the game’s conclusion.

Without actually spoiling anything past the
fact that you complete the hike, the conversation at that peak contextualised a lot of what
I’d come to adore about the game’s writing. None of it was overly sentimental or saccharine,
it wasn’t trying to tug on your heartstrings in a way that a lot of cutesy indie games
tend to do. It was just really, legitimately funny for
the vast majority of its runtime. And yet, when I got to the top and answered
that phone I couldn’t help but cry; I’ve had almost that exact conversation about a
pretty scary situation and seen the way people tend to deflect that stuff for the sake of
the person on the other end. It’s all presented so simply but at the
same time so ingrained with all the weird human complexity of tiptoeing around a conversation
like that, that for a moment I forgot I was playing as a weird little bird.

For a short, colourful little lofi game about
hanging out on an island, it’s remarkably true to life in a way that I totally did not
expect and hit me like a ton of bricks—that seemed pretty special to me. And at number three we have RESIDENT EVIL
2. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an
aspect to this job where the unvarnished experience of a game fades into the background as you
replay sections time and time again, less focused on a title’s overall atmosphere
than you are on recording footage or examining a level, system or mechanic in detail. You know, here I am running circles around
Mr X, talking a big game about how he isn’t a true threat; he’s basically just designed
to keep you moving. He’s a system you can cheese, he’s predictable. And yet, with the Resident Evil 2 remake specifically,
there’s still a part of me that sees this hulking dude mere feet away from me, the one
that’s been stalking me for a good portion of this game, and my brain tells me “man,
you’ve got to get out of here, he’s right there.” I’ve played through this game multiple times,
I know he can’t get me in the clocktower but goddamn, those footsteps pounding through
my ears still send chills down my spine.

See, Resident Evil 2 is a game where every
individual element of its design is implemented masterfully, without any one of those elements
overshadowing the goal they share—to make you feel unsafe. A series of gloriously interconnected systems
aided by similarly glorious level design, ensuring the combination of lickers and Mr
X in a tight corridor remains a gutwrenching prospect, also sends my analytical brain into
overdrive as I excitedly envision the optimal path through here on my next go-around. I’ve never been the kind of guy to get super
into speedrun strats, but Resident Evil’s pitch perfect design inspired that spark in
me. Its graphical fidelity is almost unmatched,
but instead of trying to dazzle you with that fact, it chooses to bathe its amazing textures
in darkness, creating these deeply unpleasant environments; dingy offices slick with grime
and viscera. It doesn’t need to shove in your face how
good it looks; it’s a horror game, it doesn’t want you feeling comfortable in this station.

It’s this confidence in the developer’s
ability to unsettle you that allows for a truly suffocating sense of dread that doesn’t
diminish even after close inspection, but is always fun. The game just works however you approach it. I think it would be incredibly difficult to
argue that this isn’t one of the best remakes ever created. And the runner up for Game of the Year is
THE OUTER WILDS. Over the last year I’ve probably had more
requests to make a video on The Outer Wilds than any other game released in 2019. There’s a mystique to it that I guess people
want decoded somehow. But honestly, after making YouTube videos
for the last almost-half-decade, I can’t tell you how refreshing it’s been to get
totally sucked into that mystique myself—to have a game where I’m not thinking about
what kind of video I’d want to make; one I allow myself to just take my time with.

I’ve been playing Outer Wilds pretty consistently
in-between videos since it released back in May, gradually uncovering more of its densely
layered secrets in each of its half-hour loops; imbuing what is on the surface a space exploration
game with some real detective-esque intrigue that really isn’t that dissimilar to something
like Sam Barlow’s recent work. As I’d find a new detail, a text entry I’d
missed my last time round or a hidden switch leading to some whole new path, my log would
fill up with as many new questions as I was finding answers; each death leaving me tantalisingly
on the brink of a new discovery, itching to spend half an hour more in this universe. And similarly to A Short Hike, a big part
of this replayability comes down to its focus.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison but it’s
basically No Man’s Sky in miniature; 18 quintillion planets suddenly turns to, like,
eight and while No Man’s Sky is its own thing, Outer Wilds really speaks to the idea
that a small handful of meaningfully crafted planets is always going to win out over an
unfathomable number of similar environments spat out by an algorithm. And what’s more, just because it’s smaller
doesn’t make it any less dense. I spent my first forty-five minutes or so
just exploring the starting planet, so charming were its denizens and the tone of their writing. The lilting acoustic guitar seemed to suggest
a real light-hearted adventure that lay before me, only for me to board my rickety spaceship,
enthusiastically point at the first planet that took my fancy, and subsequently find
myself hurtling uncontrollably into a gas giant or exploring this curious little bramble
at the edge of the solar system or falling into a black hole and floating aimlessly through
the void of space and OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD.

