After a couple of Indiepocalyptic years, in 2019 we finally reached the Sindielarity: the moment in which indie releases outpaced the capacity of both primary audiences and tastemakers to process them. The sheer number of high profile games is unprecedented. Multi-year projects by well respected developers merely break through the noise, hidden gems (presumably) remain hidden.
It is possible that large audiences aren’t even necessary in this particular conjuncture since commercial developers are increasingly funded by exclusive deals with distribution platforms. In the war to become the Netflix of Videogames, indies are instrumental to the capture of lifetime users. They are the cheapest way for the digital rentiers to say “join us, we have lots and lots of content you can’t find anywhere else”. Like TV after Netflix, the positive side effect may be a deluge of edgy products that would otherwise be financially risky.
Do Best-of-the-Year lists even make sense in these post-discoverability times?
I suspect I’ll keep finding great games I missed in 2019 for a while. With this disclaimer, here’s the ones I played and liked. Briefer comments than usual because the games are many.
In no particular order:
Disco Elysium – post-soviet cynicism is pervasive here: everybody is corrupt, history is tragic, human nature is dark and depraved. Precisely because of that, roleplaying as weirdo cop among the ruins of ideology is incredibly fun.
Neo Cab – as the last human taxi driver in cyberpunk LA you are expected to perform quite a lot of emotional labor. Look for allies in this miserable world, but choose your words carefully, the clients are going to rate you.
Baba is You – possibly the first nomic videogame that actually works. Think out of the box to solve elegant puzzles, until the complexity reaches a point that it just hurts your brain. For me it was Forest world, level 14.
Telling Lies – cleverly written, professionally acted full motion video surveillance sim. There are undercover cops, camgirls, and pipeline protests, what’s not to like?
Mutazione – a playable soap opera about restoring natural and interpersonal ecosystems. The vegetal pace and the oppressive kindness of the characters can be challenging at first, but halfway through the post-apocalyptic paradise reveals its darker, messier side.
AI Dungeon 2 – if this is the future of artificial intelligence in videogames, sign me in! Gigabytes of fantasy fiction have been machine learned (ie stolen) in order to be regurgitated at every player prompt. It’s like being dungeon mastered by a very talented five year old.
Elsinore – an unconscionably complex choose-your-own-Hamlet. Groundbreaking in the use of gossip as a narrative mechanic. Incidentally also an encyclopedia of all the possible fan fiction ships in the classic tragedy.
Astrologaster – a banner year for narrative indie games set in the Elizabethan era! Being a doctor/astrologist at the dawn of medical science is not easy. Read the stars, read the room, leverage your modern day knowledge, get laid with clients, gleam hints from the delightful madrigals. Based on a true story.
10 Beautiful postcards – you are an abject three-framed doodle. Explore a sprawling, whimsical, fractal hotel. Realize it’s a voyage into the dark heart of late capitalism.
Wilmot Warehouse – an ode to a disappearing profession. Typical order vs chaos gameplay that atypically favors a flow state over an anxiety-inducing progression. The subtle innovation is the occasional unlimited time to rearrange your wares. You can indulge in OCD but be careful to not screw up the memory palace.
A Bewitching Revolution – a sharp edged agitprop game. Be witch, build the new world in the shell of the old. Collective action is implied, but the first person gameplay inevitably leads to the hero thing (vanguardism?). The old-fashioned disciplinary state makes your blocky comrades extremely receptive to your propaganda tarots. They have nothing to lose but their chains, but what if we do?
Untitled Goose Game – it could have been just a viral gif, but it turned out to be a flawlessly executed idea. It’s humans/order versus nature/chaos, and you are finally playing the latter.
It doesn’t matter what the authors say, the village went to the Tories.
Ape Out – a banner year for indie games about embattled animals! Smash multitudes in this jazzy, Saul Bass-y, arcade masterpiece.
Dicey Dungeon – an addicting dungeon crawler with a board game vibe and a sparkling personality. Its idiosyncrasies and expressive design quirks are refreshing in a genre overly concerned with tightness and balance.
KIDS – hell is other people. Crowd simulations are so lifelike and yet so harrowing when you focus on the deterministic behavior of each individual. Can you really be the only person endowed with free will?
Chesses – people have been making chess variants since… well, chess itself is the result of endless folk variants. This collection brilliantly leverages AI and computation to create outlandish new games. “Gravity” is perhaps the most twisted one.
Wattam – oh so you like kawaii? You like little cute things making toddler noises? Here’s a truckload of cute! Here’s a motherfucking cargo ship of cute! I’ll fuck you up with cute. I’ll trap you Get Out-style into the mushy mind of a 5 years old, until you beg to return to your dreadful, joyless life.
Series of the year:
OONO_TARO_B – it’s a twitter user that turns animated gifs into quick reaction games. The challenge is always to stop the short loops at a particular moment. The variety of situations created around this simple gameplay is astonishing. A lesson in minimalist design and theming.
Project of the year: