We briefly interrupt your regular Doctor Who content on this blog for something entirely different. Simply put, I played a good number of quality video games in 2019 and so I wanted to share a selection of my favourites. The rules are very simple: any video game that I personally played and finished for the very first time in the calendar year 2019 is eligible, regardless of what year it actually first came out. Nothing else matters. Hence why it’s my own top ten. This should be obvious. However, I’ll start off with some honourable mentions…
- Abzû – This is a short, sweet, serene swimming adventure where you save an underwater civilisation to the sounds of a symphony orchestra. It is also great for learning about different fishes and for some meditation on your telly.
- Donut County – A wonderfully silly physics game where you move a hole in the ground around to solve puzzles, and then also swallow everything you see into the ground. And all because of a selfish racoon. Has ‘millennial humour’ written all over it.
- Firewatch – I didn’t quite fall in love with this narrative thriller as the critics seemed to but it was certainly quite innovative and atmospheric, delivered some tense dramatic moments and Delilah was played beautifully by Cissy Jones – probably one of the best video game characters of the decade.
- Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective – A hidden gem released late in the life of the Nintendo DS, but you can download it on iOS! Ghost Trick is a detective puzzle game that has you solving your own murder… as a ghost. You travel around locations by possessing various objects in the environment and have until sunrise to solve the murder mystery. This game also has a dog and his name is Missile and he is a Pomeranian and he is pure and wonderful and innocent and loyal and heroic and HE IS DEFENDED.
With those out of the way, onto the top ten…
#10 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
How long have I ignored this: About ten years. First released in 2009.
What’s it about: You play as Nathan Drake, a rough-and-ready treasure-hunting everyman on his globe-trotting exploits, following in the footsteps of the world’s greatest explorers. Whilst the first game had you following Francis Drake’s long-lost treasures, the second here involves uncovering a secret that Marco Polo took to the grave. Future instalments in the franchise involve the travels of Lawrence of Arabia and Henry Avery (already we have two Doctor Who links!).
Why I like it: I grew up playing the Crash Bandicoot games in the late ’90s so I already have a lot of love for the developer Naughty Dog – I felt it was about time to investigate what games they had made more recently. I’m also not a huge fan of shooting games in general but the game surprised me with its variety of gameplay, strong pacing, and a ripping yarn that seamlessly carries you from set piece to set piece. This one truly made me feel like I was living the action-adventure life of Indiana Jones: solving puzzles, scaling lost tombs and fighting bad guys. The entire sequence of events involving a certain train ride around halfway in is one of the most exciting and memorable action sequences I’ve seen in any video game too.
#9 – GRIS
How long have I ignored this: Less than a year. First released in 2018.
What’s it about: Gris is a linear-style puzzle-platformer where you play as a young hopeful girl (presumably called Gris) on a metaphorical quest to find herself after a traumatic experience. She repeatedly encounters an ever-shifting dark figure and the game has achievements that refer to The Five Stages of Grief. There is no dialogue and so the story is entirely conveyed through image and sound.
Why I like it: Despite its brief 3 to 4 hour runtime, I have not stopped thinking about this game all year. It looks like a watercolour painting has come to life and absorbed you into its world, and this coupled with a magnificent orchestral score utterly sells the beauty, torment and raw emotion of this narrative. Whilst I do think it could have also worked as animated short, the choice to make this a single-player game without any fail-state allows it to become a meditative experience, to think and reflect at largely your own pace; I think that’s really lovely. Any of those reviewers bemoaning “yet another indie game about mental health” can get in the sea to be quite honest.
To think that a studio primarily consisting of three guys from Barcelona produced one of the most visually striking video games of the decade is in itself a triumph and seeing it nominated for Artistic Achievement at the BAFTAs alongside Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War and Spider-Man was quite something. If you watch the trailer for this and like what you see, then it’s almost certainly a game for you as well.
#8 – Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
How long have I ignored this: Five years. First released in 2014 on something called a WiiU. You may have heard of this obscure gaming device at some point in recent years.
