• Neal Sweeney

Games That I Cared About/Played in 2020

2020 is over, and to eschew any “unprecedented times” talk that’s been repeated by corporations and government officials ad nauseum, I’m just gonna talk about video games that meant something to me this year. These are ordered by their date of release and not qualitatively, and just because a game is here doesn’t mean I absolutely love it; it just means I spent time with it, or it had some form of impact on me.


Videya Gaymes of 2020:


January 28th Kentucky Route Zero

Thinking back to KR0 feels like forever ago not just because of how long-ago January was, but because of how long ago 2013 was. But, seven years later, act V of Kentucky Route Zero released, and the modern-day American folklore saga was completed. I played every act sequentially at the start of the year, and despite the slow start it manages to speed along into a triumphant gallop by its conclusion, telling a story about the tragedy of small-town life in an urbanized world. This is not a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game where dialogue options affect the outcome, but instead offers you flavor text options to select, allowing you to choose the ones you think taste best and offering the feeling that you too were helping tell the story. On top of its writing the score is excellent (particularly Too Late to Love You), and its 2D dioramas are beautifully designed.


February 14th Dreams

I am in love with the idea and concept of Dreams, but one thing holds me back from really engaging with it: The DualShock 4. The evolution of Little Big Planet’s creator tools is incredible in scope and design, but I simply feel limited by having to interface with it through a gamepad. Sculpting and designing feels impossible with gyro controls, and I can’t help but wonder what the game would be like if I could plug my keyboard and mouse into my PlayStation. Despite that, writing this makes me want to boot it up again and see what sorts of crazy animations and silly games people have devised since I turned it on last.


PAX East Feb 27 - Mar 1

Seasons

This is a small addendum and reminder to myself that I actually visited PAX East this year, just before the shit hit the metaphorical fan. Exhibitors were noticeably absent, but I did get to play a small demo I was reminded of at The Game Awards for a game called Seasons. It is a game about observing the world that is and was from atop a bicycle, doodling in your notebook, and meeting the occasional stranger. I did not play much in my time there but having a developer hand me a clipboard in earnest and ask for my feedback told me that the team behind this gem are truly doing their best to craft the best experience they can.


March 20th DOOM Eternal

Despite some odd rough spots around the edges, I still greatly enjoyed my adrenaline-ridden time with DOOM this year. I wasn’t too fond of how hard it leaned into campiness or the length of the last sequences, but the incredible speed and movement tools introduced were a perfect parallel to the quick-thinking and aim mechanics present in DOOM 2016. In hindsight it seems obvious that a game with great expectations would fail to surprise as a game with very negative expectations, and perhaps re-capturing the energy of DOOM 2016 was simply impossible. Still, Eternal could’ve done with less narrative sequences and less fucking Marauders.


March 20th Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I’ve written about Animal Crossing and how I feel like it’s a menial and misguided timesuck buried the appearance of a simple toy set, but I’m mentioning this here because despite how I feel I did spend a lot of time playing it. It was something nice to devote time to as said time seemed to be drenched in chaos, but I am left wondering how this game would have fared without opportunistic timing. Still, it was fun to have something that people engaged with en-masse, including people I don’t normally associate as ‘gamers’ or who simply fly outside of my circles. I just hope that at some point Nintendo learns how to make video games that take advantage of the internet, and maybe decides that the fun in Animal Crossing doesn’t always have to be tied to the in-game economy.


March 31st Persona 5 Royal

I’d played Persona 5 twice upon original release, but despite that got a good among of enjoyment replaying it one more time with little sprinkles of new content through confidants and updated dungeons. I think the late-game reveals with the new characters do a decent enough job of justifying the need to play through all of Persona 5 to get to them, but on the same hand part of me also wonders why these things can’t be released as DLC for the game I already own and not charge me another $60 to acquire. On top of that I think this does reinforce Persona as a multiple-choice quiz and not so much an RPG, as there is clearly a correct decision to be made and not selecting it denies you from playing the new dungeon. Still, I think Royal adds in a neat Twilight Zone-esque side story onto the back end of Persona 5 and adds in some killer new music.


