In recent years, it’s become harder and harder for me to make the kinds of in-depth, year-end personal best lists that I once prided myself on. That newfound difficulty is for one reason: I’m not playing as many games. This year, there are so many games I either didn’t play at all or didn’t spend enough time with that may have earned a place on this list if only I’d given them more of a chance. Those games include (but are not limited to) Perfect Tides, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Pentiment, Citizen Sleeper, and Norco. I’m sorry I didn’t make time for you this year. I’m sure some of you, at least, are great.
So I’m keeping this year’s list to a tight five, acknowledging that it might have looked very different if I’d played more games. Please accept it in the spirit in which it’s given, not as an exhaustive evaluation of games in 2022, but as a snapshot of some of the games I spent time with and admired throughout the year.
Honorable Mention: God of War Ragnarök
I dunno, man. I didn’t love it. I’ll certainly remember it, though, in all its frustrating rigidity, and it’s one of the few games I played to completion this year, so it earns a spot on this list, if not a number. God of War Ragnarök is a game in which the main character, ostensibly a god, is frequently unable to leap across tiny gaps to smash the chest or reach the path on the other side because the true gods here, the game designers whose heavy hand you feel at every turn, say he has to do it the intended way. It’s an endlessly limiting game, with Kratos as trapped as Pac-Man in his maze. It’s a game in which characters are constantly wondering and worrying about whether their fates are dictated by prophecy, which is ironic given that the game itself is so trapped by formula and expectation.
Ragnarök seems to want to deepen Kratos as a character, to question all the unbridled rage and quick-time-event sex-minigame misogyny of the original God of War games, but it can’t actually shatter the chains that bind it, because then, what would it be? What would it be if Kratos didn’t have to be an angry killing machine? What if he could actually show more emotional growth and expression than a tiny, late-game bit of tenderness, which only feels significant because we’re so used to seeing him express no tenderness at all? What if he could cast off patriarchy altogether and find a new way forward?
Sadly, we may never know, as the marketplace still seems to set strict limits on just what a “AAA,” prestige release can be. The one thing I really appreciate about Ragnarök is how, in the end, one character is left truly broken by grief, and the game doesn’t try to bring it to a tidy resolution. There’s nothing anyone can say to fix it, to solve it, to make it go away. It felt like a kernel of surprising emotional honesty in a game that is mostly just going through the motions of being what fate dictates it must be.
Honorable Mention: Vampire Survivors
Here’s one that didn’t quite make the list but that I fully appreciated, without qualm or reservation. I’m normally very suspicious of games that seem focused on letting you become a ludicrously powerful figure who can wipe out enemies by the hundreds. Vampire Survivors, however, is just so gleefully unapologetic about it, fully embracing its nature as a video-game-ass video game, that it won me over. There’s a real sense of joy and discovery here as you pursue powerful new weapon fusions which let you harvest your unending legions of Castlevania-inspired foes even more effectively and in even more dazzling ways. On a really good run, the screen can get filled with so much 8-bit weaponry and pixelated carnage that it all starts to look like a psychedelic kaleidoscope of holy vengeance. Now that’s what I call gaming.
Now the true list begins with this, game number five in my ranking. Almost certainly the best video game compilation ever made, this 50th anniversary Atari retrospective offers both a look back at one of the most important and influential forces in early home gaming, and a look at what the future of gaming retrospectives could and should be.
What elevates Atari 50 head and shoulders above your standard collection of older games is its gorgeous, timeline-format presentation. As you make your way through various aspects of Atari’s history—early arcade games, early console games, home computers, and so on—the games and the hardware are contextualized with tons of wonderful new interviews, archival footage, and other material that helps tell the story of just why these games, and the people who made them, are so important. Here’s hoping other developers take a cue from Atari 50 and give their early games the treatment they deserve.
Butterfly Soup 2
Artist and writer Brianna Lei’s follow-up to her 2017 visual novel may be the most deeply human game of the year. The four central characters continue to navigate things like crushing parental expectations, confusing thoughts about gender, and romantic yearning for other girls in scenes that are by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.
It’s not just the subject matter or the great sense of humor that makes Butterfly Soup 2 remarkable, though; it’s that Lei reveals to us the rich and complicated inner lives of her characters—their hopes, their insecurities, their fears—in ways that feel organic, honest, and compassionate. In video games, the explorations of character that get the most attention and praise are often those that accompany big-budget mainstream action. In my opinion, though, there’s more heart and more insight into the human condition in this two-hour game about queer Asian high-school girls than there is in most post-apocalyptic blockbusters or games about violent dads trying to be better.
