Looking back at the games we played this year reads a bit like a soundtrack to a disaster film, with each game representing a specific piece of time. We dove into Animal Crossing headfirst as lockdowns began. Then Jackbox was a go-to for Zoom happy hours with friends and family. As time--and the pandemic--wore on and as reality sunk deeper into our lives and routines, Hades conveyed the idea of persistence in the face of hell itself. And so on.
The games here offered some escapism, some human connection, a joyful retreat from the turmoil we faced and continue to face. We appreciate the developers of these games as well, who had no idea the context in which their work would exist. We're thankful that these 10 games in particular came out when they did.
Listed in alphabetical order (developer, publisher)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo EPD, Nintendo)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a long time coming and, for many of us, exactly what we needed to make it through the pandemic's early days in the United States. The latest in the nearly 20 year old series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the first mainline Animal Crossing game fans of the series have seen since 2012's New Leaf and it couldn't have arrived at a better time.
New Horizons is excellent in its own right, but the serendipitous timing of its launch elevated the game into a cultural phenomenon. It was the first comfort game many of us fixated on to get through those initial weeks of lockdown. It was rare to turn on your Switch and not see an entire friends list of people playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Friends met up to enjoy a meteor shower together, group chats lit up when the illusive traveling shopkeeper Redd graced one islander's shores, and Animal Crossing itself became the backdrop for social chats, general shenanigans, and birthday celebrations.
That commotion has died down and given way to the relaxing, piecemeal gameplay the Animal Crossing series is known for, allowing its tedious but somehow still super charming mechanics to really shine. There's less going on in New Horizons than, say, New Leaf but all in all it still makes for an incredible game that remains a cozy escape from everything this year has had to offer. - Alissa McAloon
Astro's Playroom (SIE Japan Studio, SIE)
As next-generation hysteria reached fever pitch, few people were talking about Astro's Playroom, the unassuming 3D platformer that came pre-loaded on every PlayStation 5. In retrospect, that was a blessing in disguise, because it meant those lucky enough to get their hands on the hefty unit got to experience one of the best console launch titles ever made with completely fresh eyes.
Team Asobi's nostalgia-drenched jaunt is first-and-foremost designed to introduce players to the unique capabilities of the DualSense gamepad. That alone made it the first proper 'next-generation' experience I played this year, with the game providing a perfect showcase for the controller's pinpoint haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. It's impossible to convey just how much those features added in terms of immersion, but trust me when I say that after blitzing through Astro's Playroom with the DualSense firing on all cylinders, conventual controllers and their bare bones rumble feel woefully mundane.
Astro's Playroom is more than a glorified tutorial, though. It's a compelling experience in its own right, chock full of dynamic levels ripe for exploring, a plethora of collectibles, a hub-world filled with secrets, testing boss battles, and a lead character that's more than deserving of their very own franchise. The only question at this point, is whether Asobi Team will be given the chance to make good on that promise and gift the world a proper blockbuster sequel. Make it happen, Sony. - Chris Kerr
Blaseball (The Game Band)
How do you even describe Blaseball? How can a procedural adaptation of America's most popular pastime, filled with incinerations, teleporting, and demigods make any kind of sense? Ask the folks at The Game Band, who went from "notable Apple Arcade developers" to "chaotic baseball developers who want to attack and dethrone God" in the space of a few months.
Blaseball's "game" isn't just in the clicker-website that lets you bet money on games and vote on cosmic events that will reshape a season. It's in the Discord servers that popped up for each team, it's in the stories that players have come up with for each of the players (shoutout to Jessica Telephone). It's in the chaos that leaves viewers panicking when the developers tweet ominous messages in all caps.
It's sucked in the attention of game developers, ordinary players, and folks who might not fully grasp the procedural chaos of Crusader Kings III, but can definitely piece together the drama of surviving a baseball season (emphasis on surviving). Blaseball is one of 2020's indie success stories, and we'd be remiss to not feature it here. (Claws up!!!) - Bryant Francis
Dreams (Media Molecule)
I've barely scratched the surface of Dreams. Media Molecule's long-awaited creative engine technically launched this year (despite opening up a sort of early access in 2019) and, impressively, released an update with PSVR compatibility several months back. Dreams exists on user-created content; players can either roam from dream to dream and try out a wide array of games created within Dreams by other players, take a stab at creating their own assets for other players to use, or build their own playable creations.
I can't speak to the creation tools because I haven't quite dived that deeply into Dreams, but it's impressive judging only by what players have managed to make thusfar! I've played remakes of Beat Saber and Guitar Hero within Dreams (with very little success because I'm trash at rhythm games), been completely enthralled by a deceptively complex puzzle game starring a little lightbulb robot friend (above), laughed to the point of tears in a Wallace and Gromit inspired(?) meme-laden adventure, and relaxed to an in-game recreation of Godot's very good theme song from the Phoenix Wright games. (We won't talk about the Sonic VR remake I played, but I will say that WIP VR experiences are a trip.)
There's such depth in Dreams and you don't have to look far to find it. The game shines both because of its community and because of the palpable love Media Molecule put into creating something powered by the purest creativity. If you've been on the fence about picking this one up, it's well worth checking out. - Alissa McAloon
Fall Guys (Mediatonic, Devolver Digital)
Mediatonic knocked it out of the park with Fall Guys. The studio's overwhelmingly endearing take on the battle royale format proved you can do more with the genre than ask players to blast each other to smithereens. The concept at play here is simple: waddle your way through a series of solo and team-based slaloms packed with all manner of madcap traps in a frantic bid to be the first to cross the finish line.
