This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2020.
I played an absurd number of video games this year. Let’s blame it on quarantine. Here are my favorites:
A SHORT HIKE
A Short Hike lives up to its name, but a game doesn’t have to be a marathon to make the best-of list. This is one of the shortest and simplest games I played this year, but it’s also one of the most pleasantly surprising; the amount of beauty that can radiate from such a graphically-simplistic game, the amount of depth from a story so short, and the amount of value in an experience so brief all make A Short Hike a resolutely worthwhile experience, or, at the very least, a very charming palate cleanser.
ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
The undisputed king of the early pandemic, it was Tom Nook and his island cronies who first convinced us that staying inside for a
month few months year, at least wouldn’t be so bad. We promptly gave up on those plans in lieu of specialized super-spreading, but the month or so where we all agreed to enjoy the mindless grinds and cute aesthetics of our parallel island getaways set the tone for a springtime spent inside.
In the months that have followed, I’ve fallen off Animal Crossing, as I suspect most of us have, but my more infrequent returns to my island of Elysium reward me with feelings of worry-free familiarity, like meeting up with an old friend and feeling like you’d never separated. To be fair, it helps that my girlfriend’s visits to the island keep it flushed with an endless stream of new content.
Even if Animal Crossing’s command over the zeitgeist was limited, it earns a place of honor on this list and in the annals of 2020 as the game that led us into the pandemic reassured that things might not be so bad. Thanks, Tom & Isabelle.
Spiritfarer is a game about death that made me sad. You control Stella, the game’s titular spiritfarer, a person charged (by death himself) with the ferrying of deceased spirits from one world to the next. Over the course of the game, it’s your job to feed them, talk to them, complete tasks for them, and ultimately become attached to these anthropomorphic animals. Then, when all’s said and done, they leave.
I’m accustomed to games like Stardew Valley, where my relationship-building is rewarded with eternal friendship. At the very least, with Spiritfarer, I expected something more akin to Animal Crossing, where my friends and neighbors only leave when I give them permission, and they’re very happy to stay and be my friends forever if I don’t. Spiritfarer is different. All of these relationships are ephemeral by design. The game is about accepting death and loss. It wouldn’t make sense if everyone stuck around. I told myself that the game would best be played by a simple rule: accept that these characters are temporary, and don’t become attached to any of them. Easy. I broke the rule immediately.
Spiritfarer, for all the sadness, was a very fun game. I reviewed it here.
THE WITCHER 3
The Witcher 3 might be the game that stole the most of my time this year. I willingly gave it up, sure, but calling it “stolen” makes me feel better about the ungodly number of hours I poured into this title over the summer. This is one I’ve reviewed more in depth elsewhere; go ahead and check that out if you’d like.
The Witcher 3 is a masterpiece of a video game that should be a must-play for any fans of RPGs, open world games, or long, narrative experiences. I never entirely exhausted my supply of awe at the absolute size and scale of the world the CD Projekt Red team built here. More than once, I was entirely convinced I’d reached the game’s thrilling end, only to find I still had hours to go, side quests aside. That so few players got through all of the content apparently convinced the studio to opt for a shorter story for their latest underground indie title, Cyberpunk 2077.
The Witcher 3 is the sort of absolutely-gripping escapist content that is, in any other year, valuable, but necessary in 2020. The value of that escapism, of course, is variable – the world of The Witcher is one unafraid to indulge in exploration of themes like racism, discrimination, politics, and the horrors of war. On top of that, the often grimdark backdrop of the game provides enough grotesque monsters and insidious villains to ward off any association with fairy tale fantasy. That said, at its best, the game is surprisingly beautiful.
The Witcher 3 is a masterpiece that stole a month from me. If you’re not careful, it’s liable to strike again.
Timing might be the only thing separating Hades from earning the top honor on this list. Supergiant’s latest title has been in early access since 2019, but I didn’t pick it up until earlier this month.
What a fucking month, though. I’m gonna stop myself from writing too much here, as this is a game that definitely deserves a full review. What I will say, is that after years of playing rogue-like and rogue-lite games like Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy, Supergiant seems to have about as close to perfecting the genre as I’ve ever seen. The game is the most engrossing, the most artistically solid, and the most complete of any rogue-likte I’ve played. Each run feels rewarding and full, the game has a story that evolves each session, and the mechanics that it relies on mesh with it.
