2020 has been hot garbage. It has had very few redeeming factors and I am not appreciative of it at all.
Some great games, though.
I like to post the list of games I played each year (2017, 2018, 2019), but this year I thought I’d try and write a little bit about each one. This is in the order in which I played them, and includes a fair few games that didn’t come out in 2020.
It doesn’t include anything I bounced off immediately or played for less than an hour or so (unless it was short). It also doesn’t include anything I started playing in a previous year - so although I played a lot of Persona 5 and Divinity this year, they don’t count.
In 2020, I played 56 games for the first time. Here they are.
Disco Elysium (PC)
Disco Elysium is one of the smartest games I have ever played. It made me feel like I haven’t read enough political theory or been to enough raves. It is extremely sharply written; it mocked me, it taught me, it made me quite angry and it brought me close to tears. One of the very finest RPGs ever made.
I’m the sorriest cop.
I think BATTLETECH might be a game that I enjoy hearing about more than actually playing it. Does it have big stompy mechs? Yes, it does. Is the setting interesting? It sure is. Do I have the patience to actually play it? No, but every time someone like Austin Walker or Rob Zacny tells a story about how a particular battle went, I’m hooked. I think this is a fantastic game, but not necessary a Joel-game.
Lenna’s Inception (PC)
I didn’t play enough of this game to have a proper opinion on it, but it’s got a really clever hook and it’s often really charming. I mean to have another go.
Murder By Numbers (Switch)
I knew from one look at the aesthetic of this game, and knowing that Ed Fear worked on it, that I’d enjoy it. What I didn’t expect was how challenging it gets. Turns out, Picross can get really hard. Haven’t finished it yet, but intend to.
Gears of War Ultimate (PC)
I never played Gears back in the 360 days, so went into this with the expectation that it’d be a big brash shooter featuring some massive ham men and a rubbish plot. That’s exactly what it is, but what surprised me was that it’s also a fairly smart shooter, putting an emphasis on sightlines and flanking and even some basic tactics in a way that its peers don’t. Enjoyed it.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (PC)
I liked the first Ori quite a bit. I also love Hollow Knight. It seems like a fair few folks at Moon Studios share my view, but unfortunately the result feels like imitation rather than inspiration. The movement is still super sharp and I do quite like the faintly overwrought emotional beats, but it reminded me too much of a game I would rather be playing.
SHENZEN I/O (PC)
This is a funny one - I enjoyed the main bit of this fake assembly programming game quite a bit, but haven’t actually engaged with it much because after a day of work programming the last thing I want to do is more programming. However, the included solitaire game is a blast, and has become my go-to “I got five minutes while my thing is in the oven” game. If you’re not into the programming stuff at all I think the solitaire game is available standalone.
Tangle Tower (iOS)
Like Neo Cab last year, Tangle Tower proved to be another excellent Apple Arcade game with a rubbish ending. It’s not so bad that I wouldn’t recommend the game, but when the rest of it is so charming and wonderfully crafted it was a bit of a disappointment to see it not stick the landing. The voice acting in this game is sublime.
Control: Foundation DLC (PC)
I loved Control, so More Control sounded great. This DLC didn’t do much more than that, but I didn’t really need it to.
Animal Crossing New Horizons (Switch)
Animal Crossing came out right near the start of the lockdown and I leaped on it like so many of us did. What do I need to tell you? It’s Animal Crossing, with the addition of some crafting mechanics I find mildly tedious and seasonal events that I utterly adore. Lot of folks raced to get the best island as quickly as possible and burned themselves out on it, but I play these games very slowly and I imagine I’ll be popping back to the island town of Lighthouse for many years to come.
Dragon Age Origins (PC)
This one was a replay, kind of, but given the PC version is so different to the Xbox 360 version I bounced off so many years ago I think it’s OK.
The DNA of Neverwinter Nights is clear, which made me happy, and the tactical combat is pretty deep, though playing it right off the back of Divinity Original Sin 2 was never going to let it shine. As ever with this era of BioWare, it’s the character writing and worldbuilding that justifiably steals the show.
In Other Waters (Switch)
I didn’t play enough of this one yet to have a strong opinion on it, but look at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s also mechanically unique with a very cool setting.
Final Fantasy 7 (Switch)
I never played Final Fantasy 7 back in the day - wasn’t a PlayStation kid - so the release of the remaster (remake?) seemed like a good time to visit the original as preparation.
I never ended up playing the remake, but I got past the point it gets to in FF7 and a little bit further. What I discovered was a game that has aged extremely well, despite being first-generation polygonal, with an interesting story and some battle mechanics I quite liked. Will revisit.
