Carolyn’s Top Five Games of 2018

Each year, the barrage of game releases feels bigger and more unmanageable than the last. In some ways, I suppose that’s a good problem to have, but it does mean that there are some much-talked-about games that I simply haven’t played, or haven’t played enough to know what I think of them. These games include Return of the Obra Dinn, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Subnautica, among others.

2018 strikes me as a year of highs and lows. There are a number of games that received considerable critical and popular acclaim that I dislike, and while there was nothing this year that had quite as much wit, warmth and compassion as Butterfly Soup (the best game of last year), there were a few VR experiences that amazed even this jaded old critic with the awestruck wonder and intensely satisfying kineticism they conjure. Hell, game number five on my list is a collision of highs and lows unto itself, a game I adore and also, in some ways, loathe.

Here are my picks for the best games of 2018.

Special Recognition: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

It’s not a game, but I have to recognize the wonderful SNK 40th Anniversary Collection on Nintendo Switch. The people who put this together went to great lengths to insure that the games are presented here in a way that comes as close as possible to replicating the original arcade experience, and on top of that, there’s a terrific museum full of information about their development, their history, and the features that made them innovative at the time. (The included game Vanguard, for instance, may have been the first arcade game to have a continue feature.) Video game preservation is important, and I hope to see more efforts in the future to present the early history of games with the respect that history deserves.

Honorable Mention: Celeste

Celeste is the best platformer I played this year, one full of harrowing leaps and terrifying dangers, dangers that manifest without and within. The hero Madeline’s quest to climb the titular mountain, something she feels she simply has to do, mirrors her internal battle with herself, or rather the part of herself that is always cutting her down, the part of herself that hates her. If you’re anything like most players, as you struggle up the mountain, you will fail, again and again and again. But it doesn’t really matter how many times you fail, as long as you get up and go again.

The game introduces new wrinkles in every stage that change up the action in some way, and the movement feels terrific, but I’d be lying if I said the story’s handling of its subject matter didn’t elevate this game for me. Like Madeline, like too many of us, I’m sure, I know what it is to have voices in your head that taunt and belittle you at every chance they get. This game plunges Madeline into the depths of despair before seeing her arrive at the mountain’s summit, capable of climbing it after all, the voices in her head be damned, and because of the game’s expertly designed difficulty, when I reached the top, I felt like a champ, too.

Number Five: Red Dead Redemption 2

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d like to take a moment here to iterate that this is not a list of the five most feminist games of the year, and no game’s inclusion here should in any way be construed as it receiving some sort of feminist seal of approval. These are my favorite games of the year. To be clear, Red Dead Redemption 2 is at least as patriarchal as most mainstream action films and video games are. (Man, sometimes it’s hard to be a feminist and a critic.) It’s a game I hate and love, and in the end, the love wins out. But let’s start with some of the things I hate:

I hate the game’s agonized handwringing about its antihero, Arthur Morgan, actually being a “good man,” despite all the horrible things he does. I get it, he’s conflicted. Does he ultimately make the right decision? I mean, the word “redemption” is in the game’s title. But the game just cannot stop telling Arthur, whose actions on the whole are very bad (even if you go through most of the game with your honor rating maxed out as I did), that he’s actually good. It’s relentless, tiresome and absurd.

I hate the conventional cowardice in the choice, once Arthur’s story comes to an end (as we know it must one way or another–he’s not in Red Dead 1, after all) to have you play as [REDACTED] rather than as Sadie Adler. Sadie is one of Rockstar’s best creations, a woman who carves out a place for herself in a world that makes no room for women like her. At one point, Arthur says that he and Sadie are “more ghosts than people.” Why not show us Sadie learning to become some semblance of a person again, after everything she’s been through? For all their posturing as the bad boys of AAA video game design, R* still can’t make a woman the central character, even in the epilogue of a game. How sadly predictable. How safe.

