By Luke Wilhelm ’20
Well, 2019 was one heck of a year for me. Between getting burned out junior year, spending a summer of self-reflection, and finishing up college apps just as I begin my last semester at Bellarmine, it’s been the busiest time of my life (so far). Doing all of that means I haven’t had time to devote to a passion of mine: playing video games. I’m not too into gaming culture as a whole; I don’t play multiplayer games often, I don’t get into big AAA games as much, and I rarely get hyped up for new releases. Rather, I find myself enjoying smaller games that go for a unique style or concept and execute on it amazingly. I think that statement is most exemplified by the fact that the only games I played this year were made by independent studios. (I did play some AAA games, but they were old ones I had lying around that I never got to until now.)
I also think my experience this past year was most exemplified by the fact that there were tons of games that came out this year that I just didn’t get to. All it took was a few (un)well-timed release dates and certain games just swept by me. So I’m thinking that there’s no better way to end the year than not only making a list of my favorite games of 2019 but also the games I hope to get to in 2020. Let’s do it. Happy New Year.
Fifth best game I still need to play: Control
When a podcast I listen to pitched Control as Resident Evil meets Destiny meets the X-Files, I knew I had to play it. I’m a sucker for intricate lore, and from what I heard Control has some of the best you can get. The game takes place in the headquarters of a fictional bureaucratic government organization (another trope I’m a sucker for) called the Department of Control, which is tasked with investigating strange phenomena that might be related to other dimensions. The department’s main office is built on top of a strange structure in New York called the Oldest House. Turns out, maybe you shouldn’t build your office on top of a haunted house, because when you show up everything goes bonkers. Fighting your way through a building, using special powers, and discovering the backstory of what goes on in the depths of the department all sounds like a great experience to me, and I hope I can find time to play it.
Fifth best game I played last year: Untitled Goose Game
I don’t think there is a better word to describe this game other than delightful. There is no story, no higher objective, no secrets to unlock. There is only a goose that’s bent on ruining the day of everyone in a sleepy English village. The game itself is rather short with only four different areas to goose (hah) around in, but every single moment is well worth it. Playing as a mean goose provides a great nonviolent power fantasy coupled with environmental puzzles that require you to think about how people will interact with objects in different ways. Areas get more complex over time, but with a simplistic style and muted color pallet, Untitled Goose Game never gets overwhelming to play or tiring to look at. Also, honk.
Fourth best game I still need to play: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
I’ve always stayed away from the Dark Souls games not because of their difficulty, but because of the character building. From what I’ve heard you have to micromanage your stats to make sure that you are never out-leveled by your enemies. Perhaps it’s not as bad as what I’m picturing, but I’d much rather have a game that’s more about overcoming tough challenges through repetition and mastery rather than making numbers go up. Also from what I’ve heard, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is supposed to be just that. It’s from the same developers of Dark Souls, but has a simplified character build (only one weapon type and no classes) and more complex fighting gameplay in the form of the posture system, making battles more focused on overcoming opponents through skill rather than stats. With it winning the Game of the Year award from the Game Awards I’ll probably bump it up my list of “what I’ll be playing in 2020.”
Fourth best game I played last year: Baba is You
Puzzle games are a tough balance to strike between clarity and difficulty, and I often tire out on them after a little while. Baba is You however, is one of the toughest puzzlers I’ve ever played that manages to keep you engaged even through its most challenging levels. It’s a game about moving blocks around to assign actions to nouns. For example, in order to control the main character, Baba, the blocks “Baba”, “is”, and “You” all have to be pushed together from left to right. Other examples of this include “Wall is Stop”, meaning you can’t pass through walls, and “Flag is Win”, meaning you beat the level upon touching the flag. The game’s intricacies come into play when you begin swapping the blocks around to form new statements such as “Wall is Win,” making the walls your objective rather than your obstacle. From there, Baba is You only gets more complicated with some mind-bogglingly hard levels that can take a little while. You can feel like an absolute dork when you’re just staring at a puzzle trying understand it, but that “Ah-Ha!” moment when everything comes together is so strong it makes up for it.
