This year, Kotaku Australia is bringing in a wider range of local voices to offer their thoughts on the games they enjoyed the most in 2019, and that includes readers like transientmind here. If you'd like to join in, get in touch!
This year, Kotaku Australia is bringing in a wider range of local voices to offer their thoughts on the games they enjoyed the most in 2019, and that includes readers like solvent here. If you'd like to join in, get in touch!
Disco Elysium is the obvious front-runner. I can't think of any other games with the same level of density and complexity under the hood, all to generate a living world full of meaningful characters, half of which are the voices in your protagonist's own head. When we talk about games letting us make choices and showing consequences for actions, we've usually only been given a Telltale or Outer Worlds level of superficiality to it.
This character lives, this one dies, you sided with the goodies or the baddies. But Disco Elysium remembers what response you gave to someone calling you a cockatoo and sends you off on a hunt through second-hand book-stores to discover and internalise what TYPE of cockatoo you are so that you can bring it up in conversations later. Disco Elysium remembers if you let slip communist sympathies to which characters and how that impacts what they think of you and what they will tell you about your investigation ... or yourself.
This is such a cleverly-crafted game that I lost several nights of sleep to the thrill of exploration. Exploration of its unique game systems, its gorgeously oil-painted streets, its turbulent history, its unnerving paranormal/sci-fi entropic reality, its surprisingly nuanced characters, and most importantly, the jumbled mass of competing thoughts, instincts, values, and desires that comprise its protagonist. Whether comforting or confronting, this game has an affectionately cynical and incisive insight into humanity and isn't afraid to use it.
I get a lot of emails. Too many. But out of all the emails I do receive, none of them were about Disco Elysium, which is a crying shame given it's easily one of the three most interesting games I've played this year.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
The next favourite has got to be Fire Emblem: Three Houses, probably better described as Hogwarts: The JRPG. I'm still playing it on the Switch, completing side-missions. I'm loath to advance the story, frankly, because I just love my students so much, and have dedicated myself to forcing them all to develop bonds with each other - just so I can see all of their interactions with each other.
This nurturing of students is the REAL game, and it's a deeply satisfying one. I've been prolonging and augmenting this experience further by following the best of the 'fanfic' twitter accounts; an alternate universe where the students and staff all use twitter. It's testament to the strength of the characters that there are thirty or forty of them but you can still see a tweet written in a certain style or tone and think, "Ha ha, that's SO Dedue!" The systems that make up the 'game' part offer a satisfying sense of progression no matter what you're doing, and this layer bounces off the character development layer to create something with a special kind of longevity to it.
I'm notoriously fickle with my time on games - I'd rather sample a mouthful at a time from an infinite smorgasbord than dedicate myself to a single massive serving of one particularly rich dish - but ever since it launched, I keep coming back to Three Houses as reliable comfort food.
Divorced from the conditions surrounding its creation (and its creator), Death Stranding is still a stand-out. It's unfairly labelled a 'walking simulator,' but this doesn't do justice to the depth of the game systems involved in that walking: the structures you'll build, the community you'll contribute to and benefit from without meeting (a deliberate design to foster selflessness, it turns out), the advances you'll make in techniques, technology, and challenges. The famous surface-level 'weirdness' that defined pre-release perception of Death Stranding turned out to be a fascinating setting for something very clearly committed to, where just about every 'weird' element does in fact have a solid and developed grounding in the reality of that world. Setting out on treks to accomplish a self-defined objective (nudged by broader, guided suggestions from the game) is well-suited to the drop-in/drop-nature way I had to play it, thanks to real life demands.
In a fifteen or twenty minute period, it was possible to set a goal, engage with systems, accomplish the goal (with/without exciting, unexpected hurdles), and sort the rewards in a way that reminds me of exploring points of interest in Skyrim and choosing which cave or fort to clear out. Death Stranding oozes atmosphere, a blend of solitary melancholy and optimism appropriate for the gorgeous America-remade-as-Iceland setting, and while it's clearly been very easy for outsiders to dismiss the project as a vain indulgence by a privileged auteur to show off his celebrity mates, after immersing yourself in the game, Kojima's sincerity is clear.
The entire work is a celebration of the human connections we make and the good things that can bring, and that extends to its haunting soundtrack and motion-captured actors. Yeah it's awkward at times, yeah it's a little dorky, but it is earnest and genuine and in this cynical, soulless, 'games a service' focused industry that forces players to make value judgements about how many real life dollars an in-game outfit is worth to them personally, everyone should be striving to be a hell of a lot more like Death Stranding (which it should be noted is polished and smooth as fucking glass without bullshit microtransactions and its online component is 100% optional).
I've seen jokes about how the game is about falling down, but that's only half of it; what the game is actually about is getting back up when you fall down.
Bonus: Va-11 Hall-A
The one game I was most excited for this year was a game from 2016, but re-released in 2019 on the Switch, so maybe it counts? Va-11 Hall-A the 'cyberpunk bartending simulator' (a visual novel with an interesting mechanic for making choices) is a wonderful happy place for me. A crazy synth soundtrack that I've downloaded for playing offline at every opportunity, a 'wokeness' that's comfortable and invisibly natural, a setting and protagonist I can personally relate to ('broke bartender' life was a great time for me), and pixelated art that communicates with efficiency and style.
Bartending for a delinquent cast of sci-fi characters, it turns out, is the ideal way to world-build a dystopian visual novel/game. VA-11 Hall-A, released yesterday on Steam, offers players the chance to serve up noxious drinks to the sketchy citizens of Glitch City, circa 207X AD, the kind of place that would star as the background for a sci-fi blockbuster. The game is a must-buy for fans of interactive fiction, stylised retro games, cyberpunk and girls with cat ears — just about everybody, right?
This thing is 'lo-fi chillhop beats to study to': The Game (not so much as Kind Words). A lot of 'cyberpunk style' games make it their mission to be about their world, but Va-11 Hall-A is about its humans that just happen to be in a cyberpunk world. This game is all about the peaceful energy of the night shift, recreation and booze, and the rare perspective it gives on humanity. The relaxed guards, the chinks in the armour. I wish there were more save files, but as it is, I still like dropping in to the early game to just transport myself to a different time and place and state of mind.