At Intelligame, we’ll be approaching our end-of-year game selections a bit differently, talking about the games that were most impactful to us in 2019. These could be games of any kind, not just digital ones, and they didn’t have to be released in 2019. Today, we focus on games chosen by contributors and moderators from the Intelligame community, both past and present.

There’s not a lot of difference between December 31st and January 1st, but the start of a new year gives a chance for pause, for reflection. In the past, I’ve found it hard to focus on games in times of struggle. But, as 2019 reinforced through so many various scandals ranging from the indie space to professional sports, it’s important to pay attention to games. Games are a part of global culture. They’re a part of our lives, ways we spend time with loved ones, decompress, or learn new information about the world. Through games, we hear the stories of others, and we can tell our own.

Today, a number of the great folks that help make Intelligame what it is share their top game choices. Instead of focusing on what makes the game great, they’ve shared what makes those games significant personally (they’re great games, too).

Each person chose one game that meant something to them this year. The range of titles they’ve selected are broad, the stories they’ve shared are strong. I hope that reading their reflections will give you space to think back on your own Impactful Game of the Year.

If you have your own selections for Impactful Game of the Year, comment below, or post them on social media with the hashtag #IGOTY and tag @IntelligameUs. Let’s come together and share some fantastic game experiences to get ready for 2020.

Gautam Srikishan – Intelligame Composer, YouTube
Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital, published by Annapurna Interactive

I’m one of those “creative types,” which means I tend to have a lot more ideas than I have time or skills to actually make them a reality. I spend much of my life as a composer worrying about the next gig, thinking about all the projects I want to do but can’t, and wondering if I’ll ever “make it,” insofar as “making it” is even real. What I’m trying to say is: when I’m mired in self-doubt and anxiety (often) I can miss the forest for the trees. I also turned 30 this year—an arbitrary number, sure—but one that makes the reality of adulthood all the more immediate and intimidating.

That’s why Outer Wilds really spoke to me. Without spoiling much, the game asks us to go out there, into the vast unknown of space, and ask questions. And those questions invariably lead to more questions, even as our understanding of the universe fans out wider and wider. It encourages us not to turn away from our problems, but to sit with and better understand them. To be patient with them. And it also gently nudges us not to forget the sheer joy of the adventure itself. As one fellow traveler in the game puts it, “It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?”

There’s so much going on in this game that is brilliant and beautiful and exactly what I needed in 2019. But above all, it showed me that there is value in seeing what’s out there (even if it’s scary and overwhelming), and in experiencing that journey alongside the people you love. I left this game a better person, and I think you will too.

EmilyMadly – Moderator, Host of Queercade
Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe

I think we can all agree that 2019 was a strange and difficult year. Dangerous idealogues broke one grim record after another and ominous corporate bullshit reached an all-time high. As the world’s alignment seemed to slide that much closer towards Chaotic Evil, I struggled to find joy in my personal achievements. What was a drawing here or an emotional milestone there, when so much remained to be done? I craved comfort, and control. I played a lot of Stardew Valley.

Eric Barone’s farm simulator/dating simulator/baby’s first anti-capitalism simulator allows me the opportunity to indulge in acting out my highest, most unattainable fantasy: making and keeping a regular schedule. My farmer rises every morning at 6, armed with the maximum amount of expendable energy, free from distraction or mental distress. I guide them through their chores one by one, in the order that they need to be done, using my experience from previous farms to set up efficient, self-sustaining systems which make my play satisfying and soothing.

We eat well. We slept well. We maintain friendships, and pursue hobbies, and are a valued member of our chosen community. It’s everything I want from my physical reality, let alone a digital one.

What’s more, Stardew Valley is a game made and maintained with love by a generous creator who listens to constructive criticism. A major update released for free in late November includes, among dozens of other notable additions and fixes, a change to a cutscene which better allows the player to empathize with the bodily autonomy of a character who uses a wheelchair.

