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Erica Lahaie's Top 10 Games of 2020

Illustrator Erica Lahaie has a lot to say about her favorite games of 2020, and at least one game that was decidedly not a favorite.

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Erica is an illustrator and designer on the internet. She draws cute girls, sci-fi cities, and fashion with LCD panels in them. She also does a lot of stuff for websites, music, and video games. Her resolution for 2021 is to remember most of the Japanese she's forgotten from being stuck inside for seven months in a row, and also to convince whoever she needs to at Namco to make a new Ridge Racer. You can find her on Twitter, support her on Patreon, buy her merch here, or tell her what you think about Valorant just being Counter-Strike with Overwatch abilities here.

I will spare you the "hey this year, amirite :)))" schtick because I'm tired of it and everything else, constantly.

There's no cool arcade games on my list this year, unfortunately. COVID hit right as when most of the games I played got their updates and I told myself I'd wait until things settled down to check them out... and then it didn't... and then I had to move back to North America... and then here we are like 7 months later...

🙃 (Does Giant Bomb do emoji? It's an upside down smile. I'm upside-down upset.)

Here are some games I played this year that I liked!

Special Mentions

Fuser

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I knew Fuser was something special when I streamed it to my friends in Discord and got like four of them to buy it on the spot. It's a game I keep coming back to here and there because my time with Serato taught me that I need to be really diligent about learning how to DJ, and I don't have the free time for that despite how much I would love to. How fast you go from "I'm bad at this" to "I'm a PRO" in Fuser is kind of wild and if you've got a decent sense of rhythm, it's easy to make actually great mixes. There's also the whole other thing of, like, being able to create some Cicierega-esque nightmares, too.

Control: The Foundation & AWE DLC

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Not a lot to say about this one, but I wanted to shoutout both Control DLCs for being exactly what I wanted them to be. They feel essential to whatever is next for the Remedy-verse in a way that is maybe a bit of a bummer, locking that behind additional paid content and all, but honestly why is playing more Control even a 'yes or no' question for you, if it is. It shouldn't be. It's more Control. Play more Control.

Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales

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I kept being surprised by how good Miles Morales is compared to the first Spider-Man game. It's shorter, but in a focused way, the characters are better for being more relatable, the music is better for being more stylized ... I mean, I could pick apart every aspect of the game and it'd just be me going "It's better this time". In the end, I think Miles is just a more interesting character to me, and his world allows for more down-to-earth stories to be told. Insomniac trying their hand at that while also making the game less padded out with useless side-stuff and stealth missions made for a great time.

I'm also gonna say the thing: I still feel like I'm bashing my head against a wall that won't budge with these kinds of games' refusal to acknowledge that cops aren't actually the good guys. Spider-Man: Miles Morales taking awful things that the police have documentedly done in real life and making a faceless PMC do it instead... Guys, you don't need to invent supercop bad guys to tell your superhero tale. They exist in real life, and they're the people that fail to protect us. Give me that story next time instead of trying to tell me bad people do bad things because it's just in their nature to be bad.

Rock Band 4 / Phase Shift

Back when I had infinite free time, I played Rock Band and Rock Band 2 religiously. I continued to do that until RB3, because I started college around that time and moved to an apartment on the 3rd floor of a building so... yeah. No time and no means to play anymore. Back then I could Full Combo most songs on expert drums! But that was years ago. My bones crack when I get out of bed in the morning now. Hasn't stopped me from wanting to get back into it! I've just always found myself in situations where having a bunch of plastic instruments again wasn't feasible... until this year.

Alex's wonderful streams (I know you're reading this Alex, so I'll tell you again: Thank you for those, they're a highlight of every week and make me way more productive when I'm catching up on them.) gave me the final itch I needed to get back into drumming.

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Turns out, it still wasn't very feasible. We're two people living in this apartment that is extremely meant for one. But I talked about it with my wife and convinced her that, yeah, of course we can fit an electronic drum kit in here. It's totally reasonable. And she bought it! lmaoooooooo sucker. And to think it only cost me... oh. Oh no.

Yeah, getting into Rock Band this late in the game is uh, expensive, as it turns out. I don't recommend starting from scratch unless you're a dumbass like me.

I did it, though, and I've started practising on the reg again. Being locked indoors for months at a time had me itching for some kind of exercise and release. I'm nowhere near as good as I used to be, but I'm also playing on a real-ass drum kit now, so it's taking a lot of catching up and like... actual learning to get back there. Did you know a kick pedal isn't just a pedal?? It's a thing with a chain and springs and stuff that swing this hammer-lookin thing and it has momentum that you need to account for??

Seeing what's populated the Rock Band 4 store over the past few years has been fun but most of my time has been spent exploring custom tracks through Phase Shift, an abandonware replica of Rock Band. I trust Harmonix's selection of DLC stuff and I'll continue to support it, but I know stuff like Sakanaction's "Shin Takarajima" will never come to Rock Band, so getting to play that or all of the Ghost tracks that should have come to Rock Band has been really fun.

