A little bit after Untitled Goose Game released I saw a tweet from someone in the games industry talking about how we would now forever be talking about games in a new genre: the “gooselike”. It’s a reflection of the immense cultural impact that Untitled Goose Game had on the gaming landscape on 2019, but this little Australian indie game with its aggressive, feathered protagonist also hit me in a beautiful, personal way that no other game matched this year.
I have a bit of a confession to make: I’m bad at systems-based action games. I’m terrible at scouting bases, planning attacks, managing guard routes, stealthing behind enemy lines… I love Assassin’s Creed but I repeatedly fail the mandatory stealth sections and go in guns blazing. I couldn’t keep my cool in Metal Gear Solid at all. Untitled Goose Game taught me to stop worrying and love the process, with its beautifully simple and intuitive approach to navigating NPC behaviours combined with what I can only describe as a sense of zen: despite the wacky chaos you’re inflicting on the town and its inhabitants, everything always feels low-stakes; relaxing, almost. The systems, also, are intelligent and often hilarious — at one point I scared a child and he tripped over his shoelaces, losing his glasses. I had stolen a different pair of glasses from the nearby shop, and replaced his glasses with this new random pair. Then, scaring him again, he tripped over near the shopkeeper, who recognised the stolen glasses and took them to place back on the shelf. I still can’t believe I managed to make this happen.
Everything else just slots into place perfectly for me. The madcap, procedural music; the absolutely charming art direction and animation; the cute, satisfying ending. Untitled Goose Game isn’t long, or important, or flashy, but that’s exactly why it just oozes personality and why it captivated my heart in a way few other games can, and quite honestly I have very little criticism for it. It’s my favourite game of 2019, and I’m excited to revisit it in the years to come in-between the other gooselikes we surely have coming our way.
Honourable mention: The Outer Worlds
What do you get when you combine the exploration-rich, deep roleplaying of Fallout: New Vegas with the character and dialogue system depth of Mass Effect? The Outer Worlds, which much like Shadowbringers below I came into with low expectations and found myself pleasantly surprised. It isn’t a perfect game — the moral dilemma decision making poses some interesting questions but there’s always a secret “proper” solution and none of it has the far reaching consequences I’d expect — but there’s so much going for it I can’t neglect to mention it here. The roleplaying depth is far beyond what we’ve seen in similar games, with heaps of unique dialogue and combat options that can change depending on even the clothes you’re wearing; wear pilfered marauder gear and people will think you’re a marauder, buddy! Pair that with some interesting and involved combat and a fantastic sense of humour (big ups to the Spacer’s Choice vendor on the Groundbreaker for one of my favourite video game conversations) and you’ve got yourself some good fun!
Honourable mention: Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
FFXIV has been around for about 6 years now, and boy does Shadowbringers show just how far the MMO-that-could has come. A Realm Reborn’s story was very straightforward and often dull at times, presenting nothing new and almost getting in the way of the content for serious MMO players. Expansions Heavensward and Stormblood were much better, overhauling the voice acting and finally weaving actually intriguing tales that warranted paying attention to, but Shadowbringers takes everything a step further — now, suddenly, there are cinematic and exciting story cutscenes and dungeons; real narrative drive and emotion and character (even for your generic “hero” avatar); animations that I didn’t think were even possible in the engine; genuine mystery and intrigue; and settings that inspire awe. Obviously, if you weren’t a fan of the gameplay before, nothing has significantly changed in that department, but there’s some great quality-of-life improvements that make everything just that little bit nicer. I had no expectations for Shadowbringers to be as good as it is, and I’m glad I got around to it.
2019’s biggest hits and misses:
Hit: Call of Duty soft reboot It might be nostalgia goggles or misremembered experiences, but Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a fantastic game. The campaign was intense and gripping the whole way through, and paved the way for Call of Duty campaigns for the next 10 years. The multiplayer was razor sharp as well, and it all coalesced into close to a perfect package (surprising given the relative weakness of Call of Duty 3 the year before). I talk about this because it has essentially been rebooted this year as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and while I expected something rote and dull like we’d been seeing the last few entries — 2018’s Black Ops 4 had so little personality it couldn’t even manage a single player campaign — we got bombast and character and engaging setpieces, and that hit of nostalgia from characters I’d enjoyed the presence of 12 years ago. Well done, Call of Duty; now let’s see if you can carry that momentum forward.
Miss: Mario Kart: World Tour I don’t think you could cram more things that worry and upset me into a video game if you tried. When I first heard Nintendo was expanding to mobile games, I was thrilled. Then we got Miitomo, which was… weird, but not totally an antithesis to what Nintendo was all about. We had Tomodachi Life not too long before and so a strange but charming communication app didn’t horrify me. No, the horror hit when Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out, and I saw possibly my favourite Nintendo franchise start beating the microtransactions horse. I tried to convince myself that arbitrary timers were the same thing as waiting day by day like the real Animal Crossing. I tried to say that Leaf Tickets were fine. Eventually I stopped trying to force myself to believe in this dead mobile Animal Crossing dream and I said, out loud in a pristine meadow under a magnificent azure sky, “please, Nintendo. Don’t screw Mario Kart up. Just let me race.” A dove flew overhead and I took it as a sign: a sign that someone, somewhere heard my desperate plea. Then Mario Kart: World Tour came out with auto driving and a subscription model. Goodbye everyone.