Given that the thought of that endless void
on its own is enough to send my anxiety into overdrive, this whole process was terrifying
but ultimately, that’s what’s so great about The Outer Wilds; it makes space feel
small enough to seem conquerable, to feel rewarding when you solve its mysteries entirely
on your own terms, but also vast enough to be utterly paralysing. And as usual, before we get to my number one
pick, it’s time for some unranked HONOURABLE MENTIONS. DEVIL MAY CRY 5 might not be as completely
wild and wacky as 3, its level design may devolve into samey intestinal corridors that
unceremoniously funnel you from fight to fight, but that really doesn’t matter a whole lot
when you also get to spend so much time with one of the tightest combat systems in all
of action games.

Few things give me as much joy as the simple
act of unleashing Dante's confoundingly expansive moveset on his many foes. Plus, I hereby decree this kind of pre-vis
cutscene to be a mandatory inclusion for every game from now on, thank you. For as much as SEKIRO SHADOWS DIE TWICE brought
with it maybe the most intense version of the now-inevitable “does this game need
an easy mode” conversation that occurs whenever a game like this releases thanks to its combat
whose speed often goes beyond even Bloodborne, I could never shake the feeling that—with
its training mode, a remarkably streamlined set of options and a story that no longer
requires hours of sifting through item descriptions to get a grasp on—Sekiro might be one of
the more approachable From Soft titles.

And what’s more, it’s fantastic! Its balletic
swordplay perfectly capturing the dynamics of battles from old samurai movies, for example; with a
flurry of clashing swords culminating in that one decisive strike, making for some of the
most gratifying fights I’ve seen in these games. Sam Barlow and team’s Her Story is basically
the reason I started this channel, so needless to say I was more than excited to play its
spiritual follow-up TELLING LIES. It’s Her Story but polished up for a slightly
more mainstream crowd, trading in the CRT haze and piercing office lighting for a cosy
apartment with a sleak Mac interface; less postmodern detective game goes horror and
more a straight-up thriller whose events you’re largely putting in order. And while it’s not quite as mindblowing
as 2015’s game as a result, it’s difficult to think of a team
that is so pushing the boundaries of how games tell their stories quite like Barlow’s,
and I believe that definitely deserves commendation. In my video on Snakeybus earlier this year,
I described it as Speed, but directed by Luis Bunuel—a surrealist exercise in destructive
mundanity where instead of absolute chaos, its whole atmosphere was unsettlingly relaxing.

A lot of this comes down to how kinda broken
the game is, with each level across its short playtime feeling more and more thrown together,
but its central mechanics are so satisfying that getting lost in these hypnotic worlds
ended up becoming an oddly meditative process. Part of me wants more from Snakeybus; more
levels, more care put into them, but a bigger part of me just appreciates what a weird,
comforting little thing this ended up being.

Eliza seems like a bit of a left-turn for
developer Zacktronics, whose prior output focused on solving complicated, open-ended
problems. It doesn’t seem like they’d be particularly
well-suited to a visual novel where you’re given basically no option but the AI-determined
correct answer, but in applying this framework to something as complex as mental health,
it allows the game to go super deep on all aspects of technological industry—labour
politics, the value of art, the failures of the US healthcare system, startup culture
and the well-intentioned people that get sucked into its personality cults. Ultimately, the developer’s previous games
are about the satisfaction that comes from closing the loop on labyrinthine systems,
but Eliza goes one step further—illustrating just how difficult it can be to simply exist
in a world governed by those systems. If anything I’ve said here has interested
you I’d implore you to pick this up. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to get
into Disco Elysium until really recently so I couldn’t finish it in time for Game of
the Year, but while playing I'd been so hooked on every word of its stunningly
written conversations that I knew this was a game I had to give a nod to at least.

