I guess the last time I did one of these was four years ago…wow! This year I played a lot of wonderful games, though the vast majority of them were made by friends and peers (journalistic integrity be damned). I suppose these sorts of lists are somewhat self-indulgent, but I enjoy making them, so here it is! This year I decided to include my favorite movies and books I enjoyed over the year as well. The list isn't ranked at all — everything is listed in the order in which I came to it — and I didn't bother to trim it to only “the top ten” or anything. Different things resonated with me for different reasons, and why shouldn't we praise and celebrate generously, after all? If something stuck with me, however large or small, I've included it below.
I am working on a game about goodbyes right now, and it has made me realize how complicatedly beautiful these “goodbyes” to the new year are — celebrations for some of the most difficult aspects of our lives: change, age, and the loss of time. But, of course, these are not empty losses. They are bounties, harvests of wisdom and friendship and, yes, the odd videogame. Here are some things I was grateful for this year.
I go through regular spirals with AAA games where I wonder if I even like videogames — long stretches of time where I pick something up, then put it down feeling cold. It's sort of disheartening. I'm not sure how much of it is due to the sheer amount of time I spend with videogames numbing me to their effects, versus what feels like an increasingly commodified field that churns out more “content” than art.
Regardless, Elden Ring came through for me. It's a world with real mystery to it, predictably-satisfying combat, and an open world design that — well, it doesn't exactly get rid of the oft-derided Ubisoft model — but nonetheless it sands it down to be less gaudy and irksome. I enjoyed flying through fields and forests, and dying spectacular, humiliating deaths.
I did find it to be a bit bloated…what's the deal with these hundred hour games, anyways. I didn't finish it, and I probably won't, but that's a small price to pay to be enamored with AAA games again. Thanks, Elden Ring :)
This one is sort of cheating because the game is still being worked on and isn't publicly available anywhere, but I got a chance to play it hot and fresh earlier in the year and haven't stopped thinking about it since. There is such a dense air of alienation and longing in this game, while you poke and prod at a mezze plate of serenely beautiful, muted dioramas. If anything else like it exists, I've not played it. Whenever it does come it out — it's essential playing. In the meantime, you can play through GURN GROUP's other games, which are short, strange, and fascinating.
Nobody does it like thecatamites! Sort of surprising I hadn't played this before (and actually there's lots of thecatamites games I still haven't played…!) but well worth the wait. Typically irreverent and playful, I loved playing this game. So many games become a blurred memory for me (even the good ones!) and it's a testament to thecatamite's ability to draw up varied, tactile environs that I can still recall so much detail of this one. I think my favorite set piece was the train. Great music. Here's to a new year of getting through my thecatamites backlog!
Daniel Benmergui is such an interesting developer. When I think of puzzle design, I think of highly brainy/cerebral experiences. Even the “arty” ones, by otherwise “arty” developers (like increpare's Stephen's Sausage Roll) are just immaculately well-crafted puzzlers that think through all the interesting permutations of an idea. And, of course, those are wonderful games! But Benmergui's stuff feels like, rather than making a puzzle game feel “artful,” he's making an “art game” and using puzzle mechanics to get there. Instead of taking a puzzle mechanic and turning it over in all its complexities, he wields puzzles as evocations of ideas and feelings in ways I can't think of done elsewhere.
I played Night Raveler one brief morning and was enraptured with it. The way it draws up loneliness, aching across city skyscapes, and begs you to uproot it. The way I spent fifteen minutes trying desperately to make people happy, grew closer and closer to understanding what the nameless residents wanted and cared for. The way their hearts opened up to me at last. And, without much fanfare, the night melted away. What a gorgeous little game.
So many games are more complicated than they need to be. Rickety from crafting mechanics and open worlds and side quests and who knows what, most games are overstuffed with things they think they “need.” This is a platformer without challenge. It gets a lot out of playful animations and delicate sound work. But mostly it knows that it's a joy to climb. Watching the slow progression of a character go from one place to another, up and up, into the sky…lovely. It'll go by before you're ready.
