Guest List: Dan Phipps's Top 10 Games of 2018

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We invited some creative friends of ours to submit their own top 10 lists for our Game of the Year feature. Today, we're thrilled to share tabletop RPG designer Dan Phipps’s favorite games of 2018.

Dan Phipps is a Space Records Guy in Los Angeles. He designed Nine Lives to Valhalla in an attempt to take the most chill, pastoral tabletop RPG and make it about death metal viking cats. He’s let his portfolio page go to seed so you can give him a hard time for his bad opinions on Twitter at @itsdanphipps.

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So 2018 was pretty bad, huh? Rough stuff from toe to tip, with most of the good news coming in serving as indications that next year we might get to start the slow, grueling process of digging ourselves out of this pit. Maybe!

If you’re anything like me you’re looking mournfully over the past 12 months wondering where the time went, listing false starts, why you didn’t finish that big creative project, how so little was achieved. I have high hopes for 2019, but that’s what next year’s list is about. This is a list of games on a spectrum from games that helped me escape reality to games that helped me understand what is going on.

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10) Octopath Traveler

Octopath Traveler is a well crafted video game, nothing less and unfortunately nothing more. It’s an old-school RPG infused with modern sensibilities. The score is sweeping and orchestral. The early 90’s sprite aesthetic is elevated by clever use of 3D artistic direction. The combat is turn-based but employs a tactical overlay of finding weaknesses and saving your biggest blow for just the right moment. And it does, technically, have a story! Following 8 unrelated heroes whose stories have nothing to do with each other and who only acknowledge one another once every few hours of gameplay.

Without a central thread to tie it together, the game feels siloed and devoid of meaningful context. Octopath Traveler is a lavish array of well made appetizers that refuses to get to the main course. It is both fine craftsmanship and it’s also just fine. The second you stop admiring the individual components, there’s no greater whole to keep you playing.

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9) Switch Ports and Remakes

Pokémon Red and Blue were excellent games, and Diablo 3 has been polished to a mirror shine since Blizzard realized the story was very bad and let us skip it. The Banner Saga and Dark Souls are both strong visions in a genre often content to stay in the safe waters of Tolkien's elves and dwarves. Hyper Light Drifter is much much more that merely vaporwave Zelda. Bastion and Transistor, Gone Home, Towerfall, Nidhogg II… Each of these games deserves to get a fresh audience. Except Darkest Dungeon, which really needs another go-round on that UI. That was a heartbreaker.

This was a hard list to write this year because I spent a lot of my time revisiting games I knew I’d enjoy. Breath of the Wild and Blades in the Dark both saw heavy rotation this year and I’ve been revisiting Overwatch every so often with a deep commitment to bringing my team down with me. Sorry, everyone. I’m hoping that 2019 I have more bandwidth for new and exciting experiences. I spent a lot of 2018 in safe waters. There’s a chance that some genius at Nintendo read that newspaper article about how the economy is killing millennials and said you know what, let’s at least give ‘em a chance to hang out with Pikachu. And honestly, thank God.

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8) Minit

You know what’s great? Laser-like focus on a strong premise. Minit is a game where you explore an island bearing a cursed sword that kills you every 60 seconds. You explore, maybe you find a faster way to get a little further or solve a puzzle, and you die and wake up back in your bed. It’s like the opposite of Groundhog Day. It’s a great, funny little puzzle that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The story you uncover is smart and tight and wraps at a satisfying conclusion. I feel like video games are sometimes over-engineered, weighed down with features hung from every hook to justify their existence. Minit knows what it’s about, does it well, and then offers you a hard mode if you’d like.

7) Scum and Villainy (Evil Hat Games)

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So right now my favorite tabletop RPG is Blades in the Dark. It was my Game of the Year last year for its multifaceted play, balance of player and GM power dynamics, its smart choices about where to put the complexity budget, and resistance to over-preparation. Scum and Villainy is Blades in the Dark but it’s Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off. It introduces fun stuff to do with your ship, force-like powers, a more forgiving system of getting healed up, and lots of other small tweaks so you can get into some pulpy science-fantasy shenanigans. I spent a lot of time running the officially licensed Fantasy Flight Games Edge of the Empire. This does everything that game does but better and cheaper and with normal dice. Easy to GM, easy to pick up, lots of meat on the system, would absolutely recommend. Probably gonna try and run this more after the holidays.

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6) Return of the Obra Dinn

This is the part of the list where everything sort of becomes tied for 3rd! Return of the Obra Dinn is worth buying for the art direction alone. It is a series of beautiful and grisly tableaus with an engaging mystery and a clear sense of tone and voice. I could spend hours looking into each scene and not take away all the clues to the fate of the doomed voyage of the Obra Dinn. That’s really the only reason this game doesn’t rate higher on this list: I am not very good at puzzles sometimes! If you’re ready to make a whole conspiracy board of which sailors own pipes and who speaks what languages then you should absolutely buy this game. I mostly got overwhelmed? Even if you are a dummy like me it’s worth the price of admission just to walk around the scenes of various untimely ends at sea, listen to the creaking of the old boards, and get yelled at by the impatient guy who rowed you out to the boat and doesn’t want to bring up your luggage.