Third best game I still need to play: Death Stranding
One of the first memories I ever had at Bellarmine was in my freshman year, watching a trailer for a game with my friends. December 2, 2016. We’re all gathered on the Liccardo balcony during our free period on a Friday, squinting to make out details as the sun impairs the screen’s ability to clearly display the intended images. I make out Guillermo del Toro’s character looking toward the sky to see old fighter planes with long, black strands on their wings fly across an inverted rainbow. I see Mads Mikkelsen, boasting a modern soldier’s fatigues and weapons, commanding a skeleton battalion clad in WWII uniforms. My friends and I give each other confused looks—we have no idea what this game is about. A year from now, one of them will have moved across the country, and I will have grown apart from the others. But for now, we are all outside on a sunny day after school, connected by our confusion over Death Stranding.
Third best game I played last year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Technically this game came out in December of 2018, but I never got to it until this year so I feel it warrants a spot on this list. Plus, Smash was a part of so many experiences I had at Bellarmine, whether it be playing it on the 3DS as a freshman, getting hyped for a new Smash installment as a junior, or playing with friends on the Nintendo Switch as a senior. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a culmination for the series, boasting the most characters ever with some fast-paced gameplay and an enjoyable adventure mode. I’ve never been too into playing competitively and mastering a character, but I’ve still gotten a lot out of playing my friends, even when I’m losing most of the time. Throughout all the ups and downs the past four years of my life, Smash Bros. has always been there, and Ultimate is the strongest it’s ever been.
Second best game I still need to play: Disco Elysium
To be honest, I don’t really know much about this game. I know that it’s a narrative RPG about a detective in a post-apocalyptic city, but those are the only specifics I know of. What has made me so eager to play Disco Elysium is all the praise it’s gotten from regular players and critics alike. All of the gameplay revolves around dialogue, and the writing is supposed to be top-notch stuff. The game itself is also supposed to be deeply political, and in a time when publishers are denying that their games about US military supremacy in the Middle East have anything to do with politics, more is always welcome. Purely narrative-focused RPGs have become increasingly rare as well, so I’ll take ‘em where I can ‘em. (The devs even shouted out Marx and Engels in their Game Award acceptance speech, so you know the game’s good.)
Second best game I played last year: Towerfall (Nintendo Switch Edition)
Okay, this game technically came out in 2014 and this version in 2018 but playing so much of it this year cemented why Towerfall is one of my favorite games of all time. In this 2D pixel art archery brawler, Matt Thorson, and their team blend extremely tight controls with action-packed gameplay that is both nerve-wracking and exciting. There are two primary modes in Towerfall: versus mode and adventure mode. The adventure mode contains the standard quest of the original game and the newly added Dark World DLC, which comes with extra areas to enter and bosses to fight. But even the original questline contains tons of fun and challenging levels to beat, with a surprisingly wide array of different enemies that range from killer crows, speedy ghosts, and cunning cultists. However, Towerfall truly shines in its PvP versus mode, where matches can be nail-biting one-on-one battles or a clusterf**k of arrows and explosions. The controls can seem hard to pick up at first, but even when everyone has no idea what they’re doing Towerfall provides one of the best party experiences of the decade. I can’t recommend it enough.
The best game I still need to play: Outer Wilds
I have purposefully shielded myself from any spoilers for this game, down to even the most inconsequential details. There’s only been a couple reviews I’ve read, and only partially to avoid specifics. What has spurred me on this path of avoidance and isolation has been the undying praise this game has received from critics that I trust, most especially Austin Walker. His pitch for the game was this: “You travel between six worlds (and a handful of other astronomical objects) in order to piece together the history of a missing culture, stop the destruction of the solar system, and solve the mystery of a Groundhog Day-Esque time-loop you’re stuck in.” Now, I’m a sucker for any story that revolves around a time-loop, whether it be a movie, book, or game, so this was already going to be right up my alley. But the way he and others discuss Outer Wilds as a genre-breaking masterpiece of fiction that has a story unlike any other only makes my mouth water even more. At first I thought that there was no way an indie game like this could achieve such a high status, yet every day on Twitter I see someone sing its praises and regret that they hadn’t played it sooner. Hopefully, soon, that’ll also be me.
