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Samantha Kalman's Top 10 Games of 2020

Samantha Kalman moved to a foreign country, moved back again, then found a new gig at Respawn in 2020. And somewhere amid all of that, she even found the time to play some games.

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Samantha Kalman is a Seattle-based game developer currently working at Respawn on Apex Legends. You can find her on Twitter @SamanthaZero.

Friends, it's been a hell of a year. I had approximately three months of normalcy in 2020, if you count studying for a Bachelor's degree in a foreign country "normal". When the lockdown hit in March I was settled in SE London, trying to keep up with my studies and wondering how long to watch the pandemic unfold before I needed to move back home. Lemme tell ya, London is a really cool place to live when you can be out in it! But when you're stuck in a single room it's a different story, even when you have time to make some awful experimental music.

Thankfully I did make it back home and settled in with the help of family. And with a summer vacation from studying I got to catch up on games I didn't get to play in 2019. Here's my top 10 great escapes from a shit year!

10. Fuser

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You probably already know I'm a huge fan of Harmonix games! I was really happy to see them making new work, even though it's revisiting their very cool card game DropMix. The timing of the release was coincidental, too. While I was studying electronic music in London, we did a unit on hip hop & turntablism. I felt kind of activated by that content and started falling down a well of studying the history, technologies, and techniques of DJing. My interest grew enough that I invested in my first set of turntables this summer, a couple months before Fuser dropped. After I'd been practicing dropping, cutting, mixing, and scratching in an analog fashion, I got to try it all in Fuser. It's really fun! Fuser necessarily simplifies the physical precision required to be a DJ, but it all still works. I like the variety in its library of music and how it forces me to play with music I wouldn't usually curate for myself. The best part is how it takes away all the most difficult parts of DJing to keep you focused on listening and making purely musical decisions. Whether you make those decisions for good or evil is up to you--I admire the truly grotesque mashups we saw coming out of Fuser social media for a while. It's not easy to make something so fucked up on pure vinyl, trust me I tried! My final take: Fuser is to actual DJing as Divekick is to Street Fighter, and I love it for that.

9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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Animal Crossing almost certainly saved my sanity while I was still in London. I was looking forward to its release from an increasingly cold and rainy part of the world. I couldn't wait to run around little sunny islands with my friends! It seemed to bring a promise of relief from isolation that was finally setting in as dreadful. But I was subverted! My internet at home was so bad that I would only get errors every time I tried the multiplayer. It broke my heart, truly, to be denied a relief from social isolation. I continued to play on a daily clip, waking up and looking forward to the theme song. My routine of logging on doing my rounds in the morning brought some stability to my life at the height of uncertainty about the pandemic. I'll always be grateful for it for that.

8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - Warzone

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OK, so every few months for the past couple years I've gone on a twitter tirade about Battle Royale games. Mostly I like to pitch the most ridiculous ideas like "a hundred drag queens parachute onto a catwalk" or dumb shit like that. As more games in the genre have been released I've taken a liking to their individual approaches to game dynamics. I started studying them from a design perspective, if you want to put it that way. Because so many people have talked about Warzone being a legit great Battle Royale, I decided to try it. Friends, this is the first time I've actually played a Call of Duty game. And I gotta admit, Warzone is pretty fucking cool.

It feels a lot more intense and chaotic than the time I've spent with PUBG or Apex Legends. Frankly it's all pretty overwhelming as an experience. I played several games without understanding how to engage with the missions system at all. And when I picked it apart and discovered the focus on hundreds of minute variations of a fixed quantity of weapons, the progression all felt a little shallow. I haven't engaged with the other PVP modes of Modern Warfare or Black Ops so the cross-progression hook doesn't hold any weight for me. But playing it is fun as hell, even without readily knowing my preferred loadout. They've done a lot to maximize the adrenaline factor of the play experience. Speaking as someone who dies a lot, the Gulag revive mechanic works really well. Who knows, this might become my gateway drug to playing other Call of Duty games!

