Lena Raine is a composer for games who has worked on things like Celeste and Guild Wars 2, among many others. This year, she contributed new music to the Minecraft Nether Update as well as Sackboy: A Big Adventure. She has also released a number of solo albums, including this year's remix album Reknowing, a collection of reworked tracks by top talent in the game industry & dance music scenes.
I am pretty much calling it that like 90% of these intros are gonna be about how weird this year was. And, yes! It's true. But also there were a ridiculously huge number of good & great games released, which makes an obscurely long-feeling year feel even more crowded than it has before. I think I noted down at least 50 games I played this year, which is just... I'm remembering a few years back when I struggled to even have 10 games in my top list. That's absolutely not the case this year, so I wanted to start off with a few special call-outs to ones that didn't make my top list, but still were super impactful to me:
I have such a hard time placing Animal Crossing into big lists of games. It's hard to judge them against anything else, because their play style is less a game for me and more an ideal state of existence for a moment in time. At the time it released this year, it was necessary. I needed somewhere to be that wasn't stuck inside my apartment. I needed a reason to have a daily schedule. The month of June was really tough on me. I was stuck in a depression spiral that lasted weeks, and fell way behind on work in a way that I needed something I didn't feel guilty about. So instead, I set out to design an island. I wrote a theme song for it, I designed its flag, I designed clothes, I learned more about pixel art specifically so I could do something that wasn't staring at a monitor looking for music and finding nothing. So, thank you Animal Crossing, for letting me stabilize long enough to pull back to reality.
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics / Sakura Wars (But actually it's Koi Koi)
I'm listing two games here, because both of them helped me discover what the heck hanafuda cards are, and why they're so neat. I always heard them referred to when talking about Nintendo's history in playing cards, but had absolutely no idea what they were or how to play games with them. Oddly enough, I went into this year's Sakura Wars release with an intention to get a chill action RPG with steam mechs and romance. What I actually got out of it was a huge appreciation for the game koi koi, which I ended up spending hours on well after I'd lost interest in the primary story. I totally loved picking up the rules, learning how to play well, and even got my own deck of Nintendo-brand hanafuda. And then when they released the new Clubhouse Games & I saw koi koi was one of the main games represented, I immediately bought it and got to play a bit of online multiplayer with some friends who had also discovered the game.
You ever do that thing where you buy a game multiple times, have a hard time getting into it, and then eternally wish it clicked for you? Well, 2020 was the year when Hollow Knight finally clicked for me. I originally bought it on PC, played it for about an hour on my laptop, ran into some weird latency issues, had a very difficult time playing it in an airport once on a layover, and sort of put it away for a bit. Then I got it on Switch when it released there, played it for even longer, but still didn't quite get to the point where it felt like I was ever going to be good at it. And then, for whatever reason, while playing through the remake of Demon's Souls on my PS5, I got that itch again. Demon's Souls is a beautiful, scary, lonely experience... but something about it made me still long to find a place in Hollow Knight where I could really, truly appreciate it. So I saw that it was free on PS+, downloaded it once more, for the third time, and dove in. I easily wiped the floor with the first few hours of the game, because I'd played it two times already. And then I got to the point where I'd struggled before. But I persisted, I tried to be patient, learn attack patterns, know when I could sneak in a hit, back off to heal... I got better, took down the ridiculously challenging Soul Master after like what, the 10th backtrack through the Soul Sanctuary? I kept getting more upgrades, anxious, knowing that eventually I was gonna have to fight the Mantis Lords. I'd heard so much about this fight, and how it really was a true test of your patience.
But on my third attempt (literally during the process of typing up this year in review) I persevered, and had about as flawless a run as I could hope for. I took a few hits, but I adapted, dodged where I needed to, struck when I could, healed when I had an opening, and earned their respect. Boom. That's it, I'm all in and I'm gonna finish this game. What an amazing moment.
mantis lords go home!! respect pic.twitter.com/IGWkyAMt8g— lena ⭐ raine (@kuraine) December 21, 2020
Okay, now for the countdown.
