Game of the Year 2020 (As played, not released)

Last year’s list ended on a massive note of optimism after what felt like a tepid year for games. That’s especially ironic for a few reasons, A) one of the two games I mentioned last year as a big contender will appear this year as my most disappointing game, B), the obvious (and overwhelming) COVID/police violence/election issues with 2020, and C) the fact that despite everything it’s been a surprisingly good year of games.

Next year, hopefully (knock on wood), will see things stabilizing somewhat, but it’s still full of unknowns. The largest of these unknowns is the fact that in a couple of short weeks I’ll be a parent for the first time and it’s already wonderful, scary, and the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced. In a year full of global life-and-death problems and an upcoming change as large as parenthood, games are objectively unimportant, but 2020 has proven that they serve a vital role in my daily mental health.

This year I spent digital/distanced time with family with friends, I spent time with my wife in our tiny apartment and, on the nights when she went off to face a 12 hour night shift in the ICU, I jumped into games to distract me from my anxiety about the world, COVID, and whether her mask/PPE would hold up long enough to keep her safe.

I guess what I’m saying is that I know that games aren’t cosmically important compared to the issues we faced this year, but I’m surer than ever that they’re vitally important to me. No matter how things change I'll always find time to play.

This year it felt appropriate to talk about all of the games that, for good or for bad, meant a lot to me. Writing about the media I consumed was a therapeutic process and I figure I might as well share it. My notes hit almost 10,000 words before I expanded, edited, and chose what I'd include in the list. With that in mind you’ll notice more entries than usual this year. It’s my top ten, followed by a ridiculously large number of special mention awards.

Stay safe, and take care of yourselves,

-AodhHinsai

List items

  • Game of the Year - #1

    Dragon Quest XI was the game I played to ring in 2020. Usually these (very) early year games tend to fade into the background as I progress through subsequent months, but the heart and polish on display left an impression that stuck with me.

    Before we go too much further it’s important to note that this is my first Dragon Quest. Some reviews I’ve read (like Cameron Kunzelman’s review over at Waypoint) rightfully note that the themes and mechanics here are retreads of previous games in the series (and the genre writ-large). I consider myself lucky in this regard. I don’t have massive context for classic JRPGs and have zero love or nostalgia for the traditional top-down entries. Because of this GQXI hit me like a ton of bricks, and ended up taking me on an inspiring and thoughtful journey with rock-solid mechanical backing.

    The fact that the underlying system hasn’t changed in decades is obvious from the start. While it isn’t the newest or most innovative system out there, you can feel every ounce of refinement. The end result is intuitive and impeccably balanced. I never felt like I had to grind for hours to beat a boss, but if I wanted to over-level it was pretty simple to do so.

    The story is great with plenty of twists that completely change the nature of the game and the world itself. That’s one of my favorite experiences that games provide— the ability to dwell in a world that is profoundly changing over the course of your experience. It’s a rollercoaster. This dynamic story is bolstered by a core cast of phenomenal characters who, although they’re definitely subject to some anime tropes, largely defy the biggest stereotypes. It’s worth noting that there are still some cringey aspects. Sylvando in particular is forced to be the butt of jokes about his identity and I hated having to sift through this quantity of 80’s-sitcom-style gay panic ‘humor.’ There is some progress here since he’s presented as an admirable character who wins others over with his optimistic worldview but, c’mon Japan, do better with your representation.

    In the end I’ve got no regrets about sinking a hundred and some hours into the game. I played the Switch version and it was an excellent choice. The lasting image I’ll have of this game is of the late-game quest in which you organize a big, joyous, flamboyant parade that marches from town to town. The world has already ended, humanity is on the ropes, and you’re still committed to celebrating the wonder and beauty of what’s left. Those moments and themes have resonated even harder in the wake of COVID. Staying positive and determined, despite times that feel apocalyptic, is a message that hits hard.

  • Game of the Year - #2

    I’ve tried to play FFVII so many times through the years. Never successfully. The latest of which (the switch rerelease) was the furthest along I ever got: Outside the city walls and into the overworld. It’s probably related to my lack of nostalgia for the game, but antiquated battle system made it impossible for me to access the story that so many people hold dear. This ended up being a blessing in disguise. Since I don’t have any baggage surrounding this game and could come in fresh, it has absolutely pinned my ears back.