7. Rez Infinite

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Listen, Rez is one of the best games of all time. The original game on PS2 inspired me and my work in a lasting way. I was lucky enough to play the new release in VR on an Oculus Quest 2, and it is good, very fucking good. Jeff's talked about this a few times, but the immersive nature of this old game in VR makes it feel like the version that had been planned for all along. It's a perfect game. If you haven't played it, I'm extremely jealous that you get to experience it for the first time in VR.

6. Hades

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Hades is great and it seems like everybody knows that already! I really like it after being pretty skeptical about the hype. There's something about playing it that feels good and frenetic that doesn't get communicated by watching. I haven't yet managed to escape Hades by defeating Hades, but I've battled with Hades in the snow and that was really cool and devastating. The only other thing I want to say about Hades is NOBODY BETTER MESS WITH MY WIFE DUSA. YOU STAY AWAY FROM HER! She's too pure for this world.

5. Bloodborne

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Maybe you remember Bloodborne was my previous #1 game of the year in 2018? Well, it's back baby! This year I saw its credits roll for the first time, using the save I started on its release day. Holy shit, what an amazing game. You know it's gotta be something special when you return to a game after years of letting it collect dust because it feels like unfinished business. I needed a two year break, and then another year break to get through it, but yeah, it was so worth it!

Certainly there's a lesson in this whole experience about perseverance and not giving up. There's another lesson, too: I struggled with the final boss SO BAD. After dozens of failed attempts to finish it myself, I finally rang that bell and spent the insight I'd been hoarding to summon a fellow hunter to help me out. Because they were helping I was able to finish the game. The game teaches a lesson of cooperation, and asking for help too, apparently. Incredible how a game so bloody, gothic, oppressively heavy, and disturbing can help us embody wholesome lessons we need to survive our actual lives lately. This game is a treasure and you should play it.

4. Mahjong Soul

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Normally I'm not much of a tabletop player. I need flashing lights and explosions and the occasional waifu, and tabletop games just don't deliver!! Except: consider that Mahjong Soul does all of that while being a video game version of a tabletop game! Mahjong as a set of tiles and rules is a perfect game, and I fully expect the hipsters to discover it when they get tired of the current explosion of popularity in Chess. Mahjong Soul is a beautifully rendered and animated version of a great game, with tutorials and hints and assisting hooks. It's the perfect game to play with three friends and just socialize, especially if those friends don't usually like to play videogames for whatever reason. There are a lot of rules to learn up front, and that part is intimidating, but see if you can learn from a friend or both figure it out together. Once you get to understanding the basics you'll see there's an endless well of depth and strategy that just tickles the brain. And it feels so damn good to Ron your friend for 18,000 points, TAKE THAT, SOPHIE!!

My only issue with Mahjong Soul is that it facilitates each game in a way that I would be totally lost if I tried to play for real at a table. But it's also so fun that it makes me want to try growing old in a Mahjong Parlor, complaining about the kids as I wrinkle and wither away. You should play Mahjong! Or just watch that time I played with Brin, Ben, and Jan!

3. Control

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Control has been on my list ever since I heard about the first few minutes: you show up in the Federal Bureau of Control building, which has always been there and you've just never quite noticed it. This sort of weird vagueness that permeates the game reminded me of listening to the GB crew discussing it on the podcasts. I remember hearing them say words about things in the game, but nothing quite sunk in. Playing it for myself finally felt like Jesse walking into the FBC for the first time. I've known about this all along, but it was just fuzzy in my mind, nothing quite made sense. Honestly? Even after playing it nothing still quite makes sense. That's what's so good about it. The difference in me from before I played it to having finished it is that I did a whole bunch of laughing my ass off. There's a guy who has to stare at a fridge, because someone has to be staring at the fridge at every moment, and it's his shift on fridge duty! It doesn't make sense but it's so damn good! Yeah the combat, the weapons, and the movement all feel good too. Kind of incredible how you feel increasingly powerful and still deeply vulnerable in tandem throughout the entire game. That in itself is a huge design accomplishment.