The best game I played last year: Elsinore
I was already bound to like this game because its two core facets are absolutely my thing: time-loops (as I mentioned earlier) and Shakespeare. I’m not a total classical literature stan, but I quite like the writing of Shakespeare of which Elsinore is based on. Or, perhaps “based on” is putting it too lightly. What I should have said was that in this game you play as Ophelia repeatedly reliving the events of Hamlet, doomed to continuously see tragedy come about—unless you figure out how to avert it.
One could write this game off as fan fiction, but that would be a disservice to the writers of this game and other examples of writers’ takes on Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard wrote one of the most famous examples of fan fiction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, exploring two underdeveloped characters from Hamlet and popularizing/formalizing the trope of two side characters who are hopelessly inseparable and insufferable. Fiction from new authors that builds onto an established work can, at best, expand upon the themes of the original work and shed light onto characters or aspects that felt unfulfilled or misused.
Elsinore does all that and more in the context of a time-looping story set during the events of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. As stated earlier, you play as Ophelia, who isn’t exactly a protagonist in the original text, much less so in fact. In the play she is rebuked by Hamlet as he seemly becomes unhinged, causing her to go mad and finally drown herself. While her arc isn’t lacking in nuance, it is a disappointing end for one of the only women in the text.
Needless to say, her role is greatly expanded upon this game as you go about castle Elsinore and see the events of Hamlet occur. However, your role as a passive member of the audience is shifted; by playing as Ophelia you become an active participant in Hamlet as you talk with others, learn new information, and even change the course of the story.
The game takes place over the course of four days, during which you can witness major events from the play itself: sneak into Gertrude’s suite and witness Hamlet murder Polonius, or hide in the chapel pews watch Claudius attempt to repent for his fratricidal actions. However, Elsinore is teaming with people and activity, and the world continues to move even when time seems to stop for these scenes. While at one moment Hamlet could be reuniting with his old friends Lady Rosencrantz and Lady Guildenstern, you could find Horatio going for a walk in the garden with the Queen or Captain of the Guard Barnardo having a military meeting with the King.
These side-scenes flesh out characters beyond their initial scope, but also provide you with clues about the various mysteries and questions you’re working to solve over the course of the game. Some of these objectives are large in scope, such as, “Who is the mysterious figure who kills Ophelia and frames her death as a suicide every evening of the third day?” or, “Why is Ophelia constantly reliving these same events, and is there a way to escape?” But other objectives are much humbler, for example, “Why did Hamlet and Laertes grow apart over the years?” or, “Where are the journals of Ophelia’s late mother?”
All these paths serve to lead you down the various routes the game has to offer as you alter the story to experience events that never happened, such as Claudius killing Horatio in the graveyard or Ophelia meeting the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This is where Elsinore shines, in the sheer amount of writing and detail put into every possible timeline. Not only do they fill out subplots for characters outside the main arc of the original story, they push alternative paths the story could take to their extremes.
I won’t spoil how I found it, but there is a course of events that leads to the premature death of Hamlet’s uncle and mother, causing him to ascend to the throne. You’d think that would be a good place to end the timeline, but it continues on afterward, exploring Hamlet’s renewed sense of faith in the world when justice has supposedly come for the unjust. As Ophelia, you can then give him advice on how he should run the kingdom and deal with the scheming nobles and the impending invasion of Fortinbras. It’s the sheer scope and depth of Elsinore’s writing that makes it an engaging story to experience and an enticing game to play.
Whether you’re a fan of visual novels, Shakespeare, time-looping media, or just a good story, Elsinore unites all expectations with a tremendous and beautiful tale built around a story that’s hard to follow up. It truly is a game for those who are well-read on Hamlet, as it expands on themes found in the original prose, while bringing so many new and fresh ideas within its gameplay and writing that make it approachable for anyone who payed even a minuscule amount of attention in English class.
Have a good 2020 y’all.