2018 has been the shortest 6 years of my life. I almost thought I only played enough games for a top 5 list. That is until I compiled this inventory of everything I played this year:

  • God of War
  • Red Dead Redemption 2
  • Prey (2017)
  • Forza Horizon 4
  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
  • A Way Out
  • Below
  • Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
  • Far Cry 5
  • Smash Bros. Ultimate
  • Return of the Obra Dinn
  • Warhammer: Vermintide 2
  • Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
  • Sea of Thieves
  • Celeste
  • The Messenger
  • Dark Souls Remastered
  • Battletech
  • Mario Tennis
  • Mario Party
  • Beat Saber
  • Iconoclasts
  • Overcooked 2
  • Dead Cells
  • Cultist Simulator
  • Artifact
  • Into the breach
  • Spider-Man
  • The Red Strings Club
  • Hollow Knight (2017)
  • Exapunks
  • Subnautica
  • Objects in Space
  • Star Traders: Frontier
  • Wizard of Legend

The list above isn’t even some weird flex. Just want to give you an idea of what I’m into. So if you’re into (mostly) single-player, narratively involved games with a particular fondness for exploration and immersion—I gotchu.

To be fair, I didn’t/couldn’t finish 1/3 of the titles on this list (shoutout to my fellow 30 year olds). But below are the 10 games this year that brought me joy, challenged me, or filled my head with interesting ideas. Consequently, these are objectively the 10 best games of the year.

Note: Return of the Obra Dinn is very much my shit and would have certainly topped this list, but unfortunately I haven’t spent enough time with the nautical-murder mystery to make a strong case. 

10. Forza Horizon 4

The driving in Forza Horizon 4 is a spectacular magic trick. With just 3 ingredients (audio, visuals, and button presses), FH4 generates a convincing illusion that you’re driving a machine no millennial can afford at 180 MPH.

The developers smartly borrow from mobile game loops, building a non-insidious slot machine that rewards you for having a good time. Supercars and even European lakeside mansions are gifted to you constantly as you complete the varied and exciting racing events. This could easily have become an awful skinner box, but instead, FH4 uses these mobile game techniques as a way to build goodwill between you and the game.

And there’s just nothing like the meditative experience of you in an expensive vehicle, the beautiful countryside, and a British radio DJ worshipping your every rev as you race to the turn ahead. Ultimately, my love for Forza Horizon 4 probably stems from my childhood aspirations to become a race car driver. For $60, that failed dream has now virtually come true.

9. Dead Cells

Dead Cells’ combat feels like the genetic splicing of Diablo, Doom, and Sonic 2. Hack, loot, flow. It’s challenging enough to hate but too addicting to put down for good. If you like action + video games, go play it.

8. God of War

I played David Jaffe’s edgelord God of War as a kid and the reimagining here is, for the most part, a welcome one. Sure, Mothers are sadly forgotten, which culminates with an ending that is morally incoherent and completely undercuts its themes in favor of father-son love. And yeah, the combat starts off strong, then stalls out into repetitive encounters that never force the player to understand its move set.

But flaws aside, God of War 2018’s craft can’t be denied. It has focus, thematic flourish, and a vision that more often than not is executed with artistic and technical mastery. It’s a game that got me invested enough narratively to see the end. It made me care for and even laugh with Kratos. Dad of War is not the “best” game of the year, but it’s a tentpole game for rich single-player experiences and a sincere attempt at a kinder, more thoughtful power fantasy.

7. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey & Red Dead Redemption 2

For many a true gamer out there, Red Dead 2 is the greatest game of all time, ever—until the next Rockstar thing comes out. And in my younger years, I’d be there with the gamer nation. But alas, I’ve since grown up and have come to understand one critical point about R*: they’re kinda bad game designers. This is readily apparent when RDR2 is compared to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey fun-focused design.

Red Dead 2 opts for realism and top-down game design that results in impressive mechanics that after chapter 3 become tiresome novelties. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is janky but built on GBs of player  feedback that make for fun and compelling gameplay loops for at least a few dozen hours.

ACO’s writing has the ring of Mass Effect or a Marvel blockbuster. It’s fine and knows what it is, servicing the larger playground. RDR2 wants to be There Will Be Blood or Blood Meridian. What we get though is disparities. We go from Arthur’s thought provoking journal to dialogue that bellows “we just want to be free!” themes without tact or subtext.

Of course, Red Dead’s total experience is one of incredible fidelity. When everything is clicking, you’re immersed in a western power fantasy, a part of a gang that feels like a family. The real-time “hey, partner” system is a valid contribution to the medium and the sheer amount of labor, skill, and passion is apparent in every frame.

But these ambitions culminate in a slow-burn game that while a momentary masterpiece will likely not age well. In 10 years, will that polish make for a fun game to play? If how the first Red Dead has aged is any indication, fidelity is a fruitless pursuit in the long term. What ACO lacks in polish, it makes up for in player-friendly mechanics. And while many will argue that Red Dead 2 is the better game today, my bet is that ACO will be the better game in the years to follow.

