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Imran Khan's Top 10 Games of 2020

Game journalist Imran Khan returns to Giant Bomb to discuss his 2020 favorites.

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Imran Khan is a video game journalist that has been writing about the medium for 18 years. He used to be a senior editor at Game Informer and is currently a professional loudmouth at Kinda Funny Games with bylines at IGN, Inverse, Fanbyte, and many other sites. He's @imranzomg on Twitter, but pursue that at your own risk.

Until I started doing Game of the Year lists professionally, I feel like I always placed a level of importance on them that is becoming increasingly undue. There’s always an implicit parenthetical on these that reads “Game of the Year (That I Had Time To Play)” or “Game of the Year (That I Lucked Out to Discover)” and it leads to a rabbit hole of thinking about how deeply our lists are driven by conversation. Would there be another game in the place of some of these if I didn’t feel a compelling personal or professional need to be involved in the zeitgeist? Who knows!

At the end of the day, 2020 should have been one of the worst years for gaming in recent memory, but it comes out to somehow be one of my favorites. Maybe it is the fact that I have never been more at-home and confronted by video games than I am now. Perhaps it’s that, in an otherwise hair-receding year, I found a lot of comfort in the medium I have always loved above all others. Regardless of the reason, I had a lot more trouble narrowing down this list than I thought, and there is a high chance I rethink or regret placement or inclusion hourly until February.

10. Moon

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Moon is a cheat on this list for several reasons. First, calling it a 2020 game is charitable--this Japanese RPG was first released in 1997 exclusively in its home country, and only finally translated into English this year. Second, I did not play Moon myself and merely watched my partner play it, which may actually be the ideal way to experience Moon. It is, in many ways, the progenitor to Undertale, the Charmander to its Charizard, but manages to use the 23-year-old rough edges to express a deep level of heart that you don’t get from safer experiences. Moon’s story asks the player to examine their role in the world and the positive marks they leave on it, but does so in an abstract and inarguably weird way.

I’ve had this fascination with side quest design in recent years, and how a designer decides what makes a side quest worth it, what rewards make a player feel satisfied to have gone through gameplay they ostensibly should be enjoying anyway? Moon tells the player there’s no real benefit to what they’re doing except for making the world a better place, bit-by-bit, life-by-life. It’s relentlessly positive, but unlike other games under that same banner like Animal Crossing, it proves that virtue in the face of adversity and without reward. Whether Moon is a great game or not is immaterial; it is unquestionably fascinating regardless of quality.

9. The Last of Us Part II

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I don’t actually know how much I like The Last of Us Part II. I also have no idea how much I am supposed to like The Last of Us Part II. The game seems designed to make me uncomfortable, feel tense and gross, to square away the conflicts of comfort and fear, and I think it mostly succeeds at that. It’s an immaculate execution on design, it’s mostly just a question of whether you agree with decisions that lead to that design.

Being divisive is a virtue and a curse, and I spent a lot of time thinking about where The Last of Us Part II landed on that scale for me. Being divisive lets the game be true to itself and push outside the box in ways that a game of this scope and scale would usually have to avoid in order not to offend or turn off players. In a world where AAA games are told not too run too fast or go too far, The Last of Us Part II decides that it will go wherever it damn well pleases. I wish I liked the game more, but that’s all relative when talking about the ten best games of the year.

8. Genshin Impact

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On paper, Genshin Impact shouldn’t work. I bristle at Breath of the Wild clones quite consistently, marrying that to a gacha game with minimal systems in favor of a dominant elemental structure, further driving the gacha aspect, seems like it should push me away like a repulsion field. Instead, I put damn near 250 hours into the game, which either makes me a ridiculous rube or means there’s more to the game than just its bullet points.

Probably both, honestly.

Its business model and the balancing around it warrants a suspicious eye, but Genshin Impact definitely aspires to be more than the sum of its parts, and mostly succeeds at that. The battle system is better than it should be, the world is larger than you would think, the systems interact better than you would assume, the good things pile up over time. My appreciation for Genshin Impact may be a result of confounded expectations, but there’s still benefit to how it did so.