What’s it about: Donkey Kong and his family are having a birthday party but then suddenly Arctic animals called ‘the Snowmads’ invade their island and you get blown off it by A Very Strong Wind. What follows is a traditional side-scrolling platformer adventure across six colourful islands in order to reclaim your homeland. It’s the fifth game in the franchise and was developed by Retro Studios, who are perhaps best known for the Metroid Prime games.
Why I like it: Right, let’s get this out the way first… Tropical Freeze is a stupid name. I do wish they had thought of something better. However, this may well be the finest traditional 2D platformer game I have ever played. And I’ve played a lot of those. A LOT. The art of a great platformer for me is to feel at one with the character on screen; to intuitively feel that the character responds to your controls, that every interaction feels logical and every mistake does not feel unfair. Tropical Freeze, in all these respects, handles beautifully.
It has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ideas and every level introduces, develops and then masterfully synthesises these ideas before discarding them in favour of something else entirely in the next stage. That’s top tier game design, and this video by Game Maker’s Toolkit shows a specific example of what I mean here. This game is also challenging, to the point where repeated deaths nearly made me throw the controller across the room, only abated by the fact that I felt I was able to have prevented each mistake. The game is vibrant and colourful – you see sandy beaches, treacherous mine shafts, tropical savannahs and underwater kingdoms, all looking quite gorgeous. The accompanying soundtrack by David Wise, one of Britain’s best gaming composers, is superb. It heartens me to see that the rerelease on Switch has sold more copies that the original release on WiiU – more people playing this title is definitely a good thing.
#7 – Baba Is You
How long have I ignored this: Came out this year. Got it at launch.
What’s it about: A puzzle game unlike anything you have ever seen. You play as Baba (at least to start with) and you have to get to the flag to win each level (at least to start with). Every level has blocks with words on them, and when these are pushed together they make rules. For example, WALL IS STOP means you can’t go through a wall. But you can move these blocks around the level in order to make and break rules that allow you to complete the level. What follows is a puzzle game that has you shifting the fabric of reality in order to reach your goal. If you are still unsure, watch the opening few minutes of this.
Why I like it: I’m always on the look-out for exciting and original indie games, and this fits the bill nicely. The game itself was the brainchild of a lone Finnish game developer who devised the concept from a game jam event, and now he’s developed it into a full game. It’s unique and clever and I have never ever seen anything like it. It is very challenging, and I found the difficulty curve of levels too steep at times, but that’s arguably part of the allure. I have shown it to a few friends and have been delighted when they solve a puzzle in a completely different way to myself; we all think differently. There is an abundance of levels, 10% of sales go to the developer’s charity and it’s just brilliant stuff. I expect this to sweep the awards for game design, innovation and debut game in the New Year.
#6 – Undertale
How long have I ignored this: Four years. First released in 2015.
What’s it about: You are a human boy or girl who has fallen from the world of humans and into the world on monsters. What follows is a traditional SNES-era RPG à la Earthbound as you attempt to return back home. But will you fight the monsters you encounter on your journey, or will you show mercy?
Why I like it: From various avenues, I have been told that I need to play Undertale – I got around to it eventually. It was without question one of the funniest and most original games I have played in years. Honestly, some parts of this game had me crying on the floor with laughter. Its subversion of expectations and brilliant use of meta-humour are its greatest strengths. By designing an entire game around the concept of morality, where it is easy to make bad decisions and it is difficult to do the right thing is a stroke of genius and has ensured this game’s status as a cult classic. I also understand there are several things I never encountered in my first playthrough from researching online and I was a bit slow picking up on the whole morality motif so I intend to revisit the game soon to appreciate it that bit more. The thought of replaying it one day fills me with determination. And if you haven’t already played it, do. At least to experience the wonderful likes of Flowey, Papyrus and Sans.
#5 – Untitled Goose Game
How long have I ignored this: Got it at launch. Came out this year.
What’s it about: It is a beautiful day in the village, and you are a horrible goose. A comedy slapstick puzzle game where you go around completing your list of tasks that aim to annoy just about every person you meet. And why not, they probably voted for Brexit anyway.