    It’s beautiful. The music and visual fidelity make a hell of a first impression, and once you’re starting to see past the new coat of paint the characterization and writing keep the sincerity and sense of wonder going. The little ways that the characters interact remind me of my favorite popcorn anime moments and I appreciate the way they’ve tempered the old script with a more sophisticated emotional intelligence. That’s not to say this is some kind of revolutionary games writing, but it does give me an idea of why this game has stood the test of time and become a benchmark for story and emotional engagement. Characters are well realized and naturalistic and seeing them all (probably) bite-it when the plate drops is horrifying. Some of this could be my 2020 induced emotionally compromised state, but the game packed a real wallop. It’s got heart, and the themes feel pretty relevant at the moment, especially the climate anxiety and economic/corporate strife that have only been amplified since the late 90’s.

    On a technical level, it’s some of the little moments that take my breath away. Holy cow the skyboxes are so good! Like, sit and stare good. I know that they’re static images, and some people will think they look like garbage, but to me it’s a brilliant throwback to the original. Other uses of physical space, like the sense of vertigo the player can get from BASE jumping off the underside of the plate, was something that really clicked with me. Even some of the particle effects and use of color gave me goosebumps. That’s rare for a player like me who feels fairly jaded by modern graphical fidelity.

    The biggest risk in this remake is the one that has been the most controversial— and is also my favorite. The concept of fate and canon being personified within the game is so so so smart. Hopefully the promise isn’t squandered in subsequent segments of the remake. Heather Alexandria’s piece on this is wonderful: (https://kotaku.com/final-fantasy-vii-remake-is-haunted-by-what-came-before-1843023072) and I highly recommend that you give it a look.

    I've never cared about this game but the remake has made me a believer. It isn’t a perfect thing, there are obvious bits of padding and stretching, with several linear corridors, but, at least they usually pay off. The sewers took too long, and the train yard made me roll my eyes a bit, but the emotional payoff was so good I can’t stay miffed at it. What a fascinating way to handle a remake of a game. It’s a reminder that when stereotypical anime tropes are applied skillfully, they can be incredibly effective. I ended up reading plenty of supplemental material since I wasn’t aware of the full story of VII and it helped build a proper frame of reference for the end. Even though the finale was… a lot… I was able to walk away really really impressed. Definitely one of my favorite media experiences of recent memory.

    It’s so gutsy. I hope more games will be willing to mess with the classics like they have here. The original will always be there for fans, and the changes might just lead to something great.

  • Game of the Year - #3

    All hail small games that are willing to try things. So much of what we see covered every year can be described with a single point of reference or two. Paradise Killer, by comparison, is a game that requires more than just a pithy summary to describe. It’s visually distinct, the writing is great, and it’s weird as hell (more of this please!). It understands the joy of exploring a space and offers a literal version of the same feeling of wandering around a dead world that I mention later on in my Hypnospace Outlaw entry.

    In the discussion surrounding this game I’ve heard some concerns that the endgame was less satisfying then it could have been. I don’t agree, and I think that perspective comes from an expectation tied to the wrong genre. If you expect that this is an Ace Attorney game you’re primed for an explosive finale with grand histrionics and a happy ending. Instead I found that Paradise Killer harkens back to the traditions of hard-boiled detective classics by Chandler, Hammett et al. This is a weird comparison of course, considering the occult iconography and synthy-futurism that seem to clash with traditional noir sensibilities, but I think the game’s ending makes more sense when you contextualize it within the classic hard-boiled tradition.

    It’s a literary tradition where the story ends with the perpetrator declared guilty—or not— and the aggrieved parties left wondering what comes next. The broken system isn’t fixed, justice has been served in only the narrowest terms, and the world is still cold and unforgiving. In Paradise Killer the mystery is solved and you can mete out whatever form of bloodless or bloody justice you wish-- but the corrupt system just keeps lurching forward. There’s a new iteration of the world that could fall victim to the same problems and a system where the underclass is still being sacrificed (literally) to further the goals of the powerful few.

    I should take a step back and say that comparison to literary classics doesn’t mean I’m pushing this as literature, it’s not, but In the end I think it shows that gameplay has an outsized affect on narrative expectations. We know what other recent (and popular) examples of this genre do and so we expect that both the gameplay and narrative will be transposed.

    Paradise Killer could be played in one or two sittings and I highly suggest you do so. The music and world design are top-notch and it’ll let you support developers who were brave enough to make a truly weird game.

  • Game of the Year - #4

    Hot damn! This sucker is propulsive. Supergiant once again proves that a willingness to innovate in the narrative space coupled with rock solid gameplay (their best ever) makes for an unbeatable combo. The characters are rich and sympathetic, the story hooked me in a way I’d never expected from a rogue-like, and every aspect of the gameplay (from the boons to the eventual complications added once you clear your first run) are phenomenal.

