To be honest: compared to 2017, which saw a cornucopia of masterpieces such as Breath of the Wild, Hellblade or Prey, 2018 seemed a little barren to me at first. But looking back, there still are a lot of great games that stand out and that deserve to be celebrated. Here’s my list of my favourite games of 2018, in no particular order:
Given its generous offerings of near-constant high-speed bloodbaths, restraint may not be the first thing associated with a game like Dusk. And yet, this gore-fest is a fine example of slow escalation choreographed with a careful touch. I’ll admit, after all the praise heaped on it, my initial impression of the first few levels was low-key disappointment. There’s a lot of atmosphere and finesse to those early sections, but they seemed a little too easy, and a tad too familiar. But soon, Dusk starts to get wild and weird. Its levels turn into labyrinthine, dense and twisted spaces that disorient and disturb, but are a delight to explore. There are hints not just of Doom or Quake, but also of Half-Life, Thief, Deus Ex (physics and crates!), Dishonored (sliding!), Superhot (slo-mo power-ups!) and more, but it has its own malevolent identity.
Prey was one of my favourite games of 2017, and an underappreciated masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. Mooncrash doesn’t just build on Prey but makes us appreciate it from a whole new angle. While the core remains unchanged, an entirely new approach to progression, framing and goals manages to make its experience feel both familiar and exciting. This is a rare interpretation of the permadeath, roguelike blueprint that genuinely fascinates me with its focus on escalating complexity, world building and persistence of game spaces even after the death of one of the characters. Mooncrash surprises and challenges even after hours of play, and constantly asks us to think and plan ahead, but also to improvise and experiment.
Into the Breach
A roguelike mecha tactics game? No thank you, I might have said not too long ago, fool that I was. I don’t like roguelikes. I don’t like mechas. And most tactics games give me a headache (I’m not a great tactician and there’s too much going on in most of them for my poor brain). But then I gave Into the Breach a chance and played little else for several weeks. I’m not sure why it clicked with me like it did, but there’s something about its simplicity and elegance which rendered all my usual reservations about roguelikes and tactics games completely irrelevant. There’s a lot of hidden complexity underneath its humble surface of clean pixel art and neat miniature battlefields, but despite permadeath and a slew of difficult conundrums, Into the Breach rarely feels daunting or overwhelming.
Return of the Obra Dinn
A nautical disaster mystery game. Need I say more? Anyone who knows me and my obsession with Moby Dick et al. will not be surprised to hear me rave about this game. But even discarding personal predilections, it’s impossible to deny that Obra Dinn is perhaps the most innovative and impressive game to come out this year. Its recreation of life, both dramatic and mundane, aboard a 19th century ship, is stunning, as are the intricacies of overlapping series of events and the lives and actions of 60 (!) individuals. It’s hard not to marvel constantly at the sheer amount of effort and care that must have gone into making this wonderfully complex thing work. And it works so well!
Katamari Damacy Reroll
I’d never played a Katamari Damacy game in my life, and I had no idea what I’d missed. In terms of sheer fun and delight, no other game this year (or the years before that, for that matter) could even begin to come close to Reroll. I adore its surreal and whimsical take on mundane spaces. I adore its equally loving and irreverent obsession with all the things that make up our world, from a piece of candy to a skyscraper. It’s more than just an outrageously fun game. It also manages to make you think about… things. The beauty as well as frivolity of all the objects we hoard, and the spaces we build to contain them.
The only game on this list I never actually finished. Truth be told, Cultist Simulator intimidates me. After several dozen hours, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing, and the fear of losing hours of progress sometimes keeps me away. And yet, I cannot with a good conscience exclude it from this list. Alongside Obra Dinn, Cultist Simulator is the most unique and original game I played this year, and it is endlessly fascinating. I’ve written before about the way its systems and processes mimic and mirror esoteric thought and practices. Many games dabble in magicks and the esoteric, but very, very few do it with the depth of understanding of Cultist Simulator.
Did I enjoy my time with Frostpunk? I finished (and survived) its main campaign, but the thought of doing it all over again is a bit too much right now. Frostpunk is a gloomy, dreary game, and playing it (“playing” seems like the wrong word) is a gruelling and exhausting experience. As it should be, considering its theme of survival in a hostile environment, uncomfortable questions of ethics, and hope in the face of almost certain death. Like Cultist Simulator, Frostpunk is a daunting game. Preparing for and then surviving the storm was one of the most stressful things I ever did in a game, relentless hours of disasters accompanied by the constant ring of death knells. Coming out the other end, however, made it all feel worth it.
Everything is going to be OK
This “interactive zine” created by Nathalie Lawhead aka alienmelon was released in 2017, but seeing as it was probably the ‘game’ that delighted, surprised and touched me most this year, I’m going to cheat a little. Played on a simulated desktop environment, you click on files and programs, which will usually trigger a small interactive vignette or mini game involving cartoon animals. On the face of it, it looks cutsey, silly and absurdist, with plenty of moments that made me laugh out loud. But through its fragmentation, noise and broken digital aesthetics, it also expresses a sense of desperation and sadness that really got under my skin. Those adorable cartoon rabbits with their high-pitched voices, it turns out, struggle with some heavy personal issues, (pitch black) humour notwithstanding.
Life is Strange 2
I liked the first episode a lot. I expect the finished game will make an appearance on my next list.
The Banner Saga 3
A worthy conclusion to The Banner Saga trilogy. Still, I found it a tad too frustrating from time to time.
A wonderfully nightmarish and surreal first-person game that will certainly appeal to fans of the dark and dreamlike visions of David Lynch or David Cronenberg.
A wonderful game that nearly destroyed me. I’m terrible at platforming, and this game felt like a real struggle to me. I know that’s the whole point, but personally, I prefer to admire this game from a safe distance.
Not as good as the brilliant Yakuza 0, but it’s still a beautiful conclusion to Kazuma Kiryu’s story. Its recreation of Onomichi has become one of my favourite virtual places.
The Red Strings Club
One of the best cyberpunk stories in the medium, and a highly original and unique adventure/puzzle game.
I played this for the first time on the Switch this year, so I’m including it here. Probably the most fun I’ve had with a game this year after Katamari Damacy Reroll.