7. Streets of Rage 4

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I had never been a particular fan of Streets of Rage growing up. You might be able to apply that to a childish Nintendo vs. Sega rivalry or a budding love of Capcom resulting in a cold shoulder to Axel and the rest in the 16-bit years. Streets of Rage 4, however, ended up really surprising me. I put hours into every character, tried to overcome every challenge, and ultimately failed. But I had a hell of a time trying.

For a very long time, I gave up on the idea of intimately learning games. I’d do what the tutorial expected me to do, but actually diving deep into a game’s systems and gaining high-level understanding of the way it moves for internal progress rather than just finishing the game hasn’t been my jam for a couple of years. Streets of Rage 4 reminded why I used to like doing that, why I liked actually getting better at action and fighting games, and how good it felt to be appreciably better at something for reasons other than better equipment and more experience points.

6. Ghost of Tsushima

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Those of us who have been gaming for a long time and, whether compelled by professional concerns or personal wants, usually play every big release consistently as they come out, and we tend to prize innovation and freshness highly. When a game like Ghost of Tsushima comes along, it’s almost a little too easy to dismiss. Given a limited amount of time and abundance of experience, you tend to forget that there is great artistry even in revisiting well-trodden concepts.

Ghost of Tsushima is a game to get lost in, to give yourself over to the story, and the checklist, and the environments, and just absorb them rather than think too hard about them. Racing through the fields and putting your hands down to the flowers to sweep through them as you walk by tells me more about Jin’s character and the way he interacts with the world than hours of cutscenes ever could. The game made me realize I missed a certain old days of video games that I didn’t actually think were all that old. It also made me realize how easy it is to get those things wrong and how important it is, in veneration and emulation, to nail those concepts.

5. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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I have a very complicated relationship with Vanillaware, developers of games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Dragon’s Crown, that extends a little bit into 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. I want to like their games more than I actually ever end up liking them because there’s always a few factors that keep me from fully embracing them. When I picked up Aegis Rim, I expected the same to happen, and for me to consign the game to the bin of forgotten experiences. Instead, I became completely enraptured in its story, like a preteen reading comic books under the covers with a flashlight.

And let’s be clear here: that’s what Aegis Rim is, an incredible story. A perfectly perfunctory tactical battle system accompanies it, but it’s the popcorn sold at the concession stand and not the actual movie itself. 13 Sentinels shrouds itself in mystery from the beginning, but keeps you running along the line with each question it answers. The game hits you with plot twists in its introductory prologue while establishing the premise that most narrative games would save for their climax.

Those aforementioned factors that stop me from liking their games as much as I want still occasionally rear their ugly heads, but there’s never been a Vanillaware game that’s gotten closer to being an unqualified success. It does share the tragic commonality with its predecessors that it does seem to once again be appallingly ignored and that will be more a shame this time than ever before.

4. Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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At some point, I feel like my personal brand became “The Yakuza Guy,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate or unwanted, but it does kind of box me in a little when a new game comes out and I need to consider what I think about it. Thankfully, it’s helpful when the games are good, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon comes out good way more often than it doesn’t.

There’s a lot to like about the game, but I wanted to specifically focus on the new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Whereas prior lead Kiryu lives a life of strong-headed indeterminism, Ichiban’s still unbendable moral compass will lead him to learning more about the world and himself. The journey changes Ichiban in subtle ways, like light seeping through the cracks, and he carries on into the same dumb situations he was always going to get into, but this time with added moral fortitude and a better understanding of how it affects those around him.

Ichiban growing up with sex workers gives him a personal viewpoint that no other Yakuza protagonist, much less most other people, will ever really have. His ability to see the world through the lenses of its most downtrodden and dismissible makes him unique among video game characters as a whole. He’s not a perfect vessel for everything the series should be doing, but he is a perfect representation of its continued efforts to try and be better.

3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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I do not think there will ever be a case of more fortuitous timing with a video game’s release than for Animal Crossing: New Horizons to come out alongside society locking down. It was like taking an aspirin right as you feel a headache coming on, a salve that at least takes the edge off what was and still is a scary and life-threatening shared experience. I’ll never actually know if the global pandemic and my anxieties about it are what caused me to put dozens of hours into Animal Crossing or if it was the game itself, but I do know it doesn’t actually matter which it is.