This game led me to experiment with a lot of “nonplaying” games: little experiments where you close your eyes while playing, or play by sort of removing yourself from play, in a way. But I think the simplicity of this game does it better than anything I really made. If I remember right (I can't seem to find the blog post anymore) this was made in a direct response to SirMilkman's game above, and you can feel the relation. Two little tone poems that reflect on the purity of a genre, the humble platformer, and find blissful peace where it takes them.
I've had the pleasure of watching discone (pronounced “disk oh nay”) from its infancy. It has such an oddball charm, and plays like nothing I've ever played before. It's sort of like a eurojank platformer, or a Super Mario 64 dream. It's radically open and lovably strange and has been really inspiring to watch as it's taken shape. It's an amazing game.
Lately, I've been feeling pretty down about contemporary level design trends. Somehow we've become so obsessed with ensuring the player is never lost or confused that we never even give them a chance to think. Most AAA games I play I feel utterly mindless, plodding forward not because I particularly want to but because there's so clearly nothing else to do. Where's the magic in that! It's a breath of fresh air, then, to pick up something so rich in personality, where I have to think constantly about how to get from one place to another. A game that assures you that it doesn't even know all of the paths available. It's a game that wants you to break it open, for when you do — who knows what you might find?
I love puzzle games. Back when I worked as a software engineer, in the sleepy days of the pandemic, it used to be my morning ritual to make a cup of coffee and drink it over a random puzzle game on itch.io. With my erratic schedule this year, and less time on my hands anyways, I played very few puzzle games — which I hope to amend in the new year. But I played this game over the summer, and it helped me remember why I love them, especially the itch.io-fare. Small, bite-sized challenges to chew on over the morning. Lovely stuff. After playing this, I played through a lot of pancelor's games, and was not disappointed. It's a treasure trove of good puzzle games, don't stop with this one.
Earlier this year I read Melos Han-Tani's “Deadgames and Alivegames” essay which basically makes the argument that games should be made with smaller teams, so you can feel the personality of the creators. It's a piece that resonated a lot with me — and this is a thoroughly alive game — and for some reason it got me thinking about time in games, and how I felt a similar (but less finger-wagging) taxonomy could be applied to time: “dead time” and “alive time.” I was thinking of Brendon Chung's walking sim games Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, which I feel operate on a quasi-realtime continuum. They ask the player to participate in an active game time, rather than wait for the player to dictate a tempo (which thus makes the game's time “alive” in its own right, rather than “dead” and awaiting the player to breathe corporeality into it). I'm thinking of the chase sequences in particular, which have nothing except trust in the player to ensure that the anxious tempo of the scene is played out. If you choose to dally, the games just…don't really work, and in that way I think of them as “alive.”
Anyways, there's not really space here to dive too deep into this but the point is that Titanic II is another deliciously “alive” game. I love it for the way it forces time to a crawl, and forces its passengers to soak in the stretched moments. It has an intro sequence that is truly unforgettable — silly, strange, frightening, ethereal, and, yes, stirringly beautiful — and sprawls across a wide range of captivating locales and moods.
There's a growing movement of games, which developer JohnLee Cooper deems “Plundercore”, that use ripped assets in their games, and Titanic II is a shining edition. Spongebob and Mario lie wrecked and emaciated over a flattened seabed: husks of forgotten games, laid to waste. Piles of culture lie dormant in the sea, memories and memories of TV reruns and borrowed mornings. It's eerie and funny and tragically beautiful to walk among them. Videogames are alive and well.
So many games stretch and bend in an effort to hide the artifice of their worlds, yet here's a game that lays it out plainly. You are held inside by a skybox, which you fly through to find another, and another, and another… It's pretty breathtaking peeling away the layers, excitedly hovering towards a new mysterious world, not knowing when it might end or where it might take you. Magisterial.
I didn't get too hooked on the high score chasing in this game, to be honest. I beat my friends a couple of times in the first world, but mostly continued to trundle onwards deeper into the game. While it's certainly high dexterity, what I loved most about this game was that each level was like a little puzzle box. I wonder if jumping from this corner instead will shave off 0.3 seconds? Or maybe I can hobble up that wall if I get the right angle? It's really fun to grow intimate with a space, and to understand all its exploits, before —breathe in, breathe out — giving it one last run for the gold.