    There are a few small things that never got in the way of my enjoyment— specifically a very identifiable set of level configurations/elements and my general malaise when confronted with Korb’s score (I know, I’m in the minority on this one)— but they didn’t stop me from playing obsessively until the end credits (and beyond). A phenomenal experience and one I’ll keep coming back to.

  • Game of the Year - #5

    A literal island in a sea of global disturbance. I think history may look back on animal crossing as the ultimate right time right place game. Who can say what the actual future of the game holds, but damn. It really hit at the right time. New Horizons played such an important part in my family this year. We were looking for ways to keep connected as we went into lockdown and the excitement as we lead up to the release served as an excellent glue to hold us together. Cousins, Aunts, my sister, and my wife & I all huddled around our TVs on launch night with an open FaceTime call waiting for the game to unlock. Once it did we were sharing island layouts, discussing the music, asking questions, and generally feeling like we weren’t quite as far apart as we actually were. Regardless of the positives and negatives of New Horizons, I’ll never forget the joy it brought me in a dark part of the year.

    With some distance I’ve got a more realistic view on the game part of New Horizons. It’s painfully slow to find DIY recipes (which proved to be the limiting factor in my long term playtime). Certain seasonal events were messy or underwhelming, and it can be infuriating to not have access to furniture because you haven’t received a random drop. Despite all of this, the game is peaceful. The characters and art are delightful (better than ever and proof of a Nintendo at the top of its game), the music is great, and the core loop is still as good as it was when I first played Animal Crossing: Wild World a decade and a half ago.

    It’s been interesting to deal with the differing circumstances surrounding New Horizons. My main Animal Crossing was Wild World on DS and I fondly remember the days worth of play time I put into it. The one thing I didn’t have to deal with was social media bombarding me with amazing cities and house designs that blow my piddly little town to pieces. I did good work, but it’s tough to compete with people sinking 1000+ hours into the game. In the end, this island envy aggravated the issues I had with glacial DIY recipe acquisition and cooled me on the game as the months went by.

    So far, it feels like New Horizons will outlast all but Wild World, and having a few minutes every day to center myself has been pretty cool. I’ll never forget what this game did for me in the middle of a terrible year, and I hope that as we move forward there continue to be reasons for me to come back.

  • Game of the Year - #6

    Ghost of Tsushima is like putting on a favorite sweatshirt. It’s comfy, warm, comforting, and has a few spots that are wearing pretty thin. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but I needed a beautiful game with mindless gameplay and smattering of collectables. It was yet another comfort food that appeared at the right time and place. I especially appreciated the quiet and meditative moments. Not since Breath of the Wild have I played an open world game as comfortable with silence and solitude as this game.

    I appreciated the blazingly fast load times and the combat is competent and satisfying, even when you play on the easiest difficulty like I did. I wanted mindless enjoyment and the combat system granted that while also providing flashy animation, necessary feedback, and enjoyable destruction.

    The open world stories (with the stylized title cards) have an episode-of-the-week feel that I really dug. This isn’t Kurosawa, it’s more like the 70’s Lone Wolf and Cub in both structure and level of cheese. Part of this comes from the fact that I back burnered the main story. The end result is that the narrative felt like a season of television that had an overarching story but was still mostly made up of “of the week” stories. I liked it that way.

    Ultimately, It clicked with me even though I’m aware of the trite storytelling and somewhat embarrassing “I understand Japanese culture through my study of multiple ah-nee-may and the works of Kurosawa” take on Japanese history and culture. If it felt like a massive film set/theme park it only strengthened the feeling of playing a somewhat low rent samurai serial.

  • Game of the Year - #7

    I jokingly gave CKII my “midlife crisis game of the year” award in 2017. The gist was that I knew I’d love the game but, due to systems or my disposition, I bounced off and just couldn’t get into it. Instead, just as I’m about to become a dad (By the time this list goes up it’ll be a month) a version of CK comes out that streamlines many of the issues that kept me from getting interested in its predecessor.

    It’s so rare to find a strategy game that makes it fun to lose. When you look at a game like Civilization you see the stark divides between win and lose states. Losing a game of civilization feels terrible. Everything grinds to a halt, your resources dry up, and you wait for your inevitable end. It’s a game that relies on your ability to remain militarily competitive. CK III offers enough variety and enough versatility to allow your borders to shrink and your kingdom to be usurped (or worse) and still have A) a path forward and B) entertaining and empowering things to do. It’s supremely clever, and the feeling of setting a plot into motion to take your kingdom back (even if your grandchildren are the only ones to see it) is infinitely entertaining.

