As the grip of the global pandemic has tightened around the world, one of the very few upsides has been increased time for video games. I managed to make it through more titles than usual this year, although a great many remain in the towering “to be played” pile. As with previous years, today I’m taking a look back at games I played in 2020, not just titles released in the last twelve months. As usual, I’ve omitted VR games from this list.
I am a big fan of titles I can consume from beginning to end in the space between my children going to sleep for the evening and my own slide into unconsciousness. These are titles that didn’t overstay their welcome.
Blair Witch – A haunted forest romp set in the Blair Witch universe that has more to offer than it initially appears. The inclusion of a dog companion is fun and well-executed, the story is compelling, and it can be pretty creepy. I have a fundamental problem, in terms of basic game design philosophy, with the way that it ends, but that’s probably just me.
Ring Fit – An RPG where you grind your actual stats rather than your character’s. Gamification of fitness makes a ton of sense and this title does it with style. Gets pretty repetitive, though.
Home Fighter – Just install everything that Hap, Inc. makes.
Super Metroid – I never played this as a kid, and going back through it now it’s clear how much DNA everything from Dark Souls to Spelunky owes to this series. Very good with occasional massive cliff points that are common to all games with this sort of design.
Resident Evil 2 Remake – Incredibly high-quality remake of one of the best games in this series. The weirdest thing about playing this was the near constant deja vu I felt every time I entered a new space. Capcom has taken a twenty five year old game and made it modern without sacrificing its soul. Pretty astounding achievement. Also: screw the end boss.
Resident Evil 3 Remake – Solid remake of one of the weakest games in the series that unfortunately inherits a lot of the flaws of the original. This version slides the bar from mystery to combat and weirdly inverts the difficulty pattern of RE2: the bosses are easy but the individual zombies are extra lethal. Unlike RE2, I have almost no memory of this game and thus no deja vu. Reminds me more of the Revelations series than classic Resident Evil.
Ghosts of Tsushima – Absolutely beautiful and super fun samurai movie open world game. Best open-world navigation system in a game ever. They had me at the first standoff slice.
Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales – The last big-budget console game I worked directly on (over a decade ago now) was a Spider-Man game, and the PTSD from that experience pretty much ruined Marvel’s wise-cracking web-slinger for me. Or so I thought: between the fantastic Into the Spider-Verse and Insomniac’s two open world Spider-Man games, my faith and interest in the wall crawler has been restored. My eight year old son loves these games, and can play them despite having limited game playing experience. Miles is his favorite Spider-Man.
I bounced off of a lot of games this year too, and close readers will notice that the theme here is per-minute fidelity. These titles were designed, I think, to maximize the duration of play afforded by their $60 price tag, but as somebody with only small slices of free time available I am increasingly disinterested in narrative games that value total length over moment-to-moment progression. I feel the same way about movies: give me a tight 90-minute thriller over a three hour opus any day of the week.
Red Dead Redemption 2 – An amazing technical achievement, and also an unlikely ode to naturalism. A take on GTA that is both laid back and much more compelling. Appeals to the nemophilist in all of us. I’m just not super interested in cowboys and I have trouble playing the bad guy.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – I really enjoyed the original Assassin’s Creed but haven’t kept up with the series for the last decade. At some point it apparently changed from a stealth parkouring in ancient cities to, uh, raiding villages with button mash combat in Norway? I guess London shows up in this title but I didn’t get far enough into it to see it. I feel like maybe age is starting to narrow my tastes.
Persona 5 – Super stylish RPG that I really enjoyed for ~20 hours or so but I just can’t commit to a title that isn’t going to make any meaningful story progress for thousands of hours. I may come back to this one.
Judgement – I have never made it through the intro cutscene for any Yakuza game, although they seem like they’d be clearly within my sphere of interest. I hoped Judgement would be Yakuza without the reliance of five games of backstory, and it probably is that. I think I just got tired of Kimutaku.
Nier: Automata – I like the style, the game play, the story, the characters, and the world, but man, I just don’t have like 500 hours to spend on something that is clearly going to be about the definition of humanity in a world of robots. I mean, I can watch Ghost in the Shell in 82 minutes.
As I age I am increasingly disinterested in game mechanics and systems and find myself increasingly focused on narrative value. These are titles that propose that the story is a fundamentally important aspect of the experience, perhaps the most important aspect.
Death Stranding – Death Stranding has a story, and a ton of time is spent on it, and you can bet there are hours of mega Kojima cutscenes in it, and despite characters with names like DIEHARDMAN the story and world are actually pretty interesting. But that’s not why it made the list. Very few companies in the world could have even conceived of this game, let alone gotten it funded and built. I couldn’t figure it out until my coworker offhandedly mentioned that it is about community, and that’s the point at which it clicked. Yeah, traveling across a future landscape carrying packages to outposts and trying to avoid time ghosts is cool and all, but let me tell you: building roads? That’s rewarding as hell.