I really like the character Jesse too, the way she's written and acted makes her character uniquely portrayed in any fiction, but especially in an action game. She's not a sexualized Lara Croft type. She's badass and capable, but not along Strong Female Protagonist tropes. She's beautiful, but not in a conventional beauty standards way. She's confident in her mission, but also piecing things together as she goes. And she has interesting relationships with both her estranged brother and an unknowable abstract lifeform?? I really like playing as her!

2. Apex Legends

Full disclosure: In October I joined the Apex Legends dev team at Respawn as a game designer, so I'm now working on this game! With that disclosure aside, I fucking love playing Apex. It's kind of a long story?

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The short version is that I picked it up again after I returned from London, and found myself blown away by all the changes and additions since Season 1. I immediately found myself maining Crypto and finding my own flavor of support tactics on a team. I absolutely loved learning the character abilities, the weapons, and everything going on with the maps. I streamed it a few times over the summer and stayed up playing late into the night, like I was a kid again playing the SNES version of Street Fighter II until 4am. I love the fighting game aspects of the character abilities and counters. I love the interesting dynamics straddling the spectrum of cooperation and competition. I've played a bunch of times with friends, not always going hard but just catching up while playing. And I've taken home my share of victories. Whereas I celebrated my single victory royale in Fortnite, and lamented never getting a chicken dinner in PUBG, I've had several gratifying victories in Apex. Most of them were a result of active willingness to coordinate and cooperate with my (usually random) teammates. I'm not really a ranked/competitive player yet, but I could see growing in that direction. I just love the moment to moment looting, shooting, rotating, hunting gameplay loop variations in every match. Even when I get blown away right away, losing never feels so heavy that I don't just want to jump right back in.

I also just love the lore and narrative around the game? Dunno if y'all saw the Pathfinder Fight Night lore video that was extremely good film noir, but I am here for all that stuff the team does. At the risk of giving off "I'm just happy to be here" energy, I'm really excited and grateful to be working with the team on this game. It makes me fucking happy and I need that right now after the rough year of disruption and uprooting.

1. Judgment

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Beast in the East was one of my favorite Giant Bomb features. I'd been reluctant to go in on a Yakuza game due to lukewarm feelings about the initial PS2 releases. That and the lineage with Shenmue, which damn, that was 60 hours of my life I'll never get back. But watching the guys play Yakuza 0, I was delighted by how well that game worked as a self-serious drama and also an absurd python-esque wonderland. Knowing that Judgment was going to be a Yakuza game but with a private detective angle, I decided to try it out. I'm extremely glad I did because this game is just extremely good at everything it does, and it does a lot. Its setup and story is super compelling and goes places! Character drama and conflicts are great in a Japanese daytime television sort of way. The combat feels good, and the special moves are so ridiculous I was just laughing out loud or telling my brother "you've got to see this".

I really liked the variety of mini-games and the various excuses they provide to engage with them. Drone racing league is very good. It has Mahjong mini-games too! They actually became my gateway to Mahjong Souls, so in many ways I owe my love of Mahjong to Judgment. The dating sequences and taking selfies are mostly wholesome and only slightly problematic! The game never feels like it's punching down, which is really important to me. I mentioned the story is good, but the storytelling itself is actually masterful. I've never hated a villain so much, and the characters are so well rendered that it feels like interacting with real people. Like, I want to punch the actor who plays the villain! So bad! When I started playing I wasn't quite expecting a Chinatown-level of political complexity, but the way those dynamics unfold in the story is great.

Lastly, I cannot say enough good stuff about the final hours of the game. The conclusions and revelations are great right up until the very end. And the final boss battle sequence is maybe the most cinematic thing I've seen in my life. When I finally understood why the Japanese title of the game is Judge Eyes, well that shit hits hard too. This game is so good I've just downloaded Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 6! Those should tide me over while I save up for a PS5 to play Yakuza 7.

That's it from me for now! Thanks for reading and stay safe out there! 2021 is hopefully gonna be the year we get out from underneath a lot of bad shit. Don't forget to let yourself enjoy a game or two while we get there <3 -s