May 19th Umurangi Generation

To be truthful I actually didn’t get around to Umurangi Generation until December, but it is still a game I greatly enjoyed. It’s weird to think that photography would be compelling in something that looks like a PS1 game, but it actually is and taking random photos and tweaking filters is just a nice exercise, on top of exploring a near-future environmental apocalypse and how young people try to continue living despite it. The soundtrack is excellent lo-fi beats to take photos to, and I only wish I would’ve had more freedom and larger spaces to roam around in and observe as I saw fit, rather than being stuck with pre-assigned missions and a ten-minute time limit per level.


May 19th Boreal Tenebrae

Strangely enough, I happened to enjoy two different PS1 style games that released on May 19th, 2020. Boreal Tenebrae was a gem I plucked out of the 1,741 games in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, and is a adventure game set in a struggling small lumber town amongst the shuttering of its mill and a mysterious static overtaking everything. It is definitely not a linear game and wasn’t one I got around to finishing, but I still enjoyed getting to see events through separate perspectives, solve simple puzzles, and uncover this bizarre static-fueled story. Perhaps I’ll pick it up on Steam and start over again at some point.


June 2nd Valorant

Valorant was a game that launched amongst a perfect storm of troubles within Overwatch and CS:GO, as Riot seemingly aims to overtake Blizzard in being a live-game focused home for PC players, and as a game that is very brand safe without the terrorists or bombs of CS. It has gotten new maps, updates, and characters, but honestly it mostly came and went for me. I played it some, found it enjoyable, but also noted that it didn’t really offer the casual experience I enjoyed in CS, and was often annoyed if my preferred character wasn’t available. Still, it appears to be thriving in the background, and I regularly feel I’m hearing news of professional players from Overwatch and CS:GO migrating to Valorant in the hopes that Riot is able to maintain a more-stable ecosystem.


June 19th The Last of Us Part II

I could write for pages about this game and the myriad of reasons I both like and dislike it, so I’ll try to be succinct here. TLOU II is a game that tries a lot of things that games of this scale* really haven’t in the past. It ||kills a main character and deliberately lied about it before release, doctoring footage to show them in places where they were not||, had a trans character prominently featured, and even had a sex scene. It does these things to varying levels of success, but for some of them it at least put a mark on the board where other AAA games could aim to follow up. That being said it ruined the beautiful ambiguity of part one’s ending, was an incredibly lengthy game that didn’t dictate good points for the player to pause and take breaks and worked a lot of people to the bone in order to be released. Still, it is an incredible production with wonderful set pieces both big and small and is a game that I’ve thought about more than any this year.


Mid-year live game break:

LEAGUE OF LEGENDS

Oh boy. For better or worse League has eaten away the glut of time afforded to me by Unprecedented Times™ and has honestly made me like some other games less. The constant decision making, action, and strategy make it the best argument I’ve ever seen for games as an addiction, and it’s made me analyze a lot of my other playtime to see if I get the gameplay satisfaction from it as I do with League. It can be a frustrating experience as if you don’t win it’s not very enjoyable, and victory is always reliant on how well your teammates do or don’t play with you. But with over 150 champions who can sometimes be flexed across multiple roles and hundreds of thousands of permutations of each one with different runes and items, the game is infinitely deep. Were that not enough, League has its own culture as well with Twitch streamers, a deep and expansive universe, real world musical groups made up of in-game characters, and several other companion games coming to join it, including an MMO. It is a veritable rabbit hole, and should your name be Alice, you best not get too curious and fall in.


Overwatch?

I played a little bit of this and found it to be a bit more enjoyable (and easier) as players have migrated away from it and new content has come rushing in to keep me out of date on it. The things I know about playing the game still ring true, and after randomly playing 5 ranked games I can place in Diamond as a Tank, which is neat. But I have no clue what is coming with Overwatch 2, and if it will matter or not with how far the game and its competitive scene tanked on the backs of Brigitte introducing GOATS and now mandatory 2-2-2. On top of that the game’s esports scene appears to be largely in shambles as entire rosters are destroyed and players rapidly retire, meaning that it has failed to build any long-lasting legacies or strong team brands.


PUBG

I’ve played some of this recently, and it’s alright. The game has seemingly abandoned realism and instead focuses on adding gameplay mechanics and unique elements to the various maps, such as the loot truck that spawns on Sanhok, Karakin’s building-destroying black zones and blue zone-denying jammer packs, and Paramo’s randomly placed locations. But it is littered with highly skilled players who have hit max survival ratings and a woeful inability to select the map you wish to play on that can lead to a frustrating experience at times.


