I know that very subjectively ordering all the different sorts of experiences games offer into a list isn't exactly the most sensible use of anyone's time. But this was just such a year for games that I couldn't help myself, I needed to make a space to talk about all the things I enjoyed. So here I am, doing it. And here you are, reading it.
I hope we're both very proud of ourselves.
As for the order of the list itself, the ordering should be taken pretty loosely. It's a decent representation of how I feel, but they're a diverse bunch of games and so any comparison like this is going to be a weird one, and I can imagine different versions of this list that I'd be equally happy with.
So, here they are.
1) NieR: Automata
I've been doing this playing video games for a while now, and so it's quite unusual for a game to get under my skin and become a part of me. Most of that is all in the past, the games of my youth which got to me while my brain was still squishy and impressionable.
But I've been thinking about NieR: Automata since I first played it as a way to kill time waiting for Persona 5. It probably says something that the moment I finished Persona 5, I started NieR: Automata again, and went all the way through the main endings once more.
I think it works as a pretty solid action game, though I know why some might find it repetitive on that score. But really it's the way that the game explores its themes of sadness and humanity through its systems, characters and environments that got me. Sure, for people who are more familiar than I was with Yoko Taro, some of this will feel like a retread. But this is the first time I got the experience of the kinds of melancholy he likes to deal in, and it worked so well for me.
It didn't hurt that this is a game about sad robots, something I always have time for. It also didn't hurt that it has one of the finest soundtracks I've heard in a long, long time - and I don't say that lightly.
This game will stick with me for a long, long time.
2) PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
When this game was first getting a bit of attention, I thought I'd never want to play it. It sounded too stressful by far, something better to spectate than to be involved in.
It turns out that I was wrong about how the game felt to play, once I was persuaded to join other people. Sure, it has tense moments, but more than anything it's a game about going on a feel-good adventure with your buddies. It might look like a gritty military sim, but trust me, it's the other thing.
This game has generated so many incredible moments for me, this year. It's the way the game acts as this big funnel into which the 100 players are placed and then jiggled about to have their stories intersect and converge. Vital to its success is how much latitude there is for failure or trying unusual things - so much so that some of our mistakes have turned into regular house rules variants. I have apparently played Plunkbat for more than 200 hours, and it is still finding fresh ways to surprise me.
But the other reason I have to talk about this game is that not only is it good to play with friends, but also it has actually made me friends. People milling on Discord servers initially just looking for others who might like to play and not be jerks, but who now I speak to on a regular basis and hang out with online. It's not since the old IRC days that I've bonded with people over a game, so this has to be something pretty special.
3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I've long thought that Zelda needed a break from the formula that has existed for so many years. So I was delighted when this seemed to be the one that would do it. I didn't expect it also to present a version of open world playfulness that I can only hope future games will imitate.
This is a game where exploration feels organic and driven by the whims of the player, much more than the checklist of icons that so many open worlds present you with. It's a game that seems aware of the player's curiosity. It encourages it with the placement of every rock, tree, hill and mountain - and is always ready to reward it in little ways.
But most importantly of all, that shark man's smile.
4) Opus Magnum
I love the creative design-puzzles that Zachtronics do so well. But they require so much attention and focus that usually there's a point where I fall off. I'm not quite done with Opus Magnum but so far I've found it a much gentler, more forgiving and yet still highly satisfying version of the experience that I enjoyed in games like Spacechem and Shenzhen I/O. This is the chillout version of that Zachtronics experience that I've been looking for.
The removal of space constraints to the main puzzles mean that it's easier to create a functional but inefficient solution to be improved upon later. The polished interface means that when I do return to a design I can be pretty confident I'll understand how it works. And it's all finished off with a nicely realised game world with a small but well-defined cast of characters.
5) Yakuza 0
Another game that I picked up on a whim, having been unfamiliar with the rest of the series. I was delighted by how much heart the game posesses, the humour and range of its animations a particular highlight. On one hand picking up the phone can become a dramatic action shot with the cord whipping around in extreme slow motion. On the other hand it might be a tiny by perfect inclination of the head at just the right. See how perfectly the animation above moves from one to the other?
These might seem an odd detail to focus on for just a brief summary, but it says a lot about why I love this game. It thrilled me with its gestures both big and small, from ridiculous fights to pausing for a spot of Mahjong with the locals. I'll be picking up any sequels that the team wants to throw at me. I'm not ready to leave these characters behind.
6) Super Mario Odyssey
While not as much of an overhaul as Zelda, it was a delight to play a big Mario game executed so well. In many ways I felt like this was Nintendo finally making good on the ideas explored in Super Mario Sunshine - there's that same melting pot of ideas and locales here, but with none of the frustration offered by that game.
