2022 is almost over but it feels like anything could happen. In this gonzo year, Elon Musk stuck his too-big hand in the too-small cookie jar of Twitter, The New York Times bought Wordle, and I fled the too-expensive land of Los Angeles to the just-as-expensive-but-colder land of Boston. If you'd told me any of this would have happened in 2021, I would have replied "yeah a bunch of fascist goobers stormed the United States Capitol in January, I'll believe anything at this point."
But amidst the chaos of it all, I played a lot of video games. Some felt like they spoke to the chaos and uncertainty of our moment, others were pleasant, well-crafted toys whose distractions I welcomed.
Even among the "distraction" games though, I couldn't help but notice an interest in the heaviness of things. Bear and Breakfast, a hotel management game where you play as a dopy-looking bear running a hospitality chain, took a swerve from its main story to examine why its anthropomorphized cast is so traumatized from a great forest fire.
Hardspace Shipbreaker's race across the Early Access finish line capped off a story about workers banding together and fighting back against a faceless corporation and a shitty middle manager. And Marvel's Midnight Suns frequently puts the colorful comic book combat to use, swinging through the consequences of events adjacent to the Salem Witch Trials.
A cynic might glance at these games and bemoan that the terrors of our real-world have crept into a medium of entertainment. I am not a cynic. I am grateful as always that studios of all sizes are interested in making experiences that are more than playthings.
But look, Marvel Snap is on this list. I'm still here to have fun. Let's dive into my favorite games of the year.
I'm putting Hiding Spot Games' Beacon Pines front-and-center because this is a game more people need to play. It's a shining example not just of what games can do in storytelling, but how storytellers can be ambitious in tackling harder themes, especially with a kid-friendly aesthetic.
I've already written about how this game makes the most of dramatic irony with its branching narrative, but it's also just a compelling, sweet, funny, and interesting story. The characters are so fleshed out, everyone is blessed with the right balance of ambition, pathos, and goofiness, and narrator Kirsten Mize takes a narrator role that should have felt like a gimmick and turns it into a sweet, earnest commentary on the story.
Beacon Pines made me tear up, laugh, and dive down every branch to find out what happens next. It feels like the kind of book I would have read around age 8-12 and gone "I didn't know stories could be about that." We don't do rankings on lists like this, but Beacon Pines is my favorite game of 2022 by a mile.
Alright enough sappy feelings it's time for snapping. Marvel Snap is a game that lets me shitpost through the language of a collectible card game deck. This delightful licensed card game lives in my head rent-free, and I love how developer Second Dinner has made a game worthy of its Hearthstone lineage that dumps how complicated Hearthstone got and feels far more interactive.
Pulling off a win in this game can either feel like you've tricked your opponent (especially when they "snapped" first), or pulling off a great magic trick. Sometimes it feels like a photo finish. The fundamentals are just so great and you can feel where the game could go in future updates.
I look forward to the upcoming custom game modes so I can unleash my dirtiest decks on my Game Developer colleagues. Look out Chris—Agatha's coming for you.
A Plague Tale: Requiem
The first Plague Tale game from Asobo Studios felt somewhat comparable to Beacon Pines in that it made me go "wait, you can do that?!" Its surprise reveal of a supernatural element was one heck of a magic trick, and any follow-up would need to top that big story moment and find fun ways to expand on its rat-tastic premise.
Did they? Yes, clearly, it's why Requiem is on the list. The sequel feels like a clear step forward for Amicia and her brother Hugo, challenging some of the central themes of the first game and building more and more bananas setpieces using its unending ocean of rats.
The interest in third-person story-first action adventure games is high at the moment, and Asobo's Plague Tale games are punching above their weight with compelling themes, great characters, and of course, the rat puzzles. Asobo's Plague Tale team feels like Don't Nod Studios back around the release of Life is Strange—full of potential and insight on how to tell big, impactful stories in games.
