Wow, what’s a year it’s been. I memorized the pattern of tiny paint bubbles on the wall behind my computer monitor. I also re-watched the same three TV shows one thousand times. I’ve become convinced that the outside world is a hologram, and I’m about to embark on a lucrative YouTube career persuading flat earthers to buy supplements about it. Before I do that, though, here are my games of the year.
Surprise, the twist this time is that they’re all from other years! I wish I could tell you that this is a fascinating treatise on how the video game industry is evolving into a series of indefinitely operating services instead of games that players meaningfully own (I mean, it is, for better or worse), but to be honest, this was just the year I got really into games about making numbers go up. I blame the pandemic for this. When your home is no longer the place you go to escape your problems—indeed, when it is instead a meticulously woven nest where all your problems come to roost, because it is your entire existence—you need an escape within your escape. I’m not one of those people who gets really into incubating larval bread blobs or what have you. I like it when there is a number, and I can make it go up. I’m a very interesting person, in that way.
On with the games!
Warframe is the best game about making numbers go up. I decided to try it on a lark earlier this year, and a month later, I’d put 80 hours into it. After more than seven years as a live MMO/co-op shooter, the game has evolved into a messy tangle of systems whose sheer tangled-ness could not be matched even if all four of the world’s biggest balls of twine Voltroned themselves into one even bigger, messier ball of twine and devoured the girl from the movie Tangled. But somehow, it works.
This is because the game’s systems are unified by a single question: “How can we make being an outer space cyber ninja even cooler?” Gargantuan open worlds? Absolutely. Hoverboarding with tricks and a point system? Definitely. Pet ownership? Sure. Fishing? Why not. An enthrallingly dramatic narrative that only really hits its stride after 70 or so hours of playtime? A harder sell, but toss in one of the wildest twists in all of video games, and yeah OK, I’ll bite.
Warframe is good and, despite everything I just said, not actually all that hard to get into. I haven’t played it much in the past couple months, but I’ll be back—over and over and over. Probably forever.
Destiny 2 is the second best game about making numbers go up. I started playing it about a month before the big Europa expansion dropped, and I’d be lying if I said I had any clue what was going on in the story. But man, it feels good to play. Honestly, how dare it? It’s chock full of confusing systems and narrative branches that go nowhere, but somehow it makes you forget about all of that when you’re headshotting dudes who are also robots who are also aliens (who are maybe ghosts? It’s unclear).
Destiny has helped me maintain a regular connection with college friends I otherwise only get to see once or twice a year, an achievement far more significant than many other, better games I’ve played can lay claim to. That makes it a winner in my book. Also, I have a gun that spawns a little orb guy that functions as another gun. What are video games about, if not that?
Final Fantasy XIV is a game in which numbers go up, but it’s not really about numbers going up. For me, when I played it with friends for a couple months earlier this year, it was mostly about slogging through early game content, making cool outfits, and visiting other players’ mind-bogglingly dope houses. In other words, it was for me what Animal Crossing was for others when the pandemic first rewrote the rules of day-to-day life.
The long-running MMO also gave me one of my favorite gaming moments of the entire year: It was my birthday, and I didn’t have any plans. How could I? I was trapped inside, living the same day over and over, like Groundhog Day except that if I committed a crime, I would still get stuck in jail. It was one of those days that brought the pandemic into stark focus. I began ruminating on things I missed most: nights out, friends, concerts—the sorts of things I would have used to celebrate my birthday during a normal year.
What happened next can only be described as incredibly serendipitous: My partner and I logged into FFXIV, and a close friend excitedly informed us that a traveling troupe of players dressed as Moogles were putting on a concert in somebody’s in-game mega-mansion. We all got dressed up, piled into another friend’s hover car, and rode to the party. We arrived just as the Moogles hit minute 18 (or so) of a longer-than-the-original cover of “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, which they played with perfect coordination on in-game instruments. We danced and cheered and laughed amidst a massive sea of show-goers. Surrounded by people I cared about it, listening to impressively performed music, I couldn’t have imagined a more ideal birthday.
When the pandemic first began, I had what I think is a pretty relatable thought: “I’m about to have a lot of time on my hands, so I should start a fucking gargantuan-ass JRPG instead of learning a new skill or reading a mountain of books or anything like that.” Perhaps I did not phrase it exactly that way, but let’s be real: I knew that’s how things were going to play out if I started Dragon Quest XI.
For a solid month, it was the game I played every night before going to bed—often in bed, because I was playing it on the Switch. Each session was like an episode of some grand adventure anime, comfort food so rich that it put me right to sleep. That’s not to say it was boring; rather, DQXI is a gentle sort of journey, one that’s loaded, baked potato-like, with mundane details. You can get lost in its bustling cities and sleepy villages, talking to everybody and exploring every nook and cranny. For your troubles, the game rewards you with countless mini-stories. It doesn’t signpost them like other games, but they’re out there for you to find at your leisure.
At this point, I have around 40 hours in DQXI. I expect to finish it in 2023.
