Guest List: Ben Morgan's Top 10 games of 2018, Paired with Mountain Goats Songs
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 writer and game designer Ben Morgan's favorite games of 2018.
This year I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I want to make games more than anything else (and I published my first and second game!). I also learned that it’s OK to enjoy yourself. Even as evil people work hard to make the world a worse place and hasten its demise, you’ve gotta take care of yourself or you’ll just feel even worse. You don’t get anything from being miserable, but it can be so hard to let go of the misery. Once miring yourself in misery becomes a familiar practice, you’ve gotta work hard to bend yourself back towards a healthy state and pave over the old patterns.
In that spirit, I’m not going to try to talk about the implications of enjoying games in 2018. Instead, I’m applying my most powerful and personal take on this list of the best games I played this year. That means that I’ve paired each game with a matching Mountain Goats song and put them in a playlist for everyone to enjoy. I guess I would say I’m back on my bullshit because I am and because I love saying that.
I’ve loved the Mountain Goats for a decade. I’ve seen them in concert around 18 times and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say they’ve saved my life more than once. I’ve been lovingly teased for my fandom by multiple friend groups, but I’ll never stop evangelizing for John Darnielle’s perfectly-phrased lyrics and sharp songwriting. These songs are part of who I am and an endless source of joy and support. As we fight for marginalized groups, for the planet, and against fascists, we must fuel ourselves with any joy that we can find. In these songs and games you’ll see a throughline of people trying to find ways to keep going. If you haven’t yet, I hope you find your own way too.
#10 - Timespinner (song: Source Decay)
As the main character in Timespinner, Lunais, you’re cursed by your bold choice to save your people early in the game. Everyone is safe, but they’ve forgotten you. You exist only in two versions of the past, teasing out the history of two empires that are more complex than they seem at first. After the fun combat, the beautiful score, and the graceful level design, the game asks a fascinating question: What will you build after it’s all over? It lets you see all of the options and I was enamored at how well it seemed to understand how people cope and rebuild after tragedy. It’s no mistake that Lunais spends most of the game with a group of queer soldiers, largely abandoned by their military and eager to start a new family and forge a better world for themselves.
The narrator of “Source Decay” hasn’t gotten to the rebuilding yet. Maybe they never will. They’re still too wrecked by the past. The song finds them passing out in the front lawn and fervently clutching to a memory that we never fully see. The lyrics leave enough space in the events, like lots of classic Mountain Goats tracks, to imagine endless beginning and end points. These days I just hope the narrator found a way to keep going.
#9 - Donut County (song: Alpha Rats Nest)
There’s a lot of weird stuff that goes down in relationships. There’s a messy space where things haven’t quite fallen apart, but both parties want to see how long they can go without addressing it. That’s where Mira and BK are at when Donut County starts. BK is kind of a big shit head, but he’s not willing to come clean. As a sort of extended gameplay metaphor, he controls a hole that eats everyone and everything in town up. It’s simple but it’s a blast. But, the core of the game is BK and Mira’s relationship and how it evolves and mends over the course of things. I found myself surprised at how quickly and casually this game could stir an emotion in me. Friendship: it’s fuckin’ complicated but also chill as hell.
The Alpha Couple, star of “Alpha Rats Nest” and lots of other Mountain Goats songs, are stuck in the messy relationship space permanently. But, this is their final song. It’s a chance to find, if not redemption, then some bits of light that have poked their way through years of boarding up your bullshit in the basement. If this thing is dying, and it’s definitely dying, then it might be fun to dance it to death.
#8 - Minit (song: Heretic Pride)
You’re waking up and you’re already about to die. But, no big deal. You’re actually excited to die. This is the situation that both the narrator of “Heretic Pride” and the hero of Minit find themselves in.
