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ACMI staff picks: best videogames of 2019

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Got some spare time over the holiday period? If so, spend some hours, days, and weeks catching up on some of the hottest titles in gaming this year. Our staff immersed themselves in bucketloads of nostalgia, strange and colourful gameworlds, Hideo's Kajima's latest fever dream, and a little game from Melbourne that took the world by storm. 

Death Stranding 

Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer

When the first trailer for this latest Hideo Kojima production was released two years ago it was very difficult to make out what the game was actually about, let alone what a player would ‘do’ in it. With each subsequent drip feed of promotional material things did not become any clearer. I ended up picking up a copy of Death Stranding (PS4) mostly because of a review in Kotaku. That review was intriguing, more than clarifying, and perhaps hints at a new wave of mainstream game reviewing that resembles the best of old school music journalism – reviews that evoke a mood and a curiosity, rather than a basic plot and technical teardown. 

A few hours later, there I was controlling Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus), with the corpse of my dead mother – who just happened to be the last president of the USA – strapped to my back. As I trudged up a rocky incline, trying to balance her weight and keep upright, the strange absurdity of the game sucked me in. In that first session, I managed to spend the first four hours in a game without killing (or even attacking anyone), lugging parcels between delivery points, in an absolutely beautiful environment modeled on Icelandic wilderness, avoiding ‘beached things’ – creatures that threaten to drag you into ‘the beach’, a place between the lands of the living and the dead. 

A still from Death Stranding (PS4)

Death Stranding's locations were modeled on Iceland's wilderness

It is so rare for a big budget AAA game to be so weird and yet memorable. It plays all the ‘cinematic’ tropes you expect these days with long unskippable cutscenes of story exposition and dialogue, and beautiful soundtrack reveals – where songs from Iceland’s emo-tronic Low Roar swell up as you crest a ridge line and find the next delivery depot.

What comes next – over about forty hours – continues to be unexpected, and even once you get into the more mechanised sections of the game – vehicles and automated delivery bots – the game continues to draw heavily on its physical mechanics for impact. It’s been a long time – maybe twenty years – since I’ve played a game that so relied on the haptic rumble of the controller to communicate and evoke stress, distress, weight, lack of balance, and friction. When the rumble in the original PS controller was first released in the 1990s it quickly became a gimmick that game designers shied away from, but in Death Stranding the haptic feedback is so critical to the nuance and impact of the parcel delivery grind, let alone the other terrors that need to be shaken off as the game wears on.

There will be much written about Death Stranding’s underlying social politics, in-game lore, the bizarrely funny product placement, and its narrative devices – but the mark of an interesting game, like any other cultural artifact, might these days be how much critical debate it engenders. Despite its title, and themes of loss and trauma, technology and modernist expansionism, care and decay, Death Stranding is a very hopeful and hope-inducing game.

Get it on PS4

Untitled Goose Game

Arieh Offman; Programmer, Public Programs

2019 truly has been the Year of the Goose. From being tweeted about by Chrissie Teigen to being shouted out by Blink 182 mid-concert, everyone seems to be on board for Melbourne development darlings House House’s odd and endearing indie puzzler Untitled Goose Game – as they should be. 

There is just so much to love about the game, from the charming artwork and animation to the reactive score of Debussy preludes adapted by Dan Golding. The structure of the game, as well as the ingenious design of its puzzles, allows you to discover little moments of comedic joy as you play; they feel personal, as though these moments were designed just for you and your playthrough. There is something so innocent and approachable about the game’s use of slapstick as a mechanic. It truly is an experience that transcends age or gaming ability. 

Its relatively short length is a part of its design appeal (I finished it in a couple of hours); it’s quick to pick up, while still retaining replayability. 

A honking good time. 

Get it on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch

Sayonara Wild Hearts 

Jim Fishwick, Assistant Curator

Because Arieh beat me by 16 minutes to replying to a Slack message callout to contribute to this list I will not be writing about the Untitled Goose Game. But that’s fine by me, because it gives me more space to write about the game that most deeply hooked its pop-fuelled, neon-pink-and-purple tendrils into me this year. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a kinda-a-racing-game-kinda-a-rhythm-game-with-queer-undertones-by-which-I-mean-overtones, made by Swedish studio Simogo. The best description I’ve found of it is, courtesy of Polygon’s Jenna Stoeber, is “Give Carly Rae Jepsen a Sword: The Game”. 

We’ve seen several albums receive accompanying album-length music videos (Beyoncé’s 'Lemonade' and Janelle Monae’s ‘emotion picture’ 'Dirty Computer' being two notable examples) but Sayonara Wild Hearts is the first attempt I’ve seen to make an accompanying videogame. There are elements of rhythm games like Beat Saber or Guitar Hero, but the songs here have been made hand-in-hand with their levels, each enhancing the experience of the other. I can’t think of another game where I could recommend the soundtrack independently of the game. Oh, and it’s narrated by Queen Latifah. 

But despite the hours spent getting Gold Rank on Sayonara, my actual Game Of The Year pick has to be Alright (x4) by Jess Reddi Coronell. It was technically first released in 2017, but I can’t in good conscience write a GOTY list without it. One of the great microgames of our time, Alright (x4) packs layers and layers of meaning into a beautifully constructed and illustrated one-liner, as only the best art can. For sheer amount of time played vs amount of time spent reflecting on it, and for the number of times I’ve instantly recommended it to others, this is unquestionably my Game of 2019, if not every year. Make sure you turn your sound on, alright? Alright. 

