2020: Games of the Year

a way to mark time

2020 was a year of wreckage.

I spent the year dragging myself away from it. Dragging friends, or family. Sometimes strangers — but not often enough. It’s not new wreckage, not really. But for a lot of us, it was clarifying. I’m furious, and I should have been furious before now. But there’s no sense in dwelling, because that doesn’t get us anywhere.

We saved what we could.

I had a lot of trouble playing games this year. I had a lot of trouble doing anything, honestly. I spent my time hauling myself to and from a dead-end job, watching the bus population contract, then expand before it was safe. Not that I blame anyone riding it — we all have to do what’s necessary. And when I was home, I mostly wanted to curl up in my bed and watch something mindless, or fall asleep listening to a podcast. I listened to a lot of podcasts, in 2020.

But it was also a year that encouraged (forced) reflection. And a year that made me reach for people, pulling them closer even as they were being locked away for the next 10 months. My gaming experience was distilled, on some level, its function made obvious: As wholehearted distraction, medium to stay in touch with friends, or way to crack myself open and peer inside.

All this to say: This list is a thing barely hanging together. At least one game on here I actively dislike. I kind of hope I never have to write one like this ever again. But I saved what I could.

Honorable mentions: Dark Souls III (Ringed City DLC), Hollow Knight

10. Code Vein (Bandai Namco Studios, 2019): I did not like this game. I do not think it is very good, on any merits.

The best word I can think of to describe it is “vapid.” The second best word I can think of is “vain.” Take a hot, skinny anime character, give them magic powers and the mantle of a chosen one. Make sure they’re entirely devoid of personality, and make it impossible to inject any beyond the most surface-level, aesthetic flourishes. Rip off the plot of Dark Souls III, a better game in nearly every respect. Try to make engaging Souls-style levels, but instead make them confusing arenas lacking both From Software’s interesting combat encounters and their quiet, environmental storytelling. Try to split the difference between a campy shounen story and something more melancholy and meditative, and fail to capture either. Inject a bunch of complicated, ever-changing leveling and power mechanics into a style of game where muscle-memory is key — then to compensate, make all your bosses ludicrously easy. Code Vein was totally lacking in substance, and, frankly, wasn’t very fun to play.

Why am I bothering to touch on it at all? Why am I spending words on it, when I could use those words on something else?

Because it marks time. I started playing in March, right when the pandemic truly got in gear, when 2020 really started. I finished in September. It demonstrates a couple things: First, that it was fucking hard to finish a video game in 2020. Second, that I was desperate to get something, anything, out of the experiences I had this year. Even when they had nothing to give.

Credit: Everyone in my play-group

9. Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition (Wizards of the Coast, 2014): I don’t much like this game, anymore. D&D in general, and 5th Edition in particular, no longer match my idea of a fun tabletop game in most respects — especially to run. But, unlike a number of video games I’ve played this year, it has a distinction: I finished it.

A campaign of it, anyway. But ask anyone: Actually finishing a campaign of a tabletop roleplaying game, genuinely going from beginning to end and marking the full arc of a story, is rare. I’ve been playing TTRPGs since high school, and I’ve been in one other campaign with a definitive end since then. So finishing a campaign, and finishing one in 2020 no less, feels like an achievement. In March 2017, we began our game. And in December 2020, we brought it to a close.

It was a way to hang out with my friends. A way to see them, every week, to check in, to make sure we’re all still around. Maybe not the best way — but a way, and I was grateful for it.

5th Edition cares way more about battle maps, and movement speeds, and opportunity attacks than I ever will. It has the most uninspired leveling system of any roleplaying game I can name. I mostly play other games, these days, games that care about the same things I do a little bit more. But, for better or worse, 5th Edition has broken free from basements and game shops. People know it. And people — people like me and my friends — try to break and bend it in our image. Make it looser. Make it gayer. Less biologically essentialist, less colonialist. We chip at the margins, and try to make it our own. There’s only so much you can do, of course. You take what you can, try to cut out the rest. You probably fail to cut out all the bad bits; realize some of it’s baked so deep that to fix it would be to build something else.

