10 (give or take) Video Games I Played and Probably Didn’t Finish But Really Liked in 2020

The average consumer of video games understands that compiling a top 10 list for the year is a subjective undertaking. Not me. I am unencumbered by the delusion that games are a matter of opinion, that everyone is entitled to like what they like. When I rank video games, I appeal to the coldest, hardest truths in this benighted universe.

My methodology: First, I craft a nine-point summoning circle energized by objects of power at each vertex: Pringle shards, CD-Rs, double XP codes torn from junk food comarketing efforts. I douse my extremely naked body in Gamer Fuel and chant the words of the Gamer’s Prayer. If you don’t know what they are, you are obviously uninitiated, and I both pity and despise you.

The shadowy Others abiding in the digital plane reveal these horrible truths to me, and here they are--unimpeachable and absolute, unless I change my mind and edit this post, which seems likely.

List items

  • I want to make a case for Animal Crossing being at the top slot, not because it was the best, most innovative game released in this year, but because it transcended every traditional checklist of pros and cons and became something for the history books. I’m also not going to pull a “well here’s my experience” on you, because I barely played it.

    Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released, for many people, days after COVID-19 lockdown became a thing in the Western hemisphere. It’s not really that important which features it retained and lost from previous entries, because it reached “internet breaking” status. I was hearing about it on non-gaming podcasts and outside of video game Twitter.

    It caused a kind of collaboration that turned its playerbase into allies, all on the same team to make their islands amazing and amass bells. It leaned into the idea of a vacation with pleasurable, low-stakes things to do at a global moment when it suddenly became unsafe to even go to the grocery store.

    It will forever be entangled with its launch circumstances, during which an entire planet needed an escape, and Animal Crossing provided it. They may have wandered into it haplessly, but Nintendo created the second best thing to a COVID vaccine: effective escapism that affirms life, brings joy, kills time, and has remarkable staying power. (AND KEEPS PEOPLE INDOORS.) It answered a need at a planetary scale.*

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    [*Except for all increased demand and decreased productivity causing limited availability of the Switch, WOOPS.]

  • I can’t beat Hades, and it’s driving me out of my gourd.

    It’s taken me about three times as many attempts to get to the third boss as most people I talk to require to beat the game. As a particularly fomo-vulnerable individual, this is hellish--to have bought in to be part of the conversation and still be left behind in the dust of my inadequate skill.

    Yes, I know there’s a God Mode. I don’t wanna. I want to be a big boy and stay in denial about my decaying physical skill as the grim reaper breathes the chill of mortality down my neck.

    All that aside, the approach to perpetually novel audio dialogue in a game molded around subtly shifting repetition is an astonishing thing to witness. Breathing life and interpersonal drama into literally ancient characters is a huge accomplishment, and I say that as someone who is never far from his copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology.

    Who would have thought that the best new game characters this year would be the entire Greek pantheon?

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    [Author's Note: I resisted using the word "Sisyphean" in this write-up and, frankly, I would like some credit for my restraint.]

  • Technically speaking, this is one third of a product, so although I have crafted a robust analysis of not only its pros and cons but also its history and cultural impact, I will only post 33.3% of it. Final Fantasy 7 came out in 1997, which, for those who don’t know, was a time steeped in denim and broad-brush badasses. It remains unique in the series as the first foray into polygonal gameplay--and, oh, how few polygons there were. While the battle scenes are fully articulated with idle animations, twirling Buster swords and undulating cat (?) tails, the overworld (or whatever you call it when Cloud is wandering around a scene) is a clash of beautiful, hand-drawn environments with character models about as detailed as Larry the Cucumber. Fast forward to 2020, when

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    [Part 2 of this write-up will be released at an as-yet unannounced date. Probably 2022.]

  • I have a suspicion that MineCraft Dungeons, or as I enjoy abbreviating it because of my BOUDNLESS wit and cunning, McDungeons, is largely responsible for the MineCraft renaissance that invaded my particular bubble of news, reviews, streams and discussion that comprise my vantage point on The Discourse this year. It’s a Diablo-like click-em-up loot grind that works really well on console and has cross-play with PC.

    There are some head-scratchers:

    * Why are there no cross-saves if there is cross-play?

    * If it is multiplayer focused, why no matchmaking?

    * And the biggest of biggies--why is there no level creator? It’s literally a MineCraft game.

    I feel these are some begged questions and although I fear the answer is “Because it is a successful marketing push to make MineCraft relevant again,” the game is loads of fun in and of itself.

    This is the game I learned to stream on, and it lead to lots of good conversations with chat. And also some bad and weird ones.

  • Why do I plant my flag in the games the hivemind loathes? Why am I able to enjoy the lore of Anthem, the action of Ghost Recon Wildlands, and the story of Avengers? Let’s ignore the brokenness of the software for a second.

    Wait, no, let’s not ignore that. It’s a four-player game with matchmaking that never once worked in my weeks of playing it. I never grouped with three other players except for once, when it placed me with a pre-made group of extremely high level guys on voice chat, who were offended that I, a 20-something gearscore pleb, would have the sheer audacity to join their party. There’s a lot about the core product, which is unstable, that people missed out on by listening to more cynical voices pooh-pooh the whole thing because it is Very Uncool to Like those Expensive Marvel Movies.

    The action is engaging and modular, the mobility is excellent, and honestly? The storytelling (if not the story) is exceptional. They did something intriguing in the VO direction of Avengers, including lots of conversational disfluency, which is no doubt a first for a cast of almost ubiquitously huge name voice actors. This went a long way toward retelling Kamala Khan’s awkward and meaningful story (which I had recently read on Marvel Unlimited) woven into a quasi-MCU setting.

