When the world at large looks back at 2020, how much will video games figure into our memories? Frankly, humanity has a pretty massive bullet list of crazy, important, and scary moments that will likely outweigh the importance of, say, knocking out your dailies in an MMO.
But at Ars, we know that you’ve still been keenly interested in gaming articles this year—whether because you had questions about sold-out consoles and graphics cards, because you happened to be home near your gaming machines more often, or because your social life began revolving less around the local pub and more around a Discord channel. In an increasingly stressed out and homebound year, video games provided equal parts refuge and escape.
Thankfully, development studios quickly figured out the work-from-home thing well enough to finish and launch some incredible video games. (Well, some more than others.) Hence, we’ve again polled the Ars gaming braintrust to rank the games that provided the most comfort in a year where comfort was in seriously short supply.
(As the creators of this unscientific but heavily researched poll, we look forward to your thoughts and responses in the comments section—so long as you’re kind about it. Remember, 2020’s been rough. Be nice.)
20. Astro’s Playroom
Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan (Asobi Team); PlayStation 5
Games that come packaged with a new console on launch day carry a heavy burden. They have to represent the promise and potential of the new hardware to an eager audience without slipping into the dry and dull obscurity of a mere tech demo. Astro’s Playroom walks this tightrope perfectly, highlighting by example the best of what the PlayStation 5 can do while serving as a light yet surprisingly deep platform game in its own right.
As we noted in our first impressions back in October, Astro’s Playroom serves as the perfect showcase for the PS5’s new DualSense controller. The game mixes subtle, positional vibrations, perfectly synced audio feedback from the controller’s speaker, and well-tuned resistance in triggers to extend a game’s sensory experience past the screen in a new and unique way. The game’s use of ray-traced reflections and high-definition rendering, while more subtle, also highlight the PS5’s cutting-edge CPU, GPU, and SSD.
More than that, though, Astro’s Playroom serves as an interactive museum of 25 years of PlayStation history littered with collectible trinkets and Easter eggs that evoke memories of the best hardware and software under the PlayStation umbrella. Combine that with the tongue-in-cheek exploration of the PlayStation 5’s innards, and you get a corporate love letter that rivals Super Smash Bros. for its sheer fanboy glee.
This quick pack-in game only takes a few hours to beat, though hidden secrets and speedrun optimizations can easily add more hours of fun. Still, this endearing little adventure through the innards of the PlayStation 5 will probably stick with Sony fans for as long as they enjoy their new console purchase.
19. The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog; PlayStation 4
If you read Ars Technica’s review of this game, you might be surprised to see it on this year-end list. And yes, back in June I took TLOU2 to task for a plot that devolves into borderline nonsensical character motivations, muddying a valiant attempt to tell a cohesive story about a cycle of trauma driven by endless revenge. Compared to the tight, driven, emotional plot of the first game, Part II felt like a step back into a more self-indulgent, less affecting storytelling form.
But those structural flaws can’t take away from the intense, memorable moments to be found within the sweep of Naughty Dog’s latest grand epic: plucking notes on a guitar in a quiet, abandoned building; exploring the ruins of a long-decaying museum as a joyful birthday present; gawking at the marvel of a sports stadium converted to military housing for thousands; stealing a moment of romance while hiding from a raging storm; riding a horse through the flaming wreckage of a doomed village.
These moments and more stick out, months later, shining amid the tangled and messy plot as some of gaming’s most well-constructed setpieces. And while those pieces don’t come together into a satisfying narrative whole like its predecessor did, their construction still merits recognition and observation by anyone interested in the modern era of video game storytelling.
18. The Longing
The Longing gets a lot from a little. This little-hyped game from German developer Studio Seufz is part point-and-click adventure, part idle game, part Animal Crossing-esque home furnishing simulator, and part existential Tamagotchi.
You play as a frail, soot-covered character simply known as A Shade. Deep below the surface, in a massive network of underground caves, you’re borne from the hand of a giant earthy king. He tells you he must slumber to regain his strength and to wake him in 400 days, at which point he promises to end all fear and longing in the world.