Looking back on it, and on our game, is bittersweet. They were imperfect, and I’m glad I’m done with them. I’m glad I’m moving on, and I’m trying to apply that ethos elsewhere in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss them, and lying worse if I pretended they didn’t help me through a lot. I appreciate them for what they were, and I’m glad I was able to get something out of them.

critical support for lana beniko

8. Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare, 2011): I’ve played SWTOR basically since it’s come out. I’ve played SWTOR for more hours than any other game, ever, easily. MMOs will do that to you. It has its moments, but taken as a whole, it’s honestly not very good.

Maybe you’re seeing a theme, here.

It’s March. Some people have lost jobs; some will lose them soon, others will be classed as “essential” workers and keep on trudging along. It’s beginning to sink in that we won’t see each other for a while. It’s fucking lonely, and we’re reaching for anything that will keep us together, anything that can be a bit of glue while we’re in isolation.

I honestly don’t even remember what prompted it. Me and a friend had been playing a couple characters through the game not too long before; others were probably doing the same. Regardless, in the space of about a week, a new Discord was formed, and along with it, our first guild: The Emergency Yurt Polycult.

The whole thing was slapdash, and our interests were varied. Some are still playing, months later; I’m not. But The Old Republic’s status as a comfort game was cemented. It had always been so, for me: Playing with one friend, or by myself, sinking thousands of hours into living an unmoored, heightened-pulp version of Star Wars in which I could be a badass, deadpan bounty hunter or a prickly lesbian Sith Lord with a penchant for doing the right thing while appearing as evil as possible. And though it didn’t last, it was a joy to have others join me and take comfort in that same world, and to have our colorful characters intersect and create flashes of brilliance.

And I’ll be back, eventually. I always am.

don’t ask

7. The Jackbox Party Pack (Jackbox Games, 2014–2020): Jackbox provided an unexpected silver-lining for the year: In 2020, they finally released a version of Quiplash with a decent final round!

I don’t have a great deal to say on this one. It’s fun, and silly, and the barrier to entry is relatively low. You can play with your family, with people you haven’t talked to in a while, or with your closest friends. It can be a little overwhelming, and a lot of the games kind of suck. But the good ones make up for it, and it mostly transcends shitty Cards Against Humanity style humor for something a little more accessible and a little less gross.

The night of Halloween, sitting in my room, eating pizza, dressed up for the first time in who knows how long, drinking cider, and playing Jackbox with my friends as we got more and more tired and ridiculous, is something I remember with a lot of genuine fondness. That counts for something.

my most heroic gaming achievement in 2020

6. Final Fantasy VII: Remake (Square Enix, 2020): For a good chunk of the year, I expected Remake to take the top of my list. I’m glad it doesn’t, for a number of reasons, but I’m also glad I managed to play at least one genuinely good single-player RPG this year.

Some context about me: I’m an avid RPG player. The first game to really grab my attention, ever, was Knights of the Old Republic, me watching with wonder as my older cousin broke into apartments and fought her way through the undercity of Taris on a Thanksgiving vacation. Dragon Age: Origins was the first M-rated game I ever played, and I have an abiding affection for that series and most of BioWare’s other work (flawed though it may be). RPGs were synonymous with video games to me for a long while, and it would be years before I realized that some people cared more about “a good jump” than about branching dialogue or sprawling epilogues.

But in all that, I had only the barest inkling of what a JRPG was. Final Fantasy was massive, and confusing, and I just didn’t understand why there were so damn many of them. I watched Advent Children when I was 15, came away with no more understanding of what was going on than before, and basically wrote the whole genre off. Easy to do, since no one I knew had any interest beyond Zelda and my parents would never let me own a console.

But in 2020, I’m (for some damn reason) the person who listens to gaming podcasts, follows a million games journalists and developers on Twitter, and is generally trying to broaden my game horizons a little bit. So, when everyone in that space started losing their shit about Remake, and I was playing (and hating) Code Vein, I decided to take the plunge.

I’m glad I did! Turns out, you don’t need a bunch of branching paths or ending slides to make a good RPG. You just need good characters, an interesting world to explore, an engaging story, and a compelling combat system (one that reflects the characters involved in an interesting way). And Remake has all of those, and more, and any awkward dialogue or boring side-quests are quickly washed away once you really get into the rhythm of things. From the (spoilers for a 20-odd year old game) moment the plate drops till the moment the end credits roll, the game is a wild, exciting, and powerful ride. They spent too much money on this game, but I regret to report that the setpiecing and ridiculousness mostly pays off spectacularly.

