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Emma Kidwell's Top 10 Games of 2020

Narrative designer Emma Kidwell asks the important question: is there ever a year when Mass Effect 2 wouldn't belong on a top 10 list?

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Emma Kidwell is a narrative designer and writer who was recently named one of Forbes 30 under 30 for 2021. This year she had her most recent game, Half, showcased at the Smithsonian Museum of Arts and Sciences. Her upcoming title, I Wish I Were a Robot, will be released in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @emmakidwell or check out her games on Itch.io.

You don’t need me to tell you how much 2020 sucked. Any grand plans of traveling, working on creative ambitions, or spending more time with friends were crushed and seem like a distant memory. Sure, spending so much time at home may have inspired others to find a new routine and adjust to their new normal-- I’ve worked remotely my entire career so that much wasn’t new for me. But the isolation had me searching for comfort in games, like I’ve done many times in the past. If you’re anything like me, you seek out nostalgic media to regain any sense of normalcy. In addition to going back to much loved games from my past, I also played more new games than I think I have in the last few years combined.

I usually try and avoid playing games as a coping mechanism, but after spending some time in therapy I’ve learned it’s not a bad thing. It’s not a crutch. It’s a safety, it’s familiar, and we deserve a collective breather. It’s OK to pause real life and suspend your disbelief to distract from the stuff going on outside. I had my own routine going, setting up my living room to be as dark as possible, and spending my nights ensconced in my couch with a controller. As always, they’ve been my connection to other people, to my work, and to maintaining my happiness (don’t just play video games, drink water and move around a bit too). If there’s to be a constant in my life, it’s probably going to be a console. I played a random assortment of things this year, straying from my usual narrative-heavy content and I’m really glad I did-- both as a player and designer.

If you released a video game in 2020, congrats! You did something that should already be impossible during a pandemic. Let’s hope 2021 is better. If you’re continuing to survive just like I am, pat yourself on the back and let’s go over some of my favorites titles from this year.

Hades

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This is the first Supergiant game I’ve played, and it isn’t something I think I would have tried on my own. Alongside those on Twitter praising the game (rightly so), I watched a friend of mine make a few runs before he too began suggesting the game to me. On that very same night I downloaded it, got my ass kicked, and have been going back for seconds ever since. Hades does a great job with merging narrative with the gameplay cycle of a roguelike. It’s a unique and smart way of telling an engaging story through design. There’s a lot of replayability after the main story is finished, thanks to the variety of different boons to acquire and weapons to use during each run. Even if you’re not a traditional roguelike fan, I’d still recommend Hades. Play for the story, but stay for the gorgeous characters.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket

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I’ve been a fan of Turnfollow games for a few years now, and Wide Ocean Big Jacket is no exception. It’s a pretty short game filled with very relatable, intimate moments found during a routine camping trip, with characters that display so much personality over the time you spend with them. I love that. I want more of that in all of my games. You take on the perspective of four characters in a 3D space, but all dialogue is relayed through text, 2D avatars, and warbled, Peanuts-esque sound effects to simulate voices. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is charming and sweet and absolutely deserving of your time.

If Found...

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Despite being a fan of story games, I’m not big into visual novels. But If Found... changed that for me. The game is centered around the experience of a teenager in 1990s Ireland, and takes us through their life and relationship through a trans perspective. I really like how specific the lived experience is, and how that story is told through the central mechanic of erasing the past to discover one’s future. It’s compelling, it’s small, and I’m glad If Found... was able to tell its story and find a publisher who believed in sharing it.

Kentucky Route Zero

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I don’t think Kentucky Route Zero is for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. Although the first episode of this game was released in 2013, I didn’t hear about it until I was an editorial intern at Kill Screen (RIP). After playing through what was available at the time, I was eagerly waiting for more, and I got my wish when Kentucky Route Zero was ported to consoles and the final episode was released. It’s a good subversion of the traditional point-and-click adventure genre, with gorgeous set pieces and a compelling mystery to drive each installation. If you’re interested in a deep, rich story, I can’t recommend this game enough.

Among Us

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OK, we’re going to pivot away from single-player narrative experiences with Among Us. Here’s when the “I need to socialize” part of the pandemic had me seeking out online multiplayer games to play with friends, both virtual and close to home. It’s a simple game with simple mechanics, but there’s strategy and lies involved, made even better in a Discord call. I don’t have much else to say about Among Us other than it’s fun and it’s made me a better liar, which may or may not be a good thing.

Phasmophobia

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Surprise! It’s another online multiplayer game, but this time it’s ghost hunting. Again, I think Phasmophobia benefits from playing with friends in a Discord call, but there’s nothing more delightful than screaming at the top of your lungs at midnight because you were forced to stand alone in a decrepit bathroom trying to snap a photo of a ghost. It’s not the prettiest game in the world, but it’s equal parts terrifying and entertaining, and I hope the developers continue to iterate on it.

Ghost of Tsushima

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I was looking forward to Ghost of Tsushima for a long time-- as a half-Japanese person I did have to suspend my disbelief for certain things, but I did enjoy it, despite a few cultural reservations. To start, the game is beautiful. I paused often to take pictures of the scenery or noodle around with camera settings to get the perfect shot. Outside of its visuals, Ghost of Tsushima has compelling characters to drive the story forward, and left me feeling really sad, albeit in a way that felt in line with how the main character Jin was feeling. If you have a spare 25-to-30 hours for the main story, give it a go.

Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales

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This was the first game I played when I finally got my hands on a PS5. Mostly because I’ve had a soft spot for Miles Morales since Into The Spider-Verse, I decided I wanted to give this game a go. I have practically zero Marvel knowledge, so I came into this game knowing very little, other than the basics. Swinging, punching, kicking, everything felt great. In addition to smooth combat, I really liked the character interactions in this game. Sure, some dialogue has to be corny--because superheroes--but it never felt too corny. It felt lived-in and authentic, and did a fantastic job at making me, the player, give a damn about established characters in Miles’ life, thanks to the genuine way in which they were written and designed.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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I’m not going to tell you how many hours I sunk into Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but it’s enough. This game came out on the cusp of the pandemic, and gave me and a great many others solace right when we needed it. It’s a simple game, but it’s charming. I catch bugs, go fishing, talk to my nice villagers, and design my island to fit my aesthetic. I’m grateful New Horizons came out when it did, and although I haven’t touched it in a few months (I’m sorry, villagers), I think it’s still worth getting into if you haven’t already.

Mass Effect 2

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If you thought I wouldn’t mention Mass Effect in my 2020 GOTY list, you were sorely mistaken. I mentioned going back to nostalgic things earlier, and playing through the Mass Effect trilogy was it for me. Years after Mass Effect 2 was published, I still maintain that it’s one of the best games ever made. Every character is unique and well-written, and the suicide mission is still iconic. There isn’t much I can add that hasn’t already been said, but BioWare really did something back then. Maybe they’ll do it again with the remaster and upcoming title, but that’s for another list.