2020 has been an exceptionally hard year. It has also been a blessing.
In the midst of my state locking down, our family welcomed a second child into the world. If she had showed up even a few days later, I would not have been allowed into the hospital with my wife. Eight months later, she is happy and healthy, as is the rest of my immediate family. We all still have jobs. There was one COVID-19 scare, but we tested negative. There are two kids at home full-time and it's made work a nightmare, but we know a lot of other people face greater hardship.
And in the midst of that, video games. Sometimes. I avoided them while I was on paternity leave, to give my mind a break. But they became a welcomed distraction when I returned.
There is a routine in the house. At 5:00, we prep and eat dinner. At 6:00, the baby goes to bed for the night. At 6:30, we sit down as a family to watch some television. At 7:30, the oldest goes to bed. At 8:00, my wife and I—every night, without fail—watch something together. Maybe it's a movie, maybe it's a TV show. Either way, despite having been around one another all day with the kids, we find time to reconnect before the day is over. Then, usually around 10:00, she herself heads off to bed, and I waltz to my office and my games.
Quite often, playing games every night can feel like a slog. You can have too much candy, you know? But this year, especially this year, I stuck to the routine. Even when exceptionally tired, I gave myself an hour of games. It wasn't gaming time—it was my time. Alone. Those moments were important, and I chose to spend them, willingly and happily, with games.
This year, these were my favorites.
10. Umurangi Generation
So, here's the thing. I didn't enjoy playing Umurangi Generation much. The game's central mechanic is taking photos, and this isn't abstracted or simplified. You swap lenses, change focus, alter lighting—the attention to detail is astounding. But amateur photography is not my thing. And yet, when it became clear photography was a means of slowing the player down and having them carefully explore the space around them, I found purpose, and quickly became enraptured in the delicate and deliberate world building in Umurangi Generation.
The game's quests, a list of photos that needs taking, were reasons to carefully scrutinize everything around me. Often, "environmental art" in a video game is tangential, a layered form of atmosphere. In Umurangi Generation, it's everything. There is no dialogue, no cutscene. Everything about this place and these people is gleaned from graffiti in an alleyway, or a recruitment poster. You are tasked to put the pieces together in your head. It asks a lot of the player, knowing they're likely to miss a lot in the process, but feel rewarded anyway.
At multiple points, I gasped while playing Umurangi Generation. Sometimes prompted by my own discoveries, and once because the game grabbed me by the collar and fully demanded my attention. The final mission of Umurgani Generation, tucked away at the end of the game's optional but necessary downloadable content Macro, is unlikely anything I've played.
In a game that's otherwise quiet and passive, Umurangi Generation bided its time until the anger was too much, and finally made to make clear what it had to say. It left me breathless.
9. Lithium City
The irony of writing this with the holidays around the corner is not lost on me, because every room in Lithium City is unwrapping a present under the tree. Remember the age when every present was a mystery box with infinite possibilities? That's how it feels to play Lithium City, a ruthlessly efficient game that had me hooting and hollering every time something new happened, because it was always cool and satisfying. The final encounter had me pounding the table like I'd beaten the final boss in a Souls game. It only took me an hour and change to start and finish Lithium City, but video games do not need 40 hours to be memorable.
8. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
I don't think parents should view their children as a vehicle to experience youth a second time, which has always made me wary of pushing games on my kids. Part of the gratification of having children is experiencing life through a new lens—their lens. And so while I do not hide games from my kid, a feat impossible because of my job, I also don't go out of my way to bring them up. By happenstance, I ended up looking at Alba: A Wildlife Adventure with my oldest daughter, who is a little over four, and she was captivated. Not just because of the charming aesthetic, but thanks to the game respecting and recognizing who she was and what she was capable of. I still felt a tinge of guilt playing it with her, realizing inevitably I would turn the experience into a take and this was part of the reason I'd dodged games with her to begin with, but it was still unforgettable. My heart was skipping beats the whole time.
7. Signs of the Sojourner
When one video game has a good idea, it's understandable and reasonable other games follow in their footsteps. But this trend towards familiarity can also breed complacency, and that's what struck me in Signs of the Sojourner. It's a game about talking to people, in which you have no control over what your character is going to say. Instead, communication has been abstracted into a card game, and your ability to connect with another person depends on whether you can dance your way through a conversation and match the right symbols.
You often don't have the right symbols, or get the wrong shuffle of cards and a conversation with a friend goes completely awry. This happens all the time in Signs of the Sojourner, the same way it unexpectedly occurs in real-life. Talking to people isn't simple. What you think in your head might not match what comes out of your mouth, and the tone and tenor of how it comes out of your mouth might betray your intent. That happens, and Signs of the Sojourner is about living in and with the complexities of language that video games have simplified.
6. The Pathless
There's a lot of reasons I enjoy platformers, but at the core, it's movement. My fingers spark to life when a game makes the sheer act of moving a joy, and that's the foundation The Pathless is built upon. Games have such large worlds to explore now, but getting from one place to the next is frequently boring and tedious, with rare exceptions like Spider-Man. The Pathless also has a large world to explore, but in this case, the further the better; it means you'll spend more time lining up shots to fill your sprint meter and surfing across the ground.