Bear and Breakfast
Gummy Cat's Bear and Breakfast is doofy, earnest, and ambitiously crafted. It's a game I love for its imperfections. This small Romanian studio did its best to turn our a hotelier simulator with full customizable buildings and systems that account for different guest interests. You can see it sort of coming apart at the seams sometimes, but then you just look at the dopy bear you're playing as and everything is forgiven.
I also want to tip my hat to Gummy Cat for the aforementioned darker story elements that have kept me playing months after launch. Anthropomorphized animals really let you smuggle in some heavy-real world themes like the anxiety of not doing well, the pain of feeling like a friend used you, and the sense of recovery in a community after a massive tragic event.
Janky, earnest games that are frequently fun and sometimes frustrating deserve to be recognized in year-end lists. I loved this game so much I got it working on my Steam Deck even though it's not optimized for the platform yet. I will play this cute bear game on my couch while watching The Boulet Brothers' Dragula dammit.
Obsidian Entertainment's Pentiment is a near-perfect video game. I was ready for a well-told story with interesting characters and fun dialogue, but I wasn't ready for some of the bold swings this game takes. There are beautiful tableaus that sell you on the artistic power of illuminated manuscript. There are drawings of food so scrumptious they made my mouth water. And when the story hits its climactic peak—I literally gasped out loud.
In a murder mystery like Pentiment you'd think such a gasp would land on a big reveal of whodunnit (and it sort of does), but there's so much about the pain, sadness, and struggle of the small town of Tassing that stays with you while you play, like burrs caught in your coat. When the big reveal comes at the end, all of it—the needless death, the stupid petty arguments, the "should haves" and "could have beens"—hits you like a freight train.
Pentiment also deserves points for being the rare video game that can connect the player with a sense of the divine—but "the divine" isn't necessarily the one that the in-game church wants its people to connect to. It shows players how Europe's long history from indigenous cultures, to the Romans, to the Catholic Church's dominance still matters in people's lives, and it makes so much out of what would normally be history class esoterica.
And look, that's all heady stuff. Also while my fiancé was playing this game, they yelled, cackling, from the other room that they got a rare achievement for banging a nun, and I raced in furious, because I had not managed to seduce a nun.
A game that can balance heady themes with base stupidity and dumb fart jokes is a game to be praised. 10/10 goty would call Martin a little shit again.
Horizon Forbidden West
Someone in my social circle called Guerilla Games' Horizon series "a YA novel in video game form" and you know what? Sometimes that's okay. Especially when that YA novel lets me go toe to toe with a giant robotic mammoth and tyrannosaurs rex at the same time when I had no healing supplies god that was so much.
It wasn't until I started writing this entry that I remembered how many great setpiece moments there are in this game. There's the underwater level, in a ruined Las Vegas, a journey into the tomb of Ted Faro that feels oddly relevant after Elon Musk's 2022 misadventures, and a new cast of villains that do a great job expanding the stakes of the story.
Sequels can be so hard to stick the landing on, but I think Guerilla pulled it off. I'm excited for more Horizon games, even if some of them might not be single-player sequels starring Aloy.
Why can't I bring myself to finish Blackbird Studios' Hardspace: Shipbreaker? Every time I log in I just want to go carve up new ships. I know there's a really cool finale waiting for me, I know that I want to see how its story of labor activism ends, but I can't cross that threshold.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker finished its Early Access journey in 2022, and while I know Blackbird is chugging away at Homeworld 3, it's this series and franchise that I really hope puts the studio on the map. This is a different kind of video game: one that tackles a big new gameplay mechanic and builds a compelling interactive experience out of ideas that other studios would see as too risky to sell.
Blackbird, I hope you get the greenlight for a sequel on this one, because I really want to do more shipbreaking.
Marvel's Midnight Suns
This was a late contender! I'm really happy with what Firaxis turned out here. When I first heard the studio was working on a Marvel game, I was intrigued by the idea of "XCOM, but with Marvel heroes," but I wasn't sure how it would work.
