Update May 5th: The most recent update adds Persona 5, Nier: Automata, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
I’m a sucker for end-of-year lists. They’re positive, celebratory, and useful. But too often, lists are backloaded with fall releases. A book published in January? A video game released in March? They’ll need luck and a good publicist to score best-of list slots come December.
I empathize with annual curators. Given the constant deluge of new titles, each arriving with their own noisy hype, it can be a struggle to remember a TV show or a film from 11 months ago. So this year, I’ve decided to keep a journal of my favorite video games, a public way to collect the year’s finest.
The format is inspired by Thrillist’s ongoing list of the year’s best movies. Critic Matt Patches only catalogs the stuff he can recommend 100 percent. “No mixed-bags,” he writes, “[or] interesting train-wrecks.” My list won’t be quite as definitive. I love train-wrecks; I live for mixed bags.
I’ll be updating my list as often as I can — hopefully I’ll have plenty of games to add. I’d love it if you joined me in this experiment. I’m opening the comments so you, dear reader, can share your favorite games as the year goes on.
Dates refer to when I began each game, and may not align with release dates. This is not a definitive list for The Verge. I am only adding games as I play them. If you feel something is missing, please recommend it in the comments.
Persona 5 – April 9th
I’ve played a little under 50 hours of Persona 5, easily more time than I’ve spent with any single game in the past year. I’m only halfway through. When I tell this to friends unfamiliar with games, they look almost nauseous. Don’t you know what can be accomplished in 50 hours? The go to is, almost without fail, Moby Dick. You could read Moby Dick! Twice!
Games can benefit from length for a number of reasons. Minecraft and other “make your own fun” laboratories become richer as their tools become more familiar. Well-designed e-sports — just like traditional sports — demand practice for the pursuit of perfection. Casual clickers like The Simpsons mobile game and the obscure Candy Box play themselves when the player steps away, creating a parallel and exaggerated sense of progress running alongside daily life.
Role-playing games can, and often do, extend beyond the 100-hour mark, but the reward isn’t skill or education; I’d argue it’s leisure. The genre can be loud and big — there are battles and quests to save the world and maybe even kill God in the process — but the pleasure is most often in the details, particularly those that draw similarities to our own world. To enjoy them, it demands you relax.
I like Persona 5 because, frankly, I lack the imagination for fantasy and sci-fi, practically the default settings of RPGs. I’d much rather be dropped into a place I am familiar with, but, because I am a grown-up with obligations and finite money and time, I can’t call home. Persona 5 is set across Tokyo, and while it’s hardly the story of a normal life — you fight mental demons through a portal revealed by a mysterious smartphone app — it does a tremendous job of simply letting the player be a teenager in Japan. I find myself rushing through the game-y aspects, so I can spend more time studying after class, strolling in the park, making friends, seeing and hearing how a different culture passes a year. Or should I say how a band of artists portray the world around them.
With most games, I eventually find myself becoming self-conscious about the time with them. There are other things I could do; I could finally read Moby Dick. But I haven’t had that with Persona. It’s like a vacation, and I leisurely sink into it, obeying the prompt that appears on every load screen: “Take your time.”
Available on PS3 and PS4.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – April 26th
To describe psychedelic experiences, researchers rely on the phrase “set and setting.” Set refers to the mindset and preparation of the subject, setting, to their literal and social environment at the time of the test. It’s widely believed that both set and setting are crucial to laying the framework for a positive and meaningful psychedelic experience. The psychedelic drug is, in the words of Timothy Leary, simply the “key,” unlocking the consciousness to freely analyze the mind and the world around it.
Maybe I’m taking you on a long walk for a small glass of criticism, but I think set and setting are applicable to art, which, depending on where you are mentally and physically, can unlock different experiences and emotions. I know, Mario Kart isn’t magic mushrooms or the Mona Lisa, but it is probably the closest thing that video games have to a universally beloved experience.