Then, a persistent timer at the top of the screen starts ticking down—in real time. 400 actual days. The rest is on you. Will you follow orders, bound by a sense of duty? Will you seek an escape, unsure of what the consequences may be? Will you risk exploring for secrets? How exactly will the king fulfill his promise? Whatever you do, the timer is always ticking toward an ending. That might sound familiar, especially as we all wait for the last few ticks before a vaccine ends Our Pandemic Year™.
You can speed up the in-game countdown, mercifully, by reading books, sketching artwork, and furnishing your in-cave home. The timer continues even when the game is closed, and multiple endings don’t require anywhere close to the full 400 days. (My playthrough took about 25 hours.)
Still, this is a game about patience and isolation. You are alone in the caves—there are no enemies to confront, no dense gameplay systems to nestle into. You can’t starve to death or anything like that. You just sit, explore, or kill time. You can bookmark specific spots in the caves for the Shade to remember, but he walks painfully slow, and returning home means walking all the way back.
This is a titanic subversion of popular video game design, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But in the process of playing, The Longing forces you to live in the experience of waiting, wondering, being alone with your thoughts, the unanswerable, and what it means to be content. All of this captures the state of being in 2020 tremendously well, but more than that, The Longing creates a fundamentally human conflict. One way or another, we all have lords we must serve. Right?
17. Streets of Rage 4
Putting together a 2020 gaming timeline can be tricky. Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing landed on the same day in March, after which we all locked ourselves into our homes. Also, some new consoles eventually came out. That’s all that happened, right?
Honestly, when I went back through my list of 2020 favorites, I initially forgot that Streets of Rage 4 came out this year. In April! At least in SoR4‘s case, this game was easy to lose track of as a 2020 relic because it feels so beautifully timeless. This series revival, co-helmed by Lizardcube and Guard Crush, is obviously indebted to Sega’s ’90s legacy yet comes from a place of fandom.
The resulting game looks like a project that deconstructed original game code from scratch—and lovingly builds upon it to meet somewhere between allegiant, original gameplay and smartly tweaked modern brawling. Over the course of a two-hour campaign, you’ll pummel hundreds of people to a pulp, and there’s a secret science to making this feel good the entire time—and making you want to dive in all over again for replays.
SoR4 hits so many wonderful notes to make this happen: healthy character variety (including playable versions of characters from the Sega Genesis era); enemies whose varying attacks stack on top of each other in compelling ways; a clever tweak to score accumulation; a wonderful risk-and-reward push-and-pull to the special-attack system; and, above all else, a brilliantly designed electronic score whose sonic momentum shifts mid-battle in wonderfully subtle ways (you can’t have a “Streets of Rage” game without bangers, and this game is all bangers, top to bottom).
All of that, plus an online co-op system that actually holds up in a quarantined year, make this a game that you really shouldn’t leave 2020 without punching your way through at least once. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need at least two playthroughs to savor what a great sequel this is.
16. Spelunky 2
Everything I said about Spelunky 2 in my September “Ars Approved” review still applies. I still enjoy trying, and failing, to complete runs in this ever-randomized dive through perilous, cartoony caverns.
But what I didn’t get to in my review was the unbelievable amount of wickedly hard endgame content built into the game and how its zillions of systems combine to engage hardcore players. I’ve spent the remaining months of 2020 watching longtime Spelunky players face off against the sequel and stream the game’s steepest challenges on services like Twitch. It has been must-see nerdy TV.
If you know what I’m talking about, then I only need two words—Cosmic Ocean—to send a tingle up your spine. This “level” is easily some of the hardest stuff ever built into a video game, and it’s not even the end of Spelunky 2‘s criss-crossing series of optional objectives, either as defined within the game or ranked independently by its community.
Sometimes, a game’s community can elevate a game maker’s vision—especially when the joy of a game is managing randomly generated surprises, challenges, perils, and last-second survival moves. Spelunky 2‘s carefully crafted systems have made it easy for its community to bond over discovery and speedrunning mastery.
15. Cyberpunk 2077
Yes, the version of the game that launched on last-generation consoles is, by all accounts, a bug-filled mess. Even the PC version we played for our review, with considerably more apparent polish, has its share of reality-bending glitches that take you out of the moment. And the game’s combat, layered with the promise of endless invention through hacking and weaponry choices, can quickly descend into button-mashing drudgery if you stumble across a powerful enough sword to cut through often braindead antagonists.