Elite Dangerous (PC)
I had a go at this in VR and found it pretty enjoyable, though its controller prompts when playing on Oculus are just…wrong. The level of detail here is astounding, and I wasn’t able to give it the time it deserves - I’ll probably revisit once the big update arrives.
Half-Life Alyx (PC)
My excellent and clever friend Oliver said in his review:
Revelatory. This must be what it felt like to play Doom in 1993.
I agree. Half-Life Alyx does for VR what Super Mario 64 did for the third dimension - it simultaneously justifies the existence of the medium while making everything else seem like a tech demo. It’s the best VR game that exists, and by an extremely wide margin. I’ve barely touched my Quest since I finished this game and there’s not been anything since that’s made me consider sticking it back on the charger.
It’s not just a great VR game, it’s a full-grown Half-Life game, with everything that entails. The world is richly realised, the sound design is impeccable, and the ending left me, a long-time fan of this series, reeling. The addition of Rhys Darby is an inspired choice. After so long existing mostly as a platform holder (I do not care about DOTA and neither should you) it’s wonderful to see Valve doing what they do best. It even made me feel a little bit less sad about the fact we’ll likely never play the next Campo Santo game. A little.
Yakuza 0 (PC)
Much has been made of how uniquely daft this series is - do karaoke after running a real estate business while beating up hitmen! - but all I’d been told didn’t quite capture just how good the story is, how believable the characters, how hateful Kuze. I’ve been playing this one in little bits throughout the year and it’s got me completely hooked. I can’t but imagine how much of my life this series is going to consume and I don’t resent it one bit.
You get to hold hands with a toilet, a tooth and a big nose, and then make everything explode. It’s delightful nonsense. The controls are nonsense too.
Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order (PC)
I heard a lot of comparisons to Souls games about this one and I can see where they come from. Jedi Fallen Order is not a good Souls game. What it is, however, is a really good Ratchet and Clank. No further questions.
Opus Magnum (PC)
I think there’s something about Zachtronics games - they’re so well-designed I wish I’d made them, and when I have my game designer hat on they’re a bottomless source of inspiration, but I find it so hard to actually play them. I think it’s because these days I play games to unwind. Opus Magnum, like other Zachtronics titles, requires your brain to be fully engaged.
I want to revisit this one. The few hours I put into it were great.
Slay the Spire (PC)
I’d been eyeing this one from afar for quite some time - it’s made using the same tech as my own game, Feud, and I’ve always wondered how they managed to do some of this stuff with LibGDX.
It’s a great game, too. I’m very bad at it.
Umurangi Generation (PC)
There’s been a lot written about this one, far better than I could. I think we’ll look back on Umurangi Generation as one of the most important games of its generation. It makes a couple of mechanical missteps (that timer really needs to go) but I can fully understand why it’s so many folks’ game of the year.
There’s not a huge amount I can say about this game without spoiling some aspect of what it is and does. Play it.
Ape Out (PC)
You know the film Birdman? With the drums? This is Birdman but instead of a washed-up superhero actor you’re a big ape.
I may not have fully thought this comparison through but I’m going with it.
Switch n Shoot (PC)
One of those game concepts that’s so simple, so elegant, that you’re cross at yourself for not thinking of it first. It’s also fantastically well-executed. I just wish there was an iOS port.
The Last of Us Part 2 (PS4)
Yeah, I played it. There’s so much Discourse around this game I’m hesitant to add to the pile.
One thing I hear a lot is that it’s a misery simulator, relentlessly grim, you feel like shit after playing it. This is entirely true, but I think that’s it basically succeeding at what it sets out to do.
There’s so much could be said about its commentary on violence and retribution, on relationships, on trauma, but I’m not going to say any of that because other people - like my friend Sam - have done that much better.
What I will say is: I think the core game loop is really quite dull. You play as a homicidal noo-noo, hoovering up bits of tape and scissors until you can stab another boy in the neck for getting between you and the information you need to go and find the next place to hoover. It also ends with a tedious fistfight with bad signposting and clunky controls and fail states, because it’s a Naughty Dog game and they apparently still think that’s how games need to end.
I really hope there’s no Part 3, but I think we all know there will be.
It’s an Amanita game, so beautiful design work is pretty much a given, but Creaks still made me pause and just look. It’s also a craftily clever wee puzzle platformer, a genre I had thought I was completely burned out on.
One of the most interesting games I played this year; it’s more of a graphic novel than anything else, and the more interactive bits where you walk around the coffee shop are the least interesting part. It manages to explore death and acceptance of mortality in a really interesting way, and it’s grounded by some of the best writing and most convincing characters I experienced this year.
I cannot recommend this one enough - but play it on PC, the iOS version runs at a single-digit framerate in many places.
