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Nina Freeman's Top 10 Games of 2020

Nina's back with another list of indie favorites (and at least one AAA remake of some renown).

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Nina Freeman is a game designer and streamer. She’s best known for games like Cibele and “how do you Do It?”. You can follow her on Twitter at @PersocomNina or check out her streams every week on Twitch at twitch.tv/ninamarie.

I went back and read my game of the year list introduction from 2019. I’m glad I read it, because I needed a reminder of my optimistic start to 2020. I was working on my new horror game (which I’m still working on! yay!), and I had high hopes for where it’d be by the end of the year. Then, 2020 happened (CW: 2020 things, skip the next paragraph if you need)…

It hasn't been a great year for my ability to work on games. There’s been a number of bigger things to worry about between the pandemic, violence against black folks, the election… I could go on, but y’all know. Oregon wildfires happened this year, too. We lived in Portland, and the surreal amounts of smoke pouring into our apartment triggered my asthma, which was… not fun! My partner ended up driving us out of Oregon and all the way to Maryland so that I could recover. Now, we’ve been living out here on his parents' farm out of our suitcases... for months. I like it though, because I get to help out with the animals, including fluffy sheep and a cute mini donkey--no complaints there!! :)

I really connected with my stream community more than ever throughout the chaos of the year. All of my friends on Twitch have brought me immense, irreplaceable happiness throughout 2020. I want to thank you for that. I played through almost all of the Silent Hill games with my friend Mary Kish, over on her channel. I discovered and connected with the incredible Zomebaekillz, who never fails to inspire me. I played through Final Fantasy X with my bestie McSassblast, which was a total blast. Shoutouts to these amazing women and to all of the folks who have hung out in my chat all year!!

I’m thankful to be safe right now, and I’m thankful for some positive things to look back on. However, the mental strain of it all has been a lot. It was hard to feel motivated to work on games. I am sure many of you have had similar feelings and experiences this year. People all over the world have been through this, and worse. Anyone else out there who feels like 2020 has been a major setback in your career or any other life goal. It sucks. A lot. These setbacks and challenges are real, and it’s completely ok and normal to be moving slowly because of them. It’s also ok to feel sad about that--sadness is a valid and important emotion. That sadness won’t last forever, though. We’re all in this together--I’m sending you virtual hugs!! Let’s go running into 2021, because even if it’s hard, we can still move forward! We can regain our strength there. <3

Without further rambling (thank you for listening!!), here were my favorite games this year:

If Found...

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If Found… is a game about Kasio. You explore specific moments of her life in Ireland through her diary--a diary that you are erasing. Leaving the past behind leaves room for a queer coming-of-age story to blossom. However, this is not just any coming-of-age story. It’s specific to Kasio--her queer experience, her Irish experience, her relationships to her friends and family, her personal story. I won’t get into specifics of the narrative beyond that, because the first-hand experience of Kasio’s story is too valuable. However, it is not only the story and the wonderful character portraiture that put this game at the top of my list. The mechanic of erasure is something I’ve never seen in another game. If Found… and the core mechanic of erasing to progress the story is brilliant--a mechanic that in and of itself is a part of the story, helping you embody the experience of Kasio. As Kasio’s written memories of these events are erased, she is given room to grow within the space that is granted by their removal. This game is a small spot of hope for the future in an otherwise painful year--it helped me remember the wonderful reality of personal stories that exemplify human resilience and growth.

Umurangi Generation

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Umurangi Generation is an intensely expressive game about exploring and photographing the, as the devs put it, shitty future. It is specifically set in Tauranga Aotearoa, and depicts a Māori science-fiction future. The futuristic qualities of this game do not distract from its critique of, and existence within, current-day society. You begin the game photographing your friends (including a very good Penguin) in a private rooftop space--probably built by you and the folks there. Your friends continue to appear in each level, but these levels aren’t all private spaces. Some are security checkpoints full of armed guards. Others are in the middle of battlefields. Umurangi Generation is not a game that cares about making you feel comfortable--it wants you to face an uncomfortable reality. It challenges you to look directly at images you document of oppressors next to the people being oppressed. However, it isn’t a game without hope. The youth of Umurangi Generation are dancing in the streets, covering the walls with their art, living their lives urgently and deliberately. It is also full of specific Māori imagery and references, which adds key cultural context to this vibrant world. The game has a fiery, fighter and survivor spirit that cannot be denied. I mean, you can literally take a picture of the words “KILL FASCISTS” in this game. I can’t think of a more 2020 mood.

