It’s awards season in the world of video games. As 2018 draws to a close, we take a moment to look back at the games we loved most. Between the increasingly venerable Game Awards (and the not-so-venerable Gamers’ Choice Awards) we’ve already started to get a sense of what critics — Variety’s included — have been thinking about this year. Other major awards include the Golden Joystick Awards, the British Academy Games Awards, the SXSW Gaming Awards, Game Developer Choice Awards and, of course, the D.I.C.E. Awards, voted on by members of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.
Somehow, video games got bigger in 2018. It was a year of open worlds that taxed the limits of what is possible (or at least reasonable) for game-makers to create. We saw more than our fair share of open worlds that promised hundreds of hours of exploration in worlds defined by detailed spaces, and characters who felt more like people than personas. Games became living creations that didn’t simply deliver an experience and end but went on to evolve and become something new, or something great.
It should come as no surprise, though, as it takes more and more to make players turn their heads. For all the great games that came out this year, it also seems like we held onto to old games for longer than ever before. I’ve been telling people to play one of the best games of 2018, “Dead Cells,” since it entered Early Access in June, 2017. Many indies and cult classics — from “Hollow Knight” to “Katamari Damacy” — found new fans thanks to the revitalizing power of the Nintendo Switch. And, of course, “Fortnite”’s mainstream adoption and streaming appeal made it a year-long cultural touchstone.
Trends aside, Variety’s favorite games of 2018, which was selected based on recommendations from many of its staff and freelance gaming reporters, shows that the best games not only fill the hours, but feel like time well-spent. They tell big stories, make us feel intensely, and generally cause us to lose ourselves in play. Not all of them are gigantic, or have the potential to be your “forever game,” but all of them are astounding in their way. If there’s a single thread that runs through the best games of 2018, it’s that they have a strong perspective: They have something to give or show you, and they know how to do it.
1. “God of War”
Most open-world games must trade away tight controls and highly detailed narrative in exchange for their size and the level of freedom they afford. Sony Santa Monica’s “God of War” reboot/sequel does not make any such compromise. Every inch of Kratos’ new Viking world helps shape a captivating, cinematic story about fathers and sons, grief, and consequences. Though it is a story of gods and the fate of the world, it is rooted in small moments: Conversations between Kratos and his son as they travel the world and learn about each other. Meanwhile, it also redefines the beat-em-up series’ combat with tighter, more deliberate brawling that makes every encounter a thrill.
Rekindling the dormant and outdated God of War franchise would have been challenging enough, but Sony Santa Monica has set new high bars for cinematic storytelling and AAA open-world gameplay.
2. “Dead Cells”
There’s something about playing “Dead Cells” that just feels right. The indie debut from developer Motion Twin blends concepts from highly imitated games like “Dark Souls,” “Rogue Legacy” and “Metroid” to create a challenging 2D “Rogue-Lite” you can replay over and over for hundreds of hours and love every second. Each run varies thanks to procedurally generated levels, but Dead Cells stays fresh because each of the dozens of weapons you may or may not find on a given run pushes you to play in a different way, and swapping them to carry the perfect arsenal leads to new, exciting scenarios no matter how times you run the gauntlet.
3. “Red Dead Redemption 2”
As many critics have said in the last few months, the world of “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a monumental achievement. Its ability to draw players in with beautifully written dialogue, dynamic controls, and an incredible sense of place feels limitless. Even in a world full of wide open plains and quiet places, the wild west feels dense and teeming with life. Whether it’s a casual conversation with your gang-mates at camp or a casual exchange with a stranger on the open road, “Red Dead 2” shows us that we have not yet found the limits of a video game’s capacity for immersion.
4 “Marvel’s Spider-Man”
Like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” Insomniac Games’ “Marvel’s Spider-Man” finds a way to bring players close and drink in its world deeply. “Spider-Man”’s true achievement is slightly more specific, though. In gracefully channeling the experience of what it might feel like to swing around New York and stop crime as one of the world’s favorite comic-book heroes, “Spider-Man” offers unprecedented access to a fantasy many comic fans and pop culture junkies have held onto for a long, long time. That it tells a story that rivals any of the wall crawler’s movies or past games feels like icing on the cake.
