Abby Russell is a comedian and former Content Producer with Giant Bomb. Like everyone else, she is currently riding out the pandemic and streaming regularly to twitch. You can also follow her on twitter, instagram, and YouTube.
Wow! I’m finally writing a top ten list, no longer as an employee of Giant Bomb! Somehow things feel so different and yet... exactly the fucking same. It’s probably because I get paid one million dollars a word, like usual. Wait. They AREN’T paying me to write my list this year?? Fuck!
I’m not saying anything new here, but this was such a strange year for so many reasons. And my gameplay choices were no exception. Spoiler alert! Pretty much everything listed below will have some form of multiplayer interaction in it. I think that is partially due to me not being particularly enthralled by the big-name, single player games that came out this year, and partially just because I think we all had to learn new ways to socialize.
The Last of Us II felt overly long and transparently manipulative in a way that kept me from feeling affected by the story. And Cyberpunk 2077 just never really hooked me, all jank and drama aside. Watch Dogs: Legion offered some exciting possibilities with inhabiting any character you see in the world (my first and favorite recruitment was a middle aged, lesbian hair dresser named, Susan. I mean HELLO!!). But ultimately the gameplay was fun, and not really doing much else new.
Below are my favorite games I played this year, but really, my favorite things I did this year was hang out with friends, old and new. And these games were simply the best way to do that.
Minecraft! In 2020! Who would have thought!
I played A TON of Minecraft when it first came out, and haven’t really touched it since. Playing it with the GB crew was such a nice and relaxing respite from everything else this year. Not only was it a great way to hang out with everyone, but I also found it a really soothing escape during a very tumultuous summer. I loved going out exploring and simply getting lost in the mines. The gameplay is just so satisfying. It’s simple and easy, but there are so many moments of surprise and creativity. This was one of the few stream games that I actively wanted to keep playing even when the cameras stopped rolling.
In a year where so many of us felt our lives were on hold, playing a game where I could actively feel myself improving and making progress was a godsend. My general gameplay loop with the Souls games is this:
- Discover a new area.
- Spend a few deaths learning it and feeling like I’m making major progress.
- Make it to the boss and die immediately.
- Get impatient and keep dying on my way back to the boss again and again.
- Lament that the game is not actually that hard it’s just tedious and unfairly punishing for the sake of being punishing.
- Lose a lot of souls in the process, probably.
- Finally beat the boss and declare it one of the best games ever, actually.
- Do it all over again in the next section.
It’s a fun time! And playing it on my Twitch streams has been a nice way to combat the frustration by being able to ask people if I am going the right way or if I’m going in circles and my efforts are for naught.
I have played many a scary game in my day, and I am so excited to see the genre start to embrace cooperative gameplay more fully. Until Dawn was such a spectacular unofficial couch coop game, and the Dark Pictures Anthology doesn’t just incorporate that cooperative storytelling into the game, it builds upon it and makes it better.
I played both Man of Medan on my twitch with my buddy, Casey Malone, and for Extra Life with Vinny. Having moments where each player is making choices that will affect the other's story is so simple and ingenious. I ran into a few bugs during my time with Little Hope, but I loved the overall experience so much that I cannot wait to see what the next installment brings.
The Jackbox games are some of my favorites of all time, and I think the latest pack is one of their best. Like usual, the animation and packing of each game is superb, and the writing is topnotch.
Each Jackbox pack takes pretty wide swings, so some games are spectacular while others can be stinkers (or, at the very least, less well-suited for my goof-focused friend groups). But just about every game in this pack was a winner.
Quiplash 3 continues to improve on a fan favorite with a really fun (albeit polarizing) claymation style.
As someone who doesn’t typically care for the trivia games, Blather Round is a great way to feel like you can puzzle out what pop culture reference your friend is trying to get you to guess, without just picking from a multiple choice sheet. And the addition of a text-to-speech feature for all of the guesses makes even the references you don't get fun.
Champed Up is probably my favorite Jackbox drawing game to date. The drawing UI has been fully updated to make it so you can easily draw the outline of your battle-character, and then color it in. This allows all of my very creative friends to show off, but still lets us who are less skilled in the art of image craft feel like we have a seat at the table. And it’s a lot of fun to watch your fucked-up characters fight each other in a Pokémon battle.
I’d say the Devil in the Details is the only game I haven’t really gone back to, but it also seems like it’s maybe better suited for playing in person, which I obviously cannot do.
I’ve played a lot of Jackbox this year, and the games in this pack are always the first choice for my friends.
6. Among Us
This game unlocked something in me the first time I played it, and what it unlocked was my deep love of chaos. Nothing brings me more joy than deliberating with a group and convincing everyone that my wild hunch is correct, even though it rarely is. I also love absolutely murdering everyone in sight as the imposter and then playing it coy when it comes time to deliberate. It reveals a lot about social dynamics, and the way people communicate, but in a way that’s fun and not too exhausting. The gameplay is so simple and easy to catch onto that it really is a great party game, and an especially great choice for this year.
Remember when you were a kid and you pretended you had all of the powers of your favorite video game characters? Like being able to fly or shoot lasers out of your hands??
Okay, I don’t know if anyone actually did this, as my sister and I mostly just pretended to be Sims who couldn’t figure out how to walk around a chair. BUT. I do imagine playing Half-Life: Alyx feels like that sort of experience come to life. Yes, yes, I know feeling like you’re inside of a video game is exactly the point of VR, but it’s never been as well done as well as in Half-Life: Alyx.
Early on in the game you get gravity gloves that attract objects directly into your hand. Being able to see an object across the room and have it zoom towards me is both incredibly satisfying and cool, while also solving a lot of the movement problems that come with having a VR system in a smaller space. It was especially fun to send an object towards me and then fumble catch it just like I would in real life.