5) God of War

So most video games priced at 60 bucks have to justify it by filling their game with bad side quests so you can’t go complain that it was over too soon. And God of War is chock a block with dumb distractions where you go and beat up some ghosts or whatever for another ghost. ALSO, there are a lot of games about dads trying to be dads in between scenes of crazy violence. Someday somebody's gonna make a game about a murder mom and it is gonna blow people’s hair back. Until then, we have God of War which is about a dad trying to dad but also kill ghosts for other ghosts, but does it really well? It’s not a new story, but it is delivered so well that I didn’t care. I was happy to tool around just to listen to Kratos try and relate to Atreus. Also, it doesn’t spend the entire game being a huge bummer all the time about everything. Nobody is pretending that it isn’t a fun time to smash a dark elf or whatever. If Octopath Traveler was a brilliantly executed non-story, God of War is a brilliant execution to a story you’ve probably heard a few times before. Leave the difficulty on normal (or bump it down to easy) and go on a road trip with your dumb kid to meet weird dwarves and giants and learn something about what it means to be a man.

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4) Cultist Simulator

So, time eats your money because you have to buy food and pay rent and all that. So, you have to work to make sure you have money so that time can eat your money. And that uses up your health or your intellect or your passion, and you have to be careful not to get injured doing menial labor or else you’ll spend even more money. And you can keep at this for a while, get an office job, chase that paper, but while you’re moving cards around keeping yourself alive there’s a weird card that contains a horrible mystery best left alone. And studying that weird card, opening yourself to the dreaming, opens up a whole new world of terrible choices as you pull at the strings of the sweater of the world. Meet like minded people, get investigated by cops, go to book shops with weird titles, learn terrible secrets. Dread drags you down, fascination pulls you out of sanity’s orbit. And time eats your money, and you forgot to go to work because you were writing a treatise on the secret of locks for a strange benefactor. Once upon a time getting sick was a huge shock, a disgusting green card sitting the middle of a small pack but now there's so much happening! So many secrets and so much mystique and you’re trying to pull together an expedition to an abandoned mental hospital during the strange hours where the streets are strange that your failing body becomes a distant issue. And it builds and it builds and you can’t keep track of everything and time eats your money and your art career is doing well but the depression is getting out of hand and time eats your money and your friend got arrested when you tried to murder the cop investigating you so now you have a court date and where did this corpse even COME FROM and time eats your money and the cards pile up and you dream of a manse without walls and the intersection of the lantern and the moth and you just lost your job again because you’ve lost all your reason in a ceremony gone wrong and time eats your money and time eats your money and the radiance is too much and while you weren’t looking they’ve arrested you because of all the murders.

I found Cultist Simulator extremely relatable to this modern, fast-paced world of ours.

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3) Donut County

Look, sometimes you are a jerk. And you participate in actions that are bigger than you, so it isn’t really YOUR FAULT that things broke bad because, like, how come you’re left holding the bag? And yeah you should stop stealing your coworker’s lunch, and you should recycle more, and you should stop buying these from Amazon, and your car is killing the world. But EVERYONE does those things so how come WE have to feel bad, right? Being a good person Sucks Bad and being the same kind of jerk as everyone else Rules Hard and is way easy. And getting called out on your bullshit, and confronting the harm you have contributed to, ugh, WHATEVER. Donut County is about how it's hard to be a better person. It’s funny and charming and really well written. It’s also a very good depiction of Los Angeles which made me real happy. Play Donut County and try to be good!

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2) Into the Breach

The Trolley Problem, the extremely meme-able thought experiment introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967 and center of an extremely good episode of The Good Place, is good. But you know what’s great? An 8-by-8 grid of intersecting trolley problems where giant insects are about to do horrible things and your giant robots almost certainly can’t address them all. You can burn your brain to a cinder trying to find a solution that will save everyone, protect your pilots, and fulfill your corporate-assigned objectives. And sometimes you can do all those things AND kill some bugs! And sometimes you can’t. And hundreds of people will die, or your best pilot will be crushed, or your funding will get cut. So what matters to you? Is one pilot more important than a building full of civilians? Will the loss of that pilot cost you the campaign, and all the billions of people in the world? Will you be able to handle later problems without that sick new missile launcher you’ll be able to afford by protecting, of all things, an old earth bar of architectural significance? Into the Breach takes place in a endless array of doomed timelines where you will do your best to save as much as you can. The world is a surprisingly fragile place, and we all have our limits on what we can accomplish. But do your best without spreading yourself too thin, and try to forgive yourself for what slips through and maybe we’ll be ok.

1) Celeste

Celeste stood out to me this year for its ability to perfectly translate the experience of play to the story it is telling. Madeline is trying to climb a mountain and you are trying to beat a video game. Madeline has other stuff going on in her life and you probably do too. It’s easy to get sucked in, sensing that your frustration and satisfaction is shared by your protagonist. Celeste establishes this connection quickly and uses it to tell a story about someone grappling with the things about themselves they don’t like. Someone unable to help themself from making things harder than they need to be. Someone who gets frustrated when they encounter people who have an easier time of it, and finds it hard to relate to people until they’ve seen them struggle. Someone probably a lot like you when you aren’t at your best.

This shouldn’t work, but Celeste doesn’t miss a stitch. The controls are too precise to blame for when you fall. The music and art enforce and accelerate the tones established by the intermittent but thoughtful dialogue. It is both confident in its intended difficulty and experience while happy to let you make changes for accessibility or ease of play. Celeste is a game where you and Madeline are spending a lot of time alone with yourself, trying to do something really hard for its own sake, knowing that there is no one at the top of that mountain waiting for you. And man, it feels like this year had a lot of mountains. Celeste is my favorite game of this year because it was honest, and kind, and had something worthwhile to say about how we go about squaring up to problems both huge and private. That’s something you don’t see often enough.