Video games aren’t perfect. Bugs can break an immersive experience, 13-year-olds can wreck a 20-player kill streak, and one small line of code can disrupt an entire sequence that a developer worked for years to get just right.
Video games aren’t perfect, but moments can be. When done right, moments can provide perfect windows into exactly what a developer was trying to accomplish and turn a good video game into something transcendent. And 2018 was filled with a few perfect moments that pushed the medium forward and showed what the marriage of spectacular gameplay, human narrative, and smart game design can truly accomplish. From God of War to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, here are my favorites of 2018.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t finished the games featured here.
1. God of War: Retrieving the Blades
As will be the case for most of the games on this list, it’s hard to pick just one favorite moment from God of War. As a longtime fan of the series, I was floored by how well Cory Barlog and the rest of his team at Sony Santa Monica could transform Kratos from a one-note, hyperviolent meathead into a caring and regretful father. The story was incredible, the gameplay was some of my favorite of the year, and the camera work was truly something special. But nothing quite brought all those pieces together better than when Kratos had to directly stare down a past he swore he’d never face again.
After Kratos’s son, Atreus, succumbs to the illness that his father unknowingly set upon him, the former Greek god seeks the help of Norse goddess Freya to try and heal his son. Even after an earlier dispute, she agrees to try to save Atreus but needs Kratos’s assistance in tracking down a rare ingredient only found in the land of the dead, Helheim. Before he can set out to retrieve what they need to heal his son, Freya cautions him that no ordinary weapon can melt the icy depths of his destination. Kratos knows that he must (literally) dig up his past: retrieve the Blades of Chaos and reconcile with a life he has always run from in order to save his boy.
Just like Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2, Kratos shows a level of vulnerability and humanity here rarely seen in video games. The camera stays fixed on Kratos as he looks down at his son and then to his arms, where the scars of his old life stain his skin. He doesn’t want to go back. He doesn’t want to face the monster that he was. But he knows that he has no choice if he truly wants to save his boy and move on from the murderous past that he so badly tried to forget. Kratos knows he doesn’t have any other choice, but there’s a true reluctance and fear inside this warrior, who’s not known for either trait. His silence and thoughtfulness in this moment are one of the more powerful pieces of nonverbal storytelling in 2018.
After venturing back home in another amazing set piece, Kratos retrieves the blades and reminds the player what made him such an iconic character in the first place. While the frost ax provided a refreshing take on combat in a tired series, the Blades of Chaos brought a new but familiar feeling back into 2018’s God of War. The blades were equally as powerful as they were different from the ax and allowed for some amazing experimentation when used together. This is the moment God of War’s combat truly opens up and makes for one of the most satisfying video games of the year.
Mixed in with the amazing story beats, this hour or so of my game of the year stands out more than most in a year so rich with beautiful and memorable experiences.
2. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Landing the Finishing Blow
After almost 20 years, Super Smash Bros. is something of a known quantity at this point. It’s one of the best fighting games of all time, and I’ve spent many a drunken evening squaring off against my friends in pursuit of winning our tournaments and being crowned the champ. But I honestly didn’t know how Masahiro Sakurai and his team were going to improve the overall formula. I found out very quickly.
The weekend after launch, I hosted my college friends to the first Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament to see whose skills had transferred over from the days of Melee. As we determined the seeding, my attention turned toward my most hated foe. We’ll call him Colin. Colin and I had battled for years, with him having a slight advantage over me during our duels in Smashes of old.
We were all untested at Ultimate. I knew this was my shot to dethrone him.
Sure enough, we met in the second round of the tournament and the fight was on. As we dueled with Samus and Marth, I could feel a change in the winds. I was countering and guarding better than I ever had before. I knew I had him. And sure enough, on one fatal side-A attack, the camera zoomed, time slowed, and flames erupted as I blasted him off the damn platform. I had won . . . and then proceed to come in third in the tournament (not important, though).
The brilliance of the new Smash Bros. lies in little moments like that. Obviously, stakes were high during the tournament, but every time you land a finishing blow on your opponent, it feels special and has weight. It feels as though you accomplished something at the end of a round more than it ever has before. It’s little perfect moments like those that make this Smash the best of all time and one I haven’t put down since December 7.
3. Spider-Man: The Opening
As we’ve seen in the past, Spider-Man is a hard character to adapt outside of the comics. One has to establish who Peter Parker is along with his web-headed alter ego—which isn’t an easy task, as both are very different beings. Spidey is the person Peter wants to be: confident, focused and heroic. But while outside the suit, Parker feels as though he’s none of those things. The dichotomy of the hero is a hard concept to nail, but that’s why Insomniac’s first attempt at making a Spider-Man game is so impressive and why the opening moment is one of my favorites of the year.