But Remake is a bit more than that, and it’s that bit more that made me pick it up in the first place. It is not a faithful recreation of the original Final Fantasy VII’s events. It is a play on them; an alternate story rich with metatext and unspoken potential. The ending is genuinely affecting, and surprising, even for someone who only knows what is being subverted secondhand. And frankly, 2020 is a year in which the idea of fighting tooth and nail against Fate itself, of ripping some hope from its jaws, is powerful.

5. Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, 2019): Up one spot from last year’s list, Apex is a great game. It’s a great shooter, a great battle royale, and it has a surprisingly decent story component. It generates fun stories and rides the line between “fun hangout game” and “intense, competitive experience requiring teamwork and focus” exceptionally well.

But we already know all that; I talked about most of it last year. And it played a different role in my life this year, so that bears talking about.

That role was twofold. One, already touched-on: Great way to hang out with people. I’ve probably, cumulatively, spent more time with my Apex friends than with anyone else this year. Two: A black hole, in which I could throw endless hours. From probably April to July (or maybe August? Who knows), it was all I really played. It was all I really thought about, when I wasn’t at work or thinking about how evil this country is. It kind of depressed me, but at the same, time, I really didn’t have the brain-space to do much else. It took finally finishing FF7R to snap me out of that funk.

But even though my feelings on my time with it in 2020 are mixed, it deserves this spot on the list. It was an important part of my year. And honestly, I see no reason for my journey with it to stop in 2021.

4. Kentucky Route Zero (Carboard Computer, 2013–2020): Kentucky Route Zero, a game that came out for the greater part of a decade, is the next great American novel. Or, at least, a next great American novel, and its commitment to utilizing literary, theatrical, and historical reference with clarity and nuance is definitely unparalleled vis a vis any video game I’ve played or heard of. It’s a masterpiece, and I wish I hadn’t tried to play it through as quick as I did, rushing to finish the last act before 2020 was over.

KRZ is a story about journeys, and margins, and debt, and facelessness. As you wander down the highways and through the caves of rural Kentucky, searching for a place that doesn’t seem to exist, playing out the last gasp of a dying business and way of life, you encounter magic, and beauty, and horror. Rooted strongly in the magical realist tradition, it defies expectations about agency and choice created by other games, obscuring the moving parts while letting you color it in as you go along. The growing cast of characters you pick up (and play as, authoring their thoughts and feelings along the way) are ordinary and strange, and you come to care for them and the little family they come together to build. The art is blocky and dark and odd; always evocative and never the same. And the music, most of all, is an expression of feeling and defiance in a way that cuts through to something primal and necessary.

KRZ knows that capitalism kills people, delimiting the possibilities in their lives, making them fear death and destitution, enforcing scarcity and ensuring compliance. Capitalism is an engine of alienation and marginalization, as it forces most into cruel and colorless lives while forcing the rest into lives of tenuous uncertainty. KRZ is primarily interested in the subjects of that marginalization: A queer, working class Mexican woman with a dying job, a delivery man with debts to pay and ties to a world that will soon no longer exist, a pair of androids built for labor who choose song instead. It paints these portraits strikingly, and leads them through the tragedy of its arc with a steady hand. A powerful sense of melancholy permeates the game, inviting you to immerse yourself in it.

But in focusing on those characters and the world’s effect on them with such specificity and care, it reveals its own blindspots.

“krz is lauded as an anticapitalist work because of how its narrative explores themes of debt and ownership, exploitation and dehumanization. but it expresses these themes through historicizing, memorializing, and empathizing with unracialized figures like “the worker,” “the miner,” “the truck driver” (conway). it ignores the obscured but just as, if not more, thematically relevant and vital histories of Black chattel slavery and violence against indigenous people that not only continue to shape the modern world but also literally shaped the very caves in which the game’s characters are standing and talking.” (Lotus Root Records, https://www.critical-distance.com/2020/05/03/may-3rd-2/)

The last act, in particular, deals with death and history in a fascinating and poignant way — but in failing to address the specifics of who the people of the past were, and failing to acknowledge the living, breathing indigenous people who fight for their land and lives in North America today, it loses its weight. Like many “great American novels,” it is white, and the interest in multiple perspectives woven into the fabric of its gameplay only makes the absences more striking. Kentucky Route Zero is a beautiful work of art, one that reflects the world we live in and can provide words for the feelings we have about our lives and the systems that create their tendencies. But it’s not enough.