Some might be disappointed that there isn't very much challenge for most of the game, but it would have been difficult to retain the momentum, that breezy, playful joy the game exhudes if the player was regularly encountering difficulty hurdles. If it weren't for the inclusion of the rather pointless and distracting Broodals, and the usual predictable princess-rescuing story, this would be almost perfect.
7) Persona 5
This game is in good company on this list. Seriously, this year has been quite something for games. But it's the first one which I can't help but feel should have been higher.
It's still a Persona game, executed very well and with a style that didn't tire me out even after over a hundred hours with it. But if the localisation had been on par with its predecessor, and if the writers could lay off the homophobic bits and tired anime tropes (which in this case are not only unnecessary but threaten to undermine the whole theme of the game) then it could have been something so much more special. It seems weird that I'm disappointed in a game for being merely great - but I expect a lot from my Personas. Personae?
8) Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Well, this was a turn up for the books. Not only a game featuring Rabbids that left me... actually kind of liking Rabbids, but a genuinely exciting evolution of the turn-based strategy genre. There are things that this game does with character interaction and movement mechanics that I hope other games imitate. Though it sags later on with some overly involved inter-mission puzzles and one particularly ill-conceived enemy type, there's so much to appreciate here.
9) Night in the Woods
There's not very much I can say about this game without spoiling it, because it's pretty much all story and writing and character. So all I will say is: it captures a particular style and mood and does it very well. Lively animations, a memorable cast and a conversational tone makes you feel like you're among friends the whole way through.
10) The Sexy Brutale
I'm a real sucker for stories involving time loops, or indeed any time shenanigans, and so this one was easy for me to appreciate, especially wrapped up as it is in its glitzy-yet-grimy aesthetic. I would say that its puzzle ideas feel a little under-developed - I expected them to become a little more involved, but they never quite arrived at their potential. Still, I'm excited for what comes next from this team.
Games I Enjoyed But Didn't Quite Make That List
Destiny is still a great game to chill out to, and this is mostly an improved version of that. I just wish there was a bit more of it to enjoy.
An enjoyable and satisfying story, told in an unusual way that expands cleverly on the idea of audio logs. I couldn't help but wish they'd done a little more with the replay mechanics, but the ending won me over entirely.
A unique universe populated with fascinating characters pulled me through this game, but looking back on it I can't say I was really there for the unusual fantasy sports game underpinning it.
This is hard to recommend since it's full of awful characters, gross dialogue and is basically a nightmare of bad anime tropes. But like the previous games they frame a series of fun murder mysteries, full of exciting turns. Just don't go anywhere near it unless you can compartmentalise the other stuff.
A beautifully illustrated puzzle game about associating, combining and pulling apart images. There's an almost dreamlike quality to the way it proceeds, but a curious logic underpinning the whole thing. I was disappointed to see it end so quickly - though it is easy to see why it had to be short.
Steamworld Dig 2
There's a moment during Steamworld Dig 2 where the story appears to be going to some very unexpected places. Ultimately, the game never really delivers on that. But it remains a very pleasant, over-too-soon mixture of old fashioned 2D mining mechanics and metroid-like exploration.
Assassin's Creed Origins
This is a fine Assassin's Creed game, the best in a while, set in an impossibly huge Egypt... but for me it just outstayed its welcome. By the time it ended I was relieved to be done with it, and part of that might be how dated it all felt after having played Breath of the Wild. The next time I see Assassin's Creed I'd love to see a similarly bold reinvention.
This back-to-basics Sonic game achieves its aims brilliantly. But it's still Sonic, so there are still elements of the design philosophy I struggle with. When it flows, it's sublime, but it's still a game designed to reward replay and practice. I wish it were more often the case that levels felt great the first time through.
Enjoyably drawn move-based rogue-esque exploration on a hex grid with some interesting looting and night/day cycle mechanics. I don't have much to say about it because I wanted to play it more than I did. Disclosure: I know the developers of this game and gave feedback on some early versions.
I Bounced Off These Games, Sorry
I see and like what this game is doing, but I just couldn't be there for it. It stressed me out too much, and I thought the story took too long to ramp up, which was probably the fatal blow. It got to the point where not only I was reluctant to keep going, but also game hadn't given me enough intrigue to make me power through.
Gravity Rush 2
It's not often that I make a conscious decision to stop playing a game. But Gravity Rush 2 did it to me. It was somewhere in the middle of one of the numerous forced stealth sessions (bearing in mind this is a game which provides no interface cues to aid stealth) that I put the controller down and said "Y'know what, game? I'm done." It's too bad, because I really wanted to like this game.
A Very Incomplete List of Ones-That-Got-Away Because Jeez There Were A Lot Of Games I Wanted To Play This Year:
Resident Evil 7
Horizon Zero Dawn
West of Loathing