But none of those problems (some of which will no doubt be fixed with coming patches) can fully diminish the sheer achievement that is Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. This futuristic metropolis twists and bends in on itself, reaching upward into elevated, market stall-laden slums and downward into crowded, flashing night clubs. Other open-world games simply cannot match Night City’s scale and presence—as if this real place has been accreting new growth for a decade before the player happened to stumble onto it.
But Night City’s impact isn’t simply about architecture and urban planning. The game is full of vivid characters that come to life through sharp writing and excellent, subtle vocal and motion-capture performances (save for the prominent woodenness of Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand). Combat aside, the game also revels in its inherent role-playing structure, letting players take meaningful junctures in conversations without giving away how things could have shaken out if the other path had been taken (unless you reload and try again, of course).
While the façade of Cyberpunk 2077’s open world might be flimsy at times, it’s also easy to get caught up in, given the intertwining lives and goals of its colorful, well-defined characters. As futuristic virtual theme parks go, you could do much worse.
14. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Square Enix; PlayStation 4
There are few games in a position to do what Final Fantasy VII Remake did this year, and even fewer games bold enough to follow through on that opportunity. Instead of simply reanimating the corpse of the original landmark RPG, Remake spends 35 hours in conversation with its source material’s legacy and fanbase.
You get the thrill of seeing Cloud, Aerith, and the rest of the classic cast in high-definition, but they come with a revamped battle system. The moment-to-moment narrative follows the general frame as the original, but only its first 20 to 30 percent, with some major twists added onto the end. The result is a game that’s fan service by nature yet uses that allure to subvert and ultimately reject the very idea of fan service itself. At a time where so much pop culture looks myopically backward, Remake is a treatise on letting the past die to be reborn. It’s a more exciting game for it.
It helps that the battle system is a thrilling blend of real-time action, tactical setup, and on-the-fly maneuvering. There is great tension in sussing out how to target and weaken a powerful foe. Along those lines, it also helps that the core of this Final Fantasy VII story remains relevant—it’s as operatic as ever, yet steadfast in its depiction of a corporate world that eats the dreams and environment of common people and subsists on middle-class complacency.
This is a big, soapy Japanese RPG that probably runs too long and has more than a few awkward bits of dialogue. You’ll get more out of it if you’re familiar with the original. And the typecasting of Barret is a misbegotten relic that should’ve been left in the past, even if Barret himself is still the game’s conscience. But if you don’t mind some melodrama, Remake might change your expectations of what a video game remake should be.
13. Demon’s Souls
Bluepoint Games; PlayStation 5
You can grab a GameFAQs guide from as far back as 2009 and apply its tips and maps to this year’s PlayStation 5-exclusive remake of Demon’s Souls. That’s how closely it hews to the design of the 2009 PS3 original, and that allegiance is admirable, if a bit cold for anyone who has spent a decade memorizing the game’s every creepy hallway and every monster-closet surprise.
But you’ve also absolutely never played a version of Demon’s Souls—or, honestly, any of From Software’s Souls-like games—quite like this. You can’t survive games in this sluggish-combat genre without adhering to slow, intentional traversal, and the incredible polygon and effects budget available to the PS5 does something really interesting to the gameplay: it slows things down. Speedrun the game if you want, but I struggle to dash past the incredible, organic constructions spread across the game’s varied zones. They’re incredibly easy to linger on and ogle, especially as a next-gen lighting model, complete with dynamic lighting and properly weighted ambient occlusion, makes each haunting path look that much more alive—ironic, of course, in a game universe full of death.
Pausing to examine your environs isn’t just a chance to collect your gathering drool. It also helps you space out each possible fight or determine which steps are the most perilous. Sure, you’ll still die, but you’ll enjoy studying and re-examining your strategies that much more upon every attempt to retrieve your piles of souls left at each point of death (and enjoy much faster loading times between deaths to get back to the brutal beauty).
12. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
It would be easy for Ori and the Will of the Wisps to get lost in this year of great games. This is a game that released at the edge of a pandemic early in the year, and it was quickly overtaken in the public consciousness by more ambitious 3D open worlds. At first glance, it seems like a largely “more of the same” sequel to 2015’s excellent Ori and the Blind Forest, destined to be forgotten as part of the late days of a console’s lifecycle.
Hence, we’re using this opportunity to insist: Don’t let this sequel slip by. Ori’s quest to rescue his adoptive brother is every bit as affecting as games with more ostentatious, exposition-filled cut scenes. The interactive portions, meanwhile, are a masterclass in Metroidvania-style design, full of hidden-in-plain-sight secrets buried amid the painterly, naturalistic environments.
Getting around those environments involves some of the most technically demanding platforming I’ve seen on this side of N++ and some careful use of abilities that are slowly unlocked through diligence and careful exploration. But the challenges never get too frustrating, thanks to copious checkpoints and minimal penalties for failure.
Add some thrilling chase setpieces with screen-filling bosses that harry you to undiscovered portions of the map, and you have a generation-defining example of 2D game design. I just worry many won’t fully appreciate Wisps until they look back on the Xbox One’s library years from now.
Slithering, pouncing, and devouring as this game’s grotesque monster has no peer in 2D gaming. That’s the primary reason this game has made our list: because its method of movement and terror is the horror-game equivalent of a Super Mario jump or a Sonic the Hedgehog dash. It feels so very good to be such a murderous wad of tentacle-covered flesh in Carrion.
The developers at Phobia Game Studio chain this creepy movement through a harrowing series of clever Metroidvania-worthy caverns, where your monster faces head-scratching puzzles and increasingly brutal challenges. Players must constantly employ new maneuvers and attacks to fend those off. Thankfully, Carrion doesn’t wear its welcome out or bludgeon players with unnecessarily tricky puzzles, so you can expect its bloody, slithering movement to ride on a crimson-red slip-n-slide of satisfying-if-brief momentum.
10. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Asobo Studio; Windows, Xbox Series X/S (coming soon)
The long-awaited return of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise was never guaranteed to be decent, let alone good, let alone the amazing, robust, and highly customizable beast that it turned out to be. In its first announcement in late 2019, the project admittedly sounded like a bullet-point, corporate-synergy disaster coming out of the many-headed Microsoft hydra. The mapping data of Bing, the server infrastructure of Azure, and the gaming prowess of a team previously assigned to Hololens: was this combination really going to meet or exceed expectations held by a diehard community that had long since departed for sunnier skies like X-Plane?
As it turns out, the developers at Asobo Studio, who’d cut their teeth on an ambitious procedural-generation system for PlayStation 3 driving game Fuel, had clearly been eager to get back to their roots delivering massive digital worlds—and their take on the entire planet has proven to mostly be up to snuff. Even better, the team’s transparency with fans has included a post-release roadmap that has prioritized a robust plane-physics system, and reams of real-time weather data, before tackling improved world-detail passes. Since the PC version’s August launch, we’ve already seen two robust region-specific patches, one for Japan and one for the United States, to give fans more realistic cities and regions to fly over and land within. And the ability to install creations like new plane models and airport renders directly from third parties (without going through the Windows Store) is icing on the cake.
On top of all that, gosh, is this game pretty. You’ll see your favorite CPU and GPU get absolutely pounded at high settings, but MSFS does a lot with each frame it renders, and it offers a reasonable amount of optimization as you scale details and view distances down to run on your favorite potato PC in a pinch. But if we’re going to simulate flight, we may as well simulate as many clouds, light-and-shadow effects, and highly detailed, realistic buildings dotting a cityscape as we can.
The volumetrics, particle effects, and terrain generation systems on display are currently peerless in PC gaming. Asobo Studio nails the visual side as much as the game’s sheer sensation of weather-precise flight. If your PC is up to the task, run-don’t-walk to install MSFS as soon as you can. (Or hold your breath until a “2021” launch on Xbox Series X/S consoles.)