Why I like it: The memes. SO MANY MEMES. For around a month you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing some meme about the eponymous Untitled Goose causing havoc to people, both real and fictional. But also, more seriously, it’s another really good indie game from 2019. Comedy in video games is hard, since you don’t always have control of timing, delivery or pace, and to successfully engineer multiple slapstick moments that depend upon the behaviour of the player is a commendable achievement. There aren’t many games where you play as an annoying piece of poultry either so the entire premise is just inspired; the execution is also polished and sublime. It may be a short experience but I definitely see myself honking at Middle Englanders far into 2020 and perhaps even beyond.
#4 – What Remains of Edith Finch
How long have I ignored this: Two years. First released in 2017.
What’s it about: You play as the titular Edith Finch as she returns to her family home for the first time in many years. What follows is three-hour narrative experience that unfolds like a Lovecraftian fairy-tale – highly innovative, surprisingly mature, and utterly unforgettable.
Why I like it: I saw some strong reviews for this title upon its release in 2017 but what really caught my eye was that in 2018 it received seven nominations at the video game BAFTAs (these included Game Design, Innovation, Original Property, Narrative, Performer and Original Music) and then proceeded to go home with one – the Best Game category. That makes it the first indie game and the shortest ever video game to take home the top prize; I was rather intrigued.
Edith Finch perhaps falls into a subcategory of games known as ‘walking simulators’, which typically involve walking around an environment, listening to dialogue, and sometimes interacting with objects. They are typically maligned for being disproportionately focussed on narrative over any substantial gameplay and using the banner of “This is Art” to deflect criticism at the game.
However, I have played a number of really good so-called ‘walking simulators’, such as The Stanley Parable, an ingenious satire on the narrative tropes in video games, guided by an omnipresent narrator voiced by Kevan Brighting (who, Doctor Who fans, was the uncredited voice of the Bank in Time Heist), as well as Gone Home, another brilliant game that sees you uncovering the mystery of your abandoned family home. The aforementioned Firewatch also fits into the category.
It is difficult to explain why I love it so much without spoiling what happens and I just honestly recommend you go in completely blind. All I can really say is that its magic lies in the use of the gameplay to communicate narrative, emotion and character. One of the latter parts of the game is certainly one of my favourite sequences ever in a video game, as it deftly describes something that I’d struggle to put into words. It truly is a powerful, surreal and sublime piece of art. I hope to share this one with as many people as I can because I really want to talk about this one more. It also somewhat incidentally stands on the shoulders of the next game on my list…
#3 – Journey
How long have I ignored this: Seven years. First released in 2012.
What’s it about: You are a nameless traveller, and you go on a journey. That’s pretty much all there is to it.
Why I like it: Okay I’m actually kinda cheating here because I first played this at a friend’s house years ago but I honestly don’t recall any of it. Why it never left any impression on me then but subsequently moved me on quite a personal level now I’m not entirely sure but this is a powerful and emotive experience and comes highly recommended to anyone, whatever your gaming background. Again, like with Gris, this is not so much a game but more of a space that absorbs you right in, a space you inhabit to close off the outside world and be at one with the experience. The whole design philosophy of this game is so ingenious you don’t even realise the game is providing you subtle visual and musical cues which are effectively communicating where you need to go and what you need to do, but not a word is spoken throughout. It is perhaps the first video game that can truly claim not just to be an entertainment product but a piece of interactive art. It was made to be experienced.
The awe-inspiring music here is composed and arranged by Austin Wintory, who has the distinct honour of producing the first video game soundtrack ever to be nominated for a Grammy. In fact, they had to rename the category to Best Soundtrack For Visual Media in order to include it (and sadly it lost to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). I have returned to this game multiple times this year whenever I have felt anxious or worried about things and it always been remarkably therapeutic for me, like it somehow clears away the leftover thoughts in my mind.
I also remember some uproar back when it swept the awards scene in 2013; most notably for winning the video game BAFTA for Online Multiplayer against several dedicated online action/shooter titles. The way you interact with other players is pretty special (I won’t spoil it here if you don’t know) but it rather cleverly circumvents the usual toxicity you find in most other online multiplayer titles. And it totally deserved all the recognition it got. One of the very best games of the decade.