I have a certain weak spot for shoot-'em-ups. I've somehow played enough of them that the weird part of my brain that is able to chill out and dodge lots of bullets at once is honed so tightly that I was able to hop into Ten and Till and get to the true final boss in two sittings. Actually beating it was another story! But let me tell you: I don't often get really emotional playing through shmups. I think my emotions came from a few places, but it made me really happy to see such a lovingly created (simple) story about the love of pixel art and low res designs while playing through a game so delightfully tiny that dodging bullets really is about single pixels rather than just a small circle zone at the center of your character. Overcoming difficulty no matter what is an intrinsic theme to story-driven games that are punishingly difficult, but I felt like Ten and Till came from a similar place to the game I composed for, Celeste, where it does not want you to fail. It is hard, and you'll get hit a lot, but ultimately the game cares about you. It gives you plenty of chances to succeed. It gives you shields, to shelter you from harm, and lets you pick up on any stage rather than going full arcade and making you start all over again. Pushing through those things, to the final resolution, meant a lot to me, and the final songs drive that home in a way that made it a light in a pretty dark year.
It feels like everyone who has anything to say about Arknights comes at it from this angle: look, ok, so it's a gacha game, but it's actually a good game. I hate that we have to have these prefaces and conversations, but it's definitely something I feel the entire mobile industry is reckoning with, this year more than others. I will tell you that Arknights slipped on and off my list multiple times throughout the year. I was immediately charmed by it, but didn't know if it was justified to include on a best games list. After spending basically the entire year coming back to it on and off, even spending money and being a lil' salty at drop rates, I can pretty confidently say that it was a really special experience for me. Not just in the amazing level design throughout the campaign and side-stories, but the level of world building the game has achieved, and the fan community that continues to create content (like the fanart attached to this entry) to flesh out its characters and their relationships. I may not play the game full time anymore, because diminishing returns have sorta made it a bit difficult to stay invested, I still played a LOT of it this year, and I'll continue to enjoy the expanding fan works associated with it.
I originally saw Sakuna shown off at Bitsummit in early 2019, lined up with a bunch of really interesting looking games. But there was something neat about the way Sakuna was pitched as an action platformer, yet steeped in a vague concept of rice farming. I didn't really know what that all meant until I bought the game and tried it for myself. Hours and hours later, suddenly I know an incredible amount more about rice production than I ever thought I'd want to know. In fact, platformer levels aside, I would go into Sakuna just to grow rice if given the chance. Fans in Japan have noticed how ridiculously detailed the rice simulation is, and the game has exploded in popularity there. Some fans have even pulled up the Japanese government's guidelines for growing rice as a literal strategy guide for even the minute ways in which you can influence your harvest. While I appreciate the easy breezy daily routine of games like Story of Seasons or Stardew Valley, the focused attention on a single crop has really captured me in how Sakuna ties the success of growing rice to your own personal abilities, your character being the daughter of a harvest goddess and a war god. Not only are you incentivized to grow a bountiful crop of rice each year, to turn into a balanced diet to sustain you one more season, the type of rice you grow directly impacts your own stats. The easiest example of this is that I came across a hard brick wall of a boss in the first year, uncertain how to overcome it. Just a few sessions later, though, I finished my first crop. It was OK, for a first attempt. Yet the stat gains were a dramatic boost. I strolled back into that boss chamber and wiped the floor with him. It felt so cool to have growing rice impact an action game in such a way. I still haven't beaten it, but I fully plan to keep chipping away at it into 2021.
What a wild, dreamy game. I wasn't really prepared for what Paradise Killer is. It's such a weird spin on the type of Ace Attorney-inspired detective games that I've devoured over the years. It's a lot of clue collecting, hidden object hunting, puzzle solving, just straight up platforming around in a weird 3D space, and even some relationship building along the way. The soundtrack, written by Barry "Epoch" Topping, pipes in through the many speakers throughout the world, never feeling like it's ever something the game is showing to you outside of the context of the world. It's a paradise with paradise's soundtrack, a collection of dreamy and funky tunes playing on loop to round out the end of the world while you solve murders. And the fact that the game is constructed in such a way to let every single deduction be earned by you, the player, really wins me over in the experience of feeling like a brain genius where other games have force fed me obscure clue combinations to smoosh together until you solve a thing. I got to pore over the evidence, the circumstantial proof, even overlook a few things to save the friends I'd made along the way... And then I made my own ending. Other people did things in a different way, but the way the game ends is never a set conclusion based on your actions. Your actions are the ending. Everything that happens, you do, and I really admire that, especially in a world of game conclusions that seems so fixated on a handful of triggers setting switches that then give you a pre-baked way to feel. I felt like I owned my ending in Paradise Killer, and then had Fiona Lynch sing me out to the credits.
