I'll spare you the '2020 was such a mess' bit here and just say that I am so glad that these games came out this year.
The ones that resonated with me the most were games that connected me with other people, that encouraged persistence in the face of hell itself, and intimate stories that would be lessened if told in any other format other than video games. I was drawn to joyful games that generously doled out doses of comfort. Here are a few great games I played in 2020.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo EPD, Nintendo)
I've played Animal Crossing games in the past, but they never clicked with me like they did with so many other people. Animal Crossing: New Horizons changed that. When lockdowns were just beginning, opening my gates or visiting the islands of my Twitter friends gave me a a feeling of connectedness and presence that no other video game provided this year.
Every aspect of New Horizons is designed to exude joy, whether it's your villager's puns about fish, or the music that I'd turn the game on just to listen to. New Horizons turns simple actions into memorable interactions. Friends would come over soon after the game launched, and exchange some bells or fruit as they farmed resources from your own island and when that was first happening, it conveyed a kindess as real as any analog interaction. When a friend invited me over to see their aquarium before I had built mine, we took selfies and just sat together and watched fish swim.
There are a lot of simple memories like this that I and so many other people experienced in New Horizons, and how fortuitous that this game came out when it did.
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.
If Found... (DREAMFEEL, Annapurna Interactive)
If Found... is an intimate coming of age story about a young trans woman named Kasio who's trying to find her place in the world, who's searching for a basic acceptance from friends and family; the kind of acceptance that many of us take for granted. As you take a journey through her diary--which you interact with by swooping an eraser across pages, making memories disappear--you learn about the ups and downs she experiences with the people she cares most about.
If Found...'s story about growing up queer in 1990s rural Ireland has a gentleness that makes it easy to empathize with Kasio. You're angered on her behalf when she is wronged, sad when she's lost and alone, happy when she finds joy.
The writing is absolutely brilliant and the player feels as if they were invited to peruse someone's life and thoughts, all without feeling voyeuristic. The hand drawn art is a perfect complement to the game's emotive writing and the music absolutely ties it all together (and can and should be listened to even when not playing the game). If Found... is soulful, energetic, and contemplative. It's optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, and you should play it.
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 that 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." Confusion about face masks, navigating mass toilet paper shortages, and the tendency to disinfect absolutely everything.
We've got 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 the classic word game Quiplash 3, Party Pack 7 is the best collection yet. It's something we look forward to playing with friends and family when we're not confined to our little Zoom phantom zones.
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 the problematic issues that continue in the series regards to 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. 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 bodyslams in enemy encounters. When all the pieces of Like a Dragon are combined, the game is like Ichiban: a little fucked up, but ultimately memorable and so easy to root for.
Control (Remedy Entertainment, 505 Games)
Yeah, I know. Control originally came out last year and Gamasutra editors as a group even got the game on our top 10 overall list in 2019. But this is my 2020 personal list and I make the rules here (and hey, it came out in streaming form on Amazon Luna and Nintendo Switch this year!). Also: in 2020, time has lost all meaning anyway.
Control is an impressive feat in terms of level design, world-building and storytelling, taking foundational ideas and genre tropes from games and fiction to make a video game that's unusually unique. The weird world of Control is so fleshed out, it's something you'd like to see made into not just a game sequel, but a TV series or movie--there are infinite amounts of stories to be told here.
Control is the culmination of all of Remedy's past work and it's so good to see a triple-A level game with vision--a game that not only takes risks but executes on the vision successfully. (This is a lot of words when I could've just said "Ashtray Maze.")