6. Artifact

Artifact is without a doubt the most intense, deepest, and mentally taxing digital card game (sorry, Adventure Time Card Wars). Every match simulates what feels like a near-death experience—whether you’re holding your breath over board position or melting your brain in search for a clever play.

It’s sad that a rocky launch has hurt the game’s population, but recent updates have moved the game closer to the deceptively insidious mobile game models, a la Hearthstone, that gamers wanted. The devs are listening and anyone who enjoys 1v1 battles of wit should be playing.

5. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

This game isn’t a video game and didn’t technically come out this year, but I’d be doing the gamer nation a disservice if I didn’t include it on my list. Note: any use of “gamer nation” is self-deprecating sarcasm. 

Seriously though, there’s so much to love here. And this is because Arkham Horror basically turns game night into a TV episode with you and your friends as the heroes.

There are choices (like Bandersnatch!) that carry over between the acts that make up a “season.” There’s atmospheric, cosmic horror prose to read out loud. Match this narration with the True Detective season 1 soundtrack and the session comes to roleplaying life. Oh, and the whole package is built upon a deep and rewarding card game that has you constantly puzzling together to escape ever-impending catastrophe.

It’s a game that had me and a friend tuning in once a week to progress a multi-act story. And once a week the designers would surprise us with a new set of mechanics that mirrored the psychological tension of the narrative. We’d fail or barely succeed, permanently scarring our characters with traumas that literally changed how we played. And after every session, I was left with the gnawing feeling that Arkham Horror: The Card Game is one of the best games ever made.

4. Spider-Man

Insomniac’s Spider-Man is on the surface a continuation of the Arkham Batman games formula. The three pillars—stealth, movement, and combat—do what they do best: make you feel like a hero. This was to be expected.

But what I wasn’t expecting was to feel kindness, a connection with Peter, and a sense of responsibility for “the job.” The success here lies in writing that treats topics like millennial woes and homelessness with nuance. It pairs the superhero fantasy with desperately needed emotional intelligence.

And although Spider-Man (PS4) may be condemned as a Batman game rip-off, Insomniac delivered one of the few AAA games this year that push for empathy, for us to be and do better.

3. Into the Breach

Into the Breach is a mini-mech tactics game boiled down to the moment. Everything you need to know is on the screen. All that matters is the turn. There are no surprises except for the answers you find after minutes of psychotically moving pieces around the board.

ItB’s design excels at producing a sense that there’s almost always a solution and once you find that way out you’re gifted self-satisfaction. And therein lies its brilliance. In a time, where gamers need progression systems, loots, and external reward—ItB reminds us that play itself is the reward.

2. Celeste

In Celeste, we control Madeline on her journey to scale a mountain. This involves mastering increasingly clever and inspired jumping challenges. Also, dying. Like a lot (although, the game compassionately lets you mod difficulty without consequence).

But it quickly becomes apparent that the mountain, this large obstacle composed of many problems, is meant to represent Madeline’s personal struggles. It would be cheap symbolism if it were not for how earnest, profound, and poignant Celeste manages to be.

Anxiety, depression, and finding self-worth are explored with a thoughtfulness that never drags on. Instead, its narrative elements elevate the ingenious platforming mechanics. For instance, the world literally becomes toxic with every step as a relationship in Madeline’s life becomes poisonous. Or at one point, you literally race against yourself as your self-hatred threatens to consume you. And I could go on. The point is Matt Thorson and his team (shoutout to Lena Raine’s score) have not only created a platformer that stands on the shoulders of Mario, but a perfect marrying of theme and mechanics.

Celeste was a journey that had me push beyond fun and challenge to powerful moments of introspection. This makes Celeste more than a perfect platformer and metaphor, but playable self-care.

1. Subnautica

Subnautica is the best game of the year—that everyone slept on. It’s almost forgivable as on the surface this is just another “survival game”, a genre we feel has shown us everything it has to offer. But Subnautica dives to far deeper and more interesting places. Its carefully constructed ecosystem and sci-fi world kept me in awe for over 60 hours.

This awe can be largely attributed to a design that encourages “scientific” curiosity. And whiles there’s a material progression that kind of functions like loot, the best rewards in Subnautica are knowledge.

You discover that salt deposits used for water filtration are found in blood grass, but that monstrous flounders will attack there if you’re not careful. You learn that kelp can be used to make silicone rubber. You realize that the presence of certain fauna signal that certain minerals and flora are nearby. And all these endless discoveries turn into actionable knowledge that allow Planet 4546B to become a home.

The incredible thing is that this work to survive is not only fun, it’s downright engrossing. This is in large part due to the fact that the balanced survival mechanics are used as an organic leveling system, pacing out your discoveries and never getting annoying. This natural content gating gives you time to become an explorer, a scientist, a tolerated immigrant. It’s survival mechanics as context, not frustration. It’s in this way that Subnautica fulfills the promise of video games as holodeck, a mechanism for transporting us to another world.

Crucially, Subnautica achieves this ambition through clever storytelling and systems that forgoes video games’ need for conquest in favor of symbiosis. Instead, Subnautica explores the interactive medium’s ability to create connection, wonder, and empathy through the emergent stories that game design allows. In short, Subnautica is this year’s greatest example of what video games do best.

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