I played this game at a summer rooftop party and it was some of the most fun I've ever had playing a game. The idea is that you play a series of levels by imagining yourself completing its challenges. It might sound confusing, but I promise it's a blast! It adds lots of clever twists, but more than anything it made me think about our appetites for play. We need nothing more than our imaginations and a picture to get going, and somehow we can fool ourselves into laughing and shouting at nothing at all. Fantastic.
This is another game I didn't finish — I think I got distracted or something, I can't remember, but by the time I came back to it its fires had died for me. That's how it goes sometimes. But, for the time I really gave to it, I loved it dearly. This is another “alive time” game, and the thing I loved most about it was how patient, gentle, and directionless it was. The game is on a day/night cycle, and every night your neighbor reads a new bedtime story to her kids on the porch, and you can come by and just stand there, with the crickets humming, the leaves swaying, the music lulling, and listen. It's so nice.
It reminded me of playing Animal Crossing for the first time, having my own rhythms lock into the game, and being happy to do nothing at all in a small town. With games getting bigger and bigger, with more and more “stuff” to do, I love this game for giving me so little, and letting it mean so much.
What a gift it is to share games. I played this over the summer with a group of friends. It took us some time to understand it, and start to unearth its secrets, to the point where we almost gave up on it. But suddenly it clicked, and we solved one puzzle after another, getting more and more excited together as the game opened up to us. Eventually we were hootin' and hollerin' — true friendship — and by the time the game came to a close I was sad to see it go. Brief, spooky-silly, and one of the most charming walk-cycles of recent memory, this is such a lovely little game. When I think of it, I think of my friends — what more could I ask for?
I don't want to spoil this game — part of its magic is gradually coming to understand what it wants from you. The other part of its magic is performing what it's asking. I was tongue-between-teeth grimacing/smiling and contorting my body in dire positions while I played it, and it was a blast.
What really makes this game so good is that somehow, some way, all this collapses into exuberant beauty — the sheer, silly, sweating-laughing absurdity of physical life. Go play it.
When I was a kid, I would give so much time to the games I played. I would pick up games I didn't know how to play, and I would stare at them for hours, trying different things here and there in the hopes of making something happen. Somewhere along the way from there to here, I've lost that. But when I think of my time playing games as a kid, I think often of those long stretches of time standing before impenetrable objects, enraptured by the mystery of it all. Gradually, I would come to understand the game, and its mystery would fade, forever.
This is a game I don't know how to play. It's strange and obtuse, and I guess it's bite-sized enough for me to feel comfortable gutting out ten minutes to try and get something to happen. I never did. But it reminded me how intoxicating it is to feel the distance between myself and another thing. I left this as a comment, but: “I think maybe there's something to maintaining the mystery of a work — we come to a game not knowing yet how to play it, until eventually we figure it out. But there's a real magic to the dance that gets us from one to the other. Playing this feels like lingering in that dance, as long as possible, before the beautifully alien snaps back into the familiar.” This game is a gift.
For such a vulnerable endeavor, it's a genuine oddity that most art leaves us feeling lukewarm. How strange to pour our hearts over something, send it out into the world with shallow breaths, only to have people give it a distant glance-over and walk away. How dare they!
And yet, that's how it goes. It's understandable. I love this game for how it portrays the steadfast artist, who finds hope in the process. They don't even seem to be particularly deflated by the end of it when no one seems to care about their mural. Good for them! But it's funny too how much our lives are inundated with art these days — piles of things vying for our attentions. How many things have I seen then forgotten?
Anyways, the game oozes charm and humor — Nyusha is a great writer — and when I think of it I remember laughing and smiling and feeling forlorn empathy for the cowering artist. I should probably play more Bitsy games. It's amazing how fun it is to just do some easy arrow-key walking, take in the sights, read the little words, and enjoy myself. Good game.
When I think of Hao's games, I think of small games of emotional clarity. They are patient and and gentle, and I walk away feeling something understood about myself. He makes beautiful games. I could have chosen any number of his games, but for fear of garishness decided to just include this one with a note urging you to play more if you like it.
I think this game is a typical “Hao” game: short, sweet, and slowly unravels its layered charm until you're fully in its world. I think it's best if you play it yourself. It'll only take a couple of minutes. And once you've done that, I promise, you'll be glad you did.