Control and Quantum Break – Two very similar games by Remedy with a 50/50 combat/story split. Control is the far more interesting of the two in terms of setting, character, and gameplay, but Quantum Break has its moments. Remedy has been playing with mixing live action video into their games since Alan Wake, and both of these titles do it well. The weak link in both games is the combat, which gets repetitive and (in the case of Control) can be very visually confusing. Both titles are exceptionally beautiful in the midst of chaos, though, and when time stops in Quantum Break even the light contrails freeze in place.
Detroit – Technically outstanding but fairly predictable David Cage opus on robot racism. The production quality is phenomenal and the introduction of a visual story map solves the issues Beyond: Two Souls had with implicit story branches. Investigating crime scenes and recreating the events that took place is super cool and remains the best part of Cage’s titles. Folks used to think Cage was a well-funded eccentric, but now it seems that he has helped pave the way to animation-heavy, virtual human-based, dialog-centric adventure games as a category, which describes many of the titles on this list.
AI: The Somnium Files – I am a big fan of Korato Uchikoshi, the author and director of the Zero Escape series, which is one of the most interesting series of games that I’ve played. AI: The Somnium Files, the first game from Too Kyo Games, a new studio founded by Uchikoshi and Kazutaka Kodaka (director of Danganronpa, another fantastic series), unfortunately misses the mark. While it retains many of the interesting features of Uchikoshi’s previous games, and adds an interesting dream mode puzzle system, it feels like it’s been dumbed down and aimed at a high school audience.
Best in Class
These are the best games I played this year.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons – This game came out just as we began to shelter in place and could not have arrived at a better time. It kept us sane through the first six months of the pandemic. My entire family played, a cumulative total of well over 500 hours spent building a town, chatting with animals, organizing rooms, and hunting scorpions. Nothing has ever held our attention so completely for so long. Not only is Animal Crossing: New Horizons an astonishing achievement in the history of video games, it contributed significantly to our overall well-being during a time of dramatic uncertainty and stress.
Full Deck Solitaire – Matt Burns and I have exchanged the games we work on every few years for feedback, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never got back to him about his latest, Eliza, because I didn’t finish it. Not because it isn’t good–I was actually super hooked–but because I got completely sidelined by the Kabufuda Solitaire mini-game built into it. Something about it triggered a massive de-stress effect at a time when my stress level was unusually high, and I stopped progressing in the story and just started playing solitaire. I moved to Graeme Devine’s Full Deck Solitaire, which I’ve had installed on my phone forever, and began playing it in the evenings as a replacement for doomscrolling twitter or reddit. A year later I am still playing Full Deck Solitaire, which offers a huge variety of solitaire game variants (one of which took me 28 hours to complete over 206 attempts–more time than I spent on most of the other games in this list), and still benefitting from the weird, hard-to-describe vaporization of stress that it provides.
Deadly Premonition 2 – I am, of course, a big fan of SWERY’s games, and of Deadly Premonition in particular. The decade-later sequel got hammered in reviews for frame rate and technical problems, just its predecessor was criticized for janky movement and low texture quality. In both cases, I think such assessments miss the forest for the trees. The reason to play a SWERY game is to unlock access to SWERY characters that make up the narrative, and DP2’s character roster is in excellent form. My initial take was that Deadly Premonition 2 was to True Detective as Deadly Premonition was to Twin Peaks, but now I think that it has more to do with Lost Highway: everybody lives two (or more!) lives.
The Last of Us Part II – It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was with this title on nearly every level. The production quality alone is perhaps the finest I have ever seen: it is unrelentingly beautiful, convincing, and varied. Like all good zombie stories TLoU2 is a character drama, and the characters are rendered in exquisite detail, both visually and in the narrative. These are flawed, incomplete, desperate people, some of them struggling for redemption while others double down on their own faults. The question posed by the game is not whether or not they’ll achieve their goals but how much humanity it will cost them. The cast of characters is aggressively non-cliche, from a body-building tough woman to a queer girl out for revenge to a trans man trying to escape persecution to a pregnant bi woman trying to keep her partner alive, and none of them have any sort of moral high ground. Representation may seem like a small thing, but it’s not: the climax of the story involves the four principle actors and there’s not a white man among them. And all of this is wrapped up in one of the slickest gameplay and rendering engines ever. I’d say, “more like this, please!” but I’m not sure that there can be more games like this, at least not immediately. There are a handful of devs can complete with the raw tech on display in this title (the culmination of many Uncharted games). But I don’t think anybody is even close to Naughty Dog’s acting, writing, and production quality. I liked this game so much I even wrote a ton of words about the parts I didn’t like.
That’s it for games. I was also pretty happy with this piece I wrote about cultural normalization. It’s been a pretty long year, but 2021 is finally here. To steal a line from Counting Crows, there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.