Carto

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Carto is a puzzle game about maps, family and cultural traditions. When I finished this game I had a warm heart. I loved the whole thing, and I wanted everyone who is feeling sad to just play this and feel happy for even a little bit. You play as a young cartographer named Carto. She was on a trip with her adventurous granny when they got separated in a storm. This may sound kinda stressful, but Carto is a gifted cartographer, and more than ready for the adventure. You collect the scattered pieces of a map, which you can rearrange to change the shape of the world you explore. So, imagine you’re arranging the pieces of a torn up map, and when they’re places, you can zoom in and walk around in them. Then, you can rearrange them whenever you want to change the layout of the place you’re walking around in! You can even move a map piece that you’re on, creating a fun way to take shortcuts. It’s such a cool concept for a puzzle game, and it’s really fun to sort out all of the different map configurations. Also, every character in Carto is an absolute delight, the writing is fun, and it explores some really interesting ideas related to engaging with cultures you’re unfamiliar with. Overall, it’s a lovely game from every angle.

Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2020

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I got my start as a game developer at game jams, making games with my friends that were experimental and small in scope. So, I’ve always had a soft spot for games that embrace those values, made at jams or otherwise. The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2020 checks all of my boxes. I love horror, experimental games, small games, themed collections, and games that challenge my expectations of the medium--you can find all of this in the collection. You can go from a Finnish sauna, to a spooky skateboard ride through a city, to a chaotic ramen shop. There’s narrative focused games, puzzle games, action games… I think anyone can find something to like in this collection (or you might just love ALL of it, like me, lol). Of course, this is a collection of demos, so some have even seen full releases since--A Place, Forbidden and Fatum Betula, for example. I also discovered the lovely folks doing the Dread X Collections through this, which I can’t recommend enough to my fellow horror fans.

I adore the idea of bringing back demo discs, because they are such a good source of discovery. Finding games I like can be tough in the land of algorithm based recommendations, which don’t usually capture my taste fully. I am a bigger fan of hand-done curation, like you see in Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2020 and the Dread X Collections. Also, I’ll admit that another reason I’m so psyched on it is because I have a lot of actual nostalgia for old PS1 demo discs, haha! I remember playing one that had Spyro the Dragon on it over and over and over when I was a kid. Between the structure and concept of a demo disc, and the exciting games themselves, I can’t recommend Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2020 enough. Also, keep an eye out on their Twitter for news about the 2021 collection, which I am mega excited for!

Out for Delivery

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Out for Delivery is an FMV documentary game about a food delivery courier in Beijing. The specifics made my jaw drop. By some stroke of fate, this team managed to capture their footage in Beijing on January 23, 2020, the day Wuhan shut down due to COVID-19. The footage you explore in this game is immensely valuable as a historical record. Not only that, but I think the whole idea is an achievement for the use of documentary within games as a medium. Even beyond its placement at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of exploring a day in the life of a food courier is something we need right now. The gig economy is such a big part of our world, and we need to pay attention to it. The game gives players a chance to see the little details of the daily life experiences for gig economy workers, offering that immensely important personal perspective. The chit chat amongst couriers, biking through the streets, the elevator rides. Seeing these specific, human perspectives and spaces let you experience the moment-to-moment of a delivery in a way I’ve never encountered in another piece of media. All of that, during a literal pandemic. It’s an amazing idea and a game you won’t want to miss. Out for Delivery isn’t fully released yet (there is a demo), but the concept and content are so important that I had to include it in this year's list so y’all don’t miss it!

Final Fantasy VII Remake

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I try to avoid putting AAA games on my GOTY lists because I like to highlight smaller teams without those big-ass marketing budgets. However, I am a bitch for Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy X is the game that made me love games as a kid. I was a bit young when VII came out though, so I missed it! So, cut to age 30, and I’m playing VII Remake without any experience with the original… and it blew my damn mind. Of course, I was psyched about the themes--corporate evil, climate change, the wealth divide, etc. I love the characters--never forget Aerith destroying that man with a folding chair. However, it was the re-imagining of Final Fantasy combat mechanics that really got me. Final Fantasy VII Remake is just so fun to play. Part of the fun is the fact that it supports multiple playstyles. You can set up the best binds for yourself and feel more like you’re playing a fast-paced action game, or depend more on the menus and evoke the feeling of a turn-based system. I enjoyed playing the game slightly slower than some of my friends, and relied on the menus a lot. The fact that the game doesn’t really punish me for that is so cool. I love that kind of design--it’s friendly towards all kinds of players. Damn, I love VII Remake… I actually played it twice this year, and I could honestly play it twice again next year and still not be sick of it.