It was very tricky for me to place this on my list this year. Everyone loves it, obviously, and I do too! It's also in a spot where I feel like I'm butting up against its difficulty in a way that means I still haven't gotten the "optimal experience" out of it yet. I haven't beaten dad, I haven't gotten credits, or really seen everything that the fanart has all but spoiled. But despite everything, it's such a comfy game to keep coming back to. I'll probably beat it, eventually. I absolutely want to hear the credits song in context. It's some of Darren Korb's best work, and those tunes keep me coming back to it every run. I really enjoy playing it, and I'll honestly never accept anyone else's canonical depictions of these mythological characters, because as far as I'm concerned Supergiant nailed it.
5. Unreal Life
Like Sakuna, I'd been following the development of Unreal Life for years, mostly through following its creator, hako, on Twitter since discovering their amazing pixel art. I've been gradually learning some degree of Japanese, though it's still shaky at best and needs translation help to have any sort of conversation. But around the time the game finally came to Steam in a localized version, I was excited enough that I tweeted about the release and got the attention of hako, who had followed me back some time ago since they and several of their friends are apparently fans of my music. One thing led to another, and I got a very sweet DM from hako thanking me for tweeting about the game in English. It was a really sweet exchange, and I was so pleased to find out that the game itself is not only extremely endearing, but one of my favorite experiences this year. The premise of an amnesiac girl trying to remember who she is isn't a new one, but the way it's presented as an almost Alice in Wonderland sort of tale, befriending a sentient AI street light, a penguin train operator, a hotel proprietor with a cube for a head, and a moss ball chef among many others in its odd cast. It's a short but sweet story, able to be finished in a sitting or two, and very well worth checking out.
There's something fun about kickstarting games right as you're getting into the game industry. I had originally backed Ikenfell years ago, before I knew a lot of folks in the indie games scene. But it turned out that Chevy, the lead creator on the game, was good friends with pretty much all of the Vancouver indie scene, which I've come to be a big part of through my involvement with Celeste, and now Chicory. Coincidentally, I also became good friends with two of the game's composers, aivi & surasshu (the third, Sabrielle Augustin, I've yet to meet but hopefully will!), between backing the game & it releasing. So I've seen a lot behind the scenes, but tried my best to remain as unspoiled as possible, because no matter how it turned out or how many people I knew that worked on it, I knew that it was a game laser focused at me. And yes, it absolutely was, and I love it.
There's something so refreshing about a game that tells a heartfelt story through a cast of people like me. I remarked on twitter shortly after beating it that it was one of the first times I'd played an RPG where the entire cast felt so much like my actual real life friends, not just in terms of how well they were written, but because of who they were. I didn't need to pretend that I could possibly be a straight protagonist surrounded by other straight party members. Everyone in Ikenfell is queer as can be, vocal about it if it suits their personality, quiet but understood in other cases. It's a queerness as a base layer, that doesn't need to be the most important part of these characters. It IS important, but what defines them is their personalities, their relationships, their faults. And then on top of that is built a story that is inextricably linked to who these people are. It's a fantastically told arc, with such a personal fireplace-cozy soundtrack with strong themes that suit all the characters. Absolutely play it if you get the chance.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Final Fantasy VII (the original) was my first Final Fantasy, and it carries so much weight in my memory. It's not the best one by any stretch of the imagination, but it introduced me to so many things that would go on to become one of my favorite media franchises. The music, the recurring themes, the atmosphere. I was not a die hard in the same way a lot of people went off the deep end, but it was an appreciation and fondness that gives me chills any time I come back to it.
