My Top Ten Games of 2020

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2020 was not a kind year to most of us, which renewed the importance of media in many of our lives. It was a lifeline to escape from the doldrums or gain perspective on the world, and now is a perfect time to reflect on it. At the end of each year, I hand-select the finest titles I played for the first time, so in purely alphabetical order, here are my favourites from 2020:

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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By easing deadlines and eliminating explicit goals, Animal Crossing clears the way for leisure without pressure. It's a weight off your shoulders to set your own pace, and in an age of binge-watching, it's refreshing to have a treat you can nibble a little off of each day. Whether you're fishing in sun-kissed rivers, shaking acorns from tree branches, or living the radical fantasy of paying off your mortgage, New Horizons brings all the carefree indulgence of a tropical vacation. Best of all, no matter how you play, you have a wholesome community of critters at your back, cheering you on at every turn.

Ape Out

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Ape Out's art, music, and gameplay all zip into flawless alignment to deliver a primal and chaotic sugar rush. The purity of its mechanics means we zero in on a singular goal without peripheral distractions, and its reactive soundtrack is a triumph of procedurally-generated music. Ape Out is throwing paint at the walls. Ape Out is falling face-first, screaming into a gumball machine. Ape Out is sneaking into your neighbour's garden and letting loose with an aluminium bat. It looks like freeform jazz, it sounds like freeform jazz, and it handles like freeform jazz.

Control

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Most games work from a thematic template: they're high fantasy, modern military, space opera, you know the drill. Control is something more uncanny. There is no genre descriptor which can prepare you for its surrealist purgatory, making it bracing and original. Remedy's action-adventure encapsulates what is both oppressive and beautifully intricate about brutalism and administrative procedure. Hallucinogenic and mind-expanding, Control's liminal space blurs the architectural and psychological, relenting and reshaping in response to our conquests.

Cytus II

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Cytus II is proof of electronica's heterogeneity, and with every pulsing, chirruping track comes a new sheet of bubble wrap to pop. Unlike most of its rhythm brethren, Cytus II forgoes combo multipliers, and that means we're encouraged to dip our toe into levels, even when they're on the panic-inducing edge of our ability. There's an exhilaration in having our thumbs dance across the screen, responding to cues we received only half a second earlier, and the whole production is shockingly lavish for a mobile game.

Gris

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Plenty of titles have moments when everything falls into frame right, and a perfect landscape bursts forth from them, but Gris is four hours of such landscapes. You can't take an ugly screenshot of this masterpiece. From elaborate illustrations of crumbling temples to watercolour skies, from the gentle strings of the celestial towers to the sandstorm's febrile organ, Gris is about being humbled by, yet elevated through, grandeur. I kept thinking that I'd hit a sequence so magnificent that it must be the ending and then discovering yet another cathedral of puzzles and platforms beyond. Gris is an experience to rekindle the soul; a ray of hope even after a fall from grace.

Hypnospace Outlaw

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Hypnospace Outlaw is a delightfully specific nostalgia trip, with the emphasis on trip. Comic sans flashes and wiggles, MIDI horns blare, and teens chronically post in this parody of the web's weirdest backwaters. But it's not all goofs and spoofs; Jay Tholen's cyberspace send-up remembers that there aren't just people behind the pages, but in them. Its early 00s internet is not just a compendium of bizarre documents, but a community of affable oddballs.

Observer

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Rutger Hauer's performance as the hardened but compassionate Dan Lazarski is engrossing. However, the Poland of the 2080s rarely returns that compassion. Observer's low-rent, hologram-wrapped dystopia is a hell on Earth, and its vertigo dives into characters' memories constitute its torture. In them, traumas of poverty manifest as metal snakes crawling from the plumbing, harsh noise rattling down corridors, and voyeurist eyes on walls of TVs. Observer's claustrophobic setting focuses the piece's story and production resources but also conveys the enervating oppression of living in some landlord's closet.

Q.U.B.E. 2

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Working out how to design environmental puzzles in a post-Portal world has been a puzzle in itself. Q.U.B.E. 2 succeeds in learning from Portal without copying it. Its levels are chock full of fantastic contraptions that start life confounding but let us chip away at them surprisingly quickly. Breezy level progression and a well-codified visual language gild every interaction, but my favourite part is the colourful energy that flows from completed levels into the hubs, making our achievements bold and palpable.

Rayman Legends

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There aren't many platformers that rival the rosy-cheeked character of Mario, but Rayman Legends is one of them. Played slow, it's a curious collectable hunt that has us scraping the ice cream from every inch of the tub. Played fast, it's barreling through a construction site with a heavy crate, knocking down everyone in our path. Its timed missions give us the accomplishment of playing speedrunner for a day and its festive ditties and drawings kept me grinning from ear to ear right up to my final hour.

Tomb Raider GO

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The classic mistake in adapting a game to mobile is to try and take the gargantuan mass of the original and cram it into these tiny rectangles. A successful mobile adaptation uses the streamlined format of phones and tablets to prune games back to their essential elements. Tomb Raider GO gets it, capturing, in the palm of your hand, the elegance of its big-budget counterpart's most gratifying puzzles. As smart brainteasers do, GO silently lulls us into unconscious assumptions about its systems, and then challenges us to identify and break those thought patterns. Barriers to victory dissolve beneath us like the fracturing walkways of ancient ruins.

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And that does it for 2020. Honourable mentions go to The Division, Monument Valley 2, Observation, and Tetris 99. Thanks for reading and see you next year.

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