I genuinely look forward to a less chaotic, more upwardly-trending 2020, both in my personal life and the world-at-large. But when my soul needs some low-stakes video game self-care, I know I’ll always have the Valley.

Lauren Bullock – Intelligame Moderator
The Arcana by Nix Hydra

Ever stumbled across a game so specifically planted at the intersection of your various interests it feels like it couldn’t possibly be real? Enter Nix Hydra’s The Arcana, a gorgeous fantasy/romance visual novel inspired by tarot cards, magic, and an unsolved mystery that’s plagued the kingdom of Vesuvia for years.

Visual novels/dating sims have a habit of getting me invested in a story and characters that turn out to adhere to archaic gender norms, or even are just plain manipulative or mean. Thankfully, The Arcana is not only queer-friendly, but also the majority of the characters are incredibly kind and attentive (I say “majority” because, well… just look at a picture of the full cast and take a guess). It embeds healthy relationship aspects like consent, open communication, and care in romance games where that still isn’t the norm. 

Tarot has also become a big part of my spiritual practice in the last few years. I deeply appreciate both the reverence the game approaches literal card reading with, and the artistic symbolism that the major arcana have in the story. There is even literally a tarot reading built in to the app, so you can practice what you learn in the game (and a beautiful non-virtual deck you can purchase and read with).

During a year that involved a lot of significant personal changes for me, The Arcana was a small reminder of the importance of taking control of your own destiny and finding the right tools and people to support you along the way. Sometimes that’s the best kind of magic there is.

Martijn Wourterse – Intelligame Moderator
Frostpunk by 11 bit studios

Winter: I simply love it. Sleeping in a warm bed in a cold bedroom. Drinking hot cocoa while hearing the crisp sounds of snow crunching under my feet. Feeling the cold’s creeping numbness enter my fingers… I cannot get enough of it. So it’s surprising that this year my favorite game features winter as an antagonist.

In Frostpunk, you lead the last expedition north as a frigid winter devours the British Empire, a winter colder than ever before. In the far north, where your expedition finds the last coal reserves and the Generator that will power the city, you have to make difficult choices: who gets to eat. Whether to add sawdust to meals, stretching the food supply a few days more. Whether children must go to school, or instead help recover scrap metal.

The developers, 11 bit studios, also made This War of Mine and, like that game, they did not pull punches. Every decision in Frostpunk is uncomfortable and the game is almost unprecedented in how it forced me to truly think about what I did. This amazing sense of dread and stress, mixed with the amazing atmosphere made this game special for me. Months after I played it and had moved on to other games, the creeping cold of Frostpunk stayed with me.

Is the game perfect? No.Once you’ve stabilized the city there is very little to do as your city now takes care of itself. But that’s fine for me, because this game was at its best when it was about surviving the next night: finding the last scrap of coal to keep the hospital warm in a -100°C night, hoping that the city will see the next sunrise. After all, the city must survive.

UnseenAcademical – Contributor, Former Intelligame Moderator
Fallout 76 by Bethesda Softworks

Back before my current career, I tried making games for a living. My biggest project yet was an attempt to give creativity back to players. To let them make content for each other, rather than waiting for a delivery of Things To Do.

It failed. And for many years I’ve lived with the question of how much that was my fault. Could I have made it work? Could I have given my players the joy of shared creativity?

Fallout 76 was made by people who clearly saw the same vision I did. And 2019 was the year it well and truly fell apart. I hoped it could be salvaged. Thousands of people working on it, hundreds of millions of dollars… it couldn’t fail the way mine did, right?

It did. It faced similar problems all through its launch and subsequent updates that my project had. I saw the same complaints: “What are we supposed to be doing? How do we win? What kinds of characters do you want us to build?” It’s comforting, in a way. I know now that the concept itself has problems… at least, to the audience we launched it to (relatively affluent adult Americans).

