2019: The Year Familiarity and Originality Both Triumphed

There’s no getting away from the suggestion that 2019 was a “bad year.” And to drive the ludicrousness of that statement home, let me repeat that: a bad year. Sure, you’re not going to please everyone — and naturally there will be those genuinely cynical of folks who desire to find fault and dire straits in just about every facet of life, let alone culture. But let’s try and look at this from as balanced a perspective as we can possibly scrounge together: why would people be led to believe that 2019, this decade’s very own twilight period, wasn’t a “banner year?” Whatever that means. That it was a year that offered some great, just not outstanding releases? Great games = bad year. Could it be that there was no runaway winner of the coveted Game of the Year accolade across the board that we can look back on in later years? That 2019 didn’t have its own equivalent of a Breath of the Wild or a God of War or any other title with a vast, vast majority of voices singing its praises? Were our standards set so ludicrously high thanks to the prior two years — 2017 especially in my mind, being by far the best period of this decade. One that stood out on its first six months alone, but was remembered for more than just that reason. 2018 too, while not delivering the same caliber, felt more like a powerful statement of intent that single-player games are going nowhere.

So what of 2019 then? From the brief glance and careful consideration alike — the recollect of personal experience to the deliberation of our own end of year awards between the HG staff — one of the more prominent themes and recurring trends of this year seems to be the reconciling in what many may deem the familiar. Full, humble disclosure here, my original draft-form title for this was actually going to be: “2019: The Year Familiarity Overtook Originality.” On further reflection, I don’t think this is true; to state that familiarity as a feeling, a reaction can’t, by its own merits, pose some form of original sentiment. That the two are distinguishable from one another. If anything, I’m grateful to a lot of releases this year that remind me of past iterations in their respective series. The reason[s] I grew fond of these particular IPs and/or developers in the first place. But also an important lesson in the nature of sequels or that which comes afterwards — that newer elements or directions, don’t have to dominate or otherwise delete the older staples. That familiarity and originality aren’t mutually exclusive — you can have your cake and eat it.

Follow-up sequels (some long overdue), spiritual successors and in one very particular case, a remake of a beloved 90s follow-up in the truest fashion. Ideas carried over that remind us of the names, the studios, who we’ve come to appreciate in recent times and appreciate more so for their re-invigoration. But even this re-invigoration has been by way of already-established IPs and retreads of a design that has proven itself more than capable and popular with consumers. No matter the millions of copies sold that generates. Capcom’s trinity of big-hitters in the form of Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry 5 and Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, all continuations of some of the company’s most beloved properties. The former most notably, a return to what some would argue is the series’ pinnacle — a envisioning sure, but a return to the familiar nonetheless. Devil May Cry 5 too, some interesting new additions in the form of new move-sets and characters alike, still just as exciting, just as CUH-RAZY, as past iterations.

Even those titles that are technically new IPs manifested more as accumulations of their respective studio’s greatest feats. FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice — a greater emphasis on verticality and movement it may have been, with some stealth thrown in there too — was a constant reminder of the satisfying frustration the team’s way with boss fights continues to bring. The Outer Worlds, “from the original creators of Fallout,” that unknowingly felt like a certain finger almightily raised at Bethesda’s recent treatment of the beloved WRPG series. Astral Chain, made by PlatinumGames — which by this point, all-but-guarantees a good action game — still found ways to add neat little nuance of mechanics in its Bayonetta-meets-NieR: Automata fusion of scale and set-piece alike. And just as Capcom found success in beloved names, old and new[ish] alike, so too Nintendo came so close to rivaling their 2017 output with their own remake, comforted follow-up and rekindling of past glories with Link’s Awakening, Super Mario Maker 2 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

2019 - Fire Emblem Three Houses
Zelda’s Game Boy outing now adorned in a miniature plastic, toy-like aesthetic; Three Houses especially proving that this series hasn’t lost its knack for a morally-grey narrative. Come for the turn-based strategy, stay for the story (all stories in fact), even if the story’s progression and main “beats” try their best to so obviously nod back to former glories pre-3DS revival. If all this sounds like criticism, well it is and it isn’t (bare with me). There’s an immense pleasure in realizing that a long-requested follow-up or hopeful fleshing out of a series’ other strengths hasn’t resulted in disappointment. In much the same way new IPs don’t quite deliver on all fronts, the elation of finding out one’s concerns were unwarranted may not speak directly to the objective qualities of a game, but in the long-run it gives us hope that certain ideas — certain philosophies — still have their place.