  • Game of the Year - #8

    In the first three months of this year (the before times) I was commuting 200 miles every week to teach at a University that had extended an invitation for a quarter long visiting position. I spent my work week there and then came home to see my wife on the weekends. The work was amazing but the commute was every ounce as soul sucking as it sounds. Amidst the stress and chaos of organizing my courses I discovered this little gem that puts off serious Skyrim/Myst vibes but with zero threat and a focus on peaceful creativity.

    Eastshade asks the player to compose paintings using a super simple camera-style interface. It’s incredibly compelling and drew me in throughout its 10 or so hour runtime. It’s amazing to take on commissions and work for ornery clients— especially since I couldn’t paint my way out of a wet paper bag. The low points were rare and mostly limited to some minor grinding (truly negligible) and iffy QA (unfortunately noticeable).

    This is where I need to spotlight the soundtrack. If you love Jeremy Soule’s soundtracks to the Elder Scrolls series then you’ll absolutely love Phoenix Glendinning’s work here. It’s tranquil while still underscoring some of the profound vistas you can enjoy in the game (“Painting Flowers” is a highlight) and I’m looking forward to see what Glendinning does in the future. It’s also worth noting that, because Soule has been accused of some truly disgusting misconduct, this is a wonderful way to enjoy this style of soundtrack without the overhead of having a gross dude attached. I’d be thrilled to see what Glendinning could do in the context of a game like Elder Scrolls VI.

    This game was one of the first in the year that stuck to this year’s theme of “games I played when I needed them most,” and if you’re stressed/anxious (or, in my case, more stressed and anxious than usual) I’d highly encourage you to seek out the serenity and beauty of Eastshade.

  • Game of the Year - #9

    I was never excited to play this. I was excited for it to come out. I was excited to get it over with. I was excited to see how they’d follow up the original, but It took some serious willpower to choose to play amidst a generalized darkness that pervaded my real life existence. Aaaaand… it’s exactly what I’d expected: Harsh, hateful, miserable, and mind-blowingly well made. I played through the whole game and grabbed the platinum trophy, I talked at length about this game with my friends, and I will never play this game again.

    On a technical level it’s shockingly beautiful (and didn’t make my the PS4 pro run like a jet engine?!) and the sound design and vocal performance are top of their class. It’s also important to mention that the accessibility options are the future of the industry and made me so excited for those who benefit from them. That’s why it’s so disappointing that this effort has been applied to a story that is so basic. I don’t know how you spend this much time working on a thematic element that is so obvious and uncomplicated (did you know that violence and the cycle of revenge are BAD?!?). Instead, my favorite moments are the quiet ones where Naughty Dogs’s character writing and level design can interact and shine. Exploring downtown Seattle was one of my highlight experiences of the year. There are just so many lovely, quietly poignant moments spread throughout the explicit and implicit storytelling in that section.

    How am I supposed to balance this game? It’s a huge step towards increased representation and accessibility in games, but it comes from a studio that weaponizes its fanbase against criticism. It’s got best in the business attention to detail and performances, but it was produced under terrible labor conditions and agonizing crunch. For every thing I loved about this game there was some counterpoint that dulled the enjoyment. If you can separate those problems from the end product more power to you, but I can’t.

    The irony here is that despite the issues, I still feel pretty defensive of this game. The fawning praise is embarrassing and overlooks the issues with its studio, but I can’t stand the trans/homophobic bullshit that pervades the player backlash. The relationships and characters represented in this game (although not perfect) are meaningful to so many of my LGBTQ friends and the ugly response to them by the redpill/gamergate shithead contingent has been frustrating as hell. Obviously, there is a lot of rightful criticism of this game, but the fact that any critique of the story has been taken up as ammunition by players arguing in bad faith is exhausting. It's also part of why I’ll be glad to not discuss this game again for a long, long time.

    The Last of Us II is a triumph, and a failure. It deserves a spot on this list— but only just barely.

  • Game of the Year - #10

    Beggars can’t be choosers, so I consider myself lucky to have access to a launch game as solid as Miles Morales. While I think Astro’s Playroom is the superior controller demo for the PS5, Miles Morales is a graphical powerhouse that felt appropriately next-gen. Even better, it was the perfect length to not overstay its welcome. The story is personal the characterization is solid. Heck, it’s even fun to play!