9. Spider-Man: Miles Morales
If you played 2018’s Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4, the gameplay of Miles Morales isn’t exactly going to set your world on fire. Fighting crime in the New York City of this sequel is a familiar affair, to the point where the same muscle-memory brawling and swinging will get you through most of the action without much trouble. Miles’ few new abilities add a little bit of spice, but this isn’t a gameplay revolution over what has come before. But when the web-slinging and bad-guy-battling are already this smooth and fun, why change anything?
Where Miles Morales sets itself apart is in Miles as a lead hero. This sequel revels in exploring the teenager behind the mask as he transitions his life from the Bronx to Harlem, acting as the city’s sole Spider-Man for the first time in the process. The new focus—and the general lack of Peter Parker—allows for a fresh take on the Spider-Man mythos, with plenty of well-written and genuinely affecting family- and community-focused vignettes to add oomph to the usual wall-crawling. This version of Spider-Man really feels like he’s a deeply enmeshed part of a “friendly neighborhood” long before he became a superhero.
With its short running time and lack of bold, new gameplay ideas, you could argue that Miles Morales feels more like a glorified expansion pack than a full game in its own right. But that would be a mistake. Morales provides an engrossing and well-paced excuse to return to Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man and serves as a great early showcase for the PlayStation 5 hardware, too, if you happen to have it.
8. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Historically, I’ve been cold on the Japanese RPG genre; turn-based combat rarely turns my gears. And yet Yakuza: Like a Dragon has bowled me over as my favorite “Dragon Quest” game of all time.
That Dragon Quest comparison may seem out of left field, especially for a series that has revolved around gritty Japanese crime and mafia stories for years, but the series’ latest sequel is shameless about its love affair with one of Japan’s most popular game series. Lead character Ichiban professes his love for DQ games early in Y:LaD‘s plot, cheekily telling players this fact as part of a beep-beep-beep scroll of text (in a game that is otherwise largely full of spoken dialogue). As it turns out, the series’ delivery of a dense, fully realized corner of modern Japan has always had a lot in common with JRPGs, albeit in supercharged form—with countless distractions, side quests, people to talk to, item shops, and other JRPG trappings dressed in next-gen clothes.
Moving away from real-time button-mashing melee and toward a menu-based, party-driven battle system works for a few reasons here. First off, it gives Sega’s scriptwriters more reason to develop working relationships with other lead characters, and eventually slap them into Ichiban’s battling party. Once they’ve joined the fight, the series’ penchant for surprising, wacky humor blossoms in the form of entertaining co-op attacks (though even the solo attack options are among the liveliest and funniest in the genre since Paper Mario).
Yakuza games have always shined as glorified visual novels, full of riveting storytelling and deep, intertwined character development. Y:LaD sees Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku development team hit their best storytelling strides yet, boiling down an intimidating network of mafia clans and leaders into digestible chunks over the course of the game and setting up scandals, betrayals, and twists along the way. I also can’t help but think about another 2020 game that tries to tell a story of criss-crossing underground gang networks spread across a massive city, Cyberpunk 2077, and how Y:LaD pulls the same trick off with more convincing characters and savvier presentation of its main and side stories.
Y:LaD is one of the funniest and most engaging crime-drama stories I’ve ever seen in a video game. So long as you strap yourself in for lengthy, dialogue-filled cut scenes, especially in the game’s opening chapters, you should be set for one of the year’s most satisfying role-playing experiences by far.
Riot Games; Windows
I have long since given up on my dreams of being a competitive team-deathmatch esports pro; my sniping precision and map-control wisdom ain’t what they used to be. In the nerd world, I believe the term for someone like me is an “armchair quarterback”—someone who isn’t great at a game but consumes videos of professional play ravenously while loudly remarking at the screen. When I want to watch high-level sports in 2020, forget the NFL or NBA. Give me Valorant.
To be fair, the series’ creators at Riot Games took their licks for bundling the game with a kernel-level “anti-cheat” driver, an infosec no-no here at Ars Technica. It’s a stupid idea that leaves PCs too vulnerable for our liking, and unsurprisingly, Valorant cheaters managed to wreak havoc earlier this year anyway.