Hit: Nintendo Switch Lite I absolutely love the Switch. I don’t think I’ve owned a console that’s inspired me so much — it’s an actual console experience in a handheld format. No longer are PS2 owners getting the proper Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets experience while us Game Boy players get a weird knockoff (yes, I’m still bitter 20 odd years later). The Switch Lite eliminates the Switch’s inherent local multiplayer goodness, since it won’t display on your TV or easily dispense any detachable controllers, but hey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 were never multiplayer anyway. Instead, you just get that aforementioned actual console experience in a handheld format, but now it’s at a more accessible price, even more portable, and with some absolutely beautiful build quality. The Switch Lite is a fantastic little bit of plastic.
Miss: E3 Downsizing Many will decry the many problems that E3 has. It’s too big and self-important, it’s tough on developers, and it’s out of touch with the way that people enjoy and experience games. All of these are valid criticisms, and need addressing — but I’ll be damned if I don’t enjoy a good spectacle every so often. The somewhat uniquely Australian experience of staying up until 3am every night for a week to catch the big flashy press conferences, hanging out with friends to bash the awkward scripted entertainment, and seeing the big games of the year ahead is absolutely great fun. This year we lost EA to a long-form stream discussing games we already knew about, and we lost Playstation to… absolutely nothing, with Sony completely avoiding any E3-timed content, hosting its Days of Play direct stream a few weeks prior. It’s not that E3 is necessarily essential to gaming culture, but it’s been such a big part of my experiences for as long as I can remember, and it’s tough to think about abandoning the good times.
What I’m looking forward to in 2020:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons: This should have been the first game on the Switch, damnit. We’d been begging for Animal Crossing on the Wii U for the console’s entire lifespan and Nintendo delivered us Amiibo Festival and Pocket Camp like Animal Crossing was some kind of bad joke. Why do you make me wait another three months, Nintendo? Everything I’ve seen of this looks absolutely incredible. I just want to go virtual fishing at 2am again. This can’t come soon enough.
March, as in the whole month of March: Do you remember October 27, 2017? We got Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus all on the same day. It was so incredible I think I booked a week off work to get as much of it in me as possible. Well, fans of 27/10/17, let me introduce you to 20/03/20, with Animal Crossing above releasing the same day as Doom Eternal… only two and a half weeks after the Final Fantasy VII remake releases. And then we’ve got Half Life: Alyx and the Vampire: The Masquerade sequel in the same month? I’m chomping at the bit. Let me have it.
Cyberpunk 2077: Oh yeah, and Cyberpunk2077 comes out in mid-April which is only a few weeks after all of THAT. I’m a massive fan of open world RPGs and this is so far looking like it ticks all my boxes, plus delivering it wrapped up in a setting and aesthetic that is rarely done to this level of detail in video games. I don’t think I’m alone at all in the hype here. That said, I’m tempering my expectations, as I saw some first impressions that weren’t entirely positive — what I really need, I think, is to play it myself.
Brand new consoles: Consoles are in such a weird spot at the moment, so I’m waiting with bated breath to see what this theorized “new generation” will be like. We had the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X launch in the last few years which, while a massive jump in power over their respective originals, ran all the same games merely at higher graphics settings — a reflection of the increasingly more apparent reality that these consoles are just optimised gaming PCs. Will next year’s PS5 and Xbox be backwards compatible? Will their games run on older hardware? What real differences will we see? By the looks of it we’ll be waiting until near the end of the year to find out. Fingers crossed for some real leaps forward.
VR releases: I don’t own a VR kit outside of my old Google Daydream mobile VR, so I haven’t experienced the super nice room-scale power of something like the HTC Vive or Valve Index personally. The state of VR has me very, very interested — this year we saw some really exciting VR experiences take off, like Tetris Effect, Blood and Truth, and the Oculus Quest standalone system, but next year we’ve already got a flagship title announced in Half Life: Alyx, and we’re bound to see some new stuff take us by surprise. It’s a new frontier and I’ll be watching with interest.
I’ve loved a lot about 2019. The Switch has been really coming into its own as a console, hitting maturity with a rapidly expanding game library, sales numbers absolutely through the roof, and a cute little portable-only version to hook even more people in. It’s the sort of console that makes me wonder how I survived before it came around. For everywhere else, we’ve been hitting maturity, with flagship titles like Death Stranding eking every little bit of performance out of 5 year old hardware. We’ve seen what I think are the best looking and most complete games we’ll see on these platforms, and I’m so excited for next year to see what some fresh silicon is going to do for gaming as a whole. We’re in a transitory time right now, and I for one am absolutely loving it.