Animal Crossing gave me an outlet, clumsy through it may have been, to think about something else. That is, regardless of the context in which it exists, a part of the game’s design. It allowed me to simulate a simple, uncomplicated life that did not have to worry about where my next rent check would come from or whether I would be safe going to the grocery store. For a brief moment, I didn’t have to sweat about what the primaries meant politically or bite my nails down to the flesh for eight months. When I couldn’t physically see my partner due to quarantine, it gave us a chance to sit on the edge of my island and look at shooting stars together and visit ideal versions of each other’s houses. It wasn’t a perfect recreation of life or a perfect escape from it, but it was exactly what I needed at the time I needed it.

It’s hard to argue that the context in which we play games is anything other than fundamental to how much we enjoy them. Animal Crossing proves that context, even by sheer coincidence, matters greatly to the end result.

2. Final Fantasy VII Remake

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I don’t remember at what point I became “too cool” for Final Fantasy VII. Maybe it was in 1998, when I was hanging around the old-school RPG fans on IRC that were bitter about a genre that once belonged solely to them going mainstream. Perhaps it was years of Square-Enix’s own excessive validation of the franchise as anything other than the goofy and sometimes melodramatic experience it was through spinoff after spinoff. Whatever the reason, I did not expect Final Fantasy VII Remake to change my jaundiced view of the series. I certainly did not expect to love it as much as I did or for it to concretely remind me why I loved the original.

There are certain pieces of music that, when the right bit hits, your heart completely soars in personal and utterly undeclarable ways. While it’s accurate to say that Final Fantasy VII Remake contains that music, for me, it also is this music. It is all at once an utterance of nostalgia long past and an explosion of something new in a way that games do not always achieve for me. Few games ever even have the chance to reach back and forward at the same time, much less the chops. Final Fantasy VII Remake has the opportunity and ultimately puts forth the effort into doing so.

This sounds like I’m giving disproportionate credit to the game’s capacity for fulfilling my need for nostalgia and, honestly, maybe that’s true. Who knows, really? But I do not think that’s a bad thing. I think correctly weaponizing the things people loved about your series is integral to making a remake, or a new entry, or even an older solid idea, work in a modern context. It could be that once the spell cast upon my youthful memories wears off, I might recognize it as merely a good video game and not a revelatory experience. I’ve been waiting for nine months now, so I think maybe it’s just that I love Final Fantasy VII Remake.

1. Hades

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There is an alternate universe, I imagine, that is fairly similar to our own. In that universe, I had something else to do when Hades released--a different game to play, a feature to write, maybe my Switch was broken and my PC a mess. I wonder in that case, had there been no zeitgeist around the game or no video packages to bring it to my attention, would I have found this game I fell in love with? Would Final Fantasy VII Remake have been my top game this year, as it had certainly been for the months between April and September?

When we talk about Game of the Year, we hope that the implication that it’s only a list of games we have lucked into playing this year comes through to the reader. It’s not a list of the actual best games of the year, that’s impossible for any one person to really say, and sounds torturous to even attempt. Hades got me thinking a lot about the coincidences that make up these lists. Had I somehow not picked the game up on essentially a whim, I wouldn’t have discovered this amazing gem of a title that pushes the entire rogue-lite genre forward. It makes me wonder if I missed something that would have resonated with me as strongly as Hades’ action and characters and music did. Again, who knows, but I’d like to think no, and would like to hope yes.

More than just being a great game, Hades is also a lesson in looking for your next favorite game everywhere. While this title surged to find popularity and critical acclaim outside of my personal bubble, many other games of its ilk and stature typically do not. A lot of my list this year has been reflective of 2020 and my desire to see things outside of boxes; the box of standard AAA development, the box of only caring about new ideas, of remembering what I loved, of being afraid of my own surroundings. I placed a perhaps difficult-to-articulate paramount importance on being surprised for this list of games.

I think Hades is incredible. The way it feels, the way the systems interact with the gameplay, the way the story encapsulates all of it, it’s genuinely the best game of the year for me. But I think it also represents where my head has been at all year in wanting to look at things a little deeper and find myself through the games I enjoy. I’m hoping that’s a lesson I can carry into the next year as well.