The List™️

10. Hades, Game I Would Have Put More Time Into This Year If I Bought It On PC First of the Year

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I'll level with y'all and say I've maybe put like 6-8 hours into Hades which is criminally low, but I also bought it on Switch and I found out that was just not how I wanted to primarily play that game. It runs great! But I do most of my mobile Switch gaming on my Switch Lite, and a lot of the text there is unreadable. I eventually resorted to only playing it on the TV through my normal Switch but even that...

It's an incredible game! One with art so good it makes me go, like, "dude why even bother" a lot. It's one of those. If you're also an artist you know exactly the feeling. What it does with music and narrative and using the roguelike structure to actually tell a story.... It's on another level, and I decided I wanted to play it on PC with my big expensive monitor and speakers to take it in the way I know is best. I made the decision to wait for cross-save to hit to get that save over, and that's in now, so I'm gonna go get back to that.

9. Astro's Playroom, Wii Sports of the Year

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I don't have a ton to say about Astro's Playroom other than it made me wish every game had controller rumble support like it does, and that it's charming in a way that I don't think any console "mascot" game has ever really been. They get so much mileage out of PlayStation's history as a console manufacturer and game publisher over the years, in a way that probably only works this well the first time around, but between this and their VR game I'm super excited to see what Team Asobi does next.

PlayStation and Xbox games chasing higher and higher fidelity over the past whatever years have created this void of "mascot" games--you know, the kind that Nintendo has in spades and trods out 3-4 times per year. This is the first time I felt like Sony's really found 'one' of those (Kratos or Nathan Uncharted don't count, sorry. A "guy" isn't a mascot) and I hope they don't whiff on what could be an exciting return for platformer adventure games that are just cute and fun and don't need to be anything more complicated than that.

8. Helltaker, I'm a Simp to the CEO of Hell Award of the Year

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If you followed any artists on Twitter, there was this unmissable two-to-three day period two years ago where Bowsette happened. It was (at least, to me) this actually really fun moment where Twitter felt like a fun party full of peace and unmitigated joy. No drama, no garbage, just people indulging in this one made-up character and having a good time.

If you were around for that, you were probably around in early 2020 when the same happened for Helltaker. The short and free puzzle game is done by a single person, Łukasz Piskorz, and I loved it because it was the same kind of 'moment'. You wake up one morning and all of Japanese art Twitter is blowing up, drawing these characters and you're just like ???? Like, "OK, what art meme is going around today?" And it turns out it's just this small, super stylish indie game with a great art style and great soundtrack.

It tells a very silly story, has a very fun epilogue, and despite there being no real """lore""" to Lucifer, Cerberus, Modeus, or any of the other girls I (and a ton of other artists) continue to think about them and draw them constantly. They clicked with people in a very similar way for very different reasons and it's, like, the only thing this year that feels like the gift that keeps on giving. December 2020 and I'm still not tired of seeing Lucifer's ass.

Yeah.

7. Ghostrunner, "Cyberpunk" Game of the Year

I need to explain a lot of things I don't like about Doom Eternal for this to make sense, so I promise the game I am actually talking about here is Ghostrunner and not Doom Eternal.

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Ghostrunner is the game I wanted Doom Eternal to be. Not as in I want Doom to become some hack-and-slasher or anything, but in spirit? 100%. Ghostrunner is breakneck fast, it's super pretty looking, it's metal as hell (again, in spirit), and completing every encounter is satisfying. It's the 'combat puzzle' concept condensed to pure *Super Meat Boy-*like execution. Where Doom Eternal puts you in a room and forces you to engage with its systems the way it wants, Ghostrunner hands you a few skills, a blade, and the rest is up to you. There's no "right" way to solve an encounter but there is one that is going to work for you, and figuring that out on your own is satisfying. I left most combat arenas in Eternal frustrated because I was constantly compromising how I wanted to play/what I was having fun with to get ammo, to get fuel, to stop and shoot the rockets off a Revenant, to switch to my shotgun alt fire to throw a grenade down the mouth of a Cacodemon... In Ghostrunner I left every encounter with a huge grin and my hands sweaty because, despite dying 40 times in a row, I made my playstyle work. I was never dying from the game saying "Nope, do it this way", I was dying from the game saying "You haven't found how to chain this all together yet, keep trying."

That's good game design! That's excellent game design. Even if this was the intention, if it was the game designers' idea for me to form a skill loadout and playstyle and form habits around both, it always felt like I was doing that on my own. Because good game design is invisible. Doom 2016 was my game of the year because it did that for me. I always felt big brain shooty gunny in its encounters. I could approach them the way I liked, and still face a challenge that I had to overcome with my skills. Eternal repeatedly did the opposite, punishing me for trying to experiment and have fun. I can't praise Ghostrunner's design enough for giving me that feeling triumph again and again without ever stepping on my toes.

