I tried to write this list without using "comfort game" in every other paragraph, but hey this year's been a lot and repetitive language is the least of my worries. It's been a stressful year, but I'm thankful that I've been able to retreat into both familiar and new worlds to find that feeling of comfort and stave off the mental burnout.
Many of those comfort games were old favorites: The Sims is an eternal presence in my life (and this year's Snowy Escape expansion has been a blast to explore), Rimworld consumed my life for several months early into the pandemic and I'm still trying to get a grasp on that comforting chaos, and the familiar halls of Hitman's massive sandboxes are always a welcome retreat.
Turns out that several of those games were also 2020 releases, despite feeling like I'd been playing them for years. Turns out when a global pandemic skews your perception of time to the point where entire months fly by in what you swear was only a couple of weeks, it's tricky to figure out which games came out when! Here's an alphabetized collection of some of my favorites from this year, along with a smaller list of games way down below I'm planning on spending more time with at some point in the future.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (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.
Baldur's Gate 3 (Larian Studios)
Baldur's Gate 3 was a game made specifically for me. Thank you very much for that, Larian Studios.
The followup to BioWare's decades-dormant Baldur's Gate series, Baldur's Gate 3 likewise brings lore, locations, magic, and mechanics from the expansive world of Dungeons & Dragons into the video game realm. Even in early access and with only its first arc out, it's a game that captures much of the magic of an actual D&D session without the need for flipping through tomes of rule books or scheduling a weekly four hour block of time that somehow consistently works for five friends.
Skill checks and attacks are powered by digital dice rolls, infusing gameplay with a healthy amount of dice-driven misfortune along the way. Decisions and conversation found throughout the game offer plenty of opportunities interact to shape the world according to you character's whims and personality, and there are different ways to approach situations based on the skills and knowledge your character or party has at its disposal.
The way Larian executed all of this may be rough around the edges at times (its early access!), but even so it presents a game built on the mechanics of a tabletop game that manages to appeal to both experienced players and those new to the D&D experience. (I was fortunate enough to chat with one of the game's developers about that process earlier in the year!)
And I haven't even touched on multiplayer and how amazing it can be to create characters with a handful of friends and try to meander our way through the game as our own party chaotic dumb tieflings, halflings, and elves. It's an incredible game, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of early access leads it.
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.
Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
This one's not technically a video game and it didn't technically come out this year but my list, my rules. I started getting pretty deep into D&D last year after having played a only few times since college before that. I'm incredibly lucky that I've had the opportunity to join a handful of groups all filled with wonderful people last year, and that those groups have continued meeting (mostly online now) in 2020. That lifeline and connection to so many friends has been an important piece of my life this year and allowed my frustratingly introverted self to keep in touch with friends despite being mostly confined to the apartment this year.
On the less sappy side of things, I've really enjoyed getting to know the rules, complexities, and weird situations that come with a tabletop game like D&D. The storytelling that comes from it is the sort of experience I always wanted more of when playing similarly non-linear games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect way back when, and the collaborative nature of the game means that those twists and turns have a wonderful unpredictability, that victories feel like heroic moments shared among friends, and that losses carry surprising emotional heft.
Beyond the pages of WOTC-published books, there's a robust community of creators, writers, and designers creating their own adventures, items, supplements, content, lore, and much more to improve and build on the framework of 5e itself. Plenty of actual play shows have sprung up over the years as well (Critical Role! Rivals of Waterdeep! Fantasy High! So many more!) where you can enjoy some of those same emotional highs from the comfort of a podcast or Twitch stream, or even find a community of fellow fans built around that wonderful collaborative storytelling.
Spelunky 2 (Mossmouth)
While we're talking comfort games, have you heard of a little game called Spleunky? It's not a comfort game in the same way that Animal Crossing is; Animal Crossing would never betray me like most of my Spelunky runs do.
Spelunky 2, like its equally brutal predecessors, creates a feeling of comfort by offering up a compelling roguelike loop that's constantly feeding you more information through horrible, horrible deaths. The goal here is to descend through a series of procedurally generated levels to claim treasure and escape a cycle of death and revival, nearly the same as how it was in Spelunky 1. You learn lessons about mechanics, obstacles, and enemies as you die from them along the way, and eventually start to feel like you almost know what you're doing.
I wasn't sold on Spelunky even needing a sequel until the moment I first played Spelunky 2. What's interesting about Spelunky 2 is that it manages to take the formula behind the original, a game that seems it's already perfect in its own right, and build upon that using new mechanics, worlds, and structural changes that seem like a natural progression of the original. It wouldn't have been enough just to make another Spelunky; the sequel needed to keep the charm, neatness, and challenge of the original while still finding a way to stand out from earlier games and excel in its own right without adding too much, and somehow Spelunky 2 pulled this off.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York, Shadows of New York (Draw Distance)
I'm a sucker for moody vampire fiction. Though the Bloodlines sequel won't see the light of day until 2021, this year still had a healthy infusion of Vampire: The Masquerade content to keep me in good spirits. Both Vampire: The Masquerade - Coteries of New York and Vampire: The Masquerade - Shadows of New York are visual novels created by Draw Distance, and a great introduction to the world and lore of the series. I think I beat both in one sitting each, purely because I couldn't put them down once I'd started playing.
There're differences mechanically between the two; Coteries lets you step into the role of one of three protagonists while Shadows revolves around one character. Both, however, set you lose on the streets of New York to make decisions about which allies you join forces with and how you cope with your newly found undeath. Each builds an eerily comforting atmosphere through music and stylistically animated scenes, and shares an enthralling story powered by the history and politics of The World of Darkness' vampire societies.
Honorable Mention - Games I started and will eventually go back to
Desperados III (Mimimi Games) - It's a great mix of the two best genres--stealth and western--with a wonderful combat system that I unfortunately haven't had the mental bandwidth to fully explore quite yet.
Dragon Age Inquisition (BioWare) - I swear to god I will beat this game before the next Dragon Age comes out, no matter how many attempts it takes me. Last month was my third attempt. Every time I start I just want to go back and replay Origins and DAII.
Moon (Love-de-Lic)- Moon was introduced to me as one of the inspirations behind Undertale, and that definitely shines through. I'm still pretty early in the game and the PS1 nature of it was certainly a readjustment, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the anti-RPG-ness of it plays out down the line.
Persona 5 Royal (Atlus) - I decided not to finish Persona 5 and just restart on Royal after falling off of the game originally. I still plan to do that, I hear Royal is great, but boy long video games are a big ask right now.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore (Atlus)- TMS#FE is the sole reason I stubbornly kept our Wii U around, and I was thrilled it made the jump to the Switch. It's such a bright game and the way skills combo together is seriously addicting, but long video games are a big ask right now.