What criteria do you use when determining your Game of the Year? Is it the game you played the most? The game with the best story? The game you spent hundreds of hours mastering every nuance of? For me, many factors are at play, including those just mentioned. But the one defining thread between all of them is the sense of lingering impact they gave me in the moment and beyond. In many cases, those games still have an active presence in my mind and heart and aren’t going away.
Mass Effect 2 might have had to share the spotlight with Super Street Fighter IV in 2010 when I used semantics to try and give both the nod in their own way, but I still remember the former fondly as being one of the single greatest adventures I ever embarked on in a game, while the latter was a phenomenal fighter that served as a turning point for my fighting game career. Skyrim was the consensus pick in 2011, but I don’t regret honouring Catherine instead. The latter still holds a special place in my heart for its novel gameplay and a mature story about infidelity; a subject almost never covered in games. Overwatch is a fantastic shooter that has made a resurgence in my life in recent months, but in 2016, Pokemon Go was the easy Game of the Year choice for me based on how much the game shifted my in-game and real life. I don’t write about the game much now, but I still play Pokemon Go every day with a fervour to catch ’em all.
In 2018, there were a number of games that excelled in many different ways. But when I think about this one particular title, it ultimately stood above the pack for the profound impression it left on me. Long after playing it, I still think about the joy I felt in the moment, as well as the message it conveyed through its experience. My Game of the Year in 2018 is…
Celeste proves that old dogs can learn new tricks. Taking on a genre almost as old as the medium of video games itself, the game brings in modern design techniques and an intelligent approach to storytelling to make a game that pulls at your heart strings just as hard and as frequently as you press the jump button.
Its core platforming gameplay is masterful. Leveraging only a handful of finely-tuned mechanics, Celeste finds compelling ways to make use of your tools in every way imaginable. The game really pushed me to my limits, but there are still even more challenges that await me in its bonus stages should I ever feel brave enough to take them on.
What pushes the game ahead of the pack is its beautiful story and how it seamlessly interweaves with the action. Playing as someone on a quest to climb a mountain, the game perfectly echoes your own struggle as you try and conquer the game. Furthermore, the game serves as a metaphor for dealing with depression and anxiety, to the point where her own doubts manifest themselves into the game’s antagonist. And no, this tale is much more nuanced than a battle between good and evil. The feelings and themes this game addresses are more complicated than that, and it approaches them with nuance and care. The way in which the game’s challenge weaves perfectly with the game’s story served as my motivation to power through.
One more extra shoutout to the music. Layering in chiptune-inspired melodies and synthesizers with additional instruments and more complex compositions, the soundtrack perfectly captures each moment. “Resurrections”, the track linked above, is now one of my all-time favourite pieces of video game music. Love the way that it starts with an atmospheric synth melody, then the downbeat kicks in, and the song builds until it hits a frenetic conclusion.
By the time I reached the end of the campaign, it felt like I had achieved more than just beating a game. Not only did I play through a character’s personal journey where she learned to cope with her inner demons, I felt like I went through the very same physical and emotional journey. Not in the, “I’m controlling a video game character from point A to point B” sense. But the “I’m actually tackling a very hard challenge while trying to overcome my own IRL inner demons” sense. The game got me to reflect on my own struggles in life and think about the ways in which I can improve myself as a person. And I did this while beating a game that’s a cut above my taste in difficulty.
Celeste is a masterpiece. It nails everything it attempts to do, from its great 8-bit art style, to its lush music, to its air-tight gameplay, to a moving story that blends perfectly with the action. There are a number of amazing games that came out in 2018, but none of them grabbed me quite like this one did. Congratulations Celeste! You are In Third Person’s Game of the Year!