There's the whole "cyberpunk" thing, too. Look, I'll be straight with you here, this is the most empty-head take on cyberpunk art-wise--I might as well be looking at the ArtStation front page for most of it--but. But. It's also surprisingly aware of that stuff more often than not? Random Japanese, Chinese, and Korean on all the signage? Alright, English too, then. (Unless one of you wants to enlighten me on how a billboard that only says "MAYONNAISE" is profound.) Genre tropes so overdone that you know every beat before it reveals itself? That's fine, it's all about the build-up anyway, put all the sick stuff in there. None of it is remarkable, but there's two kinds of confident you can have with this stuff and this is very fortunately the one where you get to just turn your brain off for a bit and enjoy the ride. The ending is whatever, the characters are whatever, the voice acting is fine, and that's exactly what I wanted because, unlike Doom Eternal, all of that got out of the way when it needed to--usually when I was about to slice some guy's head off in slow-mo.

It's packed with cool lookin' stuff and punishing fights and it's over in a breeze. A genuine arcade game in the year 2020.

Maybe fewer puzzle rooms next time, though.

6. Yakuza 7, Game That Definitely Does Not Have Any Other Title or Official Name of the Year

Yakuza 7 being a complete departure from the previous games in the series makes it really hard to talk about because, like, there's equal amounts of "I've been at this for a while" and "This is all new to me" to talk about with it. There's a lot I can probably skip over. You've seen the Nancy-chan crawfish summon, the boss fight where you punch a crane, etc. It's dumb. This game's dumb! And it's great.

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The game being a full-on turn-based RPG this time around changes a number of things, but it still ebbs and flows like Yakuza. It's still broken up into 15-or-so chapters, you still buy all your items from the conbini or vending machines, you still kinda slog through a late-game slump before the climactic finale. It's all there, and it's like a warm blanket that's starting to have a few unfortunate holes at this point. Still, the blanket remains comfortable. I like the blanket. Every year or so it keeps me really warm.

As familiar an experience as it is, there's still a lot of new stuff. Ichiban, the new protagonist, is... where do I even start with him. He's great? He's maybe the best protagonist they've ever made? He's immediately likeable, and it just grows from there. More than his code or creed or any of that stuff, he's just a big dumb idiot nerd, who doesn't take the time to think anything through and acts entirely on the unshakeable trust he has for the world and his friends. It's beautiful. What a hero. The supporting cast is great, too. They play off each other really well, and I think the 'party' dynamic works in service of the story way better than I was expecting. It's familiar ground, but the lens through which is told is new. It's still, overall, somewhat "Ichiban's Story" but having it all told through the perspective of a group makes it feel more like an adventure, and after several games of "it's Kiryu's story", it's a really welcome change. Yakuza 4 and 5 played with the idea of multiple protagonists, but it never really changed the dynamic of the story being told, and I'm happy to see RGG Studio try new things.

The story is... pretty standard Yakuza, but I also appreciate the series becoming crystal-clear with their commentary on Japanese politics. The Yakuza series has... well, look, I'm not gonna say it's not glorifying a life of crime, but it's sure not doing much to convince you that there aren't actually guys like Kiryu in real life. It's at least done its best (you know, within reason of modern Japanese writing and social progress) to shine a more positive light on the homeless and sex workers of Japan. Last year's Judgment tackling the country's prosecution system was pretty unforgiving in its criticism, and seeing them do the same in Yakuza 7 for the current administration of Japan's widespread corruption and deplorable treatment of the homeless, immigrants, and sex workers is cathartic.

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I'm not an expert on any of these things, so take this with whatever gains of salt you want but: living there for a little over a year was plenty to see how the grass is never greener on the other side. A lot of those issues are rarely, if ever, talked about in public in Japan because you just don't talk about "unpleasant" subjects like that with people who aren't your extremely close friends. My neighborhood was rougher than most, and it's extremely not an issue in touristy areas because of cops, but homeless people sleeping at the entrances of train stations or alcoves of shop entrances were a nightly sight around where I lived. The reality of it sucks, especially when you spend years absorbing media that gives you the impression it's a non-existent problem in Japan. A lot of Yakuza 7's early moments take place in-and-around a homeless camp in Yokohama, and no part of it is treated as a joke. It all really sucks for the people living it. A series having such reverence in its home country talking about this stuff without softening it or making light of it makes me happy. It aggressively contrasts to something like Persona 5's absolutely toothless commentary on anything beyond the real-life events it very directly lifted for its early story beats.

I'm still not done with the game, I'm slowly making my way through the "grinding" part near the end of the game, but that I can come back year after year and still have really glowing things to say about a series that's been kicking around this long rules. I love RGG Studio so much.