Mario Kart 8 was a lovingly crafted game hamstrung by a crummy console that lived in your living room. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is that exact same game (with a handful of tweaks), but now it can be easily enjoyed wherever you’ll enjoy it most. The game is fine at home alone. But when stuck at an airport with a five-hour delay, passing the time on Rainbow Road is almost transcendent.
Available on Nintendo Switch.
Nier: Automata – May 5th
A confession: I don’t entirely get French New Wave cinema, even though I faked it through college. Nonetheless, I appreciate one corner of the movement: a handful of critics became filmmakers to criticize capital-F Film with their own movies. They did so with respect for the form, but also with eagerness to deconstruct it, to save it from its worst tendencies. And they often did so with a sense of humor that saved the experiment from becoming utterly insufferable. I think about these directors when I play Nier: Automata.
At first, Automata seems straightforward enough. You are a cyborg sent to fight robots on Earth in a proxy war between aliens beneath the surface and humans who now live on the Moon. Okay, that isn’t so simple, but it’s easy enough to synopsize, unlike the story that cuts a path through the greatest hits of existential philosophy. When you aren’t stabbing and shooting robots, you’re chatting with them about pain and art and vice and sex and being, well, human.
Automata is, in no small part, the product of creator Yoko Taro’s mind. I don’t know Taro’s full resume, but I don’t believe he ever served as a professional critic. That’s fine. His game has more to say about games — how they imitate one another, how they evolve, how they treat life, how they continue to exist even after they’re finished — than most books on the medium.
Automata is a sequel to Nier and a spinoff of Drakengard, two games you’d be forgiven for having never heard of. Like its predecessor, it’s weird and a little messy and surprisingly emphatic, a rarity, as Aevee Bee noted at The Guardian, for a video game in which you kill hundreds of characters. Unlike its predecessor, it’s something of a hit, selling over a million copies worldwide. You don’t need to play either game to enjoy Automata, but to really see it for what it is, you’ll want to play Automata itself many times through. The repetition is criticism of games at large, for sure, but Taro also uses each new playthrough to look further and further inward. Automata is the rarest of games: sharp criticism of itself.
Available on PS4 and PC.
January 9th – Gravity Rush 2
I’ve whined for years about action games that star the same bald dude fighting the same one-dimensional villains, using the same rocket launcher and machine guns. Indie games have been a counterpoint for more than a decade, but big-budget games have been slower to stray from the pack. Gravity Rush 2 is one of a few recent AAA games to break the cycle. All its most powerful characters are women. Its antagonists are embodiments of income disparity and personal grief. And the main character never fires a gun. It has some tacky fan service, and missions can be repetitive, but these are small flaws in a weird video game that’s truly unlike anything else on the market.
Our review digs into the game’s creative use of an open-world environment:
Walls, rooftops, and the underbellies of the constructions are speckled with a pink gem currency that upgrades Kat’s powers and provides the minimum excuse to investigate the nooks and crannies of every building. This would be tedious if not for the game’s ecstatic sense of momentum. Besides falling, Kat has the power to slide across surfaces in any direction — it feels sort of like grinding in Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Jet Set Radio. Slipping up a 50-story clock tower, then free falling over the other side never loses its thrill.
Available on PS4.
January 15th – Yakuza 0
I don’t know how I missed the Yakuza series. I raised myself as a diehard Sega fanboy, only shedding my allegiance during the fall of the Sega Dreamcast. As a spiritual follow-up to that console’s ambitious, unfinished Shenmu series, Yakuza floated at the top of my to-do list. But then there was high school, college, my first job, my second job, marriage, and all the other games that I, for one reason or another, prioritized above the adventures of a man with nice suits and impressive back tattoos. Yakuza 0 has been a treat, a throwback to what I remember of Sega games in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a melodramatic soap opera with violence that has the sensory pleasure of popping bubble wrap or cracking open a can of beer.