Get Sayonara Wild Hearts on PS4, Nintendo Switch and Apple Arcade. Play Alright (x4) here.

Honourable mentions:  Wilmot’s Warehouse, Baba is You

Control

Caitlin Cronin; Public, Education and Industry Programs Coordinator

Alongside the shamefully high number of “older” games I played this year (Mass Effect trilogy for the fourth time anyone?), there were three games that came out in 2019 that I loved; Disco Elysium, Untitled Goose Game and Control.

I’ve already spoken a little bit about just how much I adored Disco Elysium for ACMI Re/Commends and Arieh has us covered on the goose front, so let me tell you about the strange and wonderful Control

The newest game from Remedy Entertainment, the studio who saw great success with the Max Payne and Alan Wake series, Control is a beautifully executed game with a highly individual sense of visual and narrative style. Playing it is almost akin to stepping inside a combination of David Lynch film and an M.C. Escher painting. Nothing quite makes sense, and everything is very strange, but that is absolutely part of the wonder and appeal of the game.

You play as Jesse Faden who, partially on purpose, has found herself inside The Oldest House, the base of operations for the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC); a secret arm of the government that investigates, records and houses the paranatural. The FBC is currently in lock-down thanks to a strange (stranger than normal anyway) phenomenon happening inside its very walls, a phenomenon that Fadden, as the new unwitting FBC Director, must stop.

Unfortunately, Control isn’t a game that’s easily described, with much of its appeal coming from unraveling its mysteries and experiencing The Oldest House for yourself. All I can say is, if want to know what a motel out of space (and possibly time), a refrigerator, a carousel horse and an ashtray maze all have to do with each other, then Control is likely for you. 

Get it on  PS4, Xbox One and PC

Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

Arieh Offman; Programmer, Public Programs

The name 'Resident Evil' has become synonymous with survival horror. Capcom’s long-running franchise revolutionised many of the genre’s defining qualities since the series’ first iteration back in the late 1990s. My first love in the genre was 1998’s Resident Evil 2, so it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I approached this year’s remake – I mean, it’s not as though Capcom hadn’t taken some mighty missteps with the franchise in the intervening years.

As it turns out I shouldn’t have been worried. The 2019 remake harks back to what makes this game and the series so iconic, while offering plenty of improvements to playability and overall design. The scares are still there – that sound of Mr X’s footsteps pounding around the station is enough to bring a player’s heart to their throat. And the joy of playing through this title without TANK controls... 

A feast of gory good times (and the odd frustrating puzzle), the RE2 remake breathes life into the zombie game genre once more, reminding us why we loved it so much in the first place. 

Get it on PS4, Xbox One and PC

Super Mario Maker 2 

Cody Buchanan, Temporary Exhibitions Project Manager

This may cloud my judgement slightly, but my earliest and fondest videogame memories are of my brother and I watching our mother play Super Mario World, her body propelling out of her seat with each jump that Mario made, attempting to escape the deadly onslaught of Goombas and Koopa Troopas. It was as if she had preconceived the Wiimote, throwing her hands left and right to give our favorite plumber the extra boost he needed to jump safely from question block to question block. With this nostalgia noted, it’s no surprise that Super Mario Maker 2 is one of my favorite games of 2019.

Like the first Super Mario Maker you can create your own courses, themed as some of the most memorable and beloved Mario iterations, with the introduction of Super Mario 3D World; I say “some”, as sadly Super Mario Bros. 2 is still missing from the lineup. The game also includes a single player campaign called Story Mode. This allows the player to engage with more traditional and classic level designs – which can be refreshing after a few too many enemies in question blocks and jumps into the abyss (or water levels; who is choosing to make water levels? And why?!). In saying this, one of the things I most enjoy about Super Mario Maker 2 is the community it encourages. There’s a heartwarming loop of creativity, feedback and positivity that you don’t often see in videogames; which in my mind makes up for the lag in the online competitive play and reminds me of my brother and I watching and encouraging mum to jump just a little higher.  

My special mentions go to Obra Dinn, a stunning and beautifully designed puzzle game by Lucas Pope (the follow up to Papers, Please); and Ape Out, developed by Gabe Cuzzillo and produced by Devolver Digital, a jazzy violent procedurally generated tale of simian uprising. 

Get it on Nintendo Switch

What The Golf?

Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer

One of the gems of Apple Arcade, What The Golf? began life as a Kickstarter project and now has blossomed into one of the casual hits of the platform. Golf was one of the earlier sports to be approximated in videogames, after tennis, and I spent far too many hours in the 1980s playing Leaderboard on my family’s Commodore 64. However, what makes What The Golf? so much fun is that it’s not a golf sim, but a kind of anti-golf sim. As the levels and landscapes unravel you will end up playing approximations of the design and even mechanics of stacks of other well-known games (no spoilers!)  ... and there’s much fun to be had in its ludicrousness. It’s perfect for casual commuter play, it has no in game purchases, and is one of those ‘just one more level’ games.  

Get it on Apple Arcade

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