I’m going to put an end to any speculation here at the top: Red Dead Redemption 2 is my game of the year.
It was the best game I played this year. But, more than that, the story of the breakdown of the van der Linde Gang encapsulated the year in games in a way that nothing else did.
This year was slow. We had a few big releases between January and April, and after that I mostly stuck with my backlog until Spider-Man came out in September. Very little that I played this year moved me. Even the games that I’ve selected for my top 10 often left me feeling hollow.
Fans of Far Cry, Darksiders, Tomb Raider and Just Cause all had reason to be disappointed in 2018. After a year in which every returning franchise seemed to deliver an incredible game (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Resident Evil VII, Sonic Mania), 2018 refused to give fans the comeback narratives they were desperate for.
In 2018, things broke down around us. The laws of entropy that Red Dead Redemption 2 illustrates was at work in the world. In some good ways—Republicans’ stranglehold on America weakened, key Trump allies went to prison. But, mostly in bad ways. The Trump administration broke families apart. The United States military tear gassed children. And—closer to home for a video game site like Into The Spine—massive game studios treated their employees in unsustainable, inhumane ways.
Including Rockstar, the company that made my favorite game of the year.
2018 was incredibly good to me. I got married. I quit a job I hated to write about video games full-time. I honeymooned in Italy. I moved to a new town to start an exciting new life.
But, it wasn’t a good year for many people. It was a year that they worked unpaid overtime and didn’t see their families. It was a year that they had their rights stripped away by evil, powerful people. It was a year that children sobbed because they missed their parents and because chemicals burned their eyes and skin.
So, yeah, I enjoyed Red Dead. I enjoyed 2018. But, I won’t pretend it was a good year.
Anyway, here’s my top 10. I tried to keep the blurbs for each pick short. So, for almost every entry, I’ve linked to articles I wrote that give a more complete picture of my thoughts.
Runners Up: Chasm, Into the Breach, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
7. Guacamelee! 2
6. God of War
I played a lot of Metroidvanias in 2018. Dandara is by far the most interesting.
While the platformer subgenre boomed this year—with Dead Cells, Guacamelee! 2, The Messenger, Chasm, Iconoclasts and more giving their take on the 2-D action-adventure—Dandara’s unique approach to movement made it special.
Walking and jumping are gone, replaced instead with a kinetic leap which transports the titular rad, black, pseudo-historical heroine from point-to-point around the game’s sprawling map. This technique takes some getting used to, and the game can be difficult in its early hours as you fumble with the control sticks.
But, once you get the hang of it, zooming around the world that Brazilian developer Long Hat House created is a joy.
Playing Unavowed— the latest adventure game from New York-based studio, Wadjet Eye Games—is a lot like getting locked in an escape room with four diversely talented friends.
The door closes and the Alpha takes over, assigning roles. Your quiet pal who’s good at math gets to work solving the inevitable number puzzles and cracking combination locks. The English major of the group unscrambles the word jumbles. And, the medium in the group begins summoning the spirits of the long deceased. After all, your wacky medium friend is always doing that!
Unavowed takes a similar approach, incorporating the party-based mechanics of a BioWare RPG into the framework of a LucasArts-style point-and-click. The results are impressive. Each chapter features multiple puzzles that can only be solved with certain party members. You can complete each level with any configuration, but the hidden story beats—and multiple endings—give the game the kind of replay value that this genre rarely has.
And, even on the first playthrough the narrative is a doozy; a feverish story of demonic possession. Your character wakes up in the middle of an exorcism after spending the past year on a killing spree. You’re soon invited to join the Unavowed, a group of supernatural police protecting New York from violent threats from beyond our ken. As you progress through the story, you’ll slowly unearth what happened in the year of your possession.
It’s a stellar framing device, and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Even after credits rolled, I couldn’t wait to see it again.
3. Life is Strange 2 Episode 1: “Roads”
Life is Strange 2 is the bold, gutsy, side-taking game we needed in 2018, and the first episode of Dontnod’s narrative-focused series puts other AAA efforts at “political” games to shame. I can’t wait for episode 2 to drop in January.
On the one hand, Insomniac’s Spider-Man is the same open-world game we’ve been playing since GTA 3; on the other hand, that structure has rarely been this fun. In a year when my favorite game refused to offer visceral pleasure at every turn, Spider-Man offered the opposite. It isn’t a narrative masterpiece—though the characters are surprisingly sympathetic and well-written—but it was a perfectly engineered thrill ride.
I haven’t returned to Spider-Man since completing Red Dead Redemption 2, but I suspect the effect of reentering Insomniac’s open world game after 80 hours in the Wild West would feel the way Mia Wallace felt when Vincent Vega stabbed an adrenaline shot through her chestplate and into her heart.
“If you’re feeling all right, then say something.”
It’s often difficult to tell where Red Dead Redemption 2’s brilliance ends and its flaws begin.
The narrative choices that make the game sing—albeit, a slow and mournful dirge—often result in repetitive, slow, frustrating gameplay. If we wondered how the dapper, charismatic Dutch van der Linde of RDR2 became the villainous madman of Red Dead Redemption, we have an answer in this prequel’s mechanics. If, in the apocryphal words of Einstein, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” RDR2 lays a clear path to madness.
Dutch makes promises to the gang every chapter: “One big score,” he says. But when the end of the chapter rolls around, your big score has turned into a big shootout.
This makes Red Dead Redemption 2 a repetitive game to play, especially when compared with the wild variety of activities on offer in Rockstar’s last game Grand Theft Auto V. But… isn’t that kind of the point?
Red Dead Redemption 2 is as multilayered a piece of art as video games have yet produced. Not layered like an onion; layered like a rubber band ball, tightly wound around the beating heart of the gang’s camp.
The pots, pans, piles of straw, percolators and people that come together in the van der Linde Gang’s hideaways are RDR2’s beating heart. Missions begin here, as organic as anything in gaming. Decisions made in the comfort of camp wind out into the wilds of Rockstar’s open world. But, as the game progresses, and that camp falls apart— as old friends fail to return; as Dutch makes increasingly pathetic speeches to an increasingly despondent gang— we start to see that, like a rubber band ball, there was never anything at the center to begin with.