Okay, this next one utterly surprised me.
#2 – The Last of Us
How long have I ignored this: Five to six years. The main game released in 2013 and the DLC titled Left Behind released in 2014.
What’s it about: You follow the post-apocalyptic adventures of Joel and Ellie, an unrelated father and daughter duo, as they travel across America trying to survive the harsh, infected worlds outside the main pockets of remaining society. There is much, much more to the story here, but I’ll leave that to the game itself.
Why I like it: This game should be a textbook example of Games That I Do Not Like. It’s about the zombie apocalypse, even though the game never refers to it as such, instead using terms such as The Infected to refer to any zombies. The gameplay is largely focussed on combat, shooting and crafting, all of which don’t particularly interest me. And lastly, it firmly belongs in the genre of survival horror, and I personally hate almost anything to do with that – I am easily scared. So, what on earth happened here?
Well to start off, it’s developed by Naughty Dog, whom I’ve already discussed earlier regarding Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It just goes to show that you should always look at who is creating your art, not just what it’s about and who’s in it. But whilst the Uncharted series is focussed on blockbuster action-adventure escapades, here The Last of Us delivers an entirely different experience, one in which the resources are scarce, stealth is essential, and the silence is deafening. At first, I found it okay, and then when the difficulty ramped and the horror had really settled in, I really didn’t think I was enjoying it, but I persevered through it regardless. And once the credits rolled, I suddenly found myself hitting New Game+. With the anxiety of what might happen next now gone away, I started to stop worrying and learned to love the game, its hauntingly beautiful world, its well-refined gameplay, its crescendo of character beats; I started to see the game more clearly.
The game rather effectively uses the all-consuming apocalypse to bring out big emotions within the characters you encounter – particularly with the relationship with Joel and Ellie. The performances given by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are true tour-de-forces and their interactions with one another are at the heart of this game. I would actually go as far to argue that Ellie is perhaps the greatest video game character of all time; loyal, fierce, vulnerable, a sarcastic wit, and curiosity for the society she never knew. She has a book of puns to bring levity to the situation, a no-nonsense attitude to Joel’s paternalistic bullshit, and a very real fear of being left on her own. At times, she perhaps seems more real than most people I have met.
This all comes down to the well-crafted narrative from the game’s creative director Neil Druckmann who, in a decade that has increasingly seen games focus on online interaction with peers, adding in-game monetisation and manufacturing more addictive gameplay, has instead focussed on crafting an emotionally resonant experience, one that covers the whole spectrum of emotions as well. You can never quite tell how things are going to turn out as you progress further and further. I recall him being presented the video game BAFTA for Story in 2014 by Steven Moffat, and now realise in retrospect that on that stage were two rather brilliant writers, who have each redefined their respective mediums.
As we head into 2020, Naughty Dog plan to release their long-awaited sequel to this game and it’s surely going to be one of the biggest games next year, certainly the most-anticipated. I can now see what the hype is all about, and I think I very much intend on picking up the sequel as soon as I possibly can. But for now, I think the line that sticks with me is the motto from Ellie’s favourite comic book series, Savage Starlight: “To the edge of the universe and back. Endure and survive.”
#1 – Chibi-Robo!
How long have I ignored this: First released in June 2006 for the Nintendo GameCube. That makes it thirteen years old this year. That’s basically retro.
What’s it about: You play as Chibi-Robo, a tiny robot purchased by the Sanderson family to improve the quality of their lives. You interact with the family and complete household chores, such as picking up litter and scrubbing muddy footprints, which rewards you with Happy Points. These can then be used to purchase tools and upgrades so you can explore more of the house. You help the family during day phases, and then at night, the household toys come to life à la Toy Story, all with their own problems for you to solve.