With that out of the way: Valorant‘s beat-by-beat combat is a smartly tweaked evolution of the beloved Counter-Strike formula. It revolves around the same core principles: one wrong step is death; economy management is key; use gadgets to control the map on either offense or defense; face off in asymmetric rounds that revolve around either killing foes or setting a bomb.
Where Valorant primarily differs is its class system. Riot Games could have absolutely screwed this up, particularly by copying a class-based game like Overwatch with over-the-top abilities. But Valorant‘s take is careful and thoughtful. Certain abilities appear for multiple characters, so a squad can have a few people (but not all five) who can employ smoke screens or flash grenades. Wackier abilities are more isolated among the cast of “agents,” including shockwaves that go through walls and remote cameras to keep eyes on ends of the map.
Ultimately, the range of agents forces teams to spread useful abilities among each of its combatants and focuses the in-game economy accordingly so that players are that much more compelled to buy, say, a flash grenade every round if they’re one of the only teammates who can throw one.
Without over-the-top abilities driving strategy, you’re left managing precise combat as your primary focus, with abilities mostly fueling the map-management metagame. A team’s success in Valorant will come from communicating about ability use, memorizing the brilliantly designed, vertically scaling combat maps, and taking control of every lane and zone with careful movement and aiming.
I’ve watched a lot of Twitch this year, and I’m generally surprised by how Valorant has held up to the scrutiny of obsessive pro-level play compared to other big games—all with an in-game economy that requires zero dollars and zero cents to get started with plenty of available characters.
6. Doom Eternal
If you were expecting something exceptionally new from Doom Eternal over the 2016 remake it was based on, tap your rip-and-tearing brakes. The sequel does add much-needed variety to the previous game’s repetitive environments, along with small modifications to the familiar set of demon-rending weapons. All told, though, this is the same twitch-based shooter action id Software brought us years ago.
Frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way. The waves of demons in Doom Eternal still constantly keep you on that happy, adrenaline-soaked edge between overwhelmed and blood-soaked badass. This game stands proudly opposed to an era of reluctant hide-behind-cover shooters. Instead, Doom Eternal demands that you remain in constant motion, acrobatically dodging between bullet-hell-style threats while frequently switching between ammo-limited weapons and tactics to overcome precisely orchestrated waves of demons.
Asking a game like this to change just for the sake of change feels like a failure of imagination. In fact, one of the major late-game changes—a flow-breaking, attack-blocking enemy known as the Marauder—is one of the worst parts of the sequel, feeling like an unfair change of the formula that had served nearly two games so well thus far. That one false note is the main problem keeping this game from being higher on the list, in fact. Other than that, we’d happily keep replaying new versions of this basic formula every four years from here on out.
5. Ghost of Tsushima
Sucker Punch; PlayStation 4
The PS4 went out like it came in—with a visually striking game from Sucker Punch Productions. There were plenty of pretty games in 2020, but the most memorably breathtaking title for me is the samurai adventure game Ghost of Tsushima. The game’s setting—Tsushima Island during the first Mongol invasion of Japan—is brought to life through lush environments featuring rolling hills, gorgeous vistas, and some of the most vibrant colors I’ve seen yet in a video game.
Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t rewrite the book when it comes to open-world game design—you’re still traipsing around a large map full of enemy outposts, collectables, and a handful of heavily repeated activities. But the game’s presentation does a lot to keep you in the game and out of a map screen. A subtle wind effect blows grass and falling leaves in the direction of your objectives—and if stronger guidance is needed, a simple swipe up on the DualShock’s touchpad unleashes a forceful gust. Birds and foxes also appear in the environment to gently lead you to nearby points of interest. It’s not free exploration on the level of Breath of the Wild, but it works well here.
It helps that I quite enjoyed the side activities on offer—Ghost of Tsushima is the only 2020 game I’m aware of that lets you compose contemplative haikus about impermanence and spend some time reflecting on your favorite sake while enjoying a soak in a hot spring.
Above all, though, Ghost of Tsushima’s balletic swordplay is the game’s standout feature. I was always spoiling for the next fight, where I could put my ever-growing kit of techniques to the test. A quick button combo puts protagonist Jin Sakai in one of four different stances, each with its own moveset, combos, and strengths against different enemy combatants. Genre mainstays like light and strong attacks, parries, and dodging are all done to perfection and kept me engaged throughout the game’s refreshingly manageable runtime.