5. Destiny 2: Beyond Light, Destiny Expansion of the Year

I really, really like Beyond Light. I'm getting the impression that I do more than most. It seems to have clicked with me in a way that various parts of it are whiffing for others. (Crucible people don't count. Y'all are the PS Vita people of the Destiny community. I'm sorry.) The experience that Beyond Light is right now, and the content within the expansion itself, are what I want Destiny 2 to be. I care about Destiny because of its art, its lore, its storytelling, its music, and its extremely satisfying shootyshoot feel. Everything else around it, the progression and systems and rewards, I want to be in service of all of those things. I don't care about playing every day. I like Destiny to be a podcast/Twitch game when I want it to be, and a really engaging story game when it wants to be.

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The really good: The new location, Europa, is some of the best art work Bungie has done, both technically and conceptually. There's some truly jaw-dropping stuff tucked away in story and late-game content. This expansion's raid, the Deep Stone Crypt, might be my favorite piece of content that Bungie has ever done for Destiny. It's a raid with multiple "holy shit" moments, some of which still put me to silence every time I experience them. The highs of Beyond Light are way, way up there. The campaign story is good, and the post-campaign story is great. It touches on some long-standing D2 lore that is kind of blown wide-open and it's... a lot. It's exceptionally well told.

The good: Beyond Light has ditched most of its FOMO bounty-based progression and feels like a much more cohesive experience. The game's core progression is centered around quests that don't expire, meaning you can progress through story and seasonal content completely at your own pace, and that's what I've been doing. Quests, activities, bounties, and playlist stuff like Strikes and Gambit (and Crucible) all kind of work with each other now where no matter what you're doing, you're always making progress on something. Logging in and feeling like I can keep chipping away at stuff instead of being either overwhelmed or super behind is nice!

The Destiny Conundrum: I hope this isn't a Shadowkeep situation, in that we only get to see the real impact of the expansion's story, like, 10 months later. Everything in between Shadowkeep and Season of the Arrivals (the season before Beyond Light) had some really good stuff in it, but none of it moved the Bigger Narrative forward. And Beyond Light does, like a lot. It's why I like the expansion so much! There's lore EVERYWHERE, with full voice acting for almost all of it, very little of it inconsequential. Like it's all stuff that really matters to the overall world of Destiny in a way that's really bold and exciting. But for any of that to really matter, it can't just... sit still until a year from now when Lightfall hits.

Since Destiny 2's launch three years ago, I've never felt like Bungie has figured out the 'balance' they want. The swings in seasons from "this is a story game" to "this is a live-service game" to "this is a job" have been harsh in a way that I've spent maybe 40% of those three years being completely disconnected from it, because it was trying to be something that just wasn't for me. I'm really happy with where Destiny 2 is right now, at this moment, but a lot of people aren't. A lot of old content was "vaulted" to make room for the new stuff, and focus the general experience a bit, but it means a good chunk of content (strikes, planets, multiplayer maps, etc.) are completely gone. There's story reasons for it, sure, but the impact it's had on the game means that you're getting a bit more in the way of repeated content, and if you've been a regular player of Destiny 2 for the past three years, then... well, there's a lot missing!

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I don't know what Bungie does from here, because seasons. I don't like seasonal models, I don't like feeling like I need to play one game all the time because it has content that will go away and I will only progress during certain things if I play now and not later. It feels like Destiny 2 is sitting in a space right now that's like... halfway between Final Fantasy XIV and The Division 2, or Fortnite. There's a style of 'this' game that lets you experience it at your own pace, with no time pressure whatsoever, that's full of content to experience, and if you wanna do that with other people/friends you can! And if some of you are really hardcore about it, there's content there for you. The other style is this thing that has limited content, but changes all of it all the time in a way to get you to play it all over and over, but it changes so frequently that you're not even thinking about it, right? You're running through the seasonal content mill. Destiny 2 needs to pick a path. I want the FFXIV path, because it works for me, but I don't think that's what the general audience wants and the various directions the game has taken gives me no idea as to what Bungie wants either.

Lightfall will probably be on my list next year. Even at its worst, Destiny 2 is still some of the most fun I have with video games. I went and looked back at what I had written for Shadowkeep last year, and it was along the lines of "Wow, Destiny 2 sure is in a good spot right now!" which is where I'm at again, but I don't want to be back here a year from being like, "yeah everything after that was really inconsistent" again. The changes they made to progression, to me, are really good and I hope are carried forward and iterated on in a way that keeps the idea behind them intact. I'd love to come out on the other end of this being just as happy with Destiny 2 Year 3 overall as I am with Beyond Light.