    The issues with policing that Spider-Man 2018 had are glazed over here and certainly hover uncomfortably over the whole game/ Luckily there have been much better takes on those issues than I could or should give. Take a look at Gita Jackson’s review for Vice Games (https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5bb37/spider-man-miles-morales-ps5-review) and Mike Sholars’ review for Kotaku (https://kotaku.com/marvel-s-spider-man-miles-morales-the-kotaku-review-1845581003) for much more coherent thoughts on this.

    Overall, I loved the scope and scale of Miles Morales. It’s a worthy launch game and was the perfect introductory experience to dip my toes into a new console.

    P.S. The load times are as good as everyone says.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Requisite Picross” Award

    This award goes to whatever Picross game was released by Jupiter this year. Yes, I know. No, I don’t care.

    It’s good. Jupiter’s games, even when they’re phoning it in, feel better to play than the pretenders out there. Also, they get credit this year for having the single best background song I’ve heard in a long time— “BGM 3/Color Picross”

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Other Requisite Picross” Award

    This award goes to the inexplicable second Picross game released by Jupiter this year. I give up.

    Send help. This one has an overall completion timer so you’re perpetually coming face to face with your own shameful actions.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Dead Behind the Eyes” Award

    This award goes to a game that might have good qualities on paper, but lacks anything resembling a charismatic connection to the player.

    Tie Fighter is one of my all-time favorites. Part of what makes it so magical (even today) is the fact that the mission continues even when you aren’t smack-dab in the middle of it. You feel like an important part, and you can certainly sway the outcome or determine success or failure, but if you chase down an escaping freighter to inspect it the dogfights continue to evolve behind you.

    In contrast, Squadrons bends over backwards to reassure you that you are the most special member of the team! This isn’t reflected in the story, since your character is limited to canned responses to combat wins and one-sided expositional conversations, but it’s sure hammered home in the gameplay. The world stops when you’re not there. Not quite ready for the next part of the mission? That’s okay! Says the game. Just regroup with the squadron and we’ll jump to the next set piece. Afterall, we wouldn’t want to leave you behind.

    A digression: The best mission in Tie Fighter comes about halfway through the massive campaign (I’m counting the expansion missions in here as well.) After a victorious campaign ,undertaken while flying the most powerful ships in the fleet, you open a new campaign by clearing a minefield in an unshielded Tie-Interceptor. From the jump your commander is condescending and something feels off. Before too long, your own wingmen are ordered to turn on you and you’re left fighting for your life until emissaries of the Emperor’s Secret Order arrive to rescue you. It’s disorienting, exciting, and profoundly impactful to see your former admiral and wingmen commit treason. It sticks with you. In Star Wars Squadrons there’s also a defection… in the first mission. This is emblematic of Squadrons’ approach to narrative and mission design: Just get to the good stuff, no need to wait.

    The mechanical aspects of the game feel good. The combat is engaging and it walks a decent line between the older (and, let’s be honest, slightly arcane) Tie Fighter paradigm and the newer, smoother, Rogue squadron/Battlefront 2 arcade design. I can’t begrudge the game for updating things, and most of the changes they’ve made are good, but the mission design fails to live up to the legacy. As a result, the game just feels like it takes up space. There’s content, but I don’t remember it. I couldn’t name any NPCs, I couldn’t really name any set pieces (a debris field? A wormhole maybe?) and that’s a far cry from the connection I wanted to have with it.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Play A Short Hike” Award

    This award goes to A Short Hike… Which you should play.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Johnny Mnemonic Memorial” Award

    This award goes to the game that provided the most transcendent virtual reality experience of the year.

    (This entry is for Skyrim VR for the PSVR)

    This is the 6th copy of Skyrim I’ve purchased but I don’t regret it (don’t worry, many were discounted, this one included). Skyrim got me through some dire personal times when it came out, and now I once again retreat to it in a time of global unrest. The first thing that surprised me is the scale that VR adds that you lose out on completely in the main game. Who knew that satchels were… sized like backpacks? There are so many steep hills I didn’t ever pay attention to either. In the regular game you don’t think about how steep the grades are, or how high some buildings are. Vertigo is a welcome experience in VR and I loved getting it from Skyrim.

    The experience was very comfortable with incremental turning and teleporting turned on. I was able to spend thirty hours in the game without nausea— pretty amazing considering I hadn’t played VR in a few months. Overall, it’s been wonderful on two fronts; one, it’s allowed me to experience one of my all time favorites through new eyes, and two, it’s allowed me to immerse myself (and disappear into) that amazing game. Especially vital at a time like this.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “You Can’t Go Home Again” Award

    This award goes to the game that was one of my GOATs, but that didn’t hold up the way I wanted it to.