I hate the fact that at one point the game takes a wild detour to put Arthur and other members of Dutch van der Linde’s gang on an island near Cuba, where you play out a miniature white savior campaign, helping oppressed Haitians on the island rally against their Cuban oppressors. The game doesn’t give a damn about resistance leader Hercule Fontaine and the other black men he leads. They leave the game as quickly as they enter it and are immediately forgotten. They’re just there as a plot device to morally complicate our feelings about the core group of white men at the game’s center.

Okay. So, what, then, do I love?

I love the way a river runs right through the little town of Strawberry. Sometimes I just stand there and watch it go by for a while.

In fact, I just love the way being in the world makes me feel. I’ve long felt that Rockstar are nearly peerless at creating game worlds, and there’s joy for me in simply being in an immaculate world of theirs that doesn’t remind me that it hates trans people or women with every signpost and “satirical” radio ad. But it’s more than that. When I first emerged from the game’s oppressively snowy prologue into the green, wide-open wonder of it all, it took my breath away. It spoke to some longing in me to spend more time in places where the skies are bigger and where the earth is less cluttered with skyscrapers and fast-food restaurants and where I can smell trees in the air.

I love how, when I first went to the city of Saint Denis after spending a few dozen hours in the game’s wilderness and small towns, the sight of a trolley car, an everyday sight here in San Francisco, alarmed me. It was as if I’d forgotten that such things exist, and at first glance it struck me as an unnatural monstrosity, something that shouldn’t exist, as distasteful to me as the black smoke belching from the nearby factories.

I love the busywork. The camp chores. Chopping wood, carrying hay bales. Stuff like that. I like helping. A friend of mine used to say it was because I’m a Virgo. I don’t know about that, but–I like helping.

I love that I can offer people a friendly hello as I stroll past them in the streets of town. That’s not something I generally feel safe doing in real life. But why do you earn honor for this? I’m not saying hello to people to make up for murdering someone, or committing some other crime. I’m saying hello to people because I want to say hello to people. Only in video games are notions of morality so absurd.

I love that, wandering in the graveyard of Saint Denis, I found, left on some grave, a small card, with an image of a city on it. It may have been San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago…I don’t remember. I thought that maybe whoever left it there had once visited that city with the departed, and placed it on their grave as a remembrance of their trip, and of their time together on this planet. Alas, this card, too, has a gameplay function. It’s part of a collectible quest. I want more things in the world (and in games in general) to just be, for their own sake.

I love coming back to camp and finding conversations already happening, friends perhaps gathered around the campfire, listening to Javier strum his guitar, or joining in boisterous song together. It made me feel like my Arthur was not the center of the world, that other people existed and went about their lives when I wasn’t around. I like it when games do that.

I love Hosea, and Charles. I love how, later in the game, as the gang began to crumble (as anyone who has played RDR1 knows it must), I looked back fondly on the better times, the time Hosea and Dutch and I went fishing, and sang, and just spent some pleasant time together for a while. I loved the mounting feeling of despair and inevitable doom, making these earlier moments feel like a blessed little golden age.

I love how much I hated Dutch, that charismatic, silver-tongued manipulator of men, who talks of true things like love but doesn’t mean what he says, who is deluded about his own greatness and casts others under the spell of his delusion, casting away their lives, too, when he deems it advantageous to do so.

I love how much I hated Micah Bell, a different kind of evil. Destabilizing, destructive energy in human form.

I love that, when it was all over and I was able to look back and take stock on the game in its entirety, there was one way in which it all worked for me, among all the ways it didn’t. I saw in it an ode, a deeply flawed, even sometimes contradictory ode, to those who never really find or figure out where they belong.

Number Four: Spider-Man

Sure, swinging around in Spider-Man feels great, which is an absolute must for any Spider-Game. But it’s the game’s heart that earns it this place on the list. His eager, unfortunate cooperation with the NYPD aside, the Peter Parker of this Spider-Man is genuinely a good man. The game doesn’t agonize over it, or even really call attention to it much. He just simply is a decent person, the sort Red Dead 2’s Arthur, for all of that game’s pained wrestling with the notion, could never be. He’s also got real problems–he’s evicted from his apartment for unpaid rent soon after the game starts–and real relationships that he tries to approach with kindness and generosity, even when things are complicated, as they are with his ex, Mary Jane. In a year dominated by two men, Arthur and Kratos, who constantly flagellate themselves for being monsters but don’t actually stop being monsters, it was refreshing to meet a hero as fundamentally decent as this one.

