This was a big year for games. Sorry, I meant this was a year of big games. We’ve seen some massive games of the last few years, but 2018 might just be the biggest of them all.
No. 5: Red Dead Redemption 2
I don’t think I can say I like Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s more a begrudging respect: a respect for the expansive, intricate world Rockstar crafted. The sequel/prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption boasts an incredibly diverse, deep and dynamic world that surprised me. I drew immense satisfaction from clip-clopping around vast open fields or and trudging up blustery mountain sides; every corner of the map promised a new mission, combat encounter or oddity. Even if combat grew stale, the allure of the unexplored drew me forward and the large cast of characters added nuance and humor to every mission; even seemingly mundane hunting missions or fishing trips were recontextualized by the constant commentary from my companions.
Arthur Morgan was a wonderful partner for for my wild west adventure: his droll, dry wit made the grim world seem a little brighter. His struggle to reconcile his actions and goals with Dutch’s depravity left me devastated on more than one occasion. But god did I want it end. By the time I reached the second epilogue, I was ready to eject the game, pop it back into its case, and never play it again. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece, but like many ambitious artistic experiences, it’s better appreciated than enjoyed.
No. 4: God of War
I’m all about that axe. Throwing it. Calling it back. Bisecting the brittle skulls of Norse Mythology’s burliest baddies. And channeling the frosty magic of the north to freeze my foes — I never wanted to put the Leviathan Axe down. As a reformed God of War trilogy fan, I eagerly awaited Sony Santa Monica’s revamped take on Kratos, the ever-screaming god of war. And though the story didn’t hook me the same way it captivated many, I’ll never forget the simple fling-and-return satisfaction of the game’s primary weapon. The Leviathan Axe is one of gaming’s greatest tools. It’s hefty and hard-hitting, able to make me feel like a god without mitigating challenging sections.
It’s all the more satisfying that the monsters you’re thrashing are so gruesome and awe-inspiring. Every creature — from the puny Draugr to the winged Valkyrie to the immense, earth-shaking World Serpent — is distinct and devoid of visual clutter. God of War may have let me down in the story department, but Kratos’ internal battle has never been the draw to the series. I’m here to crack skulls.
I am not good at games and have limited patience for an excessive challenge. But Celeste, Matt Makes Games’ follow up to Towerfall, broke my prejudice.
The game doles out the challenge in microbursts, allowing you to fly through one room at a time. This method of game design helped me learn each section intimately so I felt a tangible improvement in my skills by the time I moved onto the next platforming puzzle. Paired with a soothing soundtrack by Lena Raine and an astonishingly emotional story, Celeste makes each minor victory feel like a triumph.
Like Madeline, I never thought I’d ascend Celeste Mountain. But after 10 hours of controller-bending rage and excitement, I did; success felt wonderful. Worked at. Well deserved. I accomplished something difficult without the help of guides or the game’s generous and forward-thinking accessibility toggles. It was a hard-earned victory.
No.2: Marvel's Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man – I expected to love swinging around Manhattan while Spider-Man quipped at an endless stream of thugs and evil-doers, but I didn’t expect to feel Peter Parker’s plight as strongly as I did. Insomniac Games’ take on one of the world’s most popular superheroes made me understand Spider-Man in a way I never had before.
City traversal was a joy: an exciting adrenaline rush every time I thwipped out a web and careened through the air to John Paesano’s triumphant score. Each glittering spire and towering skyscraper felt meticulously designed (down to the 3D effect on the windows to make every building feel lived-in.) New York City was lovingly recreated, and as a New Yorker, I was often in awe of the detail crammed into Insomniac’s NYC.
Insomniac pays homage to Spidey’s lengthy roster of rogues while also offering a fresh take on classic villains. Doc Ock and Norman Osborn are reimagined in a more complicated, modern, and unexpected. Even Mary Jane is revamped: changed from a shallow damsel to competent journalist whose character arc rivals Peter’s.
Insomniac Games’ told a beautiful, human story: one that showed just how lonely and difficult Peter’s dual life can be. With an ending that left me in tears and a post-credits scene that made me jump out of my chair in unashamed jubilation, Marvel’s Spider-Man captures the thrill of super-powered vigilantism without ignoring the tribulations of Peter’s everyday life.
No.1: Hollow Knight: Void Heart Edition
I know. I know. Team Cherry’s melancholy Metroidvania came out on PC in 2017; but it was given a second life when it released on consoles this year. Accompanied by four free DLC packs, Hollow Knight: Void Heart Edition is the best way to play the year’s best game.
No game this year surprised me, challenged me and horrified me as completely as Hollow Knight. From the laser blasts in Crystal Peak to the skittering monsters lurking in Deep Nest, every area felt new and different. I never got bored of leaping around the ever-changing, ever-growing world. It’s an exploration game at its core: one that made me desperate for new traversal abilities and weapons.
Once I reached the end and walked my little Hollow Knight up to the smoldering black egg, I closed the game: I didn’t open it again to face the titular Hollow Knight for months. I couldn’t abide the idea that the game could end — true I could have fought the Radiance (too hard) or took another crack at the Nightmare King (also too hard. I’m weak, okay) — but my limited gaming skills and lack of free time only permit so much. I eventually saw credits, knowing that one day I’d return: determined to relive my Hollow Nest adventure.
In a year that saw the release of massive games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassins Creed: Odyssey, Far Cry 5, Just Cause 4, and Marvel’s Spider-Man it’s incredible that an indie 2D platformer feels like the biggest game among them.
2018 is a year of small moments in big games. I’ll never forget the gang conversations I had in Red Dead Redemption 2 or the quiet, anxious moments between puzzles in Celeste. Even as the industry trends large, favoring the biggest maps and the highest play clocks, it’s a pleasure to see emotion take precedence over expansiveness.