Holy shit 2020 happened huh? I remember writing up 2016’s games of the year and going “wow, this couldn’t possibly get any worse.”
Then came a year where playing footsies with World War 3 was a mere footnote and not a defining feature.
In all seriousness, I have nothing but love for developers who worked to ship great games in 2020. Creating great experiences while the world is on fire is its own kind of hellish experience, and I’m thankful for every one of you who worked to make something wonderful that would occupy players while the world took a wild turn.
In between stress-eating around the election and desperately dodging the ‘Rona, I happened to play a number of the games you worked on this year. Here in some particular order, are my favorites.
I give credit to Blackbird Interactive for not just making a fun science fiction game with incredible technology, but for also making a game that’s about work.
In my interview with the developers I wrote up some of my thoughts about reckoning the value of work while tearing spaceships apart, and I really feel this game nailed a particular point in our history that other task-focused games don’t.
There is majesty in tearing great metal behemoths apart, majesty that in one society, would be treated with some kind of sacredness and sense of mourning. In Hardspace: Shipbreaker, it’s a ruthless task of wealth extraction that runs parallel to the struggles of labor history.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker isn’t just fun, it’s genuinely speculative. It makes you think, and it makes you ponder. It’s one of my most treasured games of this year.
The quality that Nintendo puts in all of their games continues to make titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons genuinely great, but I also want to give credit to the folks at Nintendo EPD for evolving and improving the Animal Crossing formula in a way that makes this title stand out.
By both allowing players an unprecedented level of creativity over their islands, and supporting a robust (though not perfect) multiplayer experience, they were able to create social spaces that replaced real events lost by the pandemic. People had weddings in Animal Crossing, they hung out and chatted during meteor showers. I threw a birthday party for my partner in the game!
I eventually hit a wall in the core loop of Animal Crossing, when the login bonuses and event rewards felt somewhat more like work than relaxation, but no matter. I get to look at the ways my friends have evolved their islands since I’ve left, and still enjoy the game’s output.
I had an incredible year of tabletop gaming in 2020, even though I never left my house. Why? Tabletop Simulator. Beserk Games simple physics engine, combined with a robust modding community (and some “look-the-other-way practices from various board game developers), gave me the chance to try out new games and gather with my friends in the way I might normally at a board game cafe or friendly local game store.
The true high water mark for my experience with this game this year was when a handful of friends who don’t even play many PC games jumped through hoops to install this game on their laptops just so they could play their favorite board games with friends.
I joined a gym for the first time in 2020. Then the pandemic happened. Figures.
Thankfully, Ring Fit Adventure was there to help me with my growing love for regular exercise and help me try new workouts I would otherwise have avoided. Nintendo’s not the first developer to try and gameify exercise and personal health, but it is one of the first to create a peripheral that so neatly works with a well-balanced RPG combat system.
I hope Nintendo spends 2021 recognizing that the number of Ring peripherals in players’ homes is an opportunity for other developers to create workout-flavored games, or at least a reason to develop new content for what was unexpectedly one of the best turn-based role-playing games of 2020.
There was a point, early in Ghost of Tsushima, when I was ready to write off the game as another open-world sidequest-laden collectathon, an interesting adventure unlucky enough to be in a genre dominated by triple-A developers. Luckily, it seems like the normal fatigue and exhaustion with open world games seems to be what developer Sucker Punch was interested in addressing.
Though I have qualms with the game’s central narrative about honor and legacy (Sisi Jiang’s got a good piece you should read about that), Feudal Tsushima’s open world is one of the best I’ve played since Breath of the Wild.
Where Breath of the Wild created a specific kind of openness, Tsushima benefits from a specific kind of purpose. Its open world is built on finding beauty in small places, its sidequests are adventures where the game’s hero finds compassion and empathy for the scarred people who support his quest.
Though some amount of resource-gathering and exploitation is at play in all of this, Sucker Punch’s world designers still seem to want players to find time to find peace and wonder with nature. There’s an excellent swordfighting game somewhere in there too, but I truly most enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima when I found myself in yet another wonderful location where all I could do was open photo mode and try to do justice to the beauty around me.