Number Three: Florence

This gem of a game, available on Android and iOS, takes maybe 45 minutes to play, and has left me with more than most games I spend 50 times that playing. In short, it’s a love story that makes brilliant use of color as Florence’s world comes alive, and that uses simple touchscreen gameplay to cleverly convey what it’s like getting to know, and really click with, another person. I encourage you to play it and then, if you want to know why I love it, come back and read what I wrote about it back in February. Here’s a short excerpt:

There are no male saviors or manic pixie dream girls here, no fucked-up power dynamics or stalker-y behaviors passed off as romantic; just two characters who, without a single word of spoken dialogue, still manage to come across as fully realized, individual people who care about each other. They do something for each other that I believe love can and should do in our lives: they gently help each other become better versions of themselves. We should all be so lucky.

Number Two: Tetris Effect and Beat Saber

Am I cheating by putting two games in the same slot? Hey, it’s my list. I can do whatever I want!

There are only a handful of really transcendent moments in my experience of games. One was the first time I saw Super Mario Bros. As the little man I recognized from the single-screen games Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. started running to the right, the camera followed him, revealing a whole world waiting to be explored, and I knew things would never be the same. Another such moment was when I was busted out of the armored police cruiser at the start of Grand Theft Auto 3, hopped in a car, took to the streets of the open world and again just instinctively felt that I was witnessing the evolution of games.

Now, I’m not saying that Tetris Effect or Beat Saber represent an equally important leap forward for video games. After all, in both cases, the gameplay is pretty simple, and in the case of Tetris Effect, it’s gameplay that’s been familiar to most of us for a long, long time. All I know is, the first time I played it in VR, as I saw massive glowing whale forms pulsate in rhythm to the music, I felt transported. It was true wonder and awe.

Beat Saber, which requires VR, lacks Tetris Effect’s varied, incredible environments; it’s a stripped-down game that only does one thing, but what it lacks in visual flair, it makes up for with the most viscerally satisfying movement mechanics I’ve experienced. In Beat Saber, your two Move controllers become lightsabers (I mean, the game can’t call them lightsabers but, y’know, they’re basically lightsabers) and you use them to slice cubes that fly at you to the beat of the song for that level. Yes, you probably look ridiculous standing there with that helmet on, swinging those things around like that, but man, you feel incredible. What both games have in common is the ability to take me beyond standard thought, to a place of pure instinct and immediacy.

Number One: Fortnite

Am I cheating by putting a game that didn’t come out this year and that technically is still in “early access” on this list? Again, if you feel that way, go somewhere where they care about things like that. 2018 is the year Fortnite came into its own as a game and as a cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, it happens to be a cultural phenomenon that makes money hand over fist by taking the creative labor of certain artists and not compensating them for it. I really hope they knock that off.

By now, you may know that there’s little I respond to more strongly than great worlds and a feeling of magic, possibility or mystery. So as much as I enjoy winning the occasional round of Fortnite’s battle royale mode, that’s not, in and of itself, what’s kept me coming back to Fortnite. It’s the way the developers have made the game’s setting feel like a place where strange and wondrous things just happen sometimes, without explanation, without (thank goodness!) lore. When a giant purple cube materialized on the island, then started slowly traveling around, corrupting the land as it went, I thought to myself, “Yes! This is what I play games for. This is the kind of magic that only video games can create.”

The game’s movement opportunities are constantly evolving, creating all kinds of new, dynamic possibilities for player action and interaction. Rifts. ATVs. Ziplines? AIRPLANES?! But it’s the way this inventiveness extends to the world itself that makes Fortnite so extraordinary. Red Dead Redemption 2’s world tries awfully hard to feel alive, and sure, its efforts worked on me. But this is altogether different. This is a shared world, constantly shifting in ways large and small, strange and magical, without explanation, before our very eyes. I can’t wait to see what happens next.