Promesa

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Promesa is a game about developer Julián Palacios and his grandfather. However, you’re not necessarily playing the game to see or interact with them--it’s more about the places they inhabit and imagine. It depicts their different life experiences and fantasies of Argentina and Italy. As a long-time developer of games drawing on my own personal experiences, this was one of the most inspiring games to me as a designer this year. The game is boldly simple mechanically--you exist in different spaces that in and of themselves tell a story about this family and these individuals. There are spaces that are surreal, mixed in with spaces that are concrete and lived in. One moment you’re up in the clouds, the next you’re in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking a bare courtyard. The game also brings you to places that are passed through by many, which hold a wider cultural and societal narrative impact, like the Hotel de Inmigrantes. The mix of liminal and personal spaces creates an environmental narrative that is personal, political and intensely moving. Without any systems to distract from these narrative environments, you simply take it all in. You can learn so much about a person by observing and exploring the places they move through, and Promesa exhibits this beautifully.

Grass Mud Horse

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Grass Mud Horse is a game about working as a cinematographer on a film set. If you’re into small games with good humor, PS1 era graphics and girls kissing… you will love this. The idea is beautifully executed--you’re gathering and arranging your lights, and then you’re behind the camera while film auteur Bobby Wu directs. Bobby likes to talk, so you learn all about the film's funny backstory through his commentary. I love all the little details in this game--the first-person cigarette, the verbal sound effects when you carry the lights, the wonderful music. It’s the kind of game about work that is less about the monotony and more about these details and the moments that add variety to a day. The clumsiness of placing things carefully and failing, or overhearing your boss say something stupid. I’m sure y'all have been there at some point--it felt pretty relatable. Finally, I wanted to call out that the game was made by Toby Do, Emi Schaufeld, and Julia Wang. This will mark the third year in a row that something that Toby has worked on has made it onto my GOTY list. I look forward to many more!! Toby is one of my favorite game designers working on smaller, experimental pieces.

The Pathless

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The Pathless is a game about an archer’s grand adventure to save the world alongside an adorable eagle companion. That’s what I thought at first anyway, but for me, it’s more about the joy of running. The Pathless goes to great lengths in its level design and mechanics to ensure the player maximum freedom of movement. You shoot arrows at small targets throughout the environment to boost speed, regain speed, jump, etc. The vast landscapes of the game seem intimidatingly large at first, but the meaning of its scale becomes clear once you realize it’s a playground for sprinting and gliding. As you learn how to effectively use your arrows to move throughout the world using these targets and the assistance of your eagle, the sheer fun of running around in The Pathless is intoxicating.

P.S. If you, like me, were obsessed with Pokémon the Movie 2000 as a kid… this game has a lot of parallels, especially with all the bird stuff. I recommend watching the movie before you play The Pathless if you are a horrible nerd like me, just because it’s really fun to compare them. Apparently, the creative director never saw this Pokémon movie… so it’s just a funny coincidence, but I thoroughly enjoy it.

Chulip

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Chulip was actually released in 2002 for the PS2, but I only just played it for the first time this year, and I feel strongly enough about my time with it that I’m including it on this list. Chulip is an adventure game where you go around trying to kiss everyone in town. You don’t kiss for free though, and you certainly don’t want to kiss without consent, so everyone requires some sort of favor or positive impression. It’s not easy for you though, because you’re a poor boy, and you’re new in town. Folks are suspicious of you at best, but why? Again, you’re the poor boy, so that’s just how people see you. This game may look silly on the surface, but it tackles a lot of social issues. Everything from workers rights to police violence. This game is actually super political and I love that about it. It weaves the political in with the personal, because some folks in town are just… lonely, or sad, or heartbroken, or are coping with any other number of personal challenges. With each kiss, you learn more about each townsperson, and each townsperson’s story teaches you about something greater. I was really floored by this game, and I think that it’s the kind of game that every aspiring designer should play. If anything, its boldness and creative approaches to working cultural and political issues into its arc is incredibly inspiring.

P.S. I played Chulip on my PS3. I picked it up digitally through the PlayStation Store on my PS3, which you should still be able to do--it’s part of their classics collection. It won’t show up if you search for it on the web… for some reason. Also, if you want to dig further into this kind of games history, Onion Games released the predecessor to Chulip this year on the Switch--Moon Remix RPG Adventure.