Give me another couple of weeks with Hades and I’m not sure you’ll hear me stop singing its praises.
SERVICE OF THE YEAR: GAME PASS
Before I write anything about this one, I have to confess that this made-up honor was easy to award, given that there aren’t really any other contenders to the crown. Playstation Plus is limited in scope, Xbox Live seems more and more outdated each year, and Nintendo’s online services haven’t made much of an argument for their necessity outside our own willingness to pay a one-time $20 fee to visit our friends’ islands in Animal Crossing.
Game Pass is the easy victor in its category, but its existence makes me equally anxious and excited. On one hand, the value presented by Xbox’s flagship program of the current generation is impressive. The number of high-profile games falling into its catalogue is substantial, and the guarantee of every game from Xbox’s first-party developers (including the recently-acquired Bethesda of Skyrim and Fallout fame) is insane. The service is most comparable to Netflix, which is, to me, what makes it terrifying. At one point, Netflix commanded the same feeling of entertainment grandeur, before increasing competition in recent years threatened to bring the cord-cutters back from their cost-saving holes by splitting the content stream again across increasingly-niche markets. I’m a believer in competition, but fifty subscription services later and the pain sets in.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame Xbox for my detached pessimistic doom spiral. Operating from a healthier, grounded-in-the-now perspective, Game Pass is a tremendous deal for fans of gaming, but some of its real utility can be found by people like me whose title overlap with their friends is increasingly limited. A service like game pass shortens the “which game do we all own?” process considerably, assuming everyone’s willing to shell the required $10-to-$15 for a subscription.
Game Pass is responsible for introducing me to a variety of games I would have never otherwise played. Some aren’t great – now I know. Others, like Spiritfarer made this list. Game Pass regularly offers discounted trial periods that include access to all of the games in its expansive catalogue. This year, the Ultimate ($15) version added game streaming to console, PC, and mobile, and the next couple of months will see the completed Xbox-and-PC rollout of EA Play access. I think it’s an insane deal.
RAISIN D’OR: HALO: THE MASTER CHIEF COLLECTION
Halo 3 is the game that drew me into gaming as a hobby. I’d played games before then, but it wasn’t until my group of neighborhood friends brought me into the fold of their Halo fandom on the day of the third installment’s launch that I could really say that playing games was something I really did. Playing Halo with that group of friends led to me buying the game (and an Xbox) for myself, which necessarily led to my enrollment in Xbox Live, which accelerated my downward spiral into using video games as middle school escapism. It’s all in good health, I promise.
My experience with the series before it is limited, but Halo 3 will always be one of my favorite episodes in gaming. I remember countless post-middle school afternoons, late summer nights, and neighborhood proto-LAN parties built around slayer, capture the flag, and infection. I remember the first time I finished the fight with Master Chief and the Arbiter, and then the next hundred times I did it, each with a different array of friends. I remember artfully crafting game spaces in Forge and organizing weekly events to test them out. I remember the friends I made on Last Resort, Valhalla, and Sandtrap.
If Halo: The Master Chief Collection did nothing more than let me relive all of these experiences, it’d be a contender for my favorite game of the year. But the MCC goes above and beyond, allowing me to relive the first six entries to the Halo series under one umbrella, each reconfigured to feel comfortable on the PC, and each accessible through Xbox Game Pass, the recipient of the prestigious service of the year award y’all just watched me make up.
I’ve been able to enjoy Halo: Combat Evolved despite its rough edges, and I gained a new appreciation for the series with my single and multiplayer playthroughs of Halo 2. Against my own expectations, the most fun I’ve had with the Master Chief Collection may have been spent in Halo: Reach, a game that first launched when I was in that weird, early high school phase of having mostly moved to PC gaming and had enough on my plate that Bungie’s final entry in their flagship series went pretty heavily underappreciated by me. It’s a damn good game. In recent months, I’ve even jumped back in to play through Halo 4.
When the Master Chief Collection first launched on Xbox One in 2015, I figured it might be the title that pushed me to buy the new console. A torrent of reviews decrying its lousy, slapped-together quality and deeply-flawed multiplayer code convinced me otherwise. From what I can tell, the folks who rallied against the game did so with good reason. But now, five years later, the product 343 has delivered to their newfound PC audience is a remarkably-rebuilt collection of gaming classics, a set of games that are as fun to revisit as they were to explore initially.
- Among Us
- Portal 2