The eternally burning tire fire that is 2020 hasn’t exactly been a laugh riot. And yet, as I reflect on what have been some of the most gruelling times I can remember, it’s interesting how much video games have played a part in getting me through. As pure colorful distraction, or even daily pursuits completed with my son. There have been weeks where I’ve walked about my house, my Switch clutched in my hand like a toddler with a teddy bear. I’ve not played on it, I just needed to have it be there. Thank you video games for existing. These were my top 10 in the 21st century’s Official Worst Year.
When I read comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis’ first Miles Morales book, I immediately felt this deep sense of connection to the character. About which I felt an odd combination of guilt and confusion. I’m a middle-aged fat white English bloke. My similarities with a biracial teenager from New York City are somewhat limited. But we do have one thing in common: we both wanted to be Spider-Man.
I spent a good proportion of my childhood convinced I could will this into being. I would climb the door frames of my house, initiate infinite varieties of Spider-Man-based games on the school playground, and would regularly climb out of the second-story window of my bedroom and dangle outward to test my spidery skills. (It is a wonder I am alive to type this.) Unlike me, Miles had it come true, and unlike almost every superhero ever (with the glorious exception of Ms. Marvel), is completely overjoyed about it!
So while I was a little disappointed the actual moment-to-moment playing of Insomniac’s sequel varied so little from the first, I was very happy to be able to watch as Morales enthused about his circumstances. Then further delighted when the story went on to be so poignant, so involving, and most importantly as a middle-aged fat white bloke for whom gaming so endlessly caters, so not my experience. It was an honor to play.
I realize putting some obscure Metroidvania like this on a GOTY list is the gaming equivalent of putting a 13th century Swedish novel on a best books round-up, but I mean it. And I know it might seem obnoxious that I’ve not included Hades, Ori, or so many others, but I’ve honestly not had time to play them. (Look, I’ve reviewed about 120 games this year, give me a break!) But I loved Outbuddies DX on PC, and then I loved it all over again on Switch. I loved it most of all for being the 2D Metroid game Nintendo didn’t let us have for the 435th year running. It’s very deserving of a spot in my top 10. Importantly, this huge game made by a single person is not just an extremely successful Metroid clone, but it’s one that innovates on the formula so successfully that Nintendo would do well to look at some of its original ideas to incorporate them back. If they ever let anyone make another one. Which they seemingly won’t, the bastards.
I can take or leave Assassin’s Creed games. I’ve been drawn into a couple, and had a good time, but they don’t hold me. But midway through Immortals as I am, I’m completely sucked in. I can’t entirely justify why. I’m pretty sure it’s not as good as an Assassin’s Creed game, the PS5 version I’m playing is ropey enough that it’s crashed three times—something so incredibly unfamiliar in console gaming—and honestly, I don’t find it very funny. But I love the world. I love the way Fenyx moves about it. And I love that it’s a giant place that’s safe for my six year-old to grab the controls and explore (avoiding fights entirely). It’s Zelda without being pious—a criticism I see levelled at Nintendo’s series far too infrequently. Plus the flying is just damned beautiful.
2020 has been a stellar year for deck-building games, but the one that really stood out for me was Signs Of The Sojourner. In a feature that’s quickly becoming less of a novelty since its May release, it was a twist on the card-battling format that used your randomly dealt hand not for violence, but to decide how conversations would flow. Not just for the sake of it—it’s inherently what the game’s about. Leaving home for the first time, your character can explore the neighboring towns in this desert community, and on the way gather new cards that represent conversation styles of those locations. But in doing so you must discard from your original deck. The result is that returning home at any point, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to communicate with your old friends. And damn if that isn’t a profound observation delivered in a superb way. It’s tricky later on, but it’s supposed to be. There are so many ways it can play out, and perhaps most importantly, you can talk to the dogs too.
