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These three games swung for the fences and changed my 2019

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I played lots of games, but these three had something special

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Disco Elysium - a firefight in the streets of Revachal Image: ZA/UM

2019 offered up a fantastic smorgasbord of gaming, from comfort-food RPGs like The Outer Worlds to the polished, capable looter-shooter The Division 2.

But as I put up my Christmas tree and start looking at 2020’s releases, I’m realizing that not every game is sticking around in my brain. Some experiences, even ones I sunk dozens of hours into, are fading away even before New Year’s Eve.

Others are more like tiny gremlins on the figurative wing of my brain-plane. They’re sticking around, digging their hands into things, forcing me to think about them constantly. But what differentiates that experiences that flit away with those that stick with me?

These three games got weird, and even if I didn’t love the total package, they taught me something about how to tell a story or build a world that will stick with me through 2020 and beyond.

Control: Great moments come from strange places

Control is creepy, sure, but it’s not really a traditional horror game. There are mysteries and monsters about, but Jesse, our hero, is a powerful force unto herself.

I felt equipped to tackle anything in The Oldest House. This isn’t Dead Space, in which I’m a clunky engineer who is just barely surviving. In Control, I’m dashing around, grabbing the bodies of enemies with my psychic power and hurling them at other enemies, then shooting them with my cool shape-shifting gun.

But one set of videos that I could collect sent chills down my spine. The Threshold Kids are an in-universe puppet show that explains some aspects of the supernatural horror of Control’s setting via two little munchkins. It’s awkward. There are a lot of long, unsettling pauses. It draws from the same well as spooky copypastas online, or Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks.

In short, it easily could have gone very, very wrong. It’s much more difficult to make something intentionally “bad” than you might think, and The Threshold Kids could have fallen flat. It served as a potent reminder that taking the risk of going weird can pay off.

Death Stranding: Go big (and then don’t back down)

I could talk about many different parts of Death Stranding, from Norman Reedus taking a relaxing pee to the wonderful cast of characters and their very strange names. At first, I was washed away by the torrent of strange new terms and concepts. (DOOMs, BBs, chiral, timefall ...), but I eventually just started treating the game like a fantasy epic.

When I stopped puzzling over the little details, I realized how much there is to love about the big picture. Death Stranding plays with intriguing post-apocalyptic imagery, like Sam trekking through plains that stretch on forever, marked with both the faint remains of pre-Stranding American infrastructure and new tools built by other players to aid my journey. I’ve never felt so alone, yet somehow still experienced the hope of connection, of invisible players who had been here before and wanted to help others out.

Death Stranding makes for an interesting contrast to The Division 2, which likes to throw out provocative imagery or a chilling premise. What if the Lincoln Memorial were covered in graffiti, and the Washington Memorial stood over a devastated D.C.? What if what was left of society had to band together against impossible odds for a hope of survival? OK, with those stakes established, here’s your gun, soldier: Go shoot 80 million guys and unlock new vests through seasonal challenges.

The beauty of Death Stranding is that it likes to return to its weirdest points and reinforce them. At times, the writing is pretty ham-handed. (Did you know that the game is about humans connecting? Do you get it? Sam can’t touch people, because he has a phobia ... but people keep trying to touch him! Do you get it?)

But Kojima Productions knows what the game is about, and Death Stranding never backtracks or tries to dance around its issues. It’s not a perfect game — far from it — but it never wants to hide behind the idea of “being a game.” While the writing is out there and a lot of plot concepts are pretty wild, Death Stranding fits in with titles like The Last of Us in standing strong in portraying a vision and not wavering to introduce more immediately enjoyable design.

It is what it is, with no apologies, and with seemingly no interest in watering itself down. It knows what it’s doing, and sticks to it without shame, even when maybe that’s maybe not the best idea. These days, though, “frustrating but interesting” can often be a lot more refreshing than “satisfying but rote.”

A man in a golden skull mask prepares to conjure a monster in Kojima Production’s Death Stranding Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Disco Elysium: You don’t need to be mean to be weird

Disco Elysium is a game that revels in the absurd. Very early on, the narrative goes balls-to-the-wall, and even when the plot’s stakes are low, it never backs down from always going all-out in its narrative and dialogue. It rocketed up my personal game of the year list the further I got into it.

As soon as I found a groove with my cop and his internalized beliefs — as well as a dynamic with my infinitely patient partner, Kim Kitsuragi — I relished exploring the city of Revachol and meeting its inhabitants.

Disco Elysium is deeply weird. It reminds me very much of the Fallen London franchise; there are bits and pieces of dialogue that seem like they’d be at home in Sunless Skies and its strange spacefaring fantasy. But Disco Elysium and its world are grounded, and the stakes start out very low: There’s a corpse hanging from a tree around the same time the workers have started protesting. It seems open and shut.

The beauty in Disco Elysium lies with everyone you meet along the way in order to unravel the story behind that dead body. There are characters who start out as a one-note joke, like the hideous child Cuno. Cuno is aggressively shitty, howling insults and slurs at you. I took a swing at him, which wasn’t my proudest hour, but I could not stand this child.

Depending on the choices one makes, it’s possible for Cuno to be an endgame companion, and even go through a redemption arc. It was that moment that made Disco Elysium really click for me. It’s a game that portrays desperately flawed people in rough situations, but it always has empathy for them. It’s entirely possible to be wrong in the world of Disco Elysium — in fact, most people you talk to see the world through their own lens, and I found most of them to be technically incorrect.

A screenshot showing off the Thought Cabinet in Disco Elysium Image: ZA/UM via Polygon

Their points of view came to them in understandable ways, however, even if they meant that they had a hard time seeing the world in helpful ways. I didn’t always like them, and in some cases I could barely tolerate them, but I always got a sense that they became that way for a reason. No one chose to be evil just to be evil, and in many cases even the repugnant folks I met may have been doing their best with a shitty situation.

With a wide cast of characters in a semi-fantasy setting, most of them representing some kind of distinct philosophy, it would be so easy for developer ZA/UM to make these unseemly characters laughable straw men. But, instead, they’re mostly well-rounded people, depicted with empathy and grace.

It’s so easy to be mean, but it’s much harder to create a compelling cast and treat them with dignity, even when their actions make it seem like they may not deserve it.

As Disco Elysium draws to a close, the climax can potentially be devastating — and the impact would be lost if characters like Cuno stayed flat and hateable.

Why these lessons matter

I walked away from these three games with a new perspective on our entire hobby. It’s a reminder that when stories and ideas play it too safe, the narrative may not have much impact. A game can be perfectly cromulent, but there won’t be anything to grab onto if the developer only knows how to paint within the lines. And being strange doesn’t mean having to take someone or something down a peg or two; getting weird is just as much an opportunity for empathy as it can be a way to score some cheap points.

These three games triumphed by going with interesting choices with extreme confidence. In 2020, they will fuel me as I dig for more experiences that stick in my brain past the closing credits. It’s satisfying to see games experimenting and evolving, even if I don’t love every aspect of the final product.

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