Our review by Andrew Webster describes the game’s old-school structure:
Yakuza 0 does a lot of things that modern games shy away from. It features cutscenes that can span many minutes, and lots of text-heavy dialogue you’ll need to pore over. There’s plenty of repetition, with occasionally excessive amounts of battles and missions that boil down to boring fetch quests. A lot of the time you’re simply running from one place to the next. It even has long and frequent load times that harken back to another era. It can take some getting used to, but eventually Yakuza 0 settles into a pleasing rhythm. Beat up some bad guys, watch some cutscenes, and then relax with a visit to the batting cages. Instead of making the game feel dated, these aspects give it a distinct sense of charm. It’s not perfect, but it’s unlike anything else being made today.
Available on PS4.
January 20th – Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone
I love the very idea of Hatsune Miku and open-source rock stars. I hope we see more “virtual” musicians, a model that could democratize pop singles without sacrificing a teenager to the music industry in the process.
Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone is the culmination of a solid rhythm-game series that collects music created by Miku producers and fans. If Yakuza 0 is the entry point into the Yakuza series, then I recommend Future Tone for anyone curious about the Miku phenomenon.
Along with Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian in December, this winter has been crowded with great video games from Japanese developers. Maybe I should have listened to Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, who’s been tracking the abundance of RPGs and interactive-fiction releases over the past few years.
That said, all four games have an irritating deference for fan service: Cidney’s costume in Final Fantasy XV, the lecherous snapshot mission in Gravity Rush 2, female “pain sponges” in Yakuza 0, and skimpy bikini costumes meant for Future Tone’s cast of underage girls. January’s best games are fantastic in their own ways, but I can’t think of another month in which I was so reluctant to play games while we had guests in the house.
Available on PS4.
January 25th – Resident Evil 7
It’s fitting that January should end with one more game from a Japanese developer, this time Capcom saving the Resident Evil series from a convoluted mythos and years of regressive action-game design. Resident Evil 7 trades the third-person perspective of previous entries for a first-person viewpoint. What could have been an over-the-top zombie shooter is a legitimately frightening horror game. The dark corridors of a Southern plantation borrow heavily from TV shows like True Detective and American Horror Story. But the game is most indebted to indie horror games like Amnesia and Outlast, which kept the horror flame lit while Capcom floundered with Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, and a handful of remakes and spinoffs.
In our review, Andrew Webster praises the nauseating detail of the scenery:
The Baker home, in particular, is a gorgeously grotesque place, where simply wandering around and looking at things — cages whose use is best left to the imagination, or disturbingly bloodstained bathrooms — can foster a powerful sense of dread.
Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
February 21st – Horizon Zero Dawn
For a decade, the developer Guerrilla Games and its hundreds of employees spent tremendous time, money, and energy on Killzone, a franchise damned by a generic title and bland premise. A space army fights space Nazi-stand-ins through a handful of games that served largely as graphical showpieces for Sony’s PlayStation consoles. The games weren’t bad, but they were forgettable, largely running towards the goal posts established by the genre king of the last generation, Call of Duty.
Horizon is the first game from the studio since Killzone. Phil Kollar at Polygon wrote in his review, “Horizon Zero Dawn is a refreshing change of pace for Guerrilla Games. While playing it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this game was made by people excited to be working on it, and that excitement was contagious.” And that’s true. But what surprises me most about Horizon is how much it builds of the technical skill acquired through the Killlzone series.
Guerrilla Games learned to design beautiful scenery, write competent human drama, and design a really tangible and responsive form of combat through Killzone. And then, crucially, they didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, Horizon feels like a studio unburdened from a flagging genre, a meaningless sci-fi setting, and one of video games’ drabbest color palettes. The result is a creative riff on the evermore popular open world roleplaying genre, set in a fascinating “post post apocalyptic world,” drenched in color, and sprinkled with lovable characters. Horizon is absolutely fantastic, and I can’t imagine it happening without the games that came before it.
