With 2019 done and dusted we’re feeling a bit nostalgic for the year that was. Sure we’re only a week into the new year, but what better way to start moving forward than by looking back? Here are some of our favorite games from the year that was.
I know we’re not alone in our love of Baba is You. I’ve seen it on several end of year lists, but if you’ve somehow missed all of the hype around this modern classic let me bring you up to speed. Baba is You hides its core mechanic in its title because everything in this game comes from programming-lite statements like X is Y. You take nouns in the front of these equations and change their rules with the back half. This means you can change your playable character to a wall, turn lava into an end goal, or tons of stranger rules that you can write yourself.
It’s a really simple premise that allows the puzzle design to shine. I’ve found several ways to solve many of the puzzles and in talking to friends I’ve learned of several I hadn’t considered. It’s this flexibility which becomes a victory lap for Baba’s quiet brilliance. Worse puzzle games become exercises in trying to decipher what the developer wants you to do, but Baba is You never falls into this trap. Sure every game is designed by a human, but what catapults Baba is You into 2019’s highlight reel comes from the feeling that you’re building a solution unique to you. Also the main character is a cute rabbit, so that’s fun.
When I asked the itch.io team for some of their favorite games of 2019 our community manager Lisa jumped up and wrote up some words about her favorite game.
Hi I'm LadyAijou, itch.io's resident Crazed Animal Lover Extraordinaire. The title that stood out to me this year is Creature Keeper. It marries the best elements of adventure games with creature taming and battling, and what a gem it is! As the passion project of a solo dev, it's even more impressive for its polish and beautiful gameplay and graphics. When I saw it posted to the site, I was immediately drawn in, especially by the frogs!
I love the progression system, where the more you learn about your creatures, the stronger you become, and the stronger they become. The entire atmosphere of the game is upbeat and positive, which I found refreshing. There are already 50 adorable creatures to tame and befriend, just in the demo alone. You can cook food for your critters that augments the bestiary progression beautifully. You can also get gear, food and more from the crazy cool little magical pocket garden. Who wants to interrupt an adventure to go back to a farmstead when you can farm on the go?! I was not surprised to see Creature Keeper was successfully funded on Kickstarter, and I wholeheartedly recommend giving this one a play. GO TEAM FROG!
I didn’t expect what is basically asymmetrical email to make it onto my end of the year list but Kind Words has the most tender writing I’ve seen in a game, and none of it was written by the game’s developers. Kind Words may be an online-only multiplayer game, but it’s unlike anything else I’ve played. In playing you’re asked to share your thoughts, concerns, or more generally: your problems. You write them up on in-game letters and send them off into the void where other players can directly reply with words of encouragement, advice, or commiseration. Of course everything is anonymous, and you can’t respond to your advice-givers other than with a single sticker but playing feels like genuinely helping other human beings.
There aren’t a lot of game-y elements to Kind Words, but on an internet that feels increasingly radioactive for any kind of sentimentality, Kind Words is one of the few places where you’re safe to be completely vulnerable.
I covered this game before on the blog, but if you missed it let me bring you up to speed on Smile for Me. Basically you’re a new resident in a shady mental health facility and you’re going to help all of the residents out with their problems while a Majora’s Mask style day/night cycle ticks down. To make matters even more complicated, you’re mute and the only way you can advance through this dialogue oriented world is through moving the camera vertically to nod, or shaking it for no.
You’d think nodding and shaking would get tiring after a little while, but the characters you uncover are just so lovable I found myself nodding and shaking along with my character in real life. I’ll be the first to admit that Smile for Me rides almost exclusively on the strength of its character writing, but when the writing is this good it’s an easy pickup.
2019 saw a huge spike in the number of cozy games released, but none of them are cozier than the aptly named A Short Hike. As you might assume from the title, A Short Hike is a game about wandering around a national park and generally having a good time. There isn’t any drama here, just you and a short bird hiker gliding, exploring, and generally chillin’ in the great outdoors.
The area you can explore is somehow both sweeping and intimate and while you could make tracks straight up to the top of the mountain (the game’s explicit goal) there are also things to find all over the map. Of course, this is where the game shines. Traversing the park is quietly pleasant and lets you really soak in a Short Hike’s beautiful ambience.
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