5. “Hitman 2”
In refining the gloriously map-cap murder simulator that was IO Interactive’s 2016 “Hitman” reboot, “Hitman 2” embraces its zany, Rube Goldberg-esque capacity to set up the most creative, ridiculous assassinations the world has ever known. On the one hand, its large, multi-tiered levels feel more expansive and varied than ever, allowing you to find all kinds of new and surprising ways to take out your targets. On the other, its “story missions” system does an even better job at helping you find eccentric and entertaining paths to do your murder work, often while showcasing the game’s wonderfully dry, deadpan sense of humor. It doesn’t matter whether things go perfectly or completely fall apart, there’s tremendous fun, and even beauty, in putting all the pieces together, then watching how the world reacts.
6. “Life is Strange 2: Episode 1”
Based on its first episode, “Life is Strange 2” shows the same nuanced appreciation for the inner lives of children as they’re forced to grapple with the realities of the adult world. The sequel, which follows 16-year-old Sean Diaz and his little brother Daniel, is one of the few high-profile games this year to directly wrestle with real-world social issues like racism and the prominent xenophobia behind Trump-era politics. Amid a slew of games that make you feel powerful to help you escape the world at large, “Life is Strange 2” deserves credit for helping us connect to meaningful characters who have issues to which we can relate.
7. “Tetris Effect”
What could possibly impress us about “Tetris” in 2018? “Tetris Effect,” a collaboration between developer Resonair and “Lumines” creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, embraces the classic game’s seemingly magical capacity to command our attention with colorful clusters of quickly falling tetrominoes. Mizuguchi and company apply the trippy aesthetics of his past games, “Lumines” and “Rez,” to the Tetris playfield, toying with the sights and sounds of the game in ways you simply will not expect. You might think these changes would be distracting. On the contrary, when your mind is so intensely focused on clearing rows of blocks, the beautiful revolving scenery surprises, delights, and clears your mind in an almost therapeutic way.
“Celeste” is a video game about learning how to work stuff out on your own terms. In its narrative, players control anxious mountaineer Madeline, who must confront a literal manifestation of her emotional dark side, as she climbs to her goal, the summit of Mt. Celeste. In its gameplay, “Celeste” is a tricky puzzle-platformer in the vein of “Super Meat Boy,” but offers players many tools to scale the difficulty up or down to make as tame or impossible as you can handle. Threaded together with beautiful sprites and one of the best soundtracks of the year, the synchronicity between what Celeste shares with you and asks of you leads to an unforgettable experience.
9. “Into The Breach”
Can you be perfect? More often than not, the answer is no, but “Into the Breach” will make you want to believe it’s possible. The decidedly retro-looking turn-based strategy game from “FTL” developer Subset Games puts you in command of a trio of mech pilots sent to hold off waves of giant monsters, “Pacific Rim” style. The odds are always stacked against you, so every action on every turn is of the utmost importance. Often it takes everything you have just to keep your enemies from destroying a city. More often, you won’t even be able to do that. Stripping away many of the RPG mechanics we’ve come to associate with “tactics” games, “Into the Breach” will leave you staring at the screen, scratching your head, and swearing there has to be a way to solve all your problems every single turn. Its chess-like scenarios demand more than mastery, but true cleverness.
10. “Donut County”
It’s impossible for “Donut County,” an interactive short story from developer Ben Esposito, not to put a smile on your face. Channeling the irreverent spirit and strangely satisfying hoarding mechanics of PS2-era cult classic “Katamari Damacy,” you control a mysterious moving hole in the ground that slowly swallows all the people, places, and things it can find. Your campaign coincides with a sharply written and heart-warming story that pushed me to finish it in a single session. Every little detail of this game is made to make you laugh, or at least chuckle in respect for its wit and charm.
Honorable Mention: “Gris”
A dark horse that very nearly managed to make our top ten even though it launched just last week, we wanted to give an extra shout-out to “Gris,” which may very well be the most visually striking game of 2018. Its delicate blend of hand-drawn and watercolor style art serves as the driving force behind a compelling minimalist puzzle-platformer. Every moment of “Gris” looks beautiful. Sometimes, that’s enough to make to your heart skip a beat.