Some VR games struggle with trying so hard to play like a non-VR experience, while others try to be so immersive that the gameplay itself becomes tedious and nauseating. Half-Life: Alyx streamlines the tedious parts of VR while incorporating immersive elements that make the gameplay seem even more real. The first time I had to fumble with reloading and cocking my gun while an enemy was approaching was truly panic inducing. And when I entered a level with minimal lighting I was absolutely terrified. On top of all this, the story and performances are pretty good, too!
Of course it is still a VR experience, so it comes with a lot of the growing pains of a game built on still-developing technology. Some environments can feel like amusement park attractions; they set a cool atmosphere, but it feels like you’re watching a scripted event happen just out of reach. Also, there are loading screens between each level, which is not only a bit jarring to experience in VR, but feels like a holdover from the 15-year-old game HLA is built off of. But these feel like small quibbles in what is a truly incredible experience, and one that leaves me hopeful for what’s next to come.
Can an album be on a game of the year list? No? Okay, how about if it’s a really good, surprise Fiona Apple album? Still no? Well, this is my list and I’m the boss, so buckle up and DEAL WITH IT.
When I was in middle school I was full on OBSESSED with Fiona Apple in a time where none of my peers were listening to her. I would secretly replay Tidal and When the Pawn on repeat on my iPod Mini, perfectly content with knowing that this would be all of the music from Fiona Apple that I would ever be blessed with. With Apple being the first musician whose work I really followed closely (and having discovered her a little under 10 years after the last record was released), I figured all artists released two albums in their youth and never again. Musicians are troubled and that was simply a fact of life.
This mindset stuck with me so formatively that even now when musicians and bands consistently release albums every two to three years, it feels like a miracle. And when Fiona Apple releases a new album, it feels like God himself has climbed down from heaven just to personally kiss me on the forehead. And I’m not even religious!
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an album written and recorded entirely in Apple’s California home, full of the personality and warmth that come with dogs barking in the background or her sister harmonizing with her melodies. She sings about love and past relationships, but mostly she sings about coming into herself. Strengths she’s gleaned from heartbreak and friends and even just acquaintances who saw something in her she didn’t. This is no longer the 19-year-old woman trying to find her place in the music industry. Apple came to Fetch the Bolt Cutters with the wisdom and security in her sense of self that can only come with age.
This album would be incredible if released under normal circumstances, but having another Fiona Apple album drop unexpectedly two months into lockdown felt like a warm hug from an old friend. A reminder that we would get through this and everything would, eventually, be okay. And even if things weren’t okay, hopefully we’ll be able to find the strength to endure and embrace however these hardships will change us. I hope that we’ll all be able to find the same strength and beauty in ourselves.
Like many impressionable people this lockdown, I watched The Queen’s Gambit and immediately got deeply engrossed in chess. And, luckily for me, I am just as good at playing chess as Beth Harmon. I’ve been playing seriously for only a couple of months, but I’m already playing at a Grand Master level. It’s simply too bad that COVID is preventing me from entering a tournament and getting a verifiable public ranking. You’ll simply have to take my word!
I’ve tried to get into chess a few times in my life, but found it very difficult to feel like I was improving. When I found Learn Chess with Dr. Wolf, things immediately clicked. I could practice specific tactics and I felt confident while doing it. Which is good because I’m on Chess.com a lot, too, and that app can best be described as “demoralizing". Whoever decided to call certain moves “blunders” is a sadist.
And, like pretty much everything else on this list, I have met some new friends doing it! I love chess! I love my friends! I love getting my ass absolutely kicked by Blessing Adeoye Jr.!!!!
In a year of isolation, I was fortunate enough to actually make new friends (and even an acquaintance or two) all thanks to Fortnite. I used Fortnite as basically a way to have a socially acceptable nightly phone call with friends. The gameplay is simple and repetitive enough that we could chat about our day without too much distraction, but Fortnite offers new content near constantly to still keep us all engaged.
I’ve never really been a big fan of battles royale, but there’s always stuff to do in Fortnite that has little to nothing to do with actually winning. Also Fortnite is just plain fun! Can I go fishing as a meat pie in Apex Legends? Or perhaps murder Iron Man in cold blood in PUBG? I don’t fucking think so!!!!!
Animal Crossing, light of my life, fire of my Switch. My sin, my soul. Ani-mal-Crossing: a dance in my mouth, titillation for my gob. Animal. Crossing.
Now that I’ve gotten that absolutely insane intro out of the way, I’m here to say I love Animal Crossing with all my heart! I would marry Animal Crossing if I could! She keeps saying no!
I feel as though my life can be divided between the different eras of me playing Animal Crossing, and the gaps of time spent waiting for the next one. There was an unusual eight year wait between New Horizons and New Leaf and (after a couple of critical missteps with Pocket Camp and Happy Home Designer, both of which I really enjoyed) anticipation was high. Thankfully New Horizons builds off of the excellent decorating mechanics from HHA and the player-character-as-mayor from NL to make an Animal Crossing game that feels fully customizable.
New Horizons was a much needed escape at the start of the COVID lockdown, but it was also an even more needed excuse to connect with people. I was visiting close friends’ towns and even reconnecting with old friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years. Who would have guessed that I would be playing Animal Crossing while on speaker phone with my best friend from middle school? Not me, that’s for damn sure! But I’m so thankful for it! I had so many wonderful and meaningful and silly distractions with people thanks to this amazing little game.
And once we all settled into lockdown, I also settled into Animal Crossing. I no longer needed to escape into my town to get through the day. This game has been a godsend in a difficult year, and even on the days or weeks when I don’t need to escape into my town, I’m so thankful to know my little buddies are there, happy for my return.