    (This entry is for Ocarina of Time for 3DS)

    Coming back to this game is really something. It was a seminal moment for me to play this game in 2008. I had grown up on 2D Zelda and they were canonized as my favorite games of all time but, because I didn’t grow up with any consoles, my interactions with 3D Zelda games were limited to staring at them under glass at the counter at my small-town Sears (and, eventually, at the Gamespot pages).

    I should clarify that I was born in the very early 90’s, so this happened in extreme slow motion. The Sears encounters happened from 96-2000, and it took a few years before I was starting into my independent life on the internet. Eventually, thanks to an N64 emulator and some iffy ethical decisions, I was ready to try my first 3D Zelda game. It blew me away, and I was smitten with the incredible scope and careful realization of the Zelda feel in a 3D context. I explored every inch of the game and replayed through the entire game with friends. That’s what makes it so odd to be pushing through a new play through in 2020 and struggling to enjoy it.

    I’ve tried numerous times through the years, but I’ve always bounced off. I think I’ve settled into the realization that I just don’t find Ocarina to be particularly fun anymore. The music gets me emotional, some of the imagery and location design (blocky as it is) gives me goosebumps, but playing the game and exploring the world feel hollow and boring in a way that really stings. This stands in stark contrast to A Link to the Past which (for my money) holds up just as well today as it did upon release. As I hit the 75% mark through the game, I felt the urge to set it down and not return.

    Just like Link, finished with his grand quest, leaves the Master Sword enshrined for safekeeping, I think Ocarina of Time belongs in a similar spot— Nestled safely on a pedestal and left to fade into memory.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “I Survived Geocities” Award for Best Styyyyle

    This award goes to the game that knows what it wants to look and sound like and successfully brings the player along for the ride.

    If you never experienced the early internet then this game probably won’t make sense for the Styyyyle award. If you did make it through this era, you know why it’s a perfect audio/visual representation of something long gone.

    I was only fully engaging with the internet for the last few years of the era that Hypnospace Outlaw is set in. As it turns out, that’s more than enough for the tone and content of this game to speak to me at a level I didn’t expect. The trajectory here is excellent, with the story splitting off into an archival/retrospective mode that plays into a feel that I really love.

    I’ve spoken before about my love of games that represent a protagonist (and player) who are just doing their job. This game starts in that paradigm and then transitions into another setting that I love: the anthropological research and exploration of something that’s long dead. That could be a society or culture (like in something like Outer Wilds) or in this case, the Hypnospace archival project. It speaks to the part of my brain that loves digging through other people’s bookshelves or poking around in an empty office. It’s the feeling of loneliness that comes from a strong sense of someone else’s presence (property, decoration, even a cabinet ajar or a toothpaste tube left open on the counter) even though you know they aren’t or can’t be there. It’s the idea that all through Chernobyl there are plates set out for dinner. It’s not going to hit for everybody, but it’s a magnificent achievement for those of us who remember this time and place.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Play It Wrong to Play It Right” Award

    This award goes to the game that I accidentally played in a way that was counter to developer intent and had a more compelling experience because of it.

    Modern Warfare (both the game and the concept) are extensively problematic. Seeing a game retcon the perpetrators of the highway of death and then allow for the casual use of white phosphorus in multiplayer is never going to be comfortable to deal with. This is coupled with a focus on “why can’t we take off the gloves” (aka break the Geneva Conventions) is never handled with anything other than clumsy dialog choice and hoo-ah enthusiasm. What this doesn’t diminish is the fact that the game looks phenomenal, plays better than any CoD since Advanced Warfare, and leaves a lasting impression after you’re through. The question that isn’t answered is how we’re supposed to feel about the whole thing.

    As is so often the case when I’m playing games, a happy accident lead to my profound experience with the game. I have a background in audio engineering so I was psyched to turn the music off and listen to the newly revamped soundscape. What was supposed to be a five minute test turned into an entire campaign played without sound. In media, the soundtrack exists to cue the audience on what they should be feeling at any given moment. Without that music, they are left to interpolate whatever feelings they naturally have. With that in mind, my six hour experience with the campaign was harrowing, tense, and left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable about some of the ‘cool guy action stuff’ that would have been portrayed as cool and heroic if the music had been left as-is.

    I think this was a much clearer experience of the game then would have come from playing as intended with the background music. The music pushes the player towards a “this is so cool you’re doing the right thing, keep at it” mindset that is directly opposed to a lot of the content. Without that music, however, you’re left open to sit with the discomfort of what you’re doing in a way that felt more honest to the real-life context and issues.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Best Second Date” Award

    This award goes to the game that I put down, gave a begrudging second try to, and had a wonderful experience.