The game’s story tackles tradition, honor, and finding your own way in a newly changed world. And its final decision forced me to set down the controller and ponder a while before committing—the hallmark of an affecting game.
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is, in theory, one of the most chill and relaxing games of 2020. But here in the Cox household, it kicked off The Great Coconut War of 2020 instead, as my daughter (then six, now seven) and I began trying to play together and discovered that sharing is not necessarily caring.
Happily, we reached a detente after a few days—and it seems to have held. After nine months of almost-daily play, my Animal Crossing character is rich, with her house fully built out, paid off, and decorated. She has an expansive and stylish all-seasons wardrobe, a storage unit bursting with craftables, and hundreds of furniture, outdoor, and wearable items to make. There’s a proper, well-tended orchard in the east, and I’m building a formal 18th-century-style garden on the hill in back, up near the smuggler’s beach.
It’s trite to say, but it’s been great to use Animal Crossing to socialize with some quarantined friends “in person,” trading fruit when we can’t get together to trade cups of coffee due to the pandemic. Even after months of play, there’s always something else that needs doing, and that’s what keeps me coming back. These are tasks I can accomplish in small bite-sized chunks. This is a life I can organize and optimize, even while the couch I sit on to play it is covered in piles of my kids’ stuff.
Now if only Nintendo would patch in an update to let you craft fish bait in batches, island life would be perfect.
3. Fall Guys
Of all the emotional styles that video games can capture, humor is among the toughest ones. Slapstick humor—the kind that doesn’t rely on clever writing or cut-scene dialogue—is even rarer in the medium. Fall Guys (much like last year’s Untitled Goose Game) stands out for making such slapstick humor feel effortless. All it takes is a bunch of bean-shaped protagonists that teeter and fall semi-randomly as they bump into each other in a set of Wipeout-style physical challenges.
This goofy sense of humor helps Fall Guys be one of the most approachable games among a recent bevy of so-called “battle royale” titles, where a large group of online competitors is slowly whittled to one. Most of these games are heavily skill-based, dependent on previous knowledge of the genre and with high skill ceilings that can scare off newcomers who aren’t ready to commit hundreds of hours of practice.
Fall Guys is much simpler than that—even new or lapsed gamers can pick up a controller, get a general feel for what’s going on almost immediately, and even hold their own through a couple of rounds. While there’s definitely room at the top for skilled players to distinguish themselves, Fall Guys stands out as a welcoming introduction to the world of online competition—that rare game that my daughter, my wife, and I are all able to enjoy at our own level.
The only real complaints here are the fiddly controls for grabbing other players and the slow, between-round waits that hamper the frenetic nature of the mini-games themselves. Besides that, Fall Guys has that perfect mix of approachability, gentle humor, and challenge to keep us coming back again and again.
2. Half-Life Alyx
Valve; Windows VR headsets
If the year’s best VR game falls in a forest, and nobody in that forest owns a suitable PC-VR system, does it make a sound?
Half-Life Alyx may be my favorite video game of the year—and up there as my favorite VR game of all time, next to Beat Saber—but it will forever be dogged by a whopping majority of interested players who either don’t own a suitable VR system to play it or have no intention of getting one. I still run into people asking: “Will Valve ever port it to something outside of VR? As I said upon the game’s launch, even asking that question misses the point. HLA‘s DNA is linked to a control scheme so extreme and unique that there’s little parallel in gaming history.
Trying to play Super Mario 64 without the N64’s analog stick, or competitive Counter-Strike without precise mouse-aim, are both silly ideas, but at least they’re doable. Comparatively, how the heck would you use a keyboard or controller to mimic holding two hands up to a puzzle or use one hand to magnetically yank a useful object in the distance while using the other to aim and shoot a gun?
The other half of the equation is that VR demands an entirely different wiring of your active, virtual-hero brain. Standing still to listen to a questgiver prattle about boring, been-there-done-that gamer plot doesn’t cut it in VR. Neither does combat that demands constant circle-strafing and 360-degree management of enemies or environments that react inconsistently to players’ hands.