With Astro’s Playroom, Sony made PS5 owners feel at home in their new console. Literally, in it. Such a simple, smart idea: have one of your best teams build a stunning third-person platform game set inside the console, and then have it be free, waiting on the system when you first plug it in. Yes, sure, it’s essentially an advert for a controller you already bought. And some might even argue it’s propaganda. But it’s just sublime. I’m split between being very happy that it’s such a bite-sized chunk that feels complete in its brevity, and wishing it could have been a full-length stop-gap before Insomniac is finally done with the next Ratchet & Clank. Either way, boy it shows off what that bonkers controller can do, and I really hope acts as inspiration for others.
Carrion portrayed malevolence in a way that few other games ever had. It was a game that mastered an aspect of movement to match Nintendo’s precision with jumping, only with oozing, squelching horror. As you move a betentacled visceral monstrosity through an underground research facility, slaughtering anyone you encounter for their size-giving meatsacks, it never felt less than incredible. And God bless it for not having a series of tedious boss fights interrupting that glorious flow—a mistake almost every other game of its kind always makes. Absolutely revolting in all the best ways.
If you travelled back a year in time and told 2019 me that I’d be putting an Animal Crossing game in my top 10, I’d have blocked you on Twitter. I have never had time for the series, with its banal nothingness and chores-as-game mechanic. Bleargh. But oh thank God for Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
2020 has been a dark year for just about everyone, and at times has been unbearable through my fog of anxiety disorder misery. Benevolent loanshark Tom Nook turned up at just the right moment, and offered genuine light and hope in the midst of existential horror. I am so deeply grateful for my time on the island, not least for how it provided so much help while homeschooling my son. It was a place of safety in the chaos we’re all living in. And just knowing it’s always there is very comforting.
I’ve been a fan of the Ben & Dan games since 2008’s Ben There, Dan That!. The anarchic, childish, and yet brilliantly executed point-and-click adventures were among very few to earn their right to parody the genre classics of the early ‘90s. So news that the belated third game in the series was to combine point-and-clicking with platforming felt like a blow. It was like the late ‘90s all over again, everyone trying to evolve a perfect genre into something far less good. Yet not this time! Lair was made with exactly this worry as its central gag. The ridiculous story—of accidentally causing the apocalypse while trying to cure cancer—was pursued with the two play styles in constant conflict. Both in terms of script and mechanics. It worked, and it’s so damned funny.
Yes, at four years old you’d be hard pressed to justify this as a game from 2020. But it’s a game I first discovered in 2020, and I think perhaps the most important game of my year. Teamed up with my five-then-six-year-old son, we’ve played almost every single day since August—whether that’s heading out for a three hour walk together on a Saturday morning, or just popping to the nearest Poké Stop to make sure we keep up our streaks. He’s now better at Excellent spin-throws than I am, which is infuriating.
It is not an exaggeration to say that it’s been a lifeline in this fuckface of a year. I’ve been like a puppy at the window waiting for the boy to get home from school, so we can go out and cram in an hour’s catching before teatime. I’m even allowed to go play on my own, so when everything’s getting too scary I plug in some headphones and head out into the night to grab some candies for his evolutionary needs. Plus I’ve gone from not knowing anything beyond Pikachu’s name, to a ludicrous depth of Pokéknowledge, and now drink my coffee from a Snorlax-shaped mug.
I love games that are bursting with ideas. And I love games that are funny. They’re both incredibly rare in this most straight-faced and straight-laced of industries. So to have the two combined, in such fantastic fashion, is a treat that became my gaming moment of the year. Sure, it was a one-day deal, not something that has occupied my evenings and weekends like others on this list. But it’s just an intense hit, a volley of brilliance and hilarity that kept a smile on my face so long after it had finished. To describe it is to spoil it, but let’s just say it’s a game that really, really doesn’t want you to play it, and goes to absolutely extraordinary lengths to try to stop you. It crosses genres with abandon, and nonchalantly throws away utterly ingenious ideas that could each be entire games of their own. I love its confidence, its constantly changing nature, and an ending that I could never have predicted.