Why I like it: I first read about Chibi-Robo! in an issue of Official Nintendo Magazine (F to pay respects) covering their ‘100 Greatest Nintendo Games’, I’m think it came in at number 87 or something. I loved that magazine and read every issue cover-to-cover, and I’m sure a fair amount of my lexicon can be traced back to certain writers in ONM. Anyway, I was drawn to its unusual description as a game that was much more than housekeeping and noted that it was a first-party title published by Nintendo themselves. I acquired a copy many years ago, before my university studies in fact, and it has now become one of most rare and expensive collectables I own. But this year I finally sat down to find out what it was all about.
The start itself is wacky; you’ve been purchased as a present by a 1960s American household where the family unit consists of: a lazy, unemployed geeky father, an overworked, under-appreciated housewife, a daughter who only dresses and speaks like a frog, and a sassy dog. You also quickly learn that for some miraculous reason all the household toys come to life at night when no-one is watching. These include a stuffed caterpillar suffering from unrequited love, a landbound pirate who longs to search for buried treasure, and an egg-shaped toy soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to name but a few. Like I said, it’s pretty wacky but also strangely charming. This game is full of charm and wit and soul.
As you accumulate Happy Points by completing chores and finding lost objects, you’ll gain new abilities like a helicopter to fly across ledges and a blaster to activate switches and attack spiders. Completing certain tasks allow access to new parts of the house and advance the overarching plot-line of the game. There also a considerable number of side-quests and mini-games to complete if you want to see everything there is within the game.
I’m not sure I can even coherently explain the plot here in less than 2000 words but over the course of the fifteen hours it took me to finish it the game’s storyline covered at least the following themes (in no particular order): the American Dream, childhood poverty, divorce, substance abuse, unrequited love triangles, death in childbirth, the responsibility of foster parents, contact with alien lifeforms, grief, loneliness, and time-travel in order to create a better future. And this game is rated 7+. The words ‘only in Japan’ spring to mind.
But what holds the game together is the protagonist himself: the titular Chibi-Robo! He doesn’t speak a word, despite all the conversations he somehow manages to initiate, and any decisions he must make result in you selecting either a tick or a cross from above his head. Occasionally, the game would give you either two ticks or two crosses to choose from, hilariously preventing you from making narratively inappropriate decisions. But his willingness to help everyone he encounters and put himself at risk to evil robot spiders that seem to be lurking about the house, make him a brave and pure-hearted individual; despite being entirely metallic. Like I’ve said, he is utterly charming, and his adventure with the Sanderson family is a rollercoaster ride throughout.
The true tragedy of Chibi-Robo! is that it was unrecognised and unloved. Released in the dying months of the Nintendo GameCube, which was Nintendo’s least successful console to date, the game naturally sold poorly; around 100,000 copies across the entirety of Europe. The franchise got a spin-off title the following year on Nintendo DS called Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol but it never released here in Europe and sold poorly in America due to being a Wal-Mart exclusive. It then got a direct sequel to the first game in 2009 set in the house of frog-loving Jenny, now all grown-up, also on Nintendo DS, but unfortunately this was actually never released outside Japan.
A downloadable-only spin-off title called Chibi Robo! Let’s Go, Photo! for the Nintendo 3DS was released in 2014 but this strayed away from the series’ roots in favour of gimmicky camera-use and augmented-reality features. The most recent game in the franchise was Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, released in 2015, which makes it the second game in the series to get a physical release in Europe over nine years after the first title came out. Frustratingly, it was a somewhat generic puzzle-platformer that simply used the title character. It didn’t do well with sales or reviews. The game’s producer said in an interview that this might be ‘the last chance’ for the franchise. Understandable, given all the effort they’ve put into releasing these games. Nintendo has evidently put a lot of effort into marketing the franchise to Western audiences whilst remaining true to the series’ roots.
This here then is why Chibi-Robo! takes my number one slot. For the great video games that pass us by unloved and unnoticed. For the franchises mishandled and misrepresented by those who simply don’t know what to do with them. And for the many, many games that people buy each and every year, only to remain upon their dusty forgotten shelves. Which I suppose not just goes for the games but equally the CDs, and the DVDs, and the books as well. Longing to be read, watched, heard and played; to be worn away from repeated use. Here then I hope that one day, eventually, these things will find their fans. After all, everyone wants to be fanatic about something.