Yet walking through a pitch-black room with a flashlight, examining clues painted in a mural-filled cave, following electric grid patterns built into a wall, marching forward while blasting machine guns at massive antlions, or hiding from a monster while trying not to knock over any loud, glass-shattering objects in a warehouse are incredible moments in HLA that benefit from the free look of your physical head and the full articulation of two hands in space.
The pitch-black example, in particular, can become an unforgettable moment of terror in VR much more easily than on a flat screen. You must use both your head and hands to quickly manage aim and distribution of your flashlight’s rays. Do that on a TV or monitor, on the other hand, and players won’t be able to light their way nearly as well.
I’m arguably biased because I’ve seen so many VR games get the ambitious stuff wrong, and thus, I see all of the invisible issues that HLA solves for VR gaming: how to make an “active gun reload” feel exciting without making players clank plastic VR wands together in real life; how to place human characters in a scene that engages players’ attention without wasting their time; how to visually model gunfire in ways that make frantic, free-aimed shots easier to track; how the gravity gloves turn the awkward act of picking up distant objects into a Marvel-caliber superpower. Gosh, they even make opening a door feel good.
And then, to top it all off, they freaking did it, man. They did the thing (I’m not saying more to avoid spoiling it for people who haven’t seen the thing. Please use spoiler tags if you discuss the thing in the comments.)
I have always appreciated the ambition, mystery, and evocative story morsels of the Half-Life series, and Valve’s HLA crew—with a mix of series veterans and people who got jobs at Valve to make a game in this very series—didn’t screw it up. They peppered the game’s world with callbacks and brand-new story beats. They set up new mysteries. They deftly added a voice to the main character of a Half-Life game in a way that felt right. They gave us Jeff.
And then they pulled off one heck of a final chamber, a freakish VR hall of mirrors that somehow didn’t make me throw up while also delivering one of the most emotional sight-and-sound passages I’ve ever seen about the aftermath of war in a video game.
Valve’s masterclass VR showcase did one more powerful thing: it kept me inside of its world for hours at a time, fully convinced I was battling the Combine instead of having me realize at any point that I was inside of a corded, bulky rig or that my feet were cold or legs were sore, or that I was uncomfortable and needed to take a break. HLA is an utterly transporting experience because it values players’ excitement, wonder, and physical limits simultaneously. That’s one hell of a design juggle—one that truly deserves to be experienced in the hardware ecosystem it was built around.
It’s appropriate that Sisyphus is a major character in Hades, a game that for many players is about pushing against an immovable force without ever reaching the goal. Just as Camus famously suggested that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, we could happily throw ourselves against this virtual version of the underworld over and over again, even if ultimate success always seems a bit out of reach.
To be sure, there’s a lot that makes Hades feel less Sisyphean. Unlike many “purer” roguelike games (such as fellow Best of 2020 listmate Spelunky 2), Hades offers a variety of power ups that persist from run to run, making the player a tad more powerful with each time through the game’s ever-changing hack-and-slash corridors. But like all the best “roguelites,” the real benefit you carry with you when you restart a Hades run from the beginning is new knowledge of the game’s workings—its enemies and their weaknesses, the best strategies for avoiding their attacks, the randomized boons that fit your play style, and so on.
This is all enough to make Hades a serviceable example of its genre. But what really sets it apart is its unerring sense of style. This carries through in easy-to-read character designs and animations, for sure, but even more so in the way these immortal characters are written. Every trip through Hades‘ labyrinth reveals new bits of character motivation and back story for a rogue’s gallery of Greek gods, demons, and supernatural hangers-on. These conversational snippets ameliorate the grinding repetition inherent to the genre. Each character is written with modern verve and almost stereotypically big personality traits that bring these mythical archetypes to life for a new audience.
Unlike Sisyphus, determined Hades players will eventually reach the game’s “ending” (which marks the start of some wonderfully moving post-game content). Even then, there’s plenty of reason to dive back in, perfecting your skills for faster runs, hoping for lucky or interesting boons that will make the next trip go that much better. Hades is technically a game that ends, but it’s also a rock we’ll continue to happily push up a hill long after it’s “over.”