    Sometimes you play a game that immediately makes you glad you only payed $4. When I first started Just Cause 4 it left a really poor impression and felt much jankier than 2 or 3 (an impressive undertaking). So I put it down, and four months later, during the summer drought, I picked it up one last time before I wiped it from my hard drive.

    I picked up at the tail end of the opening of the game and was able to break through the painfully slow opening that goes heavy on the story and light on the chaos. (Sorry Rico, but I’m not here for a personal story.) Characters who have been ‘serioused’ up in the last two games seem bland now (even if they’re competently written, e.g. Sheldon).

    Ultimately, the new systems are pretty rad even though giving up the unlimited mines is REALLY A BUMMER. Allayed somewhat by the eventual use of boost grapples with a short fuse as explosives. It’s been a long time since I’ve come back to a game I bounced off of HARD and liked it as much as I like this one. It’s fussy with the adjustment and customization of grapple tools, but I really like the options and chaos they can cause. It’s marred by some obvious technical issues (multiple hard crashes and a scare with a corrupted save) but it runs well enough to let the gratuitous carnage shine through. I’m glad I picked it back up and gave it another chance.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Missed Window of Opportunity” Award

    This award goes to the game that I would have absolutely loved as a kid but came to way too late.

    I came so close. In my game-playing career I have left a trail of partially completed Pokemon saves in my wake. The timing was wrong. As a kid I never played any Pokemon and it’s clear to me now that we would have loved playing them had I gotten to them in time.

    Now, with Shield, I’ve progressed further than I’ve ever been (I left off right before the final tournament). The end result is that I know that I’m not going to finish it, and that’s okay. I missed my window! I can see where I would have been way into it as a ‘big’ game as a kid, but without that context and history I don’t have anything pulling me through now. In a year where I played JRPGs like Dragon Quest XI, I’m content to leave modern Pokemon to fans and new players. That’s okay!

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “I’m Too Apathetic to be Disappointed” Award

    This award goes to the game that I could barely warranted enough energy to be disappointed about.

    What a crippling disappointment. Doom 2016 was a phenomenal game with great design, fun encounters, and stellar story/non-story. Instead Doom Eternal offers an overstuffed story that seems to completely misunderstand what I liked about the last story. It’s so far up its own butt.

    Additionally, the start of the game felt like an immediate wet blanket thrown onto my excitement. You just appear mid-story hunting down living macguffins (never mentioned previously) that feel like they should have been established. Further, there isn’t much in the way of a solid link to the previous game. Yes, they’re obviously the same continuity, but the games don’t FEEL connected.

    It’s a game constructed of more of what I don’t want and less of what I do. The gameplay is still intense and rewarding, but the layers upon layers of upgrades just feel smothering. On top of that, the combat puzzle here has just a few too many pieces to be wholly engaging. For such a carefully balanced (and highly touted) system, I found myself circumventing major portions simply to allow me time to focus on more pressing matters. I didn’t change grenades, barely used flame belch, and rarely if ever changed my weapon mods once I picked them.

    Doom Eternal is the kid in class who made a really funny joke, got a laugh, and then spends the rest of the bus ride trying to replicate the joke, each time missing what made it funny in the first place. I feel bad for Doom Eternal, but that’s the extent of my feelings for this game.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “It’s Me Not You” Award

    This award goes to the game that I tried to love— that I SHOULD love— but just can’t quite click with.

    Forgive me Austin Walker for I have sinned.

    I really should like this game more than I did. It’s a fantastic game— a wonderful example of the genre— but that’s not the problem. Invisible Inc. is just as mechanically sound as a turn based strategy game can be, but its particular spin just didn’t click with me. I don’t know if it was the lack of strong authored story or if it was something less quantifiable (I certainly haven’t been able to find it yet) but I played through two runs and didn’t feel the need to continue.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “I Forgot PEMDAS” Award

    This award goes to the game that I played out of series order and had a much different experience than intended.

    Time is weird, and occasionally you come across a series in such a convoluted, bass ackwards, sort of way that it messes with your sense of time and history. Such is the case with my experience playing Fire Emblem: Awakening. Up until last year I had only ever interacted with Fire Emblem in the way that, I suspect, many people did: As character after character of interchangeable filler in Smash Bros.