Return of the Obra Dinn (Switch)
I started playing it, put it down, and on my return realised I had no idea what was going on. Obra Dinn gives you a lot to fit in your head - links between people, places, and events all have to be managed in some kind of monochrome mind palace or they’ll slip through the cracks completely and can be very hard to dig out again.
I finished it on my second go through and loved it, though I will admit to looking up one answer to check I had it right.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket (PC)
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is about two hours long and it’s perfect. The writing is stellar - I actually winced a couple of times at how familiar the conversations of the two teenaged characters felt - and it doesn’t try to overreach, something I actually found quite refreshing in a game like this. It sits within its quiet moments in a really lovely way, and I’m still thinking about it now.
Spiritfarer has a lovely setup and concept - pick up the souls of the dead, look after them for a bit, tend to their needs, eventually help them move on. A perfect tend-and-befriend thing, I thought, and entirely suitable for the hellish year it launched in.
Unfortunately, the process of looking after these itinerant spirits is basically a never-ending list of boring chores, with the ungrateful bastards constantly demanding more blankets or a nicer house or popcorn. I played for about ten hours and not a single one of these pricks left the boat. So I did.
Bird Alone (iOS)
At first glance this looks like a gorgeously illustrated tamagotchi, but once you’re into it you’ll realise it’s a really beautiful meditation on growing older. This one had a big emotional impact on me. Can’t say much more without spoiling it.
One of my very favourite games of 2020.
Hypnospace Outlaw (PC)
This is a game I didn’t give enough time, but I intend to remedy that next year. Fantastically inventive with a deep insight into what a lost version of the internet was like, it also features writing from Xalavier Nelson Jr., the funniest person working in games today.
Dead Cells (Xbox)
I do love a good roguelike on occasion, and Dead Cells is a very good roguelike. The combat is snappy and the run-loop is satisfying, if a little bit unforgiving. I’m intrigued by its setting, but it doesn’t really seem like it’s going to use it much more than brief flavour. Maybe that’s good. Maybe not every game needs a lore wiki as required reading.
Journey to the Savage Planet (Xbox)
Had a go at this one on Game Pass and I’m very glad I didn’t have to spend money on it. The “humour” is so very, very tiring.
Alan Wake (PC)
This was a replay ahead of the Control AWE DLC, but I last played it in 2010 or something so I’m going to let this count.
Alan Wake has mostly aged pretty well - the godawful facial animation was bad even at the time, and the drudgery of the last third of the game is exactly how I remember it. The rest of it’s pretty OK, though.
Carto looks very cute - and it is - but I had to look up some of the solutions to puzzles. It’s not easy, and some of the solutions veer a little too far into the how-would-I-have-ever-thought-of-that adventure game style, but it’s a charming adventure and well worth your time.
Doom Eternal (Xbox)
I finally got around to finishing DOOM 2016 this year and loved it. It was so refreshingly free of bloat. It knew exactly what it was, and didn’t try to be more. Despite being a game where a massive tin man saws demons in half with a chainsaw, I’d describe it as ‘elegant’.
Doom Eternal learns all the wrong lessons from its predecessor. Right from the jump it overwhelms with extra systems, mechanics and collectibles. Its plot, UI and controls are bewildering. It’s a technical triumph, but that can’t distract from its shortcomings. A disappointment.
A Monster’s Expedition (iOS)
I really like A Monster’s Expedition - the puzzles are pitched perfectly, enough to be brain ticklers but never tough enough you’d get really stuck. There’s also some really lovely writing which had me chuckling out loud a few times. Worth a look.
Mass Effect 3 (PC)
Another replay from a long time ago, wrapping up my trilogy replay I started last year. I’ve long thought that Mass Effect 3 was unfairly maligned and this replay has only strengthened that feeling. Certain missions in particular play so well into the “the gang’s all here” trope that I find really soothing. The Leviathan DLC is a particular highlight.
I Am Dead (PC)
I Am Dead is joyous. Its setting and characters are so vibrant and its core mechanic is a work of technical and conceptual genius. It really charmed me, and brought me a great deal of comfort at a time when I really, really needed it.
The fish people love toast because it is so dry!!! Play this game, I beg.
Control: AWE DLC (PC)
I made the mistake of playing this one in the dark. Bad idea. I’ve not got very far yet. Someday I’ll be brave enough.
On a semi-related note, this was the first game I played after upgrading to the RTX 3070. The ray-tracing is a nice thing to have, sure, but I think DLSS will prove to be the real game-changer. In the industry. Not the game. Obviously already the game.