Minit forges a tight loop out of traditional, top-down Zelda gameplay while “Heretic Pride” forges a huge middle finger to all the fuckers out of a dying person’s final anthem. In Minit, you’re always one minute away from death, but this actually makes the game feel more open. A puzzle to solve? Well, it must be possible within a minute. Made a mistake? No big deal, just reset and try it again. You only lost a minute. The puzzles push you to break and explore the game and they always made me feel brilliant and excited.
Death is frankly terrifying, but Minit and “Heretic Pride” laugh in the face of the terrifying void. I like that attitude and I hope I have some of it when my time comes.
#7 - Slay the Spire (song: Never Quite Free)
When I’m on a good run in Slay the Spire, using my deck to stack nasty double digits of poison damage or slash whole groups of enemies to death at once, I feel gloriously alive. Nothing can stop my ascent. But the memory of my last failed encounter with a boss, the brutal smackdown, still lives in the back of my mind. Even at my best, I’m always just a few mistakes from death. Slay the Spire plays this tension out mechanically, in a deck-building rogue-lite similar to drafting in Magic the Gathering. You build your deck slowly and try to learn enough to break the game. The game breaks right back at you. The experience feels precarious, but the underlying systems are strong enough to keep you running along the crumbling road.
“Never Quite Free” plays this same tension out in a song built solid enough to get lodged in your bones. It’s grappling with the reality that trauma echoes through the rest of your life. It’s possible to find peace, yes, but it’s not always possible to forget. What do we do with this fact? The memories are a little itch on a good day and a heavy weight on a bad day. But, there is beauty in acknowledgment and in trying to keep moving forward towards our own peace.
#6 - Dead Cells (song: If You See Light)
Oh look, it’s another rogue-lite! This is true, but it’s also a disservice to how well Dead Cells pulls off it’s loops of Metroidvania combat and exploration. Nothing this year felt as simply satisfying as rolling through a door in Dead Cells and blasting everything to hell. It’s a game that forces you to learn by heartbreaking failure, but never loses momentum. I can’t count the number times I died on my “last run of the night” only to instinctually start dashing through the first level again after respawning. It just feels that natural. Dead Cells is always pushing you to learn new weapon combinations or to risk a nasty fight or a run-ending curse for a big reward. It’s a strong, intoxicating brew.
I never “got good” enough beat Dead Cells, so I don’t know how its story of a kingdom seemingly wrecked by evil experiments wraps up. Let’s have some fun and let “If You See Light” fill in the gaps. Let’s imagine someone holed up in one of the many levels of Dead Cells, as the monsters that they took part in welcoming in begin to rage and consume. They’re “waiting for the front door to splinter” and for the consequences to come pouring in. The waiting is always the worst part. When will someone bust through the door and get it over with?
#5 - CrossCode (song: Animal Mask)
I had given up hope on 16-bit RPG revivals until CrossCode entered my life. It neatly combines modern RPG design with a smoother version of Secret of Mana’s combat system and top-down, Zelda-style dungeons filled with perfectly tuned puzzles. It’s everything good about action RPG design in the 90s stuffed into a fake MMORPG. It’s often more polished than the games that inspired it.
In CrossCode, you’ve lost your identity and you’re trying to make new friends to get by. It’s a trope for sure, but it works. In “Animal Mask”, the narrator is a wrestler who finds a human connection, perhaps even love, but only knows the person’s identity in the ring. Even when stuck with no memory in a futuristic MMORPG, or in an “eighteeen-man steel cage match free-for-all”, we need connections to help us understand ourselves. Just as CrossCode is in conversation with so many old games mechanically, we often create our own identity through conversations with and memories of people from our past.
#4 - Hollow Knight (song: Hebrews 11:40)
I devoured Hollow Knight like a hungry cyclone. I couldn’t get enough of the detailed world that begged me to explore every inch. Each new area felt like a treasure to scrutinize and memorize. In an era of games where AAA developers would never withhold anything from you, Hollow Knight invests in and improves on Super Metroid’s legendary restraint. It understands just how much information and freedom to give at a time. It allows you to get lost while always leaving enough objectives as breadcrumbs. None of the characters you meet feel, no matter their adorable speech sound effects, entirely trustworthy. As the game goes on, it’s often unclear if you’re the hero or the villain. You’re just another bug fighting to survive.