So much media says, “Creators are creators. Consumers are consumers.” It’s a harmful message. It takes away our ability to work together and sorts people into hierarchies. That division divorces people from their own agency. Some games subvert that to an extent, but I think both Bethesda and I worked on something that fundamentally questioned that division. In my case, I saw it as the best way to give people back a sense of their own power and the strength to change the world for the better.

At least I know now that my individual struggles didn’t cause my game to implode. It wasn’t just up to me. Even with AAA studio resources, the concept of a game where the players are the creators isn’t quite enough yet. I remain hopeful we will see it implemented someday. But it’s no longer just on my shoulders. That’s its own kind of peace.

Mikkel Snyder – Contributor, Former Intelligame Moderator
Sayonara Wild Hearts, by Simogo, published by Annapurna Interactive

Despite an ever enduring love for the Destiny franchise and over 4800 hours of play time between the original and its sequel, when asked which game had the most impact on me in the year of 2019 (a.k.a. the longest, strangest year ever), I found myself wanting to talk about an experience that probably only took a couple hours to complete over a week: Sayonara Wild Hearts.

An arcade-styled rhythm game, when I first saw the trailer, my initial reaction was “Oh, this looks like Persona” and paid no attention until Josh recommended it. I downloaded it on my Switch and instantly became smitten with the pop album video game. The sleek character designs, the incredible set pieces, and absolutely entrancing music was immediately endearing.

As someone who never really could follow a beat, the game was easy to pick up and incredibly difficult to master. Still, I stubbornly completed each section (even when the game offered a chance to skip the part where I died 20+ times because I didn’t understand how the stage was giving cues for me to move). It was a novel experience that was equal parts fantasy visual novel and amazing pop music. More than that, it was a game about persistence.

Ostensibly, one of the game’s many interpretations is reconnecting with yourself after turbulence. And Sayonara Wild Hearts came out a little over a year after a heartfelt confession was not reciprocated, and right as I was dealing with a new crush that would also not work out. But while finishing the game, it conveyed a simple truth: If I was able to feel this strongly about someone, then well… I could feel this way about someone else, too. And I’m thankful for self-contained experiences and the small revelations they hold.

Llama – Intelligame Moderator
Baba Is You by Hempuli

In Baba Is You, you can interact with everything on a level. The objects, the rules of the level itself, how the level plays, even its win conditions.

I shouldn’t be surprised I loved Baba so much. Katamari Damacy, another quirky, wacky, and ridiculously fun game, is a favorite of mine. But in recent years I’ve been more attracted to story-centered games. Tacoma and Oxenfree, for example, are two of my other top games I played this year.

I started Baba right after finishing The Turing Test and The Witness. Both are puzzle games with some story/mystery going on, which is right up my alley. But neither quite hit the spot. The Turing Test’s discussions of AI are delightful, but the puzzles left me wanting. The Witness’ puzzle design is brilliant, but solving the final narrative mysteries let me down. Baba was meant to be a palate cleanser before jumping back into story games.

Instead, I played Baba for weeks. I thought about Baba as I tried to fall asleep, often waking up in the morning swearing I’d figured out something in the night, but it had just slipped out of my grasp. I dreamt about the characters, Baba and Keke, and interacting with “pull” objects correctly the first time.

Baba hit that sweet spot: Puzzles hard enough that I felt smart having solved them, but not so hard that I couldn’t solve them. Solutions weren’t dependent on my physical gaming skills. Every level’s solution seemed within reach, and I felt so good having solved them.

And, maybe most importantly in 2019, a year where all of us are exhausted: There were no hard ethical decisions, justified or contrived, that I needed to make. There was no narrative that called imperialism “unification” (thanks, Fire Emblem: Three Houses). There were no scenes reminding me that I, as not a dude, and not white, was not what the game thought of as default.

Baba was just me spending time in a wonderful world where I held the power to change the rules and could always win.

Share your own Impactful Game of the Year! Comment below, or post on social media with the hashtag #IGOTY and tag @IntelligameUs. Check back tomorrow for Josh’s selections for Impactful Game of the Year.