Like Hao, I could have listed a number of Matt's games, but this is the one I keep coming back to. It's a phenomenal arcade game, with a really great push-pull mechanic for points-chasing, as well as a mechanic that lets you chain jumps together. The result is something that's beautifully slick and expressive — and that music! Wow. Sometimes I get caught up in the “artsy” world of games I think (which Matt is no stranger to!), but it's a real pleasure to have games like this pull me back to the realm of pure, foot-thumping fun. I'm excited to beat my high score in the new year.
Sometimes the right game comes to you at the right time. I was deep in a game dev funk, exhausted of ideas and inspiration, when a friend sent this to me. It helped me remember what I love about games. The mouse controls are just awkward enough to help me feel its intimacy, since I felt so aware of it, which created this breathlessly delicate experience. It's simple, it's strange, and it's staggeringly beautiful. This is one I cherish.
Forgive me, but I'm returning again to the idea that games can be uncomplicated. Here's a game where you just point and click to cycle through city aesthetics. But it's so fun (and so cute omg)! The sights, the sounds…amazing.
I love that even after you've eliminated the gray, you still have to cycle through it. Every time I try to tick through the options and a harsh gray rectangle stares back at me I yelp and click frantically to make its dull ugliness go away. I think it makes you feel how much the city has come to life, by being reminded of what it used to be. Magical girl city forever!!!
This is an astounding game. Another one best played rather than read about. But I think it's in a similar vein to mut's Imagine the Character: an excavation of our hunger for play. The whole game is played in Notepad, and is more or less just a series of instructions. But it's amazing fun to have to do ridiculous tasks just because a text file told you to. One of the most excitedly gleeful games I played all year. I can't stop thinking about it.
Sadly, I don't have a picture of this one :( I played it at Babycastles in December and I'm not aware of a public build for it. But, the pitch is that you play Tetris, but every time you clear a line, another, simultaneous game of Tetris pops up. If you lose in any of the open Tetris's then that's game over. It's great, cacophonous fun trying to juggle a million active games of Tetris at once, and it's a fun spectator game as well. To add to an already great idea, it's a nice bit of archival work — the Tetris versions are more obscure (to me) and it's great fun seeing all the different visual variants cooked up over the years. If you ever get a chance to try it, I can't recommend it enough.
This one I played at Babycastles as well. Me and Hao had to wait literally an hour to get to it because the people ahead of us were having too much fun. It's that good! I still need to sit down and play it through on my own time proper, but what I love about this game is how open and mysterious it is (writing all this up makes me realize I like “mystery” in games I guess). Half the walls in the game you can walk through, some you can't; you can turn into a lime at any point and fly through the levels (though you won't be impervious to spikes!); and you can create spawn points wherever you want (which you can even use to “teleport” across levels by arcing spawn points and then dying). It's brilliant.
Playing this and Cactus Block on adventure! (which is also amazing) has single-handedly refreshed my interest in the 2D platformer. What a joy it is to find hope in an old genre. (As an aside, I feel like shooters are usually talked about as the “prototypical” videogame, but surely that honor should to go to the death-defying 2D platformer? Would be fun to trace a history of games via the lens of platformers. Anyways!) I really need to play Clockwork Calamity and Cruel World. Things to look forward to this year!
What a world this game has. I love Marek's art, and waddling around plucking my lute is impossible fun. I also love its level design (see level design screed in discone) — right as I booted up the game, I took two steps on the dock and immediately plummeted through a hole in the ground. What a good gag! Made me keenly aware of the world and its affordances. Somewhere in the forest there are jagged rocks at odd angles, which I clamored between happily. I think there are a lot of secrets in this game, but I actually didn't find any. I was too happy just ambling about, taking in the sights. And I haven't even mentioned the music! What a game.
A game I wish wouldn't end. Supremely gorgeous, brief, ascendant. Whoever brought us down the path of “floaty” jump demonization should be sorry!
I don't really know how to put this one into words. It has so much life to it, soaring around you. Delicate, intangible, and alive. A beautiful game.
It will take you three minutes — you should play it.
Happy new year :)