We didn’t get to go outside a lot this year, did we? For most people this was an endless source of frustration, for the video gamer, it was an excuse to binge on the hobby. And boy did the hobby provide a lot of games you could sink hours upon hours into while staving off the apocalyptic doom that constantly weighed upon us in 2020.
Video Games in 2020 were a reminder that escapism can not only be good, it can also be life-giving and restorative. It can help us connect with online communities to stave off loneliness or occupy us from spiraling into despair and dark depression in a world out of control.
I’m also reminded this year of the inadequacies and injustices of video games. Playing video games doesn’t enact social change. It doesn’t get people to the polls. It doesn’t provide economic relief to starving families who can barely make rent. More than that, video games can be actively harmful.
This year saw even more exposure of crunch at major studios as meeting corporate deadlines were put above the health and well-being of the humans making these games. And then The Last of Us 2 came out after being crunched and the director of the game went around harassing critical voices on social media and even called up journalists bosses over midling review scores.
In other words, there’s still a lot of toxicity in the video game space both from developers and consumers and 2020 upped the ante in many respects. And I didn’t even touch on Cyberpunk 2077.
I say all this to give you context to my list. I think understanding where gaming is at and where I stand will explain the glaring lack of big budget games or the fact most of these picks are games you can pick up and play for a short session every day instead of requiring you to commit to a long, overarching campaign.
7. Signs of the Sojourner
Deckbuilding is the new hot niche genre now thanks to the blowout success of Slay the Spire, which is one of my favorite games. It’s so weird to see a board game mechanic digitized as you lose some of the physical and mechanical joy of pulling cards, assembling decks, and shuffling them together. However, that part of our brain that likes pulling off clever tricks and combos is still deeply satisfied with the deckbuilder.
Signs of the Sojourner takes deckbuilding and abstracts it into a system of conversations. Instead of cards that deal damage to enemies, all your cards are made up of two symbols: one on the left, another on the right. Your goal is to match your left symbol with the right symbol of the last card played. You go back and forth playing cards with the various people you meet in the game emulating a conversation.
It’s extremely simple and easy to grasp, but there are enough simple twists and strategies to make you think about the game. More than that, the deckbuilding aspect becomes much more essential because picking and removing cards isn’t so much about changing the efficiency of your deck but fundamentally shifting the distribution of symbols you have access to meaning you might find yourself more able to talk to one subset of people but completely lose a set of symbols you mean when you return to talk to other people later.
This led to what is probably one of the most profoundly sad moments I’ve had in a game. I returned home to talk with my best friend but now instead of the familiar triangle and circle symbols I had at the start of the game, my hand was filled with all these other symbols and no matter how hard I tried, I could not successfully string together a conversation with him. In trying to adapt and change to the places I visited to speak to the people there I fundamentally lost my ability to communicate with the person who meant the most to me. It was a profound story moment completely driven by a mechanical meta that I did not anticipate at all.
If you want to get the “good” ending on “win” this game, I think you will be frustrated because you will fail and alienate certain people because you try to forge bonds with others. Language and communication is fraught with space for error and mistakes and any attempt to be flawless will only result in frustration. You can’t be all things to all people, but you can find out who your people are and Signs of the Sojourner beautifully demonstrates that sometimes who our people are doesn’t end up being the people we expect.
Hades is the definitive Supergiant experience: the blend of strong story, gorgeous art, refined combat, and a compelling world is informed by over a decade of experience by one of the most prestigious independent video game developers. At first Hades is another run-based roguelite but Supergiant’s strong understanding of isometric action gameplay added in with their robust and unique take on story makes Hades stand out in a genre that is now flooded with new entries every month.
I’m most impressed with the dialogue system which always ensures the various story threads progress at a good pace after every death and adapt to the different things you do. From a technical perspective it’s a bonkers amount of programming and reactivity to have to do for a game for something most players will take for granted. The dialogue is the true start of Hades and what makes it work is invisible to most.
