Ten years ago I turned 18 and was halfway through completing my final year of high school. I looked like a slightly deflated version of my present self with a small army of zits occupying my face and chest, but I’ve done so much growing since then. I feel better about myself and others, and have become simultaneously more loving of the important people in my life and cynical about the political systems I cannot control.
The fleeting quality of memory means for every strikingly clear image I have in my head of growing up, there’s at least a thousand moments lost in the cloud. But if there is one thing I latch onto throughout the years like roadside objects in the rear-view mirror, it’s video games. Games give me a foothold on my backwards climb, offering a brief respite as a I grasp for distant emotions, allowing me to re-inhabit a person who I hope would be infinitely proud of me.
Ten years ago today I was probably piloting predator missiles onto the multiplayer battlefields of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, unlocking a myriad of gun attachments and camouflages to corny electric guitar riffs rising above the action. I was probably using the limiting quality of reflex sights and radar blips to avoid thinking of the stress of graduation and the next big step. I was probably playing alongside a close personal friend who I don’t talk to anymore.
But the double-sided joy and anxiety of games is that they keep coming. There’s more memories to experience alone or with people I care about, even if that means it’s impossible to play every single one. So in the second installment of a series I want to make a year-end tradition, let’s reflect on some, but not all, of the games I played in 2019.
Toby Fox’s 2015 RPG imagines a subterranean world inhabited by monsters with unique, oft misunderstood quirks. By digging a little, players can resolve encounters peacefully with a song, a joke, or a gentle touch. Undertale‘s strength likes in its characters and their reaction to how you approach problems. If you want to kill everything in the game, you will be judged harshly for it. Or, if patient and persistent enough, you can rise above the destructive expectations the world has for you and leave with a truer kind of fulfillment.
Destiny 2 is the perfect time-killer game, or something I like to play while watching or listening to something else. Completing easily repeatable quests or competitive matches nets me materials like Dusklight Shards or Simulation Seeds or some other Cool-Sounding Proper Noun. Materials can be collected and turned into other materials, which can be crafted into weapons and armor or upgrades for your current gear. It’s a maddeningly addictive loop in a beautiful sci-fi package. So addictive, in fact, I find myself needing to occasionally step back and ask myself if I want to play or feel I need to play for fear of missing content that refreshes daily and weekly.
Thumper stars a chrome-colored beetle speeding along a psychedelic track that spits out obstacles and sharp turns in-time with aggressive percussion beats. It’s the sort of game that demands attention, and puts everything else into a hazy abstraction. It’s easy to imagine Thumper as a simulation of the human body; rocketing electric signals down the sinewy highways or ricocheting around the mysterious synapses of the brain to recall mundane information.
Superflight is similar to Thumper only in its simplistic command of movement. But instead of being propelled on a crafted track, here your polygonal base jumper is in perpetual free fall. Winding through tiny gaps in procedurally-generated canyons and dipping between multi-colored peaks, Superflight is a great example of choosing to do one thing exceptionally well.
Hollow Knight is equal parts cute and gruesome, inviting and obtuse, enjoyable and brutally difficult. Team Cherry’s debut action-platformer is about exploring a ruined kingdom to either break cycles that have been in place for generations or to become another lifeless, interchangeable component of fate. Every aspect of Hollow Knight‘s design, from its muted visuals to the understated soundtrack, suggests a haunting beauty like a soft rainfall in a graveyard.
Shadow of the Colossus
I played the original Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2, and remember enjoying my time in its abandoned, cursed landscape in spite of the game’s sluggish performance and quarrelsome controls. Now years later, the game’s been remastered for modern hardware and has rekindled the same emotions for me. Shadow presents an adventure of routine, melancholic violence in hunting down and slaying enormous deities who are no threat to anyone. The learned accomplishment in defeating imposing bosses is cut with a pang of guilt and selfishness, like felling a thousand-year-old tree for its timber.
SOMA takes place in an abandoned research and aerospace facility at the bottom of the ocean, and is perhaps the most unsettling game I’ve ever played. Its storytelling is ambitious and disturbing, calling into the question the nature of consciousness and if our self is as immutable and special as we think it is. If our input/output is reduced to data that can be stored and transferred indefinitely, does that make us immortal? Is that immortality a suffocating hell? How much of your body would you sacrifice to avoid death, if only for continuation of another version, a copy, of the person you are now?
Jesse Faden’s search for her abducted brother has brought her to The Oldest House, a featureless, concrete skyscraper in the middle of the city that hides in plain sight. The building plays host to the Federal Bureau of Control, a seemingly limitless arm of government concerned with probing the paranatural and predicting, locating, and containing world-ending anomalies before they happen. Control is a third-person action game with explosive combat and satisfying sights and sounds. The game just oozes cool, even if the A plot felt a little disjointed by the end. But the world of Control is so weird, humorous, and dark, it’s the kind of fiction that makes me envious of those who can claim it as their own.
As a fledgling astronaut of a space-faring species with sky-blue skin and multiple sets of eyes, the silent protagonist of Outer Wilds is launched into the stars inside a rickety ship that resembles a spherical tree-house with rocket propulsion. You’re tasked with tracking down the adventures of previous expeditions, following the sound-waves of their musical instruments as they sit alone but content around cozy campfires. Outer Wilds is a game about mortality, scientific pursuits, and the microscopic nature of life on the greatest scale imaginable. It’s a game that also gives you a bottomless bag of marshmallows to roast as you catch your breath and gather your thoughts. It’s a game that will stick with me for a long time and one I hope to revisit one day soon, pen and paper at the ready, while observing and reevaluating its stratified layers from orbit.