Games

My Favorite Game of 2020 Wouldn't Let Me Look Away

2020 was a year where what pulled me through was a healthy mix of staring away from and directly into the void.
January 6, 2021, 2:00pm
Screenshot from Umurangi Generation, three young adults and a penguin sit on a neon green bench in a photograph taken with a flash, figures sit on the ground in the background shadows.
Screenshot from Umurangi Generation, Image courtesy of the author

It’s been a hell year, and this is most likely going to run in the new year, so I won’t go into just how shit it was. You don’t need me to tell you how wide reaching the pandemic was because you are more likely to have felt the repercussions personally. So instead I’ll present this following list with little preamble aside from this: Games, as with many art forms, will often run the gamut between distracting entertainment to biting critique of the world, any any mix of the two. In times of strife people will reach for a wide variety of media, from soothing balm to a mirror to our world that helps contextualize their suffering. Any personal approach to consuming media is valid, but I hope that as a community we will continue to push and encourage more games that act as a mirror and not just those we can escape into.

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Honorable mentions: Necrobarista, Ghostrunner, Genshin Impact, Star Wars Squadrons, Wide Ocean Big Jacket

10. Destiny 2: Beyond Light - PC/Xbox/Playstation

(Steam)

A new year means a new Destiny DLC. This one was special in that it was the first DLC fully developed after Bungie broke off its partnership with Activision. This amounted to a DLC with a story that pulls on more of Destiny’s famously interesting lore, a new subclass system that allows for more builds and customizability as ever before, and more quests post-campaign that keep a sense of an ever changing world. They also built a new player experience that is the best in the game to date. Given all this, the game still suffers from a confusing UI structure, and some of the story beats fall flat due to story being delivered through quest lines that can be easily missed. Still, they’ve taken a huge leap forward with Beyond Light and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Screenshot from Destiny: Beyond Light

Screenshot courtesy of the author. Europa, the new destination in Beyond Light

9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Nintendo Switch

A game I suspect will be on a lot of people’s list this year, this game came out right at the beginning of many states shutting down to slow the spread of Covid-19. As many of our regular daily structures became disrupted, Animal Crossing: New Leaf came in and helped me regain a sense of routine. The game runs with a real-time clock, meaning that there would be new things to do or check back in on each day. Add to this the classic cute and funny Animal Crossing writing that makes interacting with your neighbors a delight, a new abandoned island system that made raising bells for your various home and island improvement projects a bit easier, and the ability to completely edit your home island’s layout, and you have a winning combination that allowed me to be calm and relax at a moment where that was otherwise supremely difficult.

8. Demon’s Souls - Playstation 5

A missed moment in my Souls-series education, I was happy to have this remake give me the chance to take a look at where the series started. I was pleasantly surprised to find that in many ways, the structure of Demon’s Souls was more readily intuitive than the later titles in this series. Its simple level structure ends up helping ease players into engaging with its different crafting and item systems, where the other Souls games’ more interconnected levels felt like a more immersive world at the cost of some of that on-ramp. Despite some suspect decisions in the aesthetic choices made for this remake, it’s still a solid game worth revisiting.

7. Boreal Tenebrae Act 1: I Stand Before You A Form Undone - PC/Linux

(Itch.io)

Screenshot from Boreal Tenebrae, a figure who's face is clouded by static speaks to a woman in a curios shop, saying "Float long enough through the static, eventually you wind up here."

Screenshot courtesy of the author, from Boreal Tenebrae

This indie game, which was originally called “Boreal Tales,” tells the story of a small town on the brink of collapse. With the local mill shutting down, the economic future of the people in this town is at peril. This is revealed through exploration of a surreal world where magic and mysticism is tied to the static and distortions found in TV and VHS tapes. The way this game blends a magical-realism tinged tale of jumping between realms of static and “reality” with a story showing the weight of capitalism on the backs of regular folks is masterful. Its PS1 era aesthetics help sell this intertwining, even if occasionally the fixed camera perspective can cause confusion. Ultimately it has solid storytelling and an ability to pull the player through a string of tangentially related scenes with ease and wit to strongly evoke the feeling of a dream, but doesn’t become so disjointed as to leave the player in a narrative lurch. The most upsetting thing to me is about this game is that this is only the first act of this story, which I hope the creator will be able to continue soon.