Star Wars Squadrons (PC)
It’s no Alyx, but this game really is improved by playing it in VR - you can look around the cockpit freely, which is particularly helpful in the Rebel ships as they have windows that extend over your head. It feels very cool spotting an incoming TIE fighter by glancing upwards while pulling off a tricky manoeuvre.
Among Us (PC)
You already know about this one.
The first time I played this I said I’d never played it, and everyone assumed it was some kind of trick. It wasn’t. I still won, somehow. Triple-bluff? I’ve lost count.
Black Mesa (PC)
I never played the original Half-Life, and the final completion of this remake seemed like as good a time as any. The remake itself is extremely well done; if you told me Valve had made it themselves I’d believe you without question.
Sometimes these kinds of remake can expose aged game design, but this one only serves to highlight the strength of the original game. I’m not very far yet but I’m really enjoying it.
This one was a little overhyped for me. I went in expecting the best attempt at a 2D soulslike yet. It’s pretty great, I love the aesthetic, and the Spanish dub lends it so much flavour. But it didn’t measure up to what I had in my head for it. Shame.
I still haven’t managed to escape, but I’m having a great time with this one nonetheless. Supergiant have long been one of my favourite studios, and this might be their finest work to date - it feels incredibly responsive in the hands, the writing is top-notch and it’s by far the most forgiving and rewarding roguelike loop I’ve ever seen.
Just gotta kill that bastard Theseus.
Destiny 2: Beyond Light (PC)
Bungie deleted half of the game and somehow I like it more.
This was a big year of Destiny for me. I joined a clan, started running raids, managed to nab the Chronicler seal after months of work and completed a season pass for the first time.
Beyond Light manages to clear Destiny’s cobwebs away, and remove a fair chunk of the game, without it feeling like my progress up to that point wasn’t valued. I do miss a couple of areas - I think the Titan Arcology was criminally underused - but in all but name this feels like Destiny 3, and I’m having a fantastic time with it.
Runs like a dream on the PS5, too.
If Found… (iOS)
If Found… is stunning. Visually beautiful, mechanically inspired and the story hit me like a black hole to the stomach. It’s also set in Ireland, as if it wasn’t already perfect.
Probably my game of the year. Play it.
Minecraft Dungeons (Xbox)
I reconnected with some old friends via Xbox Live this year, and what we really needed was a really great “something to do with your hands while your brain is in 2010” game. Minecraft Dungeons fit the bill perfectly.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PC)
I’ve only played a few hours of this. It took me three goes to get through the intro, and it’s a Rockstar game so it controls like a tank that’s been out on the lash, but the sad cowboys have already stolen my heart.
I thought this game was a glorified meme but it’s a delight. There’s some lovely emergent systemic interaction going on, but more importantly, the noises the Snax make are adorable. Strabby strabby strabby.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch (PC)
Astro’s Playroom (PS5)
It’s basically a big ad for the PlayStation brand, but it’s so charming and polished that it knocked the cynicism right out of my mouth. It’s not necessarily something I’d pay money for but it’s easily the best console pack-in since Wii Sports.
Spider-Man Remastered (PS5)
I bounced off Insomniac’s Spider-Man pretty hard back when it launched in 2018 - the open-world bloat felt excessive, like an Arkham game. When I got the PS5 I decided to give it another chance, and I ended up really loving it. The trick is that, though the side stuff is largely quite dull, the game doesn’t punish you in any way for ignoring it.
I think this game and Into The Spider-Verse get Peter Parker’s Spider-Man right in a way that the MCU films do not - and I know why. I’ve nailed it down.
Peter Parker calls baddies by their first name.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (PS4)
It’s very visually impressive and I enjoyed the couple of hours I spent with it. I’ve heard very good things about this one and I don’t think I’m far enough in to understand why, yet.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5)
I love Miles as a character. He gets to fulfil the childhood dreams of anyone who grew up with Spider-Man, but I can’t bring myself to resent him because he’s so likeable, so geeky, so honest.
The game isn’t doing much new, but it doesn’t need to.
Ni No Kuni Wrath of the White Witch (Switch)
I haven’t played very much of this yet but I would already die for Drippy.
Demon’s Souls (PS5)
I never had a PS3 so missed out on this one the first time around. Demon’s Souls is unforgiving in a way that I think the later games eased up on a little bit - the enemies and bosses are by themselves not too overwhelming, but it’s miserly with shortcuts and runs to bosses can be very lengthy.
It was nice when Tower Knight went down on the second, attempt, though, and I think it’s a testament to how faithful Bluepoint have been to From’s design that my muscle memory from other games was immediately transferable.
I put rat poison in a guy’s wine and drowned him in the toilet when he went to throw up, 11/10.
Some year. Let’s see what 2021 brings. Hopefully a full Feud release, for my part.