4. Devotion, Last Year's Game of the Year

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I can't really bring up Devotion without bringing up that not only was it not released this year, it also isn't currently available for purchase anywhere. If you don't know why, I'll link that instead of explaining it here. (I'll quickly add that I am able to play it because I bought it the day it came out and just never made time for it until this year.) Suffice to say the game has a lot of conversation that follows it, and very little, if any, is about the game itself. Which is a shame, because it might be the best horror game I've ever played. It's not a genre I'm particularly well-versed in, because I'm a big dumb baby scaredy cat, but: game scary.

The way Devotion is scary to me is just... I don't know if 'scary' is really the right word, really. Haunting? It's haunting. Devotion is haunting. The apartment where its story of an unhappy family and their sick daughter takes place is vividly detailed, and it grants it the sense of place that when they distort and manipulate it to tell its story, it crawled under my skin. I hate cheap scares, and Devotion is devoid of them. It knows that to truly scare me, it needs to make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable, and it did that at every turn. There are some really affecting moments in this game, and the ending left me with this 'pit of my stomach' feeling that's just... I don't actively seek that stuff out in games or movies like some do, but when something successfully gets you to that kind of raw emotion... It's not "good", I don't enjoy that feeling, but that something can make me feel that in the first place is worth talking about. I hesitate to elaborate on why its story and setting are so effective, because it's a game that's best experienced blind, and I know in my heart it will see the light of day again. I can't ruin it for any of you still willing to see it.

And I hope you all do get to see it. Games have become such a global thing but the expensive cost of localisation means we only really experience big-budget/AAA international releases and never the smaller, more experimental stuff. Devotion is deserving of attention completely on its own merits, but its setting of '80s Taiwan is core to its story and themes in a way that makes it unlike anything else available to English-speaking audiences. I wish we weren't in a situation where the game I can point to as my best example of "We need more games from different perspectives and cultures" is unavailable for purchase, but it is. It's a bummer, and I hope that's not for much longer, because Devotion is an incredible showcase for Red Candle Games' storytelling prowess.

3. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2, Game That Has Set the Bar For Every Remake From Now On of the Year

If I had an award for 'Expectations Had/Exceeded', Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 would be the runaway victor. Calling it a "remake" feels like it's selling it short. It's basically a whole new game that happens to be populated with a bunch of classic stuff. I've spent 70% of my life playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games (yikes), so I would consider myself about as merciless a bitch as they come when it comes to how those games should 'feel'. Vicarious Visions did an incredible job taking the 'feel' of the old games and translating that into something both modern and familiar. It's modeled after THUG2's physics engine (the sticker/wall slaps are in), but it also feels a bit weighty the way the first couple games did. It also... kind of breaks the game. If you're really skilled at THPS games, it makes most of the game's goals and challenges a total cakewalk, but also... I don't care lol. It didn't bother me, because in the end, the 'feel' was enough to keep me coming back over and over. It feels great.

THPS 1+2 also opts to not have a repeatable career mode per character, and instead has you complete a list of challenges unique to each Pro. It's a bit of an adjustment if you're really used to the typical THPS progression, but I eventually warmed up to it, mostly because it forced me to try and think about the levels a bit differently, instead of running the same motions with every character. Challenges being the gate behind the various outfits/customization options for both pros and create-a-character is really smart. I had a couple weeks of knocking out a set of challenges per night, and it was really fun.

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I also really, really want to bring up the game's general representation efforts, because they are many and done so well that they seem almost effortless. The character creation has no restrictions and no explicit mention of gender--you pick a body type, and can mix and match all features/clothing, with some of said clothing being explicitly tailored to LGBTQ+ players. All the classic THPS pros make their return (as very old guys/girls, which is inspired, truly) and the new pros have true diversity in them. Aori Nishimura, Nyjah Huston, Lizzie Armanto, Leticia Bufoni, Tyshawn Jones, and Leo Baker, marking the series' first non-binary skateboarder. It's a lot of very big things and a lot of very small things that come together to make a very meaningful statement about the sport, the people that represent it, and the developers that dedicate years to making games for it. It's easy to completely overlook if none of that matters to you, but it does to me, a lot, and seeing it done so well here means more than I can say. I grew up with these games--THPS 1 was one of the first games I bought for my first ever console--and seeing the series grow up alongside me... like I said, it means a lot, especially in a year where the loudest games inelegantly try to be an ally (and its cis director having hissyfits on Twitter when queer people find issues with it) or just outright mocked people for believing in this stuff in the first place.

2. Umurangi Generation, Cyberpunk Game of the Year

I could just paste a screenshot of one of the later levels having "KILL FASCISTS" scrawled across the ground and I'd have made my point, but Umurangi Generation is it, actually. Like, it's it in a year that really needed it.