Return to Monkey Island
I was both excited about and wary of Return to Monkey Island, series creator Ron Gilbert’s return to the helm of the comedic pirate adventure saga. The last entry he oversaw was 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which has one of the all-time great video game endings—one so good, in fact, that for a long time I swore off later games in the series, as they both lacked Gilbert’s guiding hand and flew in the face of 2’s conclusion. Could even he, I wondered, make a game worthy of following up such a boldly uncompromising moment?
But here’s the thing. I’m a teensy bit older now than I was when Monkey Island 2 came out. I’m less wowed by raw artistic boldness and more moved by human frailty, kindness, and honesty. Ron Gilbert is older, too, and you feel a gentle reckoning with that in this game, as Guybrush goes on a kind of existential quest, one of those “what does it all mean” things that calls into question what his whole life as a pirate has really even been about. Return to Monkey Island is suffused with tenderness, above all. Sure, it’s still funny, and Guybrush is as irresistibly likable as ever, but there’s a poignant quality to him and the game itself this time around, an acceptance that things change and that life doesn’t quite play out the way you think it will. There’s beauty in that, too. Return to Monkey Island is just lovely.
When I first played Dark Souls, I felt like something in my brain was being rewired as I discovered all the intricate ways its interlocking, shortcut-filled world turned in on itself. And like many others, I found a kind of therapeutic catharsis in throwing myself against its grueling gauntlet, facing defeat again and again and again until finally, bruised and bloody, I stood victorious. It became a way of facing internal demons of doubt and fear, of enduring the world’s transphobic slings and arrows and remaining unbowed.
Elden Ring couldn’t quite match those glorious heights for me, though I appreciate that its open-world format, which makes its myriad challenges more approachable but no less uncompromising, meant that with this game, many got to experience those thrills for the first time. But even if it didn’t burrow into my very soul (no pun intended) the way Dark Souls did, the Lands Between still captivated me with their faded grandeur and their sense of true mystery—mystery of the sort that reveals, by contrast, just how embarrassingly eager so many game worlds are to force-feed you everything they have to offer.
But alas, there was one world which captivated me even more. Epic’s battle-royale juggernaut continues to have, for my money, the best world in all of games—a world that is constantly changing, constantly evolving and slipping away; a world that, unlike most game worlds, actually exists in time and feels its passage. (It’s because the game is constantly reinventing itself that I have no qualms about including it on a 2022 list.)
Over the course of the game’s seasons and chapters, the world shifts in ways big and small, always in flux where so many worlds feel stagnant. Locations that come to feel as familiar to you as an old hoodie sooner or later fade, and when they’re gone, you can never, ever go back. As the world evolves, so too does the game, which is in a state of constant change—and loss. New gameplay mechanics, too, come and go with the seasons, not because the game is striving for some kind of ultimate, perfect “optimization” of mechanics and balance, but simply because things change.
The ever-evolving island is the perfect setting for this game of wild, radical contingency, a game in which the actions of players ping-pong off of each other in ways so complicated by chance and choice that there’s no room for the bullshit “meritocracy” mindset that poisons so much of gaming culture. Sure, some people are much better at the game than others, but with 99 players running around, their encounters influenced by so many factors, Fortnite is at least as much a big chaos-theory playground as it is a test of skill. Each match is home to a dozen or more stories that unfolded just so and will never, ever happen quite that way again. And as you make your way across the island, you see the evidence of them—a pile of goodies marking a player’s death near a few hastily tossed-up walls; a smoking semi-truck half-submerged in a river; a confrontation happening in the distance with players ping-ponging across the landscape, using this season’s shockwave hammers to fling themselves wildly into the air and then come crashing down on their opponents.
Of course, Fortnite constantly breaks my heart, too. In what I can only assume is an effort by Epic to make it so that all of the game’s human players win, on average, somewhat more than one out of every hundred games, it’s flooded the island with bots, beginning with the start of the game’s second chapter in October of 2019. They may seem like human players of rudimentary skill to those players who weren’t around back in the game’s pre-bot days, but their presence and simplistic behavior saps the game of much of its dynamism. I’d much rather have every confrontation be with a human adversary whose desire to survive and to win I can feel coming through in their actions, even if it means I rarely score a victory royale myself, than frequently encounter these non-human opponents who practically offer themselves up to my crosshairs.
But what can I do? The kind of life, vibrancy, comedy and tragedy that Fortnite offers remains unique in my experience in the gaming landscape, so I’ll keep leaping onto the island, always eager to see what signs of life and change I might stumble upon this time.