Pain and fury
My game of the year: Life is Strange 2
Life is Strange 2 is my 2019 Game of the Year and if you’ve read any of my episode reviews over the last 14 months, that won’t be much of a shock. Dontnod’s sequel might not have lived up to the original game in the ways that certain fans wanted or expected but Life is Strange 2 was a powerful, moving and ultimately fantastic title all its own that compliments the first in all sorts of ways.
What stood out most to me was the central relationship between Sean and Daniel. While Sean himself didn’t quite stand out as much as Max or Chloe did, the brothers and their bond were written phenomenally (even if it could be a little cheesy times). Dontnod was able to tap into the emotional layers at the heart of that bond whilst having your own influence be genuinely felt throughout the game, and that is truly impressive.
Alongside all its other smart, ambitious features – like how your decision-making is warped as a guardian figure; the way that the months-long stretches between episodes was used to actually elevate the overall experience; all the strong, evocative and bittersweet endings; and even the pre-release Adventures of Captain Spirit tie-in – Life is Strange 2 represents a step forward for interactive dramas in gaming.
Honourable mention: SteamWorld Quest
Like every other game Image & Form has released, SteamWorld Quest is loaded with wonderful writing, lovely picture book visuals and incredibly thoughtful, elegant game design. Unfortunately overshadowed by that other deckbuilder of the year Slay the Spire, Quest instead leaned towards classic JRPGs with smart gameplay, memorable characters, and a fun light-hearted adventure to carry you through it. It was a lean turn-based deckbuilder RPG that felt neither shallow or oversized in any way while also being incredibly considerate of the player’s time and enjoyment over its 20-or-so hour campaign. Games are so rarely this fulfilling, sincere and earnestly dedicated to the player’s experience.
Honourable mention: Dreams
Okay, Dreams hasn’t quite released yet – it’s set to launch in February 2020 but had an Early Access release in April – but it deserves all the praise it gets. Even from my short time with it, Media Molecule’s long-in-development console-based game creator is visionary and stupidly ambitious. It represents a massive leap for the medium in the same way RPGMaker and other game-maker-games did, in their own way; while it may not draw all the attention compared to “actual” games (though Dreams has a head start with Sony backing it up and the popularity of Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet series), games like Dreams are massively important for opening up the medium as a broad artistic space. It lets people freely produce virtual interactive art in ways that’s so much easier and simpler than it’s ever been, a playground capable of sculpting or conducting or building nearly anything you can imagine – hence the title. With the full release in a couple of months, hopefully Dreams can get the attention and success it deserves.
2019’s biggest hits and misses:
Hit: Game Workers Unite gets people talking about crunch
There’s been a clear pushback this year against crunch in game development and the harmful effects that it has on developers. From Black Ops 4 to Anthem to Mortal Kombat to Fortnite, it’s become impossible to ignore that the modern games industry is built on churning through developers like cattle instead of respecting and acknowledging that work with appropriate benefits and protections. So it’s been great to see more support for industry-wide change with active discussion at GDC and E3 this year, with more interest in unionisation than ever, with more studio investigations by major union Game Workers Unite, with more exposés on the damaging inner workings of major studios – let’s hope we’ll start seeing real change in the years to come.
Miss: Blizzard’s banning over Hong Kong – and fans’ willingness to forget
I sincerely hoped that Blizzard’s disastrous and hypocritical banning of Hearthstone player blitzchung and two casters and its limp attempts to save face by apologising around the actual issue would be something of a turning point for the larger gaming community. That after the community collective chastisement of Blizzard, it would finally be clear to players that boycotting certain developers and publishers, even those you’re a fan of, is remarkably easy when there are so, so many games releasing nowadays, or that voting with your wallet is an inherently easy act of protest; not only do you get to save money by not giving your money to a shitty company, you can even give that money to other better companies for something potentially more enjoyable or interesting (or directly to charity if you’re feeling… charitable). Sadly, the whole situation around Blizzard was yet another reminder that the wider gaming community has a remarkably short memory and a dedication to total self-interest.
Miss: Voidpoint and 3DRealms are sorry, but hang on, no, they’re not
In August, players of Ion Fury – a recent spiritual successor to Duke Nukem – discovered homophobic language in-game (a “humourous” gag where moisturisor bottles were labelled “Ogay” as a pun on “Olay”; as well as the inclusion of a homophobic slur in an out-of-level area), and sexist and transphobic comments made in developer Voidpoint’s public Discord server by developers and fans alike. At first, Voidpoint and publisher 3DRealms made a pretty strong apology that admitted to the comments and even committed $10,000 of the game’s release earnings to the LGBTQ organisation The Trevor Project. Then, of course, the review bombing starts. Voidpoint and 3DRealms subsequently backtrack with another statement declaring that they won’t actually “censor” the game or remove “gaming’s most controversial face wash” (ugh). Their statement ends with “We recognize our mistake and have received your message loud and clear!”, because of course it does.
Can’t people just not be garbage? Please? It’s not hard.