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A couple years ago, I wrote about how SOMA was my game of the year because it crafted a narrative around my biggest fear, and ended in a way that struck me so sharply that I burst into tears. Umurangi Generation is similar. I'm not crying this time, I'm just mad. Energized? I feel seen? There's a lot of mixed feelings. It's a game less about my biggest fear, and more about the ever-present fear. It's the most 2020 game for condensing the absurd horror me, my friends, my family, my loved ones have all had to watch unfold every single day, and look onward at a horizon that is ceaselessly on fire.

It's a beautiful game. I love the art direction for being vivid and colorful and discordant in a way that I started fighting against it a lot when trying to take pictures. I found myself annoyed at trying to make very weird colors look nice together in a photo. The deeper you get into the game, the more photography tools you unlock (various lenses and RAW adjustments) and eventually you learn to just... accept all that. The vibrancy and mess of it. Saturated blues and bright greens clashing. I loved going from taking pictures of my friends to make cool looking photos to taking pictures of my friends because I loved my friends and I wanted to capture every minute with them. They're not the "subjects" of the story or the game they're just... what I care about, really.

Umurangi Generation is a thing that's just been in the back of my head constantly since playing it. It makes me wish I was a better artist. Well, it makes me wish I was a different artist if we're being real, but that's another subject. I keep thinking about it because I didn't walk away from it going, "Oh wow, I've completely re-evaluated this thing" or whatever, I'm just... thinking about it the same way I sit and stare at Twitter all fucking day watching the world fall to pieces. The experience of playing that game in the situation we're all in right now is analogous to what this game is. I'm here, it's here. We're both watching the world burn. It knows, I know. And I really needed that. For just someone else to know and to be angry about it with me, but to be there and hold my hand for it too.

1. Valorant, Thing That Has Taken Over My Life, Please Send Help, I Watch Like 5-6 Hours of It Per Day on Twitch and Is Also The Best E-Sport of The Year

Alright, let's get into it.

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Primer, because this will get complicated sorta: Valorant is a 5v5 tactical shooter similar to Counter-Strike, where the characters have set abilities (which as a whole are called a kit) similar to what you'd see in an Overwatch or Smite. Unlike those games, their kit is the only static thing. Like CS, you buy guns at the start of every round, with economy earned by all players depending on how well you perform across the game. One team has to plant the bomb, the other has to defuse. The first team to win 13 rounds wins the game, and at Round 12 the teams switch sides. Each agent's kit forms a 'role' but unlike other hero-based games with strict healer/tank/support/etc classes, Valorant's roles are more of a vague nod in a direction because ultimately, how good you click heads is what wins you the game. Got it? Cool.

I have zero experience with Counter-Strike. I mean, I do, but really I don't. I've played a bunch of Arms Race. I've played exactly one real match. We lost and our one random teammate complained to the enemy team that we were intentionally throwing. So for all intents and purposes, I have zero experience with Counter-Strike. Hell, I have zero experience with PC shooters, really. I played a lot of Unreal Tournament in high school and I play Doom 2016 with mouse-and-keyboard, but hyper competitive stuff? I've barely touched. I tried to play multiplayer Quake. I was very bad at it. I played some Overwatch and mostly stuck to Mercy. I've always primarily played games on consoles, and I've played tons of Call of Duty, but that's almost exclusively been on a console with a controller.

I started playing Valorant at the start of May, a month into its closed beta, thanks to a friend at Riot who got me access. (Thank you, Davin!) I couldn't play in Japan for anything earlier than that, so in May I jumped into a game I don't know and a style of shooter I extremely don't know. I'm told by my friends "It's fine, we'll teach you!" and "You'll learn quick!" We play a bunch of unranked games. A week later, I still have no idea what "U-hall" is. Where is "Elbow"? Why are you calling this place "hookah", there's no hookah in there. What's a one-way? You keep saying we need to default. What's CT? Counter-terrorist? None of these teams are labeled that!

You know that thing with Path of Exile where you start playing the game and look at the skill tree and you're immediately like, "Oh, to hell with this"? This is that times x100. There is so much terminology and strategy that isn't just unique to Valorant, it's also shared from games like CS. Valorant has a tutorial, and it's good at teaching you the basics, but even with all of that in mind, you're still thrown into the deep end. Even after a private 1v1 match with an experienced friend to show me what peeking is, it was still the deep end. And for weeks it was that. The deep end. It was frustrating. Games were just an endless stream of, like, going 4-16, 5-22, 10-18. Sometimes a lot worse. It was so hard to feel like meaningful progress was being made because no matter how much map knowledge I had, no matter how good my game sense was getting, I just felt like I was fighting an uphill battle. Some of these people had been playing these games for years, if not decades. Some people were just a lot younger than me. Some people were just better at games than me. Some hopeless shit.

But, for better or worse, we were locked indoors. We've been stuck indoors every day for 70% of the year. It's excruciating. It was then and it still is now. I can't work because I'm stressed out, I can't relax because I'm a foot away from my office space constantly and also I'm stressed out. What else is there to do than to just look at Discord and... well, four of my friends are online. Anyone up for a match?