So you can see why I (amongst a lot of people) found Remake so special. Honestly I had a hard time believing anything else this year would come close in my top list. (These top three are nearly impossible for me to rank, but I tried my best. Just know they're wildly close.) But I also have a hard time believing the game got so much so right. They not only nailed the vibe of the city and the characters, but they actually improved on them in a lot of ways. Barret still has a lot of problems in his characterization, but one thing really stood out to me: Tifa, Aerith and Jessie all graduated from just being the three "types of girls" Cloud comes across in the early game. In the original game, especially going back to it now in my mid-30s, all three characters had an unfortunately common thing going on with them: their existence could be boiled down to different kinds of girls to consider as romantic interests. What "type" do you like? The forward, flirty kind. The childhood friend. The pure, innocent girl. While remake does follow the original story's initial paring up with Cloud and these girls, I finally felt like I could relate to these characters. That the writers had, like me, grown up a bit. And in the face of adhering to the story's desire to get you to affiliate yourself with either Tifa or Aerith, the decision to pair them up and have them become closer with each other felt so perfectly resonant. (And spun off into my ideal shipping configuration. Sorry Cloud, they're dating now.)
But beyond just the fun character moments, the remake does something that I didn't think it would be daring enough to attempt: Not only does it retell the story, it does so in such a way that it brings the impossible problems of revisiting a long-retold canon and the expectations placed upon the team. It dares to break from those bonds, and does so in such a weirdly perfect way that I'm so excited to see what the next part of the remade FF7 has in store.
I love this game so much. I'm not a huge Mario fan. Not even really a big fan of the Paper Mario series. I did however play Super Mario RPG a bit after it first came out, and that sort of fun Mario-flavored adventure has stuck with me a long time. One thing I have been aware of, though, is Paper Mario fans' need to be very loud about their opinions on how the games have been going downhill since one point or another. When I was surprised by a new Paper Mario trailer earlier this year, though, and it coming out so soon after that trailer, I felt a strong desire to check it out. Perhaps in part because the origami aesthetic looked so incredibly charming, but also because I felt it was about time that I reconnected with the Mario RPG lineage. So it was actually a huge surprise that Origami King was so extremely fun and charming. It's got heart, some devastating moments, some incredibly wild world development that takes some cosmic horror vibes with the nature of a paper universe interacting with physical objects and elements. And of course, it has my absolute favorite soundtrack of the year. SO much music, in all sorts of genres, that elevate it beyond just a very fun and well designed game, and puts it towards the top of my list as one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had all year.
From the literal first trailer, I'd been looking forward to playing 13 Sentinels. It came as such a surprise, especially for anyone familiar with Vanillaware's usual games. I've really enjoyed them, games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa, but mostly on an appreciation of the art and music. The stories have been good, but not what kept me playing, and lost me once the gameplay got a little too mundane in each. So it was a huge surprise to see that Vanillaware was doing not only a sci-fi story, but a visual novel with tactical gameplay that didn't even rely on their super detailed art. That, and the title song "Brat Overflow" that debuted the game 500% sold me on it. Like, just listen to it:
If that doesn't get you pumped for a game I don't know what will. But the real meat of what makes 13 Sentinels special is in its plotting and writing. Specifically, it's a completely nonlinear game that lets you choose how and when to experience everything. Since there are 13 characters and a whole suite of combat missions, it seems like the most intimidating thing to have created. And yet, after comparing notes with multiple friends that have played all the way through, the storytelling experience and how the story and missions are gated all weave together to form something that is just as exciting and suspenseful no matter how you approach it. Friends have come across one reveal hours before me, but I've been exposed to another reveal first, and both of them are equally exciting. Even though I already know one thing before another person doesn't dull the fact that everything creates a tapestry of knowledge that pieces together in such a way that by the time you've finished, it's a brilliant experience all the way through. Because ultimately, it's not a complicated resolution. The gist of what has actually happened isn't some complicated Kingdom Hearts style fabrication, and that's what makes it work. Like a good mystery, it exhausts every possible option until only the real truth remains. And it's a brilliant journey from start to finish.
Yet it's not even in its direct storytelling that the strengths of its narrative come into focus. The combat sequences, pulled back and abstracted like a radar overview, become the dramatic final moments of the story as the literal unbeatable odds continue to escalate. It's here where the soundtrack shines, and the composition team at Basiscape led by Hitoshi Sakimoto let loose an incredible score of electronics and orchestral flourishes. In the final moments, a dynamic score develops out over the course of the battle, from its prep phase prelude's synths, into its orchestral procession, into a final anime-inspired drive to the finish complete with a recap of the title song worked into its orchestration, scores enough missiles flung to bring a slowdown only the best of shmups could offer. It's overwhelming, exhausting, and an amazing finish.