Welcome to the end of 2020. Unfortunately, time continues to march on into the future, but we’re coming out of one of the strangest years of my life. We’ve had the deadly mismanagement of COVID-19, we’ve gone through a bizarro election that we’re still experiencing the hangover of, and there was Twitter Discourse of a new and more horrifying variety every day. I think I am like many people in that it felt like my veins were coursing with stress adrenaline for almost an entire year.
I can only speak for myself, but it’s had a very strange effect on my game playing this year. I’ve spent a lot more time in the backlog and way less time playing brand new releases (something that I’m still trying to work through). And, to add to that weirdness, I would say that the majority of the games I enjoyed the most this year were ones that I spent a couple hours with. In the avalanche of information and stress that has been 2020, the games that I’ve found to be the most powerful have stuck, crystalline, in my head where I keep turning them around and around.
The games I’m listing below are those games, the ones from 2020 that have stuck with me through the whole year. But they’re not the only ones I played, and I have some honorable mentions of games that I really enjoyed but I don’t have much to say about: Dark Nights with Poe and Muroe, a bizarrely horny FMV game; Fall Guys, the party game battle royale; and Cat President 2, a visual novel about the presidential election in a world of cats from one of my favorite game development studios.
But now here’s the actual list of games I enjoyed the very most this year.
Teardown is like that scene in The Italian Job where they blow holes through floors in a building in Venice expanded out into an entire video game. You’ve got crimes to do, and you accomplish them by knocking down walls, driving construction equipment through buildings, and generally just trying to find the shortest distance between two points so that you can steal or destroy things before police inevitably show up to the location you’re at and put a stop to your techniques. We have a shortage of heist games, and we don’t have enough things in the lineage of Red Faction Guerilla. Teardown solves many problems for video games.
Video game satire mostly leaves a lot to desire. The medium’s attempts at poking political fun at the world normally begin and end with putting a lampshade on a problem. Play a Watch_Dogs game and you’ll see satire at the level of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a kind of clumsy “look at these goobers” poking fun in such generic terms that no one’s feelings can get hurt, let alone be held accountable. Treachery in Beatdown City is all knives all the time, holding a brutally wicked edge to the throat of contemporary politics from the local to the global. Hooked into a retro frame with a brawler-like combat system that is surprisingly deep, the game centers on a myriad group of people trying to protect their city from gentrifiers, vampire capitalists, and horseshit ideologies that sap that life from real people in the name of absolute and utter destruction. It’s good.
8. Moving Out
Moving house is one of the most stressful human endeavors. It makes you hate the people that you love. This was, of course, the reason I played Moving Out with my wife. If we’ve made it through real moving, we certainly can make it through this moving company video game. I can confidently say we did better here than we did in the real world, but moving a couch is hard as hell even if it’s a digital object in a cute video game. You’ve got to angle it just right to get it down the hallway. Moving Out is also a fantasy, though, because instead of getting it through a weird right angle doorway you can just throw the couch out the window. This felt good at the time, and it feels good while I’m thinking about it right now. If you have moving-related stress, I would suggest giving this one a go.
Look, I’m bought in on these games. I have like 10+ games of lore locked in my head at this point, and basically any movement on the Big Freaky Plot of the game is going to get me interested. Valhalla has some real cool moves there, and the Viking-in-England plot told in short story format was good enough to keep me interested throughout despite very clearly losing steam and coherence at the two thirds mark. I finished it a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It is on this list because I have to be honest with myself.
Earlier this year I reviewed In Other Waters and noted my frustration with it in general before saying that it ultimately resonated with me. That’s still true. I have almost no desire to go back and play it ever again, but I think about it regularly. It works almost perfectly as a gamified science fiction short story, creating clear gameplay pillars out of familiar ideas in the genre. Set at the bottom of the ocean on an alien planet, it’s a contemplative game that asks you to learn some basic rules about ecology and exploit them to your own ends. It ends with some Big Ideas about what the ethics of doing that are at a maximal scale. It’s considered and smart, and worth going back and revisiting if you haven’t played it.
In the mold of run-based games like The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky, Gutwhale gives you a gun and a bullet you need to manually pick up and drops you down a vertical pipe where you’re put into close quarters with weird mutants trying to kill you. Using a very limited set of skills, you go as deep as you can into the...gut. And it’s hard as hell. While I once put a lot of time into these kinds of games, 2020 has been a year of actively bouncing off and out of many of them (sorry Spelunky 2), but Gutwhale has been this weird experience where I dive into for ten or fifteen minutes every couple months and just absolutely lose myself before getting frustrated and giving up. It’s a strange shot of pure enjoyment for me that I can’t quite shake, and I think you owe it to yourself to test your skills in this thing if you haven’t already.
Behind Valhalla, this is the game I spent the most time with this year, and most of that time was spent in a marathon game of northern European violent conquest where I assassinated the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire something like 40 times over two lifetimes in a desperate bid to weaken its hold on my kingdom. It definitely did not work, and I was forced to play nice for a few years before suddenly losing the game entirely due to not having a proper heir. This character-based strategy game is my favorite Paradox title by a long measure, and it’s precisely because I can tell a little micro story like that and have so many wonderful sense-memories of the tides of war, friendship, and assassination that led me to that place. It’s a game where you drop puddles in a pond and watch them echo across history, and I really needed that this year, if only because it allowed me to hyperfocus on some minutiae and forget everything else that was going on.
I’m long on the record as thinking that Circle Empires is one of the best series going, and this year’s multiplayer-focused update is everything I wanted it to be. It is an army building strategy game that slowly tasks you with deathballing up a huge troop of dudes to then overrun the map with. Doing that with friends is fun, but I found myself playing most of this game solo, methodically making my way through each map with each character and just meditatively clearing it out, which could be a challenge but which also gave me some clear, obvious short term goals for my play time. This was something I found really valuable this year.
2. PUBG’s new Paramo map
I’ve been dipping into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds quite a bit this year, and the two newest map releases have had a lot to do with that. At the beginning of 2020 we had a tiny desert island map called Karakin (aka Fortnite Jr.), and a couple months back we got Paramo, a bigger map set on the side of an active volcano. Using some new randomization technology that changes the makeup of the map each match, PUBG has lightly altered the tactical battle royale formula, but most of my enjoyment of this new arena has just been that it’s well-designed and fun to play. Like much of PUBG, it has all the same problems of long sightlines and the unfun experience of being killed from impossibly far away, but that’s always been part of the fun for me. I don’t mind losing terribly, because that just makes the victory all the sweeter (I have one exactly one game on Paramo in weeks of on-and-off again play).
Cloud Gardens is my game of the year. It’s probably my favorite game of the last decade. A simple grower game that asks you to place seeds and grow plants over ruined landscapes of apocalyptic detritus, Cloud Gardens’ mechanics seem sorrowfully suited for the world we live in, and that’s because of how you’re tasked with doing the growing. What coaxes seeds into full plants is not water and soil but decay. If I want my cactus to grow, I surround it with used bottles, rotting traffic cones, and cracked fencing. Then I plant more things on the trash I placed around. This mutually enforcing cycle creates wonderful spaces of overgrowth and ruin, showing us a cycle of decay; it’s the story of every abandoned building, every neglected lot. Without a story, without narrative of any kind, Cloud Gardens communicates a kind of hope beyond hope. The seeds of the future are already there, in tire stacks and rusted shopping carts, and something can flourish there if given enough time.