It was that, every day, for months and it was only after months that I felt like things were getting better. My KDA got a lot better. Some 25-10s here, some 22-8s there. Some Aces, (A round where you kill all 5 enemy players), lotta clutches, (A round where you are the last player alive and secure the win), lotta real 5-head plays. The progress was happening because by then I'd sunk so much time into the game that I was actually trying to get better. I was learning from my mistakes, my game sense was getting better, and I was growing more comfortable with the agents I liked playing. I was fighting through the sometimes-bad matchmaking, the frequent toxicity, and growing sense that the report system is... maybe not as effective of a deterrent as it should be. As the weeks went on, my regular game group kept growing so I always had a group of people to play with. The grind to get better at the game I barely understood like three months prior carried onward.

And then... the game wasn't enough. When I wasn't playing Valorant, I wasn't learning Valorant. So I started watching streams of both Valorant pros and content creators. Early on, I watched the first two 'big' tournaments, BLAST Invitational and Popflash, and it was fun, but at that point I was like... still so new to the game, it was mostly cool to just watch people be good at it. I had no idea who these people were. And it just... snowballed, man. I don't even know how to track it at this point. I started following pros on Twitter, I started learning about their histories, I started watching multiple streams per day, subscribing to my favorite ones, keeping track of their performance, keeping an eye on new teams and trades, and entering tournaments with full knowledge of where the game's scene was at. I knew nothing about CS or Valorant or anything of these games when I came in, and now I know everything. I know why it's a big deal 100T won First Strike, especially when they fought T1 to make it into semifinals. I know why the TSM/Sentinels rivalry will be neverending, and how I will always side on Sentinels because Wardell is kind of a dick. It's funny to me when TenZ changes his sens from 0.408 to 0.44. It's crazy to me that Envy can largely be considered the best team and continuously fall short of grand finals. I know that marvedsdad is Sinatraa's smurf account, and that Hisoka and Killua are TenZ's. It's a really big deal to me that C9 White exists because I got to see them win a tournament as MAJKL and get signed by one of the biggest orgs. (annie you're the best) I know how damn funny it is to watch Subroza keep whiffing his raze ults. I love seeing pros compain about all the corners they have to check on Icebox because they're mad the map isn't like every other CS map. It goes on, and on, and on, and it keeps building because the game is still new and it's still growing, and I've been on the ride since it started.

I'd know none of that if I didn't have any interest in the game to begin with, and I have interest in the game because the game is great. I wish I could remember which pro I was watching who was saying this, I want to say it was Shahzam, but somebody had asked them what makes Valorant so much more interesting than CS to them, and their answer was something about how in CS, you know what every match is going to be ahead of time almost 90% of the time. Everyone has the same kit, everyone has decades of knowledge amassed by a ridiculous number of pros. You know what the defaults look like. On its surface, Valorant is the same, but the abilities genuinely make a difference because they can change the match at a moment's notice. You can start a round and someone will gain an ult or an ability mid-round that will forcefully change your approach going forward. You know that if an Omen uses his blind (A skill that blinds and deafens players for a few seconds), that's it for them. It's not Counter-Strike, not everyone starts with a flashbang. You know that that player can't do that again for the round and that immediately changes how the rest of the round is played. It's that, every round, every game. You're constantly on your toes and re-evaluating your approach.

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And all of that is in service of the actual gunfights, where crosshair placement and good game sense wins you the round. In the end you aren't a "role"--you don't have some gun that's unique to your character and can put you in a situation where, 1v1, you can't win because they just have a big shotgun and you have a peashooter. (I mean, to be fair, you can totally run into that but if you do, you're eco and that was a risk you knew you were taking.) If you're a couple rounds in, you're both squaring off with Vandals or Phantoms and your skill is what matters. It's hard to put into words the difference that makes versus other hero-based games/shooters, it's something that ultimately really clicks when you're a few hours in. All I can say is that, to me, Valorant has done an incredible job of taking these really familiar styles of games to form its own unique thing. You can approach it with some knowledge you have from other games but no matter how familiar you are with other games, you're going to have to learn. Not just stuff like map knowledge and hero knowledge but core fundamentals that exist in Valorant and only in Valorant, and I love it for that.

It's an impossibly steep learning curve. It's maybe the steepest one I've ever experienced short of Dota 2. But I stuck with it, and now I'm on the other side of that curve and it's just... fun. Valorant is the most fun I've had with games this year. It's fun to play with my friends, it's fun to be angry at the ranked system that (right now) kind of sucks, it's fun to decide if I like the Vandal or the Phantom better today, it's fun to bring an Odin into the game on Match Point, it's fun to watch streams of pros, it's fun to think about quarantine being over and getting to go to the first in-person invitational with my friends. I've spent months on this game and for basically the whole summer, it was my only game. The only thing that broke me out of that was Destiny 2: Beyond Light eventually releasing in November.