The game’s greatest strength also might be what ultimately limits it as a game I want to return to again and again. Once I saw the credits roll there’s still more to do, but the main hook of Hades is the new bits of narrative and dialogue, not so much the strange mechanical builds you can make. I don’t want to spoil the end, but it basically took the wind out of my sails for playing anymore and the narrative reason for going for better runs is flimsy. Still, I sunk a good 60 hours into the game before calling it quits.
5. Legends of Runeterra
I’ve got a soft spot for digital card games even though I think most of them are bad or, even worse, built on psychologically abusive monetization models. Legends of Runeterra is the first digital collectable card game that I’ve played that is both a great game and a great model for customers.
The problem with most collectable card games is twofold: randomized card draw screwing over players and losing tempo because of the inability to use all your resources efficiently each turn.
Runterra fixes the first with a generous Mulligan system that lets you throw back and redraw as many cards as you like without penalty and it resolves the second problem by letting your carry over up to three unused mana per turn but it can only be used on future rounds to cast noncreature spells.
Those two simple changes open up the game to be the least frustrating card game I’ve ever played. When I lose it almost always feels because I misplayed the hand I dealt instead of being at the whims of bad draws or not having enough mana to use the cards I have.
Add in one of the most generous free to play systems and I’ve made several strong and viable decks without spending a dime, making it an easy recommendation for me to anyone who enjoys collectable card games or wants to give one a shot.
4. Umurangi Generation
Not only is Umurangi Generation the best Cyberpunk game of 2020 but it’s also the best game about 2020 made in 2020. The minute to minute gameplay is a photography game where you take pictures to earn money based on bounties and a sort of abstracted system of how striking your photos are. Don’t worry too much about mastering photography. As the game reminds you art is subjective and it’s easy to hit the money earned goals with a few dozen photos in each level.
The mechanics of the photography, finding the right angles and lenses, give you a goal every level but what kept me playing was the interesting bits of world-building that slowly revealed itself as you begin to realise what is going on in this strange future world and the power dynamics at play.
The joy of the game is discovering the plot on your own. All I will say it involves both the politics and social pressures of our time in a way that feels more pertinent and powerful than other games that try to tackle the subject. The biggest reason it works so well is that the game drops you in the world as an observer taking in this world and simply recording and experiencing it. It’s not trying to craft mechanics around rebellion (Watch Dogs: Legion) or make the Cyberpunk future into a power fantasy (Cyberpunk 2077).
Umurangi Generation is a game about watching and observing the world around you and piecing together how all these various things work together to inform and drive society towards confrontations and conflicts. Certain realizations and secrets are easy to miss, tiny details are left to be connected by the player. There’s no voiced dialogue, only a DJ who occasionally comes on the radio, leaving the player to simply piece together the narrative and understand its deeper social meaning.
3. Crusader Kings III
Many games use history as a backdrop but few do a good job of giving you a sense of understanding why people behaved the way they did in the context of history. Crusader Kings III is a game all about understanding those contexts and then putting pressure on you to manipulate those contexts to further your dynasty.
You will end up doing terrible things in Crusader Kings III such as throwing your child in jail but the reason why is because the game gives you demonstrable reasons why doing these things are to your advantage. You have to throw your child in jail because they are outed as a witch and if you don’t the pope will excommunicate you meaning you won’t get any taxes from the church and then that war your funding will have you hemorrhaging money resulting in unrest back home and possibly even riots.
This cascading of cause and effect on the different systems is what makes every session of Crusader Kings III fantastic. Simple choices will come back to bite you, hard ones might end up working out to your advantage on a simple whim. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and that pesky noble who has a claim to half your kingdom will die of sickness, strengthening your dynasty’s hold on your kingdom. Other times your heir will be assassinated, meaning your new heir has weaker claims to your land.
