As everyone settles in to write their GOTY lists for 2020, a nice way to look back on and digest the year that was without it just being completely on fire, I've been thinking about what mine may look like. I've played plenty of great games this year. Some that came out this year, some that are a few years old. But most of all I just did a lot of thinking about games this year. So here's three games that made me think a lot about video games as an artistic medium this year.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I, like many people, played a LOT of Animal Crossing right when it came out. I am one of the people who were simultaneously lucky and unlucky in that I kept my job, but I wasn't able to work from home. My job is a small crew, and we're not public facing, but still isn't ideal to be heading out into the world every day this year, though as we've all seen it could be a lot worse. As such I didn't need Animal Crossing to be the escape that a lot of people did, but I did use it as a meditative tool. It was this incredibly pleasant thing that I could fire up whenever the world got to be too much. And I was in a discord that a friend of mine started so people could share shop inventory and turnip prices and what not. I played a lot right up until the egg festival, when the larger Animal Crossing: New Horizons experience was kinda soured for me, though probably not for the reason you'd expect.
This game has made me spend a lot of time thinking about authorial intent in video games. It's talked about in almost every art form, but you don't really find it here. Which makes a decent amount of sense, video games are in their very nature a pliable art form that no two people experience the same way. But I feel like there's a subsection of Animal Crossing fans who get very angry that the game pushes back on their play style.
Don't get me wrong, there's no wrong way to play a game. And when I talk about authorial intent I mean from an artistic sense and not something like accessibility, I fully believe that games should be able to be enjoyed by all. But Animal Crossing strikes me as a series with a very clear artistic vision for the way the authors want you to play it. It is mean to be a calm, meditative experience that you check in on for an hour or two per day, and then you set it aside to visit again tomorrow. It is a game that has no interest in being min-maxed. And I feel if people want to try to min-max it that's fine, but those people shouldn't then get mad when the game pushes back against it. When the game says "no, this is what we have for you today, we will see you tomorrow" it bums me out to see players respond to it aggressively.
The egg festival in New Horizons wasn't implemented perfectly, this is the first time they'd done a real live game style event in an Animal Crossing game and there were bound to be some growing pains. And logging onto that discord server to check the wares in people's shops and seeing "These eggs fucking suck. Fuck this game. Everyone hates this" just drained it for me. This was the first Animal Crossing game that really hooked me and a lot of that was because of the social aspect and this group of people I'd found to share it with and seeing this, this vitriol spewed during the time that I was looking to relax, when I was trying to meet this game on its own terms, just bummed me the hell out. Do I think those people were wrong for being frustrated? Not entirely. But I feel like if you care that much about playing that game perfectly and filling everything out and getting everything immediately then maybe you've picked the wrong game, because that isn't the game that they had any interest in making.
The Last of Us Part II
Alright y'all at a certain point we're gonna have to sit down and accept that video games are still a pretty shit storytelling medium. I've got a lot of respect for Quantum Break to be all "Yeah we're just gonna literally show you TV shows in between levels" because that's the vibe that I've always gotten from The Last of Us games.
And, hot take, I don't think the stories are all that great. They're perfectly serviceable post apocalypse stories, but if they were just a TV show without the game attached it would be some sub-Walking Dead type shit. And now they're gonna be a prestige TV show because it was attached to this acceptable stealth game.
When I say that games aren't a good storytelling medium it's because so many of the games with the best stories don't actually use the unique aspects of video games to help tell their stories. The Last of Us is a passable stealth game with TV show episodes breaking up the gameplay and so little of what you do in the game affects the TV show. And that's a ton of video game stories, especially AAA titles. You futz around an open world for a while, read some book or listen to an audio log, and then go to the next TV show segment.
The perfect examples of games actually using their mechanics to tell the story are Florence and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Florence so perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being in a failing relationship in its gameplay, and the moment when you realize you have to use both halves of the controller to control Naiee in Brothers after Naia died are fucking incredible and really use what makes video games so special to enhance and tell their stories.
To me the worst example of someone doing the exact opposite of that is the end of The Last of Us 1. Having Joel make the decision that he makes with zero player agency, with you or I have no control over it is, to this day, one of my least favorite moments in any video game. It is a complete failure of using video games as a storytelling medium. I've spent this entire game getting to know this character, putting myself in his shoes, trying to become him, and then telling me to sit down and shut up when he does something so fucking heinous and selfish will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. If Naughty Dog wants to make movies they should go make movies. At least then the people who work there will be a part of a union and can't be crunched to fucking death.
Now this is, if I may do my best Jeff Gerstmann impression, A MOTHER. FUCKING. VIDEO. GAME.
Hades is by a country goddamn mile my game of the year and it helps me appreciate and understand what I love about games, and what I look for in games that I really latch onto.
It feels sooooo fucking good. It is on my good feeling video games Mount Rushmore next to Dead Cells. Also up there is probably Destiny, I know it's not for everyone but goddamn does it feel good to shoot stuff in that game, and probably Tony Hawk 1+2. Shit's a masterpiece.
Also Hades uses the medium to tell a fucking fantastic story. Yes, there is plenty of stuff in your journal to expand on characters and plot, but for the most part your interactions with those around you are directly influenced by what you do in the game. The incidental dialog in that game is fucking astounding and breadcrumbs out character details and expands the story better than any audio log or 15 minute cutscene ever has, for me at least.
It's one of the most rewarding roguelikes I've ever played. I don't bristle at the idea of the genre like others do, I adore Dead Cells, but I understand why folks steer clear of them but the design decisions that go into some of that stuff in Hades are so clever. Like the fact that in your first chamber you're almost always guaranteed to get some darkness, the currency that follows you even if you die. It's such a small decision that makes the game 10 times better because even if you have an absolute shit run and get destroyed early on it doesn't feel like a waste of time.
And, to get back to authorial intent, Supergiant Games know that there are some folks who don't want shit to do with any kind of roguelike so they added in a mode that essentially removes that aspect. It's still run based, but you progress throughout the game regardless of your success in your runs. It's so fucking clever and is a clear indication of the breadth of the audience they hope for the game to reach.
It's difficult to talk about the feel of a game because it's such an ambiguous concept but when you know you know and I knew the moment I had my first combat encounter in Hades. Something about how snappy you move, how great your dodge is, and how impactful your attacks are combines into one of the best playing games I've ever had the privilege of touching. 2020 was, for many reasons, an absolute shit year. But playing Hades was a pretty fucking fantastic bright spot among the darkness. And all of what I just said about how it feels can be applied to Tony Hawk 1+2, my second favorite game of the year.
Some other games I really enjoyed playing this year in no particular order: Crusader Kings 3, Dragon Quest 11S, Yakuza Like a Dragon, FF7 Remake, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Doom Eternal, The Forest, WoW Shadowlands, Hearthstone, PSO2, Murder by Numbers, Paper Mario The Origami King, Ghost of Tsushima.
If you're reading this it means you made it through 2020, and honestly that's all we can ask for. Here's hoping for a much better 2021.