On its own, that would nearly be enough, but what ends up elevating The Pathless is everything on top of that magical foundation, because it's also an excellent puzzle game and it's also an excellent action game. The Pathless has some of the most spectacular and memorable boss fights in recent memory, sequences equally enjoyable to play and watch.
5. Astro's Playroom
Vindication. That's what Astro's Playroom is. Sure, it's an incredible showcase for Sony's unique DualSense controller that's likely to make everything that comes after it feel like a robus disappointment, but it's also vindication. I saw this coming, and hopefully, now others will, too. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission was a terrific virtual reality game for the PlayStation 4 from a few years back, revealing Sony had somehow put together a team capable of the same magic we often associate with Nintendo's creations—games with a toy-like sensibility.
All I want in 2021 is for Sony to give the developers of Astro Bot and Astro's Playroom, Asobi Team, whatever they want. Let them fly to the moon and back. I want to see what they find.
4. Half-Life Alyx
Most people will never play Half-Life: Alyx because it requires both a monstrously expensive computer and a monstrously expensive headset. It's ludicrous that it even exists. But while I don't know the future of virtual reality, if Alyx proves a swan song for the format, it will be a hell of a finale. Alyx was an opportunity to step back into a world I frequently find myself thinking and dreaming about, experienced in an altogether new way. And damn, it was scary.
In a lot of ways, today's Souls games are just yesterday's Castlevania games, which has made the quest for a "2D Dark Souls" odd because that sounds like a regular ol' Castelvania game. Blasphemous strikes a balance between the two worlds. There are many elements unmistakably taken from Souls, but at the end of the day, it's a hard-as-nails Castlevania with some gorgeously fucked up visuals. I became interested in Blasphemous because of the weirdo-lookin' bosses, but fell for Blasphemous because of how incredible it felt to play.
2. Gears Tactics
It's hard for me to play games for fun, because playing games always puts me in "work mode," as I think of stories I could write about my experiences. It's an impossible (and toxic) habit to break. So I made the conscious choice to not play many games during my paternity leave earlier this year. But Steam says I played 50 hours of Gears Tactics, a game that only has about 20 hours of interesting ideas, and I believe it. Despite leave, I couldn't say no.
Every year, I enjoy one XCOM-like game. It's my little dip into Rob Zacny's strategy pool. Just a taste. Last year, it was Mutant Year Zero. In 2020, it was Gears Tactics. Halfway through the campaign, Gears Tactics has nothing more to offer, except the chance to do the same thing you've been doing for another 20 hours or so, and I seized every damn moment.
Gears Tactics is a clever translation of the Gears of War's world and mechanics into a strategy game, and it quietly became a release valve for my stress. My wife and I were home with a new baby, as the first wave of the pandemic raged through Illinois. We could not show anyone in our family our new gift, let alone let them touch her. We were alone, and it sucked.
But just before dinner, as the baby napped and my oldest daughter entertained herself, I would flip on Gears Tactics and play a few rounds. All of my anxiety would melt away in an instant. The moment the controller hit my hand, my mental and physical state manifestly shifted. It was like a magic trick. "Is this what it's like to play games for fun?" I thought, as the inane repetition became part of the appeal. I knew what to do, and there were no surprises.
That was fine. I wanted to play another round because it felt good, and it made me happy.
The longer version is a story of invisible progress. Because of the way my brain is wired, and because I longer have the free time I used to, I typically value games that have a sense of forward momentum after investing time into it. There's a quest done, or an upgrade unlocked. But roguelikes don't operate that way. Instead, games like Hades operate on invisible progress, where you can spend several hours playing and, at the end of the session, not be able to explain what you accomplished. That doesn't become clear until later.
I spent hours butting my head at Hades, especially the bosses. (Except the big snake skeleton, who is a chump.) I'd groan when it was time to fight a boss, because it meant I'd come out limping, kneecapping my run in the process. When I learned one stage had two bosses at once? Dread came over me when that moment approached, rather than elation.
Then, at one point, I beat the game. It was a struggle and I barely came out alive, but I'd beaten it. And then I beat it again. And again. And again. I eventually strung off nearly 10 wins in a row, without missing a beat. I'd gone from sweating a run in Hades to purposely making runs harder, because I wanted the extra challenge. Unlike other games, I had not leveled up or found a sweet weapon, I'd simply invested the time and effort into learning what the game expected of me. Games like these are meant to be bent to your will—that's the point. When it starts getting easy, that's not the game's fault. You earned that feeling.
In 2020, I earned the respect of Hades, and nothing was more enjoyable than that.
Before I go, shoutouts to the video games cut from my game of the year list but still deserve a mention because they were also a big part of why I made it through 2020 okay:
- Disco Elysium
- Outer Wilds
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps
- Disc Room
- Kentucky Route Zero
- Final Fantasy VII Remake
Thanks, video games.