I’ll be returning to this over the new year
for sure. And it’s a similar case with Wattam, the
latest from the mind of Katamari’s Keita Takahashi. It came out too late in the year for me to
feel fully confident putting it on my main list but goddamn, if I didn’t have a smile
on my face for the entirety of its short duration. Its outwardly jumbled aesthetic hides a fairly
streamlined design, and its vision of conquering isolation and loneliness in the post-apocalypse
is surprisingly touching. Expect a video on this in 2020. And while we’re here, YES I HAD AN EXPERIENCE
WITH DEATH STRANDING I THINK THE WAY ITS MOVEMENT CONTROLS CONVEY THE LATENT, OMNIPRESENT FEELING
OF DANGER WITHIN NATURE TURNS THE SIMPLE ACT OF RUNNING DOWN A HILL UNSCATHED INTO A MECHANICALLY
COMPLEX AND REWARDING PROCESS I THINK THE SOCIAL FEATURES ARE GENUINELY FANTASTIC AND
THAT DESPITE THE MULTIPLE, CRIPPLING ISSUES TO BE FOUND IN THE GAME’S WRITING IT IS
IMPRESSIVE HOW KOJIMA MANAGED TO GAMIFY HIS ABSURDIST MUSINGS ON LIFE I DO NOT BELIEVE
GAMES NEED TO BE QUOTE-UNQUOTE FUN OR HOLD YOUR HAND TO BE MEANINGFUL, QUITE THE OPPOSITE
ACTUALLY I JUST THINK IT COULD HAVE BEEN GENUINELY TRANSCENDENT HAD IT BEEN ABOUT TEN HOURS LONG
AS OPPOSED TO FORTY And with all of that out of the way, I’m
happy to announce that the Writing on Games Game of the Year for 2019 is… JUDGMENT! As I said at the start, this list isn’t
about games being perfect.

Besides the fact there’s no goddamn karaoke,
Judgment’s detective mechanics are stiff to the point of triviality. Tailing missions are tedious and prone to
glitching as soon as you take one step off the beaten path. In all, the points at which it strays from
the Yakuza formula in order to shove in some Ace Attorney features because the protagonist
is a detective-slash-lawyer I guess are pretty universally Judgment’s weakest moments. But that’s the thing—as it’s become
something of a personal project of mine to fully explore and get to grips with the Yakuza
franchise over the last couple of years, it’s emerged as one of my favourite series ever. I could draw you a map of Kamurocho from memory
I’ve spent so many hours running around beating up drunkards in its neon-drenched
streets and not once have I begrudged that time; my appreciation, my excitement for these
games has only grown.

I totally understand the developers feeling
the need to change up the formula after toiling at Yakuza games for well over a decade at
this point, but for them to come out with Judgment as their brand new thing is testament
to just how unique a framework the Yakuza design has always been and remains to be. Playing through a whole bunch of the earlier
games in quick succession, you realise just how many tweaks they’ve made between entries
to get to this point where Judgment feels like an almost entirely different game; a
confident statement that no one else is making these kinds of open worlds, and Judgment is
arguably Toshihiro Nagoshi’s team at its peak. Its rigidity in terms of how it seems to break
up exploration, action and story belies the game’s allowance for a surprising level
of player expression, that goes way beyond most open world titles. Sure, you’re not rampaging through the streets
blasting through innocent civilians, but when that’s your only means of self-expression
in a game it’s hard to really feel like you’re saying much—it’s too distant
from reality.