Hades makes its return to my Game of the Year list as the most triumphant Supergiant Games title since Bastion. I originally praised Hades for “some of the best gamefeel of 2018,” now that it’s fully launched, I can now praise it for having some of the most responsive and unfolding narrative in any procedurally-inclined game I’ve ever played.
Supergiant Games’ success isn’t just in creating yet another wonderful cast of characters, it’s for once again chasing an instinct of diving into every possible player choice and trying to pull some thread of narrative out of it. Every run, no matter how quick it ends, feels like an accomplishment because somehow the decisions players make along the way are remarked on and become a point of discussion when they return to the starting area.
Roguelike (or Rogue-lite) games can sometimes struggle with a central question of incentive: why *should* players die over and over again in pursuit of a difficult-to-obtain goal? Hades completed its Early Access journey by both imbibing the quest with human stakes (pursuing a long-lost family member) and narrative heft.
To die in Hades is to learn more about the tale of its characters. What a pleasant way to take the sting off of failure.
In a year where the Marvel Cinematic Juggernaut was forced to take a hiatus, Insomniac Games came swinging to the rescue with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. All of my praise for the original game holds true here (since many of the combat mechanics and environment choices make a direct return), but Insomniac this time took time to answer a great narrative question: who do superheroes matter to, and why do they have such power to resonate?
The creatives at Marvel had already begun to ask that question when they began work on the character in 2011, and his anxieties and growth were at the heart of the film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Insomniac’s take on the character shows how this street-level hero matters to the people in his community and gives players a chance to take part in a grounded conflict wrapped up in how society grinds down poor communities of color, particularly in New York.
The fantasy of Spider-Man (previously a power trip for bullied nerds) matters to a community that spent 2020 under siege from a pandemic, and before that, the power of police brutality. Rewriting the Spider-Man mythos to empower a new kind of American hero matters in a big way, and Insomniac’s done a wonderful job telling their version of a story that rocked the silver screen and comic pages of the last decade.
One of the last lines in the game’s story is a Harlem resident shouting “he’s our Spider-Man,” and goddamn it I just started crying.
I haven’t played an incredible amount of Among Us but it would be foolish to talk about 2020’s top games and not talk about Innersloth’s runaway success. I’m still befuddled on some level by how it’s gotten so big. It’s Werewolf, it’s Mafia, it’s every “find the spy” game I played at summer camp.
And yet that simple premise is enough to fuel an indie game sensation. The sessions I played were some of the most high-stakes, life-or-death feeling arguments that could possibly play out. I begged for my life, I tried to deceive my friends, I wondered if my friends were betraying me. Emotions ran so high in one session we had to have an hour-long therapeutic conversation afterward.
Is it the task structure? The cute art? The pets? I can’t quite pin it down. But it’s here, it’s thriving, and it gives me permission to think about ways to kill my friends.
After a few years of tabletop Star Wars dogfighting, it’s been a thrill to spend the end of 2020 nervously gripping the controls of a Y-Wing on a bombing run, desperately funneling power to shields while my friends run cover for me in Star Wars Squadrons.
The developers at EA Motive deserve extra credit for pushing a passion project that transcends the studio’s near-decade long identity crisis. They had the tech, they had the vision, and they managed to get EA management involved in shipping it out.
There’s so many neat design intricacies in this game that really sell the Star Wars experience, you wish they could carve out more time to make a multiplayer game that’s freed from the demands of a truly mass market product. Ah well. I’m just glad they finally gave us a B-Wing.
Respawn’s Battle Royale game continued to astound in 2020, and I could use this space to discuss their evolving approach to a live sci-fi action game, or their transparency in grappling with the difficulties of crunch and the pandemic.
It’s more productive though to talk about the fact that my personal experience with Apex Legends continues to grow, and it’s the game that finally got me to really stick it with a ranked latter instead of just puttering about in pubs.
In Apex Legends I found space to work through the pain of losing high-stakes games and peace in the flow of winning and losing. I was able to block out a lot of the negative thoughts I picked up when I was younger and focus on a state of flow that comes from the game’s genuine sense of joy for traversal and tense fights.
I’m probably never going to be a top-tier Apex Legends player and that’s fine. But I keep getting better at this game because it affords me opportunities to learn, fail, and try again, and for once I feel comfortable enough to stick a ranking on that process.