Your heir is important because you aren’t playing Crusader Kings III as one leader, but as a family dynasty, playing whoever is next in line once your current leader dies. You can play generations upon generations as your kingdom and its culture and laws shift over centuries. It’s a dynamic and exciting world and the breadth and scale of the world means you could ostensibly play this game forever and likely never get bored and see at least something new and unexpected on a regular basis. Add in Paradox’s long-term support of their games and Crusader Kings III is likely a game that will last the right kind of person for years to come as a constant source of enjoyment and intrigue.
2. Kentucky Route Zero
Rarely is a game so on-key with my aesthetic and ethos as Kentucky Route Zero. Released over the span of 7 years, the final act dropped in January 2020 and I took my time savoring its rich Southern Gothic flavor mixed with tales of people disconnected and displaced from their jobs wandering an America that exists as a perpetual witching hour ghost town of people who float in and out of the story like logs down a lazy river.
This game is a capital “V” Vibe and is as much about taking in the atmosphere and world of the game as it is about the characters and story it develops. The titular mythical highway Route Zero is as much of a character as any of the people who are searching for it or find themselves traveling on it.
It’s strange that this game’s first episode released in 2013 when by the time it the final chapter came out it felt like a far more pertinent and poignant game about how America essentially lost the middle class as it followed people meandering through blue-collar jobs in a nightmarish, twilight haze. Most of the game is deliberately dreamlike. It strongly evokes David Lynch and the particularities of Flannery O’Connor’s stories of Southern Gothic Horror.
I’m confident in saying that this is both one of the best written games I’ve played and also one of the most personally effective stories I’ve encountered in a game. It evokes a strange Southern economic deterioration I’ve witnessed my whole life and portrays with empathy a working class that is often ignored or dismissed in stories, especially video games which are often power fantasies. This is a game deeply about the loss of an America that might have only existed in the cultural imagination.
1. Spelunky 2
Was there ever any doubt? I wrote earlier this year about why Spelunky means so much to me and Spelunky 2 is more Spelunky and that’s a great thing. There are certain naysayers out there who will say it’s not innovative or different enough given how much it sticks to its guns of not having a progression system like almost every majorly popular roguelite since. But that purity calls to me and compels me to keep playing long after I find myself bored with similar roguelites that try to smooth out the difficulty curve.
And Spelunky 2 is not messing around when it comes to difficulty. It was so notoriously hard at launch that experts of the first game were consistently dying on the first world, mostly to moles. There was a patch specifically to reduce the spawn frequency of moles. That’s how bad it was. Spelunky 2 had a mole infestation problem and had to be rebalanced post-release. Because it was too hard. For Spelunky players. For expert Spelunky players. That may sound horrible to most people but I love it.
After a little over 20 hours, I’ve only made it to world 3 about a half-dozen times. And I love that about it. I love that there are enough new traps and challenges that I’m not bulldozing through a game simply because I mastered its predecessor. Some of the reflexes translate but the behaviors and patterns of enemies are different enough that I’m constantly on my toes when I enter a new area.
I’ve not immersed myself fully into Spelunky 2, in part because I’m not in the same place I was when Spelunky came out. I want to savor this game and keep it around for a while. It might be the last Spelunky we ever get and while I was never expecting it, I wanted it to last more than a few months before I unearthed all its secrets.
You might ask me if I think this is better than Spelunky, my favorite game. My answer is maybe. It’s a different ride when it comes to difficulty, hitting you with a wall right outside the gate instead of easing you into the game and then ramping it up later on. It’s a consistently difficult game that will kill you over a little mistake even in the first world. There are more secrets and mechanics at play here but more isn’t always better. I’m also not sure I’ll have the same emotional attachment to this game simply because I’m at a different point in my life where I don’t feel the daily need to dive into this game.
All I can say is that right now it’s my favorite game of the year and the one I’m most eager to jump back into. That Switch port cannot come soon enough!
Want more long-form writing like this? Consider supporting my Patreon.
© James Blake Ewing 2021