When I first took on the best game commission, I was initially a little stumped as to how to even begin to choose. However, thanks to an accommodating editor and a little bit of creativity, I’ve tweaked the list to instead evaluate the video game based on their importance, rather than a subjective quality assessment.
That also offered me the freedom to choose games that, while significant for the industry as a whole, might be less polished in other areas.
Untitled Goose Game
Press x to honk
If nothing else Untitled Goose Game wins the title of “Memeyist Game of the Year”. This game seemingly came out of nowhere, and was immediately loved by the internet at large.
Created by 4-man indie studio House House, Untitled Goose Game is about… well a goose. Your mission? Loosely defined, but its goals seem to consist of being a honking nuisance to the local human population; stealing a picnic, locking people inside their garages or phone boxes, and other mischievous antics. The game is simple, funny, pretty in a characteristically indie way, and just downright charming.
But it is the impact that this game has on internet culture that earns this game a spot on this list. Partly I think this comes from the games bizarre premise, partly from the game’s viral pre-alpha trailer in 2017 - some of the best comments from which include “Metal Goose Solid”. Most of all however this game is just charming from head to webbed foot, and I think that is what has secured its position in internet memedom. The graphics, art design, animation, and sound design are all part of this - or maybe there’s just something inherently appealing about having a button permanently mapped out the ability to honk.
The Phoenix Project Rises
For fans of XCOM this game will feel very familiar. It is the same kind of turn-based highly strategic combat where one wrong move means the death of a soldier or an entire squad.
But Phoenix Point isn’t a direct XCOM clone. For one, the game uses a simpler – and more fair feeling – targeting system for attacks. The new body-part system is an integral part of gameplay, where targeting and disabling certain points can offer a strategic advantage – although your soldiers can have limbs disabled too so take care.
This game has a host of problems though. It is riven with bugs for a start – and not the kind your soldiers are supposed to be shooting! And, although I was impressed with the sound design and the eerie atmosphere it provides, the game’s lack of a solid soundtrack disappointed. XCOM was very clearly a lot campier of a game than Phoenix Point and its soundtrack reflected that but I think a strong orchestral soundtrack would really elevate this game.
They are Billions
Whatever you do: don’t. Let. Them. In.
When I heard the premise for this game I was immediately curious. A friend described it as “Age of Empires, but steampunk and zombies”.Tasked with building and defending a settlement inside a zombie infested world, you build up a walled city guarded with all manner of suitably steampunk soldiers and towers and attempt to weather the increasingly large tides of the undead. The art-style is just really really pretty, and clearly a lot of effort went into producing the sprites.
Now, while zombie games have been done – ironically – to death, the combination of a satisfyingly strategic gameplay loop and not a small helping of charm that helps sell this game. They have recently added a story-driven campaign to the game and the characterisation is really well done, with the leader of the human survivors giving of a strong Emperor of Mankind feel. Throw in a great, professionally recorded orchestral soundscape where many would have computer generated everything to save costs, and you have a real winner.
Kojima…. wha- what is this???
I still haven’t decided if I like this game or not, but it definitely deserves to be on this list somewhere. Death Stranding is a bizarre game in a way only a Hideo Kojima game can be. Given my word count, attempting to summarise it would be futile, so instead I’ll describe what is great about this game.
It looks utterly stunning, and the environment design is really beautiful. The story is labyrinthine and… well weird. Mads Mikkleson’s performance was really compelling even though he hasn’t much experience as a video-game actor. The music and sound design is really strong, with interjections from Low Roar’s music being a great mood-setter on the long journeys (there may be an article in the works on this note, watch this space). The world Kojima makes is a terrifying one, and the enemy designs are wonderfully unnerving, at least to begin with.
It is a game so full of fantastic ideas that it simply has to belong somewhere on this list. However the way that those ideas are used just don’t feel satisfying, which is a huge problem; since those unique concepts are all that are keeping this game from being a rather boring walking simulator.
Pokemon Sword and Shield
It’s Pokemon, but like, British innit?
I’m sad to say that I’m going to be damning this game with faint praise somewhat here: this should have been so much higher in this list.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still Pokemon we’re on about here; official highest grossing media franchise of all time. Nintendo has the gameplay down to a mirror shine and it is still as engrossing and compelling as ever.
But there is a “but” coming up here. In fact there are a lot of “buts” and it is those “buts” which have been plaguing this game since it came out. The snapping away of a large chunk of the Pokemon roster was only the beginning, with the news that the reduced Pokédex is going to persist only causing more outcry. Then there is all the graphical issues; the terrible draw distance, the lacklustre and reused animations, the shabby textures. The heavy-handed dialogue gets really grating really quickly too, even for a kids game. Even Kingdom Hearts’ dialogue reads like Emily Bronte by comparison.