The scene resolves overlooking the streets of Manhattan, a spider hanging in the windowsill. As the camera starts to pan, the player instantly starts to visualize who this Peter Parker is. His tiny, dank New York apartment is covered in photos of his loved ones and sticky notes reminding him to be a normal person along with being the hero the city needs. This is a Peter who is confident in his ability to be Spider-Man but not as much the man behind the mask. No moment is more indicative of this then when the police radio blares and the past-due rent notice slides under his door. Peter needs to make a choice on who he is going to be.
And as “Alive” by Warbly Jets starts to build, Spider-Man flies out the window to save the city he loves from Kingpin in one of the most memorable transitions between cut scene and gameplay that I can remember. At that moment, you’re instantly given the controls and have to swing Spider-Man through the streets of NYC. It’s this marriage of a strong tonal opening and the amazing swinging controls that made me realize that Insomniac was going to knock this one out of the damn park.
There are some who’d argue that the ending of the game is more memorable, but I would argue it wouldn’t be as impactful if Bryan Intihar and his amazing team hadn’t set the tone right away in the game’s opening moments. Because the developers were so confident in their vision of everyone’s favorite web-slinger, they were able to tell one of the best Spider-Man stories in any medium.
4. Red Dead Redemption 2: Arthur’s Meeting with the Nun
Towards the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, the game establishes not whether Arthur Morgan is going to die, but when. After viciously beating a man with tuberculosis to death for some loan money, Arthur contracts the disease himself and starts to see the error of his many years of being the villain. Seeing a character live out the consequences of his actions is one of my favorite choices of 2018 in and of itself, but there’s a specific moment in Arthur’s final days that drives this home better than any other part of Rockstar’s masterpiece.
In my playthrough (players will experience different moments depending on their honor level and side-mission completion), after he and Charles save Captain Monroe from a coup with the US Army, Arthur is greeted by the nun from Saint-Denis at the train station. She can see he’s dying but also senses something different in him. He goes on to lament his life, the loved ones he’s lost, and the evil choices he’s made, though the nun doesn’t quite see his deeds in the same light. “We’ve all lived bad lives, Mr. Morgan,” she says. “We all sin.” She chooses to see the good in him and encourages him to do right by others with the time he has left.
And while we’ve all seen an antihero have a moment of clarity, this is different. Rockstar shows something in its hypermasculine main character that few games dare to: vulnerability. We all make choices we regret, but rarely do we see such emotions while playing a video game. “I guess . . . I’m afraid,” Arthur murmurs to the nun before her train leaves for Mexico. It’s in that one heartbreaking line that Arthur becomes more real than almost any other video-game character before him.
I can only think of a handful of developers that have allowed their lead male characters a moment like this, and almost none of them reach the same emotional heights as Arthur’s anguish and regret. He shows a level of humanity and self-awareness that carries on for the rest of his short days but sticks with the player long after the credits roll. It’s a small but powerful moment that elevates Red Dead Redemption 2 past an average video-game story and firmly establishes it as one of the best narratives the medium has ever produced.
5. Pokémon: Let’s Go!: Feeling Like a Kid Again
The original Pokémon Yellow version is one of my favorite games of all time. It stands as a crucial moment in my gaming career, as it marked the first time I owned my own game cartridge. And while I wasn’t thrilled when Game Freak announced the remake of my beloved classic would be filled with Pokémon Go integration, I was still excited to revisit Kanto nonetheless.
As I begrudgingly relearned the new catching mechanics and started to get my feet under me, my preconceived notions started to fade away. The world Game Freak had reinvented was gorgeous, and I started to see what a Pokémon game on Switch could actually look like. But it wasn’t until I finally caught my first Bulbasaur and released it from its Pokéball that the 10-year-old Alex started to jump for joy.
Being able to interact with a nonpixelated, fully formed Pokémon was everything I had wanted as a kid, and having it follow you around the overworld was an absolute joy and a blast of nostalgia. Imagine a bearded, six-foot-four, 300-pound, 24-year-old laughing like a damn idiot with what looks like an oversized iPhone and you’ve pretty much got it. And while I don’t love every new addition Nintendo put into the remake, I just have to look at whatever Pokémon is following me to realize those small changes are worth it to feel like that kid with his Game Boy again.
This past year delivered some of the greatest cinematic and gameplay experiences video games have ever produced. And while there will always be detracting factors, it’s hard to deny we live in a golden age of video games. Here’s hoping 2019 can continue this glorious trend of pushing the medium forward.