3. If Found…(Dreamfeel, 2020): I played If Found…in one night, sitting on the couch with my Switch, the Sunday before Christmas at my parent’s house. It had me crying around hour two, and it gave me a brutal existential crisis going into the holiday.

To talk about it honestly, I’m going to spoil the premise pretty thoroughly. If you want to play it completely fresh, suffice it to say that it’s a short, perfectly paced visual novel with beautiful art, incredible music, and a moving, queer story.

If Found…is the story of being trans, living away from home, and returning. It’s the story of the past, and the future, and how sometimes you need to destroy the past in order to create that future. You need to say goodbye to who you are; maybe even kill them. And you need people to recognize what you’ve done, to meet the new you, or get out. The story of Kasio (or Casseiopia) is one of identity, growing up, and annhiliation. It contextualizes itself in nineties rural Ireland, and the game wields the specificity of that setting with poise and intention.

If Found… has one interaction, one mechanic: To progress, you must erase everything that’s come before. A scene of you and your friends eating bacon and laughing in the kitchen? Gone. Idle scribbles in your journal about your father, your mother, your brother, gone. Daydreams — or external realities — among the stars and the planets, gone. To move forward, you must rid yourself of what came before.

I came out to my parents this year. Shortly before I played this game, in fact. Telling them to refer to me in a different way, to see me as someone other than their son, was really hard. And it was harder to watch them mess it up, over and over again. Whenever they said “he” or “son” or whatever else, I wanted to rip the knowledge of who I’d been to them out of their heads.

So, If Found… and its tale of the holiday where it all comes to a head hit me hard. It made me feel awful, but for the right reasons.

At the end of the game, If Found… gives you the option to make Kasio. Clothing, hair, jewelry, expression — you’re given the power to shape her. You create Kasio, and that act of creation, that reversal, makes every line you’ve erased worthwhile. It’s proudly and boldly trans, and it’s beautiful.

honestly nyx, that’s pretty gay of you

2. Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020): I was really, really tempted to put this at the top. If you were to judge by hours spent in a game, and ignore Apex, Hades wins by a mile. Or at least, I’m pretty sure it does — the Switch doesn’t track hours.

Hades is beautiful. It’s sexy. It’s charming. It’s simple, and addicting, but also deceptively complex. It’s a blast to play. It’s about the Greek gods, an admitted weakness of mine. It just kind of generally rules. As you try to escape the Underworld, piloting the snarky, charming Zagreus on his way towards freedom, over and over again — if you die, you return home to the House of Hades — you meet and fall in love with bosses, argue with your boyfriend, repair relationships and lift unjust sentences. Much has been said about its marriage between sharp mechanics and compelling storytelling, about its pacing and the absurd amount of story and character content it provides, so I won’t go on. Suffice to say: It’s great. I’ve beaten it over sixty times, and it’s likely there are more runs in my future.

But Hades is really about dying, and failing, and being stuck somewhere terrible. It’s about saving what you can from that; about deriving meaning and beauty from situations and settings that are cruel and beyond your control. It’s about taking what you can, and dragging the people you care about along with you, making sure they can live well, too.

Hades is about making hell a better place. It’s no wonder why it struck such a chord this year.

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1. Crusader Kings III (Paradox Development Studio, 2020): I talked about my gaming roots a bit with Final Fantasy VII: Remake, about falling prey to love at first sight with the original KOTOR. But around the same time, or maybe even earlier — being a kid was, for me, basically a haze — I fell deeply in love with another game, one with very different interests and aesthetics. That game was Civilization III.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about Civ 3. Was it one of the good ones? I think people liked IV better, and the one I’ve spent the most time with is V. But it launched a lifelong love for strategy games, and probably helped cement my interest in history, so it’s one of the good ones in my book.