6. Star Renegades - PC/Xbox/Switch

(Website)

This is the game that scratched my strategy itch for the latter half of 2020, in many ways the same itch that had been scratched by Into the Breach a few years ago. A mix of rogue-like run structure with turn based RPG combat, a Slay the Spire-esque choose your own path map layout, and a dash of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System, Star Renegades manages to build out it’s variety of systems in a satisfying way over each run, even if the “runs” themselves might be too long. The truly special thing about this game though is it’s deterministic timeline based combat: enemies will choose their attacks at the beginning of combat, and will be placed on a timeline at the top of the screen based on what type of attack it is. Both your character’s and enemy attacks can knock people further down the timeline, knocking someone off the visible timeline means they don’t get to take their action this turn. Playing with the ins and outs of pushing and pulling enemies and allies on the timeline is what made Star Renegades sing to me, an engaging system that played out in a roguelike structure that wasn’t doing it many favors. Still, this combat loop was strong enough for me to power through where other games may have lost me through repetitiveness.

5. Hades - PC/MacOS/Switch

(Steam, Epic Games Store)

Speaking of games that I played that didn’t lose me through repetitiveness, Hades was able to do that not in spite of its structure but because of it. This isometric action roguelike leans into its repetitive nature not just through the usual suspects of mechanical progression and randomized enemy encounters, but also by filling each run with more and more narrative. Upgrades you receive give you not just a new twist on your loadout, but another paragraph of superbly acted dialogue with seemingly endless variety. Each death sends you back to your house, where characters live out their afterlives run by run. Ever changing dialogue and narrative events make death not just part of the learning process, but also a marker that progress, in one sense or the other, is always being made. Maybe your run ended earlier than past runs, but time continues to shift and people will have new things to say, new wisdom to impart, and new tidbits of worldbuilding to share with you.

4. Signs of the Sojourner - PC

(Steam)

Screenshot from Signs of the Sojourner

Screenshot courtesy of Echodog games

A deck builder and visual novel rolled into one game for tremendous effect, Signs of the Sojourner (like some of the rest of my list) seemed to go by relatively unnoticed. The story begins simply enough, in a post-apocalyptic world where travel is difficult and resources are scarce, you’re tasked with restocking the general store your mother left you when she died. What this entails mechanically is a set of conversations with a variety of characters where you either come to an accord or end in discord. These conversations are represented in the form of a card game where each person takes turns playing cards that have a starting symbol and an ending symbol. String together enough cards with matching symbols and you continue the conversation positively, or play too many mismatched symbols and end in disagreement. After each conversation, you lose a card from your deck and replace it with one of the cards in your conversation partner’s deck. Combine all that with sharp writing and lovely illustrations and you end up with a game that precisely understands and plays with the way miscommunication occurs in everyday life. You can try to be polite to everyone, but to some people your niceties may read as mocking or patronizing, you can attempt to make people understand through logic and reason but without empathy some people will shy away from your cold arguments. In the end you can’t please everyone and choosing how to navigate the different relationships that build over the game is frustrating and enriching in the same way navigating many of our own daily social interactions can be both positive and negative. Being able to do that through what is at first blush a very simple card matching mechanic is marvelous.

3. Tenderfoot Tactics - PC

(Itch.io, Steam)

Screenshot from Tenderfoot Tactics, A group of Goblins look at a large, humanoid creature with a mask-like face in the distance. A tower looms even taller in the background.