Metro Exodus’ main campaign had its moments, but it was ultimately a victim of its own ambition, earnest to a fault and unerringly uneven. The 2019 post-apocalyptic shooter’s 2020 DLC episode “Sam’s Story,” on the other hand, was laser focused, a tour de force of what makes the janky Metro series so beloved. It somehow managed to cram in an open-ish explorable area and a series of more linear levels and still leave room for one of the best drunken buddy sequences in any video game.
I played Sam’s Story before the pandemic hit, and even thinking about it is like opening a time capsule from some other, vastly more normal era. That said, it’s ultimately a tale about making new friends at the end of the world. Also, you spend large portions of it wearing a mask. If hindsight is 2020, then so is Sam’s Story.
Am I cheating with this entry? Absolutely. But this is my list, so I make the rules.
Final Fantasy VII Remake might have come out this year, but one of the things that makes it truly great is how it narratively acknowledges that it’s partially the product of another time. As the game progresses, Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, and Barret diverge from the paths they took in the original FFVII—or at least, they try to. Literal embodiments of destiny forcefully nudge them back on track, but the game ultimately makes its point clear: These iterations of classic characters, by virtue of being created in a different era and in service of a more expansive story, are not the same ones we got to know back in 1997. It would not make sense for these new characters to relive the same old story. Instead, they must find ways to forge their own path.
As of now, it’s unclear where that path will lead, but the prospect of finding out has me more excited for Final Fantasy VII Remake Disc 2 (come on, Square Enix, just name it that—it’s right there) than just about any other video game on the horizon.
Back in January, before the pandemic hit, my partner and I played A Short Hike on a laptop in a small, mostly empty café just outside D.C. The setting fit the game: The café was colorful, inviting, and cozy, a respite from the oppressive gray of its downtown surroundings. A Short Hike is just that: a respite. It’ll only last you an hour or two, but it makes every second count, bombarding you with oddball characters and a plethora of warm emotions. It’s like if Animal Crossing had a point to make. In fact, I would go so far as to declare A Short Hike, a non-Animal Crossing game that came out in 2019, the best Animal Crossing game of 2020. New Horizons, for the record, was fine.
I spent the latter half of 2019 regularly telling myself that I’d get around to playing Control before the year ended. That did not happen. It almost didn’t happen before 2020 ended either, but I (alongside my partner) have now played enough of it to deem it “just weird enough,” “what I wanted Half-Life: Alyx to be, narratively,” and “the game that finally got me to actually watch Twin Peaks.” In case you were wondering, I also think Twin Peaks is good.
Deep Rock Galactic is what would happen if drunken dwarves who hate capitalism force-fed Left 4 Dead to Minecraft. If that’s not enough for you, I don’t know that anything will be.
It really is a fascinating genre mashup—one that was clearly refined to the point of diamond-like sharpness by its time in early access (it first came out in 2018). The game’s rhythm is admirably unique. First, you tunnel down into caverns however you please and at whatever pace you please, and then you haul ass back to your ship once you’ve gotten what you came for—oh, and insurmountable swarms of giant bugs start trying to tear the bushy beard clean off your face. As a result, levels are one-part puzzle, one-part playground for you and your friends.
That playful spirit suffuses every element of the game—even the space station you hang out on between missions, where your dwarves can drink and dance and dbreak shit. One time, my friends and I got our characters extremely drunk and tried to throw as many empty tankards as possible into a hole. We spent, like, 20 minutes on this player-made project, laughing all the while. It’s far and away one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in a game. I’ll never forget it.
Of course Hades—which, for the record, first entered early access in 2018—is my game of the year. I said so in the very first sentence of my review and then spent another 4,000+ words justifying it. I also called it the game of the year, because its failure-based structure is emblematic of what we’ve all experienced in 2020. I’m now going to do the most self-indulgent thing possible (my list, my rules) and quote myself:
Hopelessness is in right now. How could it not be? People rose up, but the historically awful status quo rose higher. What is there left to do but go on Twitter and Facebook and post different variations of “We’re fucked” alongside whatever headline you read most recently? I’m a white guy in no present danger beyond what I subject myself to. Despite this, I spent a lot of the summer despairing.
I will not go so far as to say Hades got me through it. At this point in my life, I am skeptical of games’ ability to do things of that magnitude. But as the summer wore on, Hades’ story of somebody refusing to despair in the face of overwhelming systemic failure and instead pivoting into helping rebuild his community and support his found family took on a new significance. I watched people much smarter than me talk about how hopelessness is useless, good causes are gaining ground in smaller ways, and no matter where you live, there are vitally important grassroots organizations that anybody can contribute to—people need only seek them out. I knew this logically, but that didn’t reassure me much. Hades helped me feel it.
In the coming months and years, things are likely to get worse. But in recent times, Hades has given me some darn good days, and much more importantly, it’s helped me keep in mind that literally everybody is capable of giving somebody they’re close to—or just some rando, or a group of randos, or whatever—a couple of good days. In time, that can and hopefully will coalesce into something larger. In the meantime, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s not nothing.
Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of the list! Except, aw darn, I have this whole other list ready to go, and I’ve got to put it somewhere. So here’s a second, slightly shorter list of my 10 favorite games from 2020 that deserve more attention:
Like its predecessors, Off-Peak and The Norwood Suite, Tales From Off-Peak City does a tremendously effective job of taking you somewhere else. Its surrealist cityscape is littered with strangenesses small and large—up to and including a sad building that you can feed pizza, and then it stops being sad. Oh, and you run a pizza restaurant. While piling pies as high as you want with sauce, pepperoni, and other totally normal ingredients like brains and flamingo meat, you solve a legitimately compelling mystery about the restaurant’s former owner and learn about the insidious corporation that’s transforming the city (and making the buildings sad!). It’s not a long game, but it leaves a lasting impression. I doubt I’ll stop thinking about it anytime soon.
Spiritfarer bills itself as “a cozy management game about dying,” which is technically correct, but it also fails to convey just how vast of an experience it is. It’s a journey equal parts physical and emotional, in which you sail a gargantuan sea and help the spirits who board your teetering vessel accept their own deaths. Endlessly bittersweet, it’s the kind of game that makes you want to hug every character you meet. And you can! There’s a dedicated menu option for it.
I didn’t think I’d want to play another cyberpunk game this year after, well, you know, but then Cloudpunk knocked my socks into orbit and chided me for having expectations. It is sprawling yet focused; while the game takes place in an enormous city whose glowing veins bleed neon, it casts you not as a hot shot mercenary with the world at their nano-enhanced fingertips, but a delivery driver with just a few dollars to her name. Your entire job, then, is to explore the city and talk to people (and robots and dog-cars and sentient elevators). The worldbuilding, while sometimes too on the nose, is clever as all heck, and the game ensures that you lap up every bit of it in ways that feel natural rather than contrived. I mean, there’s a gang of tough guy robots who stick it to corporations by participating in illegal urban renewal projects, which they call “real hardcore shit.” What more do you want?
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a chill, short game about camping and growing up. It’s a pleasant series of vignettes in which characters of ages ranging from Teens to No Longer Teens face insecurities, learn about themselves, and of course, try to pee in a bush because there are no gods or kings in nature, only to succumb to an anxiety attack and use a toilet instead. We’ve all been there.
Here’s a secret about turn-based strategy games: They’re the ideal genre for messy bitches who love drama. Games like XCOM, Crusader Kings III, and Civilization expertly weave narratives over the course of countless turns, resulting in all sorts of bitter rivalries and elaborate schemes. Pendragon turns this subtext into literal text: Each move you make as a band of characters from Arthurian legend generates dialogue. If you move aggressively, your characters will speak to enemies in ways that reflect that. If you repeatedly evade, your characters might find the words to defuse a situation that, moments earlier, seemed primed to explode into violence. Things do not always go your way and are often at their most interesting when you’re on the verge of being stricken down, or you realize your only option is to do something that makes you sick to your stomach. Pendragon is not always pleasant, but if you want a narrative game that’ll keep you on your toes, look no further.
Many games have tried to nail the feeling of a good heist, but Teardown puts them all to shame. It does this by way of an infuriatingly brilliant formula: You can destroy anything in the game world, but when you swipe any of the objects you’re there to steal, a countdown begins. You can’t just go nuts. Instead, you have to study each level and then knock down a bunch of walls—or plough a boat so far ashore that it becomes half a boat—until you’ve made a path you can sprint through, frantically snatching objects along the way. Even on the rare occasion that a plan goes off without a hitch, you still cross the finish line sweating bullets. Teardown is an exhilarating game where every solution is truly yours—even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones.
Umurangi Generation is another game that just leaves me in awe of its worldbuilding. Unlike many other futuristic stories that lazily reproduce Japanese imagery for the purpose of achieving genre-standard aesthetics, Umurangi Generation draws on Maori developer Naphtali Faulkner’s own culture and experiences to create something uniquely vital. You play as a photographer. Your job is to take photos. That’s it. But in doing so, you slowly learn of a futuristic society in the throes of a very modern sort of crisis—one made significantly worse by failures of government and corporate leadership, as well as the larger structures of capitalism. Environments tell these stories. Discarded newspapers, memorials to the deceased, graffiti of Maori symbols—all these things and more paint a complex picture of a world teetering on the brink, of a new generation of young people trying to thrive in the face of hopelessness.
Post Void wants you to bleed. A screaming blend of hyper-saturated colors and concussive sounds propels you through maze-like levels in which there is only one rule: kill to survive. If you stop killing, your health drops to zero. Post Void is a pulse-pounding sprint of a shooter that I find difficult to play for more than 15 minutes at a time. It rules.
No thoughts, just vibes. A Monster’s Expedition is at its best when you’re in an effortless rhythm with its simple (yet fiendishly tough to crack) puzzles and chill, island-hopping atmosphere. It’s the latest game from puzzle genius Alan Hazelden and his growing band of collaborators, and it expertly builds on the sort of sublimely simple puzzling present in previous masterworks like A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build and Cosmic Express. It also throws in fun exploration and clever writing for good measure. Your mileage might vary with other games on this list, but A Monster’s Expedition is the sort of game I’d recommend to literally anyone.
This game seems cool. Anybody heard of it?