Whereas here, you can slack off from the detective
work you’re meant to be doing in order to get liquored up and play some arcade games
before backing some dude’s martial arts e-book on Kickstarter. It’s a relatable level of mischief rather
than outright carnage, indicative of a dude who just values fun rather than an out-and-out
psychopath. And of course this is pretty typical of a
lot of Team Dragon’s work, but what’s more impressive, what takes Judgment that
step further is how it uses this expression to convey protagonist Yagami’s character
through play—you know, the prohibition-era noire detectives the team is clearly drawing
from in their portrayal of this ex-lawyer-turned-investigator, often relied on booze to an unhealthy degree,
and so they force the player to make the choice between maintaining their buzz so they can
fight better, or eating to regain health, at the risk of sobering them up.

It incentivises self-destructive habits, because
that’s the way Yagami’s mind works—he’s a bit of a mess and understandably so. He finds himself at the crossroads of organised
crime and the complicated real-world politics of the Japanese legal system; constantly pulled
back and forth between the bitterness of being chewed up and spit out by his profession and
that spark, that need to find the truth, that drew him to the profession in the first place. Despite giving off real gamer dad energy,
Yagami’s struggle is truly multifaceted and human in a way that makes returning to
Yakuza feel even more cartoonish than it already is, without sacrificing any of the crazy twists
and turns that make these games as thrilling as they are.

This is easily the best writing in a Team
Dragon game since 0 and the fact it’s now directly bolstered through gameplay makes
it all the more delightful. The fact is that, even with its imperfections,
Judgment is the most a game commanded my attention all year and I cannot wait to see what the
team has in store with Yakuza 7. So I hope you enjoyed my list of what I thought
were the best games of 2019, but like last year I also thought it would be cool to take
a moment to shout out some channels I think you should check out going into the new year. Zac Frazier is one of the dudes I’ve known
longest since starting the channel and is probably the most perpetually shirtless man
in this whole sphere of video creation. His videos are often as surreal and hilarious
as they are incisive and his piece on Magic Mike XXL remains one of the best videos I’ve
seen on this entire site, period.

Liam Triforce’s retrospectives have become
real comfort viewing for me over the last year. This is, of course, to say nothing of their
substance (his pieces are consistently engaging) but there’s just something so whimsical
about the way he discusses games he’s really passionate about; his excitement is contagious
even if I’ve never played the games he’s talking about. Hotcyder (recently rebranded from GamesD)
is not only a lovely person I had the pleasure of meeting earlier in the year, he makes snappily
edited videos with such concise, conversational writing that it’s absolutely criminal he
doesn’t have a bigger audience. Watch his Racecar video, then watch everything
else. Tehsnakerer is a similarly good dude whose
deep dives into the physicality of VR games or obscure Russian FPS titles from the mid-2000s
can make an hour and a half pass like it was nothing.

Just really excellent stuff. And as always, subscribe to Lambhoot. You’ve got to. He’s got what is sure to be the definitive
VR video coming in the next… week? Couple of weeks? What are you waiting for? Do it already. Take it eas’. And now all that is out of the way, I’d
like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank my patrons. Every year I make this video and part of
me wonders how I got here and the answer is always you—as I mentioned in my recent update
video, it’s your pledges that have allowed the channel to continue through many periods
where I questioned its sustainability. I feel so incredibly fortunate and grateful
to have the unbelievably generous support you’ve given me—thank you. If you’d like to join the names on screen
and help me keep making the videos I want to make, you can head to patreon.com/writingongames
and pledge even a dollar or two.

I could never thank you enough for your continued
support. Special thanks go to Mark B Writing, Martim
Rosat, Artjom Vitsjuk, Lea Chinelo, Constantinos Tsikinis, Henry Milek, Edward Clayton Andrews,
Hibiya Mori, Mlemonides the Unwise, Rob, Bryce Snyder, Tommy Carver-Chaplin, David Bjork,
Lucas, Dallas Kean, William Fielder, my dad, Timothy Jones, TheNamlessGuy, Ham Migas, Samuel
Pickens, Shardfire, Ana Pimentel, Jessie Rine, Justins Holderness and Charlie Yang. And with that, this has been another year
of Writing on Games. Stay safe and I will see you in 2020..

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