XCOM is a series built on customizable units who you grow attached to and then watch horribly die—how could that team flip and reverse it into something suited for Wolverine, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel?
Well they did it. Gone are character death invasion clock systems, in are a series of great hero-based class abilities, in-depth relationships with Marvel B and C-listers, and combo-based combat that's just so darn compelling. Marvel's Midnight Suns is pure comfort food, a delicious relaxing dish that tickles the brain and makes me a fan of Marvel characters I only barely knew.
Dying Light 2
Dang Sony, I really spent all that time with Techlands' Dying Light 2 this summer? Okay, well, guess I should drop it in this list then.
I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Dying Light 2. The game's main story didn't impress me very much, but that's fine. The underlying traversal design that drove the gameplay was phenomenal. I absolutely loved chasing down random side quests because they gave me new reasons to bounce around different buildings and smack zombies in the face.
The first-person melee combat Techland specializes in also was a surprise delight. It's the kind of system where you'll have someone on the couch with you watching you play, and then you smack a zombie so hard they fly into the upper atmosphere, and your friend goes "wait, what the fuck just happened?"
The parkour system also makes for incredible physical comedy. Here's a video of me absolutely eating shit because I mistimed a landing.
And while I just diminished Techland's storytelling, I really do want to give credit to some of the setpieces they crafted for this system. An early one where the player destroys a windmill was tense and thrilling, and there's one long hard fight up a skyscraper with a TV station in it that felt so satisfying to complete. This is a game with so many individual top-tier elements that I'm sure took an incredible amount of work to get across the finish line.
I also want to tip my hat to game director Tymon Smektała for being frank about how hard it was to make a game about a pandemic-driven zombie apocalypse while a real-life pandemic ravaged the world—and how that shifted Techlands' thinking on some story elements. Combine that with the departure of lead writer Chris Avellone (who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2020), and you begin to realize that this already-hard-to-make game was made even harder by events that took place outside of the studio.
That's a lot for any team to deal with, and it makes me happy to include Dying Light 2 on this list.
The Steam Deck
Wait, Valve's Steam Deck isn't a game! Did I mean to write Apeture Desk Job here? Let me go ask me from an hour ago.
Nope, I definitely meant to write "The Steam Deck." It's probably because the Steam Deck feels like a big step forward for the video game world, building on what Nintendo accomplished in 2017 with the Switch and creating a PC game platform that not only lets me play weird, interesting games on the couch (or in bed), but also brings the open-garden weirdness of your PC to the portable world.
Without the Steam Deck, I don't think I would have spent as much time with Vampire Survivors, 20 Minutes Til Dawn, and Cult of the Lamb this year. They're all games I was mildly interested in, but being able to turn them all into something I played while relaxing and watching TV was a better experience than sitting at my desk for another 3 hours after work—the main reason I haven't spent as much time with most PC games since I started working from home in 2016.
It would have been enough if Valve had built a Steam-only device that let you play almost every game on the platform—but no. Gabe Newell's egalitarian philosophizing (which might have some downsides) won out, and this is now a game you can install other platforms on. You can get Xbox Game Pass on here. You can put the Epic Game Store on here. You can replace the intro loading animation with all 90 minutes of Dreamworks' critically acclaimed 2001 film Shrek.
Just yesterday, I installed Tabletop Simulator on this thing—a game that is not "verified" on Deck—and hacked together a custom set of keybindings without any help from Valve or Beserk Games. Nintendo would never let me do that. Valve's desire for users to experiment with their Decks and what games they run on them is an admirable.
In 2017, the Nintendo Switch felt like a sea-change moment, and so did the Steam Deck's release in 2022. It's not for the same reasons. I don't feel like Valve or any other portable PC device maker will compete with the Switch for years and years to come. But something has shifted, and it's easier now more than ever to play games from anywhere, and that's just neat.