For the unfamiliar, Crusader Kings is a series in which you take the role of a medieval ruler — a count, a duchess, an emperor — and play out their dynasty, wherever that may take you. When your character dies, you play their heir, and so on throughout the centuries, with each character you play mired in unique foibles but also buoyed by unique quirks and advantages. It posits history as a rich, personal tapestry, and it does a remarkable job of both modelling many medieval societies throughout the world and also helping you generate engaging stories about the varied shitty noble families you’re roleplaying.

As much fun as it is to see a map turn the color of your choice (and that is fun), the joy in Crusader Kings is in the stories its characters create. Starting out as the younger, weaker brother to the king of Navarra (in homage to my own Basque heritage), I soon found myself constantly at war with my liege, as they tried over and over to throw me in jail for adultery (and for being a man, as I’d made women the primary inheritors in this world). Eventually, after numerous stalemates and deposed lieges, the unthinkable happened: The teenaged queen of Navarra, my (now aged and grizzled) character’s niece, secured a marriage alliance with the queen of France. Next time she tried to throw me in jail, a massive army of frogs would come crashing over the Pyrenees and crush my nascent commonwealth. I was left with a terrible choice.

I had my niece killed. Or rather, Infante Ramiro Gartziez, Count of Najera, had his niece killed. The alliance crumbled, and my line was safe.

And then he immediately died, leaving his daughter to take over the Kingdom of Navarra in his place. Which she did, after which she came down with consumption and died herself, leaving things to her bookish younger sister, Marianne.

In turn, she proceeded to secretly convert to Islam, ally with the Islamic half of Spain, and take over Castille by declaring herself its rightful heir in the eyes of God. By the end of her granddaughter’s lifetime, nearly all of Spain was under the Basque banner, and by her granddaughter’s demise, all of Western Europe and Africa had pledged fealty to the Jimena line.

And that’s the high-level stuff. What about the time when Marianne I, first queen of Navarra and Castille, fell for the queen of Badajoz, seduced her, and soon became queen of Badajoz in turn, with her as spymaster? Or the time Endulcia II (Caliph, at this point) wanted to give her girlfriend, all the way over in India, a kingdom of her own, so she started a war, kidnapped and exiled her mom, and took over the subcontinent, only hand it back over? And that’s only the tip of the iceberg for messy gay drama — because let me tell you, when your line has a bunch of fertility bonuses, pretty much everyone in the world is bisexual, and you pretty much always have multiple consorts, you end up with a lot of kids and a lot of people yelling about who’s been fucking whom. It’s great.

I haven’t even told you about the time Caliph Anderkina died and Mireine took over. Turns out, she’d been killing random people in the woods, plus she’d had at least one of her own siblings murdered.

If it sounds like I’m salivating at some absolutely horrible shit, well, maybe. But that’s what makes Crusader Kings work: A total commitment to role-play, and a brutal honesty about the machinations of noble classes and those who rule them. The depth and granularity of the systems, and writing, involved is staggering, and a genuine achievement in both the strategy and roleplaying genres. Which is the secret, of course — this game is just as much KOTOR as it is Civ, and that’s a big part of what makes it so special.

Crusader Kings III was an escape in a way absolutely nothing else was this year. It consumed me; every waking thought was devoted to the game and the complex, ridiculous problems it presented. As my friends can attest, I talked about it non-stop. I think in a year where the idea of visiting Pamplona, or Tuscany, or India was laughable, the allure of being able to inhabit nearly anyone in the world couldn’t be beat. And likewise, inhabiting those shitty, shitty people was a powerful way to not inhabit myself for a while, to think about their lives and motivations and goals, rather than mine.

I lost September to Crusader Kings, and I’m glad of it. I didn’t have to extract what I liked from the game. I just had to let it sweep me away.

Maybe that’s a little cowardly, but it’s honest. And I think we need escape, release, to move forward. It’s not all video games are good for, but there’s no use in denying their potency. And that, for me, makes Crusader Kings III the game of 2020.

Storyteller and story-breaker. I think about different worlds too much, and try to make sense of this one. They/them. @lightwoven