Screenshot courtesy of Icewater Games

There’s a format that many modern, open world, AAA games take to exploration that can feel stale to me: unlocking static icons on a map that shows the player exactly where all of the “game” is, and what bits are just background. Tenderfoot Tactics, an open world tactical-RPG with time-based combat (I’ll get back to this), pushes back against this mode of design to create a world that feels ever changing, and always dangerous, even in areas you’ve already explored. You play as a group of Goblins that are fighting against the Fog, an empire that seems to spread by infecting Goblins while also shrouding their homelands in a dense fog. You set out on a quest to fight back the Fog and put an end to the empire’s endless expansion. You start with a map of the entire world with no markings save for your starting position, and no arrow to signify where you’re currently standing. Traveling over land and sea you have a limited field of view; while you can see large landmarks in the distance with some clarity, the area around you undulates and vibrates with digital noise before settling into a reality you can actually perceive. The world is seemingly always in motion, chaotic and wild, natural and growing. Just walking around this world makes me feel like nature and the unknown are strong forces in this land, and makes the moments you encounter the still, silent, and oppressively opaque Fog that much more impactful. This feeling of wilderness carries over to the combat as well, it is time based, meaning each action takes up a unit of time called a tick, and as each tick passes various natural and elemental phenomena take place. A bush that catches fire at the beginning of a turn will have burned up and spread it’s fire to other bushes as your knight moves five space; holes left by grenades (they’re magic, don’t worry about it) will slowly fill with rain water, poison from an arrow will whittle down your health. Additionally, turns play out on a timeline where each enemy and ally is lined up individually, and different attacks and spells can move allies and enemies alike up and down the timeline. Collectively these systems make the world feel alive, wild, and dangerous in a way most other open worlds fail to even grasp at.

2. Kentucky Route 0 - PC/MacOS/Linux/Xbox/Playstation/Switch

(Website)

Somehow, the first act of Kentucky Route 0 came out over 7 years ago. This is surprising to me mainly because of how prescient the game ends up being all these years later. Released episodically, the final act released this year and put a cap on its ever relevant tale of the toll of capitalism on workers bodies and the power and fragility of community. Through each of its scenes and acts, the game delves deeply into the struggle of labor and the callousness of capital, all the while painting a magical realist picture of a rural Kentucky area, where roads can lead to endless wandering, televisions can become literal portals, and monetary debts can manifest in horrifically physical ways. I could go on but honestly, Austin said it much better than I could.

1. Umurangi Generation - PC

(Steam)

Photo from Umurangi Generation, An oil drum on fire sit's in the center of a pool, while a person sits on a couch at the pool's edge, their legs the only thing in frame.

Photo courtesy of the author

I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the podcast this past year, or has read one of the few pod posts that I’ve written about the game. In case this is the first time you’re hearing about it: Umurangi Generation is a photography game. You’re tasked with taking a specific set of photos while exploring a limited space. Finish taking your photos and deliver them to unlock a new piece of gear and move on to the next level, complete all your bonus objectives within 10 minute and you unlock an additional piece of gear. Sometimes that gear is a new lens type, or a new slider to edit your photos with after you take them (like a chromatic aberration or bloom slider for example). 

This all sounds familiar if you’ve ever used a photo mode in a game, but what is important about this game is the world that you’re taking photos in. Instead of a detached camera floating over a scene, the game makes an important point that you are a person making your way through this world. Every action is deliberate, from raising your camera to your face to turning on the flash, it makes a point that photography is always a physical embodied act. 

Over the span of the game and it’s DLC (which adds four additional levels to the game’s original six), you learn about indigenous people fighting back against a colonizing force, governmental mismanagement of an ecological crisis, and the full power of an oppressive militarized police crushing a local uprising. And that’s not even spoiling just what is actually happening as you move from scene to scene. Umurangi Generation manages to both share a love of photography and the embodied process of picture making and tell an important story about creativity, governmental oppression, and fighting back against an unjust system. It’s everything I could ask for in 2020, a mirror to our own world that not only lays bare the systemic issues we’ve all faced at an even grander scale this past year, but also highlights regular people living their lives and trying to find joy amid the chaos.