It's essentially the video game equivalent of shows like Takeshi's Castle and Wipeout, and succeeds in tapping into the same zany, unpredictable energy that made those series so popular. Of course, there's more to Fall Guys than its impeccably crafted, wacky obstacle courses -- many of which have taken on lives of their own on the meme-fuelled Twittersphere.
It also packs plenty of heart thanks to some whip-smart character and sound design that turned the game's bouncing beans into the real stars of the show. There's something almost hypnotic about watching swarms of those rotund, hapless creatures squeak and scramble over each other before being sent packing by an inflatable hammer the size of a fridge, knowing full well that you could (and likely will) be next. Edge-of-your-seat moments like those are the bread and butter of Fall Guys, and helped transform the bumble royale into bona fide video game gold. - Chris Kerr
Hades (Supergiant Games)
Among the most universally-praised games of 2020 is Hades, Supergiant Games' latest effort and proof positive that this studio is something special. Hades takes everything people love about roguelikes (replayability, predictable controls, tough but fair challenge) and smooths out the qualms that many have with the genre (repetitiveness, frustration, little to no narrative progression or character development).
Other games have approached character death or endgame states in unique ways as well, but Hades is a standout example. The game loop is intertwined with the narrative in such a way that one cannot exist without the other. Death loses its sting when you realize that dying pushes the story forward and develops not only Zagreus as a character, but all of the gods and monsters he encounters along the way.
This is a game explicitly designed around failure. When you fail, what you lose in terms of your current build and level progression, you gain in story development and access to new skills and abilities. Failure ensures a tradeoff that feels fair, and gives the player immediate encouragement to try another run. And that kind of positive persistence is something we can all relate to this year. - Kris Graft
Hardspace: Shipbreaker (Blackbird Interactive, Focus Home Interactive)
The folks at Blackbird Interactive crafted a wonderful and unique science fiction game that deserves to be celebrated for portraying not only the future of space travel, but the future of work. It's a really fascinating piece of work that mixes the power of game development technology with a unique setting and tone, all to create a game that feels like a job, that still manages to have a decent amount of social commentary relevant to 2020.
Blackbird did all this while only launching the game in Early Access. They've already added a number of features that have improved on the game's core experience, and continued to make it all the more worthwhile to while away hours tearing ships apart.
The lesson of the game's development--how it went from scripted four-hour experience to evolving Early Access phenomenon--seems reflective of how many game developers are evolving in 2020 in games like Teardown and even Baldur's Gate 3. We've known for a few years that Early Access titles have the potential to be foundation for generation-defining games, it's great to see developers like Blackbird Interactive continue to so much great work in the space at this year has rolled on. - Bryant Francis
Jackbox Party Pack 7 (et al) (Jackbox Games)
A number of games from this year help define certain periods of pandemic lockdown, and for us, the Jackbox Party Pack series occupied the early part of the pandemic. Remember back then? Regularly-scheduled happy hours with friends, family and coworkers. An apprehension about the months to come but a belief that "we're all in this together." There was confusion about face masks, concern about mass toilet paper shortages, and the habit of disinfecting absolutely everything.
We have more toilet paper now, but we got that in exchange for a dose of reality. But throughout the waves of anxiety Jackbox has been a welcome escape from the world while bringing family and friends together virtually.
While we've played every single Jackbox Party Pack this year as well as standalone Jackbox games like Quiplash and Fibbage, this year's Jackbox Party Pack 7 is notable on its own. Made partially under remote working conditions, Party Pack 7 is a rare iteration of the franchise where every single game is pure gold. Whether it's Talking Points (essentially an improvised presentation party), The Devils and the Details (a collaborative game where you're part of a family of demons), or a new version of a classic word game in Quiplash 3, Party Pack 7 is the best collection yet. It's something we look forward to playing with friends and family once we're not confined to our little Zoom phantom zones. - Kris Graft
Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales (Insomniac Games, SIE)
After 2018's Marvel's Spider-Man, Insomniac Games would have been well within its rights to sit back and devote most of its efforts toward a PlayStation 5-exclusive sequel. Instead it worked quickly to ship a standalone game that's one part expansion pack, one part origin story, and one part tech demo to show off the best of what the next generation has to offer. And notably, it's a work that celebrates the power of a Black superhero who's from a working class community.
Miles Morales benefits from a streamlined reconstruction of Marvel's Spider-Man's core mechanics, wisely slimming down the missions that fill out the experience without sacrificing story quality or the beauty of its huge, open world New York.
It's a bold experiment in what "defines" a full $60 game that hopefully clears the way for other developers to make more meaningful experiences with the same scope, beauty, and sense of focus. - Bryant Francis
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of those games that has notable flaws--there are pacing issues, the grind can get tiresome, and it's impossible to ignore some problematic issues that continue in the series regarding its portrayal of women.
Ok, that's a difficult intro to claw back from when making a game of the year argument. But the fact is that overall, Like a Dragon is an utter joy to experience. Even in moments when protagonist Ichiban Kasuga is scraping rock bottom and making bad decisions, there is something effervescent and innately playful about him. He's loud, he wears his own joy and disappointment on his sleeve, he's child-like. He's flawed but exhibits moments of self-awareness which allow him to take the initial steps forward to improve himself.
Also notable aside from Ichiban and his small gang of outcasts is the switch from the series' well-established real-time beat-em-up combat system to a turn-based RPG system. It's an unexpected change that works surprisingly well. It changes the tenor of the action when compared to previous entries, while still retaining all the face-slams in enemy encounters. When all the pieces of Like a Dragon are combined, the game is like Ichiban: a little fucked up, but incredibly memorable and so easy to root for. - Kris Graft