    As soon as I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses last year I realized just how much I’d been missing. That game was an absolute shoe-in for my GOTY and quickly entered my gaming pantheon. It made sense to go back and look at Awakening since I had always heard it referred to in hushed, reverent tones. This is where the funky nature of time plays in. When I absorbed some of the criticism of Three Houses much of it centered on features that weren’t present even though they’d been in Awakening. I was largely unaffected by these criticisms since I was unaware of the previous game and the ‘missing’ features.

    Now, a year later, I’ve played through that seminal Fire Emblem game and came away... not disappointed (I really enjoyed my experience)... but somewhat stuck. I understand missing features like the marriage and children but, coming to Awakening late, it feels so much more limited in scope than Three Houses. To be honest, it feels like exactly what it is; a handheld Fire Emblem game. This series, of course, has long been a handheld staple, but after seeing the well-rounded/complex systems and gameplay loop of Three Houses, Awakenings seemed quaint in comparison. I never had the expectation of seeing the relationship system expanded in a future game and so I didn’t miss it.

    So how do I actually feel about the game? It’s great! The story is wonderful, the characters are endearing, and the gameplay is rock solid. I enjoyed all of my time with it, but it’s not an all time favorite.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “It’s Late and I’m Tired of Naming These Awards But Wanted to Talk About Assassin’s Creed” Award

    This award goes to the Assassin’s Creed I need to talk about.

    I know I’m an unabashed Assassin’s Creed stan. I’ve enjoyed almost every game in the series. With this enjoyment comes a tolerance for certain narrative and mechanical issues that are par for the course. For example, the present day story is incomprehensible and nonsensical, and that’s okay! I’m just along for the ride. What usually pulls me though is a sick desire to see how they manage to slowly but surely change course. Each game feels like a round of telephone, with creative teams taking the story, running a few sentences and plot points, and then handing it off.

    This knowledge makes it much easier to enjoy the games. My expectations are pretty low!Couple that with historical stories that are genuinely entertaining, settings that are usually beautiful and fun to inhabit, and gameplay that I’ve enjoyed in most of its flavors, and you get a series that I’m willing to give a lot of slack to.

    Unfortunately Valhalla has been fairly deflating to play. It has a slow start with a call to adventure that I couldn’t really co-sign. One of the strongest advantages of the last two games in this trilogy has been the phenomenal main characters. Bayek and Kassandra were fun to play as and their adventures had inciting incidents that made sense (avenging a child and needing to work, respectively.) Eivor leaves because she’s following her deadbeat adopted brother who wants to go build his own kingdom and personal power. Hardly relatable or sympathetic.

    This flattening of characters and removal of sympathetic characters is a problem throughout the game. Bayek and Kassandra had jobs (something I’ve paid a lot of lip service in past GOTY lists to enjoying), Eivor, so far, is just a mélange of honor and warrior stereotypes. The whole crew is made up of folks who just aren’t super enjoyable to be around. It doesn’t help that the setting is much less visually interesting to explore than either Egypt or Greece. The color palette has collapsed down into something much more muted and the landscape is realistically swampy. Unfortunately, swamps don’t make for fascinating viewing.

    Even if I don’t love the setting, the game is still really beautiful now that I’m playing in the resolution priority mode. So sue me, I prefer a solid 30FPS to a less pretty 60. I tried both on PS5, but the 60FPS mode just looked like butt.

    I played through to completion, but it’s cooled my love of the series and left me feeling much less interested in the next entry. I haven’t been this cold on the series since before this trilogy launched. If you’ve read my previous lists you might know that initially listed Odyssey as a disappointment. In the years that have passed (and with the DLC) I’ve grown to love that game and it’s currently my favorite in the current sequence. Maybe my opinion of Valhalla will grow over time as well.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “They Tried” Award

    This award goes to the game that left such mixed feelings about its story and systems that it still isn’t clear if it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between.

    The immediate impression was surprisingly positive. My expectations were set in the basement, and I expected some enjoyable gameplay coupled with eye-rolling tonal issues. Turns out that’s exactly what I got. My starting character, a cashier with an MP5, has been a walking British stereotype (time to “innit”, approx 35 seconds).

    The mechanic of choosing your protagonists is compelling but you can see seams that are too distracting for it to completely gel. For example, the voices don’t always match the look and archetype of characters in a way that can be distracting. My mid-40s professional spy yelling “hells yeah!” after receiving orders just didn’t ever sit right. That said, forming your own team, bringing people in, handing off missions based on skills and access... it felt great!

    Do I think this is a good game? Not necessarily. What I think is here is a brilliant system that could be refined into a truly excellent system. Hopefully it can be implemented and refined better than the ‘nemesis system’ that never really materialized in other games.