Miss: Fallout 76’s neverending nuclear meltdown
On a funnier-but-still-awful note, Bethesda’s near-constant breaking of Fallout 76 continues to be hilarious. I honestly feel for the players – though I haven’t played it, a Fallout-y survival game set in irradiated West Virginia sounds neat – but I don’t think a game’s development has ever made me laugh as much as Fallout 76 has. The introduction of the “Fallout 1st” membership in October was especially perfect and is easily one of the funniest things to come out of something so transparently exploitative of a fanbase. The immediate reveal that the paid-for “private servers” were in no way private; a bug where the unlimited paid-for Scrap Box destroyed all your hard-earned scrap; the hostile demonisation of the literally-marked 1st members by the standard proletariat players (read: those who bought the game but not the A$180-a-year(!) membership); and the subsequent organisation of the 1st members into some sort of fucked-up society of dedicated rubes called the Apocalyptic Aristocracy. Bethesda even managed to wrap the year up with a bug that breaks your legendary armour when you reload your weapon and a major exploit that let other players directly steal from your inventory. It’s like poetry; it rhymes.
What I’m looking forward to in 2020:
Of course: Dontnod’s Tell Me Why
Obviously I’m excited for this after my GOTY up there but Tell Me Why is more important than that. Set across three chapters, all releasing inside Winter next year (which is interesting in itself), Tell Me Why follows on from Life is Strange 2 with another tale focused around siblings, this time exploring twins and their contrasting memories as they reunite in Alaska. However, Tell Me Why is also unique by being the first large mainstream release to have a trans lead character. To authentically explore protagonist Tyler’s experience, Dontnod has also worked with LGBTQ advocacy groups like GLAAD, the Huna Heritage Foundation and CheckPoint “to make sure that [they] told this story in a meaningful and in a respectful way.”
At this point I’m just happy Dontnod is still around being successful but I’ll always support efforts to open up the medium and make it more inclusive, with stories and characters that aren’t explored nearly enough in gaming to begin with (if at all). Dontchange, Dontnod.
Could Psychonauts 2 really match the original?
Double Fine very rarely disappoints me, but I’m still slightly nervous for Psychonauts 2 to live up to the humour, tone and game design of the original. The first Psychonauts was and still is such a wonderful, well-rounded and unique game, a modern masterpiece. While the short VR stint Rhombus of Ruin managed to keep to the writing quality of the original and Double Fine now has newfound job security with Microsoft at their back, matching the first is still a worry; even if it’s a disappointment, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the heck out of it regardless.
Have you even seen Streets of Rage 4?
With the developer behind the gorgeous Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Lizardcube, lead animator Ben Fiquet guiding the visuals, and Guard Crush Games seemingly handling the brawling side of things, Streets of Rage 4 could be the most stylish and exciting brawler since… River City Girls, I guess? But still, all four characters look amazing and so does everything else right now, including the music by legends like Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima. Can’t wait.
I can’t play Half-Life: Alyx, and yet…
I won’t be able to play it for a good long while but I’m excited to see how Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx will, hopefully, push VR gaming forward in a major way for the mainstream gaming audience. VR hasn’t quite caught on with a larger demographic yet, even after PS VR and the explosive success of the portable Oculus Quest, but the crazed response to Alyx’s announcement could push it over the edge and mean big things for the platform.
As more of an observer than a player – I couldn’t afford to play many new games this time – 2019 was scattered. Not for the worse at all: there was a lot of genuine greatness across pretty much every genre (as far as I’ve read and heard anyway), but 2019 lacked any central ‘every player’ sort of mainstream release that united the larger game-playing audience. That doesn’t happen very often.
In one way or another, almost every major release ended up having a more niche appeal that kept it from becoming an obvious frontrunner. Resident Evil 2 is a survival-horror game that leaned harder on the horror than most in the genre and cut off a broad swathe of people who can’t really stomach scares; Sekiro is known for its difficulty as much as its quality; Disco Elysium is an indie PC-exclusive detective mish-mash of isometric RPGs and tabletop roleplaying games; Devil May Cry 5 is a tough and very not-Western character-action game; Luigi’s Mansion 3 lacks that macho “mature” grit; Outer Worlds earned a lot of disappointed sighs; Death Stranding was a divisive hiking sim; Three Houses is a Fire Emblem title crossed with Persona; and so on. Essentially, there were a lot of good games released this year (which is part of the issue), usually with a large and vocal dedicated audience, but an audience that didn’t really expand out into the collective zeitgeist.
I might not have played many of them, but 2019 was a year defined by your individual taste. Technically this is true of every year but this time there was no God of War, no Red Dead Redemption 2, no Breath of the Wild, no Witcher 3 or Bloodborne. No game that really pushed the Overton window and no easy choice to throw awards at.
While we can probably rule out 2020 from the same fate with The Last of Us Part II around the corner, I do hope this happens again sooner rather than later. It pushes us to consider games on their own merits and through our own personal lens, to consider what we actually value and enjoy in the games we play. Games are such a barely-explored medium stacked with potential and years like 2019 show just how true that is.
This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!