    Contrary to popular opinion, this is the same story of Anthem. Everything was there... it just didn't work.

    Marvel’s Avengers could have been great.

  • My favorite moment from this game was when a person named Aditya wandered onto my Twitch stream and suggested I fly over Mumbai. I did, and spent maybe 40 minutes flying low and slow over the city and getting a guided tour in chat: Here’s the World Trade Center, there’s where all the Bollywood movies are made, below you are the salt processing facilities, there’s the Tower of Silence. It was an unparalleled human experience in a year of no travel (not that I have the opportunity to travel outside of work anyway).

    The game itself is messed up for me and won't let me access all the tutorials, so I will never be able to fully appreciate the simulator aspects, and that profoundly sucks. But the casual exploration of real places, some beautiful (skimming around Alaska in a stunt plane at dawn), some nostalgic (doing a flyover of my college town for my old friends), is magical and unique.

  • My decision to purchase this was more than 50% made in seething spite of the internet's reaction. When I observed the drool-dangling rage of entitled Twitter morlocks after the announcement of the collection, I was already bought in. Perhaps I need to curate my feed a little better.

    But the rest was genuine curiosity. These three games are from my personal Dark Age of gaming, a long and formative stretch of not being in the same economic class as my gaming peers. So I first experienced these three games this year as a 39 year old man with a mortgage, family, responsibilities, etc.-- but, more importantly, on stream with people who had the nostalgia and the knowledge.

    I cannot tell you what kind of feeling comes with crossing a game off your list that you’ve been curious about for almost a quarter century. I had a ludicrous amount of fun, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the real takeaway: Now I can understand all the memes when I see them. Mission accomplished! People who don’t like Mario Sunshine are actual felons.

  • Did you know it is literally illegal to shorten Ghost of Tsushima to “GoT”? It’s true. And speaking of shortening [I turn around and pull on a smoking jacket, holding a mic in one hand and a tumbler and cigar in the other, then turn back to deliver the punchline with coke-bulged eyes] maybe they could have shortened this game by about twenty hours, huh????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? GhoTs (the proper abbreviation) is an excellent open world game that is maybe three times as long as it should be, even bee-lining through the campaign, and I will never finish it. It has no chill, not even a single moment of comic relief, which makes a lot of sense in a game about invasion and the human condition. But if we are exploring the concept of cruelty and the necessity of violence, I’d sure rather it be through the lens of GH-Ts (fuck, I forgot what we said the abbreviation is supposed to be) than the mundane impersonation of catharsis of The Last of Us 2.

    Remember, these are truths revealed to me by eldritch deities, not opinions. I do not make the rules.

  • This game just so much dang fun, y'all. It's Quake/Unreal, but you're a wizard. I'm not sure what else to say here. It's a roguelike/-lite with old school FPS movement and fantastic mobility. It progresses incrementally and it *almost* belongs in the same conversation as Hades. It has tanked my admittedly minimal Twitch viewership because NOBODY IS INTERESTED in this exceptionally entertaining game. It's still in early access and there are some minor oddities here and there, but it's beautiful and it feels awesome.

    It's also worth noting that sequels rarely walk the fine line of the "innovate, but don't stray too far from the formula" rule. Ziggurat 2 nails it. It is more and better Ziggurat 1.

    Stop not playing Ziggurat 2! It's so good!

  • I’m including WoW because I had the interesting experience of resubscribing after 10 years away. The game is a different beast, streamlined into a user-friendly system with user-unfriendly quantities of fiction and lore. This was the year that I acquired a PC after a long time without one, so it was a bit like visiting your hometown after college: Everything has evolved while you were away, and now there are werewolves.

  • I always wanted to care about one of these. Seriously--games like Genshin Impact seem to have a huge effect on their fandoms, engendering attachment to characters that I simply cannot get from most Western games (and TV) (and movies). All the Anime Avatars out there are having fun with this, and I’ve never figured out how to give the most ephemeral shit.

    It turns out one method is by relatively extreme withholding. The character-driven gacha lesson that most people are constantly on the threshold of learning is this: You are never going to pull Zhongli. You are never going to get Diluc. You’re not! So, the ones you do obtain feel extra amazing. You care, because you paid (time or money or both) *and* you beat extraordinary odds.

    That said, I kind of loved the characters in Genshin Impact in their own right. Xiangling is the best hunter-slash-celebrity cook in all of gaming, and I will brook no disagreement on this position. People who don’t like Paimon wear socks with sandals and double park.

  • For the entirety of the time between the meteoric debut of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and the release of Warzone, I was really stuck on this question: Where the hell is the non-clunky Battle Royale?

    It seemed like PUBG had teed it up and it was only a matter of time until Call of Duty shamelessly yoinked it. (Yes, I am aware of Blackout, but it did not have the same impact.) It feels strange to say something so positive about something so overtly derivative, but mission accomplished. Where PUBG is fraught with the necessary evils of its platform (agonizing inventory management and the molasses one has to wade through to do anything), CoD said: “Nope! None of that is, in fact, necessary,” wadded it up and tossed it out the side of a C-17.

    I think solo mode is infinitely more interesting than being on a squad, and while 100% of my deaths in PUBG were due to the game’s limitations of reacting quickly, I can act nearly as quickly as I can think in Warzone thanks to the fact that CoD has been iterated on for about a thousand entries. (I just checked, and this is accurate. There are one thousand annualized Call of Duty games. They began during the Norman invasion of Britain.)

    All of these FPS battle royales suffer from limited situation awareness, but Warzone delivered all of the tension, paranoia, lucky breaks and not-so-lucky breaks without the glacial reaction time tax.

    I played it on console, so shout out to every PC player who lasered me to death near the prison while you were prone on the dam with a Dragunov.