Available on PS4.
February 19th – Hidden Folks
A game like Hidden Folks justifies this diary experiment. The app doesn’t have hundreds of side-quests, a fully explorable open world, or expensive 3D models. It doesn’t even have color. A black-and-white riff on the hidden objects genre, Hidden Folks is modest and charming. It’s also steeped in a potent nostalgia, albeit in a manner unlike its contemporaries. You won’t find beloved characters or pixel graphics. The nostalgia on offer is akin to that of coloring books, which have had their own resurgence in popularity. Opening the app is transportive, returning you to the time you sifted through a copy of Where’s Waldo, waiting for your Mom at the salon. Or when you combed every page of Highlights at the doctor’s office. Creator Adriaan de Jongh previously designed Bounden, a game that used a smartphone to turn strangers into dance partners. It was a game that asked you to look outward, to connect. Hidden Folks is Bounden’s inverse. A game that has you quietly searching through a tiny collective image from our childhoods. It points you inwards. Yes, it’s cute and silly and simple, but Hidden Folks is something else, too: meditative.
Available on iOS and Steam.
March 2nd – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
One of my favorite conversations to have with friends about Breath of the Wild is to hear what they don’t like about the game. I know, it’s a cynical place to start, but the conversation naturally ramps to the same positive conclusion: “I hate this specific thing, but I can’t imagine the game without it.” The weapons degrade, but I love the danger of each battle. Thunderstorms turn Link into a lightning rod, but I love to use the weather against my enemies. The world is too big, but I love to get lost.
The love / hate tension speaks to Breath of the Wild’s audacity of design. Its directors have copped to trimming what didn’t work from Zelda, and yes, they deserve commendation for that. (Nintendo, more than most, is protective of its brands and its tradition.) But what I cherish about Breath of the Wild is how aggressively its creators have balked at assumptions about open worlds and a genre as a whole, assumptions that have been calcified over a decade of corporate risk management.
It seems silly to say a Zelda game is risky, but wow, this Zelda took risks that could have been, at almost every step, catastrophes easily mitigated with safer, proven design. When someone tells me they don’t like something in Zelda, often they mean I haven’t liked the execution of this idea in other games. But here, under the right guidance, and stripped to their essentials, rough ideas become polished, and big, risky, sometimes infuriating design is inseparable from an all but perfect adventure.
Available on Nintendo Switch and Wii U.
March 20th – Typeshift
I met Zach Gage in 2009, when he made an art installation / game that randomly and permanently deleted files from its computer’s hard drive. Gage hasn’t stopped making capital-A art, but his oeuvre has expanded beyond museums and into debatably the most mainstream venue of our time: the App Store. In recent years, he’s released Sage Solitaire, Really Bad Chess, and Spelltower. You have almost certainly heard of one of them, if not played all of them.
What makes Gage’s life as a mobile game designer so fascinating is that it isn’t actually separate from his life as an artist. Gage takes the most familiar and played-out genres (a remake of Space Invaders, an update to Solitaire, a Milton Bradley board game, word puzzles) and contorts them into commentaries of themselves. As such, a Zach Gage game is like a book and a book club, and Gage is like a creator and a critic.
Gage wears plenty of other hats, too. For his latest game, Typeshift, a collaboration with Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Gage has created a contraption that would make a shrewd CMO envious. A puzzle game, Typeshift teaches players by asking them to find words. Words are aligned by shifting letter tiles up and down, each push accompanied by the perfect ASMR click. It’s addictive and edifying, like popping a special kind of bubble wrap that expands your vocabulary. But here’s the business hook: once a board’s completed, a menu provides links to the definition of each discovered word on Merriam-Webster’s site. Merriam-Webster gets a web visit every time a player experiences the slightest hint of curiosity. In two days, I’ve probably visited the site for 50+ definitions. The dictionary gets traffic. The player gets smarter. And Gage, he expands the reach of his art.
Available on iOS.
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