In “Hebrews 11:40”, from an album that uses bible verses to meditate on mortality and loss, the narrator is similarly determined to get back to an ill-defined past. They’ll even “invent their own family” if they must. It’s the pursuit of the idea of something greater that fuels them, rather than any specifics. They seek restoration “if not by faith then by the sword”. It’s a false reluctance. This path always leads to violence, and it’s not so much a path as a loop.
#3 - Wandersong (song: Papagallo)
If you’re online everyday, especially on Twitter dot com, it’s now normal to feel like the apocalypse is always right around the corner. The protagonist of Wandersong is dealing with the same thing, but they’ve got a pretty good reason. A rainbow-haired spirit told them it was happening. Wandersong is a beautiful game about keeping it together and forming communities and friendships in the face of the destruction of the world. You can also sing or dance at any time, even while other characters are talking, which is my favorite mechanic of the year. The way the game constantly presents fun, interesting ways to rethink its core mechanics is delightful. Add in brilliant, charming writing and thoughtful queer and trans representation, and you’ve got a fantasy game that feels contemporary in the best way.
The ending moments of Wandersong harmonize so well with “Papagallo” that it’s actually what gave me the whole idea for this piece. The narrator in this song is in awe of the otherworldly voice and presence of their friend or lover. The moments in which we spark and resonate with one another on this Earth are the moments that make everything worth saving. It’s OK to be in awe of the joy and beauty we can give to each other and it’s right to fight for everyone to feel safe in their love and friendship.
#2 - Return of the Obra Dinn (song: Dance Music)
Return of the Obra Dinn is the best detective simulator I’ve ever played. It’s just open enough to feel like a real mystery, but it provides enough tools and methods of deduction that you can take your own path to the solutions. In short, you’re an insurance adjuster who has to figure out who everyone on this boat is and how they died. You have a compass that can walks you through frozen cutscenes of everyone’s final moments.
Chasing the sound of getting another set of three correct identities is the most addicting feeling I’ve had while playing games all year. Not just that sound, but the whole game’s sound design and voice acting, is some of the most strikingly well-executed work I’ve heard. The old PC monitor art design is confident and stridently ignores current trends in indie or AAA games. Everything about this game expertly focused me and sucked me into the adventure. I became the boat detective.
The way that people’s deaths in Obra Dinn involve other people’s lives, tangled in such a way that you can discover the fate of everyone aboard, speaks to how choices and violence echo. “Dance Music” is swimming in the same waters, but has waded out much deeper. The narrator uses the framing device of listening to dance music to dredge up and examine trauma from their youth in a way that feels both mournful and celebratory. The ways we learn to cope can feel vulgar and garish, dancing on our deadliest memories, but there is not just one way to salvation.
#1 - Celeste (song: Spent Gladiator 2)
“Just stay alive. Stay forever alive.” These are the lyrics that close out “Spent Gladiator 2”. A blast of a song from someone that has been through the shit. It’s begging you not to give up. If you can stay alive, that’s still something and you’re still valid. You deserve to exist. Sometimes things have gotten so bad that survival is all you can focus on.
Madeline, the main character of Celeste, is at this survival point. She’s brought herself to a mountain that could kill her and it seems like she’d be alright with that. Instead, her journey helps her survive and revive herself. She forges a new relationship, both with people on the mountain and herself. The game’s greatest feat is tying this beautiful story to the gameplay. Celeste often demands perfect, grueling platforming. But, you only have to clear one screen at a time. It’s quick reset time urges you to try again and improve. As you climb, Lena Raine’s incredible, old-school synth soundtrack supports you as well. Keep pushing – just keep trying to clear each screen – and you’ll eventually make it. It takes a while before you see the top of the mountain, but I can promise you that you will see it and that staying alive is worth it.