Among us

I’m not actually putting this here because I particularly liked playing this game, it’s simply another variation on a large list of secret identity games, but I can’t get over how this game became so popular that members of the United States Congress played it live on Twitch. I’m both equally excited and afraid for what that development would mean for games, streaming, and the U.S. government, but I’m fascinated that a game made by a team of four people over two years ago suddenly exploded and has now potentially opened Pandora’s box.

July 1st Trackmania (2020)

Trackmania 2020 is a bizarre product that appears to be reaching for the professional racing scenes of iRacing and other car-based esports with its free price and seasonal maps but offered a baffling subscription model to access seemingly core features like the server browser and was not listed on Steam. This might’ve been one of the reasons it came and went very quickly for me, but I still greatly enjoyed my time bumbling around in a casual server and listening to Cher’s Believe on repeated for extended period of time. To be frank, I don’t quite understand the future path for Trackmania, as it and the Trials series both seem to be awkwardly plodding along under Ubisoft’s publishing arm. Perhaps it might rotate back around to the all-encompassing gameplay experience of Turbo and reintroduce the server browser that PC weirdos enjoy, or maybe it will fall further into Ubisoft’s milquetoast efforts at creating a popular live game and sit alongside Hyperscape. To Trackmania 2020’s credit though it did give me the strongest emotional reaction of any game this year, when I heard this gem played on the Giant Bomb Unofficial Classic server. https://youtu.be/wo-j4-ES6GE


July 17th Ghost of Tsushima

As many have said, Ghost of Tsushima is the best Xbox 360 game released in 2020. Beautiful vistas and a clear admiration of Japanese culture under-pin an experience that is largely about running from one icon on a map to another like dozens of open-world grocery lists that came before it. But I found this game to be a mindless-but-enjoyable reprieve and went as far as to earn its platinum trophy, so clearly it resonated with me. I enjoyed the soap opera-esque story it told and feel it ended wonderfully, but I was also willing to buy into its campy elements and accept that the game was being intentionally theatric. The gameplay is nothing innovative but entirely serviceable, Tsushima’s music is wonderful, and the game’s art direction is gorgeous from both technical and artistic standpoints.


August 4th Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

It feels weird to see people in some circles suddenly knocking against Fall Guys or spouting ‘Dead Game’ dismissively at anything it does, because there was such a fervor for this when it released. The game did have obvious shortcomings though, in that it offered no randomization for individual levels so in a handful of runs you would have seen everything it had to offer, and the game had little-to-no mechanical depth. Still, it was nice to see a more approachable format to the ‘Battle Royale’ concept and to see a game that doesn’t have violence as an integral mechanic. Hopefully with more time Fall Guys can continue to iterate on what it has and reinvigorate players, because it very clearly has people interested in it.


August 18th Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer is a cozy management sim about managing cooldowns so you can make your friends happy and allow them to die in peace. No, really, that’s the game. Its characters are largely wonderful so seeing them go has significant weight, but their passing is a perfect capstone and feels as hopeful as it is sad. I found myself eagerly upgrading my boat, hunting for materials, and placating my passengers’ needs for various food with actual excitement, despite how mundane most of the tasks actually are. However it will have those frustrating moments as you feverishly hope the next destination will finally grant you that next step up the tech tree, but there isn’t really any sort of difficulty here, just a boat perpetually sailing towards an inevitable destination.


September 17th Hades

Hades is the result of a decade of the Supergiant team’s hard work, immense skill, and deep knowledge of what makes games good. It is hardly a reinvention of any wheel, but it intimately understands how to create compelling characters, how to incorporate randomization into narrative storytelling, and of course how to deliver fast-paced action in beautiful isometric environments. A multitude of feedback loops and unlocks to chase left me binging the game like mad, to the point that I completed a run on 32 heat and played nearly one hundred hours of it. Not only that, but the game has such a deep attention to detail that after I turned on the stopwatch in the options Hermes commended me for being diligent about my timeliness. The only qualms I might levy with Hades are the obtuse nature of some of its many side objectives and how it feels like some of them are completed seemingly at random, while others have very specific requirements that aren’t always clear. Still, Hades is a game that is well-considered in every aspect of its design, and a reminder that people like video games when every character in them is smoking hot.