This is all water off of a duck’s back for Nintendo of course, but whilst the cutesy chocolate box portrayal of a Britain-like country is actually really fun to immerse yourself in, the issues are a constant nagging annoyance.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”
These are the opening lines of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and pretty aptly describes Creative Assembly’s Total War franchises’ relationship with its fans. It’s games seem to alternate between being incredibly divisive or universally loved. If the reviews are anything to go by, this game falls into the latter category.
It’s not difficult to see why, after all, Creative Assembly are working with one of the most beloved pieces of East Asian literature ever written, and matching up Total War’s famous combat systems and campaign gameplay with the turbulent period at the end of the Han dynasty the Romance describes is a match made in heaven.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
The Force is at least somewhat stronger with this one
It’s no secret in the gaming world that EA are as close to the dark side as a company can get. From their shoddy, soulless, cash-grab games to trying to encourage gambling in children. Fallen Order might hint however that, like Darth Vader, there may just be a little bit of the light left behind that cold robotic exterior.
However there is also not too much to say about this game. It’s a good solid Souls-like game with satisfying combat and force-based puzzle solving. The graphics are pretty, the saber and force effects are satisfying, the soundtrack is… there. This is also Fallen Order’s problem though, it’s very polished and well executed but it also lacks imagination. The plot is relatively standard, the map design, while aesthetically impressive, lacks the labyrinthine nature of other Souls-likes, where paths reconnect to earlier areas to minimise backtracking.
Yet, despite its lack of vision the gameplay loop is just very satisfying, the saber combat is slick and punchy and the force-powers suitably epic without being too overpowered. The use of the force slowdown for puzzle-solving is particularly cool (if again, not all that original). And, with single player games considered an increasingly dying breed, when a notorious company like EA makes a good one it is a cause for celebration.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Insert joke about dying much much more than “twice”
The aesthetic of Sekiro is very much in keeping with Dark Souls in many ways, and it’s not surprising given it’s made by the infamous FromSoftware. From the strange relationship our character has between life and death to the particular brand of body horror, the game is well crafted, and the way they drew upon Japanese mythology for some of the enemies is inspired - Japanese mythology is kinda horrifying at times!
Sekiro also improves on the FromSoftware formula in a number of ways. While many of the previous titles have sometimes felt heavy in movement, this game feels much more mobile, as a shinobi should feel, with Wolf whipping around the battlefield using his supernatural prosthetic. It all makes the player feel powerful, which makes it all the more terrifying when one of the many bosses comes along and then makes you feel utterly helpless again.
The Outer Worlds
A much needed breath of fresh, only slightly radioactive, air
Obsidian were making no attempts to disguise what The Outer Worlds was. This was a game that saw the declining empire of Todd Howard and the Fallout series and said: “I’m you, but stronger”. Again perhaps it is this background that has made me place this game where I have.
It is a fine game in its own right, don’t mistake me. It’s worlds are vibrant, combat is fun, the characters actually have some character to them which can be shockingly rare in similar RPGs. The sense of fun here is more evident in Obsidian’s game than in any of the recent Fallouts as well, from the cynical humour to the wacky items like the shrink ray messing with the model sizes in the middle of combat. But most of all, this game is a challenge. It saw Bethesda’s utterly horribly Fallout 76 and the abusive way Bethesda have treated its fanbase and decided to throw the gauntlet down. It will be interesting to see if Todd Howard decides to pick it up.
A Plague Tale: Innocence
The plague consumes all
I am pretty confident that this game will be a controversial pick for my top spot, but this is a list of my most important games, the games which should inform and shape the industry and its audience going forward into the new year, not necessarily the best executed or the most fun to play.
Not only is the game technically impressive, with hundreds of rats on screen at any one time in a horrifying furry little swarm, but the characterisation is just really on point. The children are portrayed with a naïvety at threat from a hostile world. Amicia especially is distraught when she first is forced to kill a man, a moment that many games would have barely commented upon. The wider world building is also impressive, with hidden lore hinting at a recurring cycle of plague and an ancient society of alchemists fighting to protect the world from it, with ancient fortresses with specific defences designed to hold against the tide of rats. All this from the same people that made the 2008 WALL-E tie-in game would you believe!
This game has problems, the gameplay loop while inventive at times is not utterly groundbreaking, and there is definitely an issue with pacing, but from another small development team has come a game which does a really good job at exploring the concept of innocence threatened by a dark world really well. People really cared about this game when making it, and that shows through. In an industry increasingly plagued by cynicism and abusive business practices, looking to this imperfect game made with heart and artistry might provide a little hope for gaming as a medium going into the new decade.