But also I think, more than anything, what I needed this year was a thing I could go back to that made me feel like the world wasn't constantly on fire, that I didn't wake up in the morning and see some new headline that made me want to scream, and that there was like 1-2 hours per day where things were just normal and I was hanging out with my friends and having a really good time doing a thing together. There's some chance that Valorant could have been any other multiplayer game this year. My friends and I could have really gotten into, I dunno, Spellbound or MTG: Arena or something. But despite the initial brutal frustration with Valorant, we stuck to it. I stuck to it. And I now have this thing that has taken over my life. It's not the best game I played this year but it is undoubtedly my game of the year for being most of my year.

Sorry, I Also Have Cyberpunk 2077 Thoughts to Vent of the Year

I was actually going to save a much bigger space to talk about Cyberpunk 2077 because I really need to talk about that game but honestly... I don't know if I actually need to? I wish that game was a better game. And I'm not just referring to the bugs. The core design of it is just a mess. I thought we were all expecting it to be, like, cyberpunk Witcher 3? As in, a big open world that felt alive and told a tale with sincere personal stories that walked through very-explored fantasy themes and ideas, and either told those kinds of stories exceptionally well or deconstructed them in an interesting way. And what we got was a kind of not-great Fallout game? A story that is rife with AAA action setpieces because ??? A vast, incredibly detailed and beautiful world with nothing of value to do in it? A bunch of quest givers that don't actually have quests to give but instead bark at you over a phone to take down an outpost like it's procedurally generated content in between yelling about cars they have for sale? Cyberpunk tropes that are as cookie-cutter as they are bafflingly numerous, and simultaneously completely devoid of understanding its genre at all? It's a cyberpunk game where you are forced to help the cops. In a cyberpunk game.

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I don't get it. I mean I know how this happens. You overwork a studio that gets an insane amount of capital pumped into it by investors and shareholders who suddenly are very concerned about making their money back, so you focus-test the hell out of your game and a bunch of leads and directors with no concern for the wellbeing of their employees start shifting and changing things around until you end up with a mutated game, a game with like a trillion systems that either in no way interact with each other or are just completely devoid of AI.

And I still put like 40 hours into it, because I... I can see it. It's like digital archeology--I can see the skeleton buried deep underneath that game where ideas that were really cool and smart live. I can see the areas you crafted to tell really interesting stories in. I can see the hacking and dialogue skills working together in a way that, in a better designed game, would give me the freedom to navigate through missions the way I wanted instead of an almost laughably constrained "You can shoot these guys or find the Deus Ex vent that will put you directly in front of the objective" structure repeated ad nauseum.

I could see it and I couldn't stop digging until, before I knew it, I was 40 hours in, and all I could justify that time with was 2-3 good side missions, Judy, some interesting locale discoveries, and ??? some good art??? My character looks cool. I got the bike that looks like the Akira bike. I like taking pictures in the not-very-good photo mode. It's a world I love exploring and looking at, but...

This should have been a better game. This should have been the kind of game where I drive really far out of the city and stumble into some long-forgotten neighborhood and I get a bunch of sidequests and stories about that neighborhood and the people in them. The Witcher 3 excelled at making every part of the world you discovered feel unique not just because of what it looked like but what populated it and there's none of that in Cyberpunk 2077. Nowhere is populated. There's people. They aimlessly walk around until they turn a corner and disappear. Shit you can just turn the camera around really fast and they'll disappear. They don't live there. Like that bug alone is just, indicative of the problem none of the NPCs or cars or whatever that fall prey to that glitch were designed to live. They don't have routines, they don't have purpose they just exist. Everything is like a stage play, paper thing like its stage decorations. Nobody feels like they live in Night City, not even the really well-written NPCs you occasionally do side-missions for. The Fixers functionally exist in the game as something like The Witcher 3's town bulletin board, but... they aren't. They don't even need to exist in-world. They do, and they have a few lines of dialogue for you if you make the detour to visit them, but that's it.

Maybe I'm just looking for a game that isn't there. I feel like I can see it, buried deep beneath this mid-tier Ubisoft-ass game. This GTA Online-ass game that has no online. (And shouldn't, but I guess that's inevitably coming, huh. Fuck, man.) Maybe I'm looking so hard between the lines that I'm starting to interpret noise as patterns. God, I hope this isn't my equivalent of the Jesus-appearing-on-toast thing.

Ugh.

And that's not even counting the other stuff. The stupid tweets. The dickgirl thing. The even stupider tweets. The absolutely obscene amount of crunch. The fallout post-launch.

What a 2020 thing. What an actually "most 2020" thing to happen in 2020.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Be kind to one another. Wear a mask. Don't travel. Stay safe.

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