With that said, it’s always easy to rely on old ideas and merely imitate the structures of past rather than take influence and pose genuinely new ideas. Rekindling for the past is nostalgic — and nostalgia, when carefully measured, can appease — but of the sequels released in 2019, how can you say with hand on heart, weren’t reliant on their respective series’ past, the characters, the interactions, the references, the ways in which tone and narrative change? Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on familiarity, particularly when the nature of familiarity itself, is set up to surprise us. The AA sector’s stand-out title, A Plague Tale: Innocence, had all the hallmarks of a AAA construct — from gameplay ideas to visual presentation — but at its heart was a fondness for telling a story, for making that investment feel worthwhile.

Further afield, the year’s two most surprising renditions of the Battle Royale trend in Apex Legends and Tetris 99, relied on our memories of the series they used as their aesthetic/narrative backdrop. Some (myself included) may have seemed initially disappointed that a third Titanfall was nowhere to be found, but a Tetris game of all things? The surprise of new IPs and individual name-making haven’t been completely absent of course. Which is where the independent corner of the industry comes into play for 2019. From adventures to puzzle-solving, to RPGs with action at their forefront and shooters that actually get gunplay to feel immensely satisfying. Games whose underlining identity was hard to pin down too. The lesser-known names and studios have more than met expectations, resulting in another year where new IPs and new ways to tackle specific design philosophies found their rightful place — further advocates for the AA corner. At a time when other new IPs from more prominent names, at the very least, stirred up many a divisive (possibly heated) conversation. The broad notion of “new” as we’ve seen doesn’t always guarantee a positive result, but does this then justify the practice of continuing on from an established base, whether that be through creative road-blocks or financial guarantee alike.

One of the reasons why the movie industry gets such a loathsome reputation among consumers is because of its current state of relying so heavily on adaptations and reboots. Even sequels — follow-ups to some beloved 70s/80s/90s IPs — don’t strike as much the same level of intrigue as purely original stories. Discovering stories based on real-life and seeing if film can translate other mediums sufficiently enough, is curious of course, but I will always vouch for what’s new and what’s different over that which reminds me of something else. Music’s near-bottomless well of underground and non-mainstream artists mitigates its own bland regurgitation of radio-friendly offerings and video games are in much the same boat because the palette is so wide and so accessible. But where does that fine balance between starting anew and continuing on (literally or otherwise) lie?

At what point should we be satisfied with our own culture from a creative end? Does the fondness for revival — one example, the Metroidvania sub-genre — come with the risk of shunning genuine evolution of the formula? That if fans want it — it’s popular and marketable alike — that’s all there should be. That to some, that’s good enough. It’s why games like Tetris 99, Sayonara Wild Hearts, A Plague Tale: Innocence and Baba Is You are the ones I champion and wish to see conversation on. Because, in a weird way, they feel as much an elaborating on established ideas as they are genuinely unique games whose delivery and execution leaves a lasting impression.

The Battle Royale was usually a shooter affair; Tetris 99 proves that’s not the case with just as tense a set-up. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a flurried microcosm of many genres whose hybrid of sound and visuals still finds time to stand out. Baba Is You is just absurd at points in its puzzle design. If breaking conventions and proving hard to nail-down aren’t two examples of a unique identity across a twelve month period, then I don’t know what is. Sequels and follow-up games have proven high on my own personal list for 2019 and one of the main reasons admittedly isn’t just an approval for its individual elements, but it’s that investment in these series prior. On coming away satisfied series like Devil May Cry and Trails of Cold Steel continue to shine where and when it matters. And as we’ve seen over the past year with some of video game’s most acclaimed, well-received or generally talked-about titles, the allure and very nature of “the sequel” is no longer just events taking place after the originator. They needn’t even be part of the same series, evoking a seemingly overdue design in form and partial name alike.

Whether it’s taking us to moments before or after in a timeline, remaking the same tale with a different look, or maintaining the formula but with a few added features, 2019 has shown us just how versatile these kinds of releases can be. There were plenty of new IPs and newcomers this year whose place in the industry may hopefully be a permanent fix and they deserve their place. The rise of subscription services and exclusivity on the PC platform of all things has caused games of all sizes — from 4A Games’ Metro Exodus on the Epic Games Store to Apple Arcade highlights Grindstone and Bleak Sword — to get lost amidst the splintering madness. But for those notable few games standing tallest above the hundreds upon hundreds of contenders, 2019 has been a time where the line between familiarity and originality has blurred, and previous definitions on how follow-up entries are modeled no longer apply. In what was the closing year of the decade — a decade may I remind you, of remasters, remakes and ports alongside — 2020 marks the start of a new decade…and the next chapter in how the industry looks back to (hopefully) move forward.