November 12th Bugsnax

I don’t understand Bugsnax. They’re kinda bug… but also kinda snack? Also why is everything so cute and adorable but also mildly depressing and disturbing? I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about Bugsnax, but I do know that I feel something. Catching the snax is at times and awkward and clunky experience, but the grumpusus (grumpi??) were actually somewhat compelling characters, even if I watched them mutate before my eyes. For some reason I felt compelled to complete everything Bugsnax had to offer, even though there didn’t really seem to be a tangible reward for doing so. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe the grumpinatti is getting to me, or maybe I was so intrigued by the bizarre smell of this onion with googly eyes on it that I had to peel back every single layer on it just to make sure it didn’t contain the secrets of the universe.


Also, yes the Kero Kero Bonito song is good and I bought it on vinyl, sue me.


December 8th Call of the Sea

Call of the Sea has an incredibly heartfelt story that resonated with me based on compelling and well-performed characters, good art design, and puzzles that were largely satisfying. Also for a first person adventure/narrative game Call is actually fairly lengthy, so certainly worth the money or checking it out if you subscribe to Game Pass.


December 11th Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

I impulse bought this short walk through the park after seeing it on Steam, and I’m glad I did. It’s a short game about playing a young girl and running around an island taking pictures of animals with a phone and offers a wholesome message about how one person can work to impact their local community. There isn’t much to it aside from walking around the island and pressing an interact button on a bunch of structures to repair them or trash to pick it up, but if you like Animal Crossing and want a game that’s less time-sucking then this is for you.


Plus it has the best use of an analogue stick all year.


December 25th Omori

This entry is somewhat tentative on this list, as I haven’t actually finished this game yet, but I’m definitely enjoying it and happy that I contributed to its Kickstarter all those years ago. It’s a beautiful Earthbound-esque RPG that has a pixel art overworld and hand-drawn combat encounters that look like they were done in colored pencils, as well as some other vignettes in this same style. That being said, I can’t help but wonder how the release of Undertale influenced the tone and character, as it very clearly is going for a similarly level of quirk, and in a pre-release demo incorporated a very on the nose ‘Excuse me, Princess!’ that appears to have been removed in the final version. Still, it has wonderfully intricate visuals, distinct characters, excellent music, and a sense of identity unto its own that has allowed it to stand on its own so far. Still, Omori is a game about fear but also coping and illness, and my hope is that it doesn’t aim to be a complete heartbreaker without any deeper meaning or intent. So far though the game has done a wonderful job at sprinkling in bits of charm and character between some terrifying imagery and themes, so I hope it finds a healthy balance at its conclusion.


Early Access Games I will have my eyes on:


Teardown

I’m not too far along in Teardown, but I’ve been enjoying my time with it and hope it branches out in new directions to add different varieties of levels editor.


Cyberpunk 2077 (huehuehue)

I don’t aim to bring my club down on whatever remains of this well-beaten horse, but I found the game to be unplayable in its current state and am waiting until patches or even an expansion is released to make this adventure worthwhile. My only hope for games is that Cyberpunk exists as the quintessential example of just how bad things can go under crunched work environments, and other developers like Naughty Dog might take heed.

Bonus games I played and were really good but definitely didn’t come out this year:


Quadrilateral Cowboy

I love Quadrilateral Cowboy’s silly retro futurism and Vinylmans alongside the pseudo-coding gameplay it offers, and my only wish is that the level-building scene had caught on more than it did. Its short levels are wonderful for trial and error, however as they offer a single solution there isn’t as much replayability here as you might hope; in another reality I would have loved levels of larger scope. But my only real complaint is an insatiable desire to have more of Quadrilateral Cowboy, so perhaps that’s a good thing.


Stephen’s Sausage Roll

Stephen’s Sausage Roll is insanity in a puzzle game, as I spent nearly 40 hours staring at blocky frankfurts and wondering how I could stab, roll, flip, and run over them in order to get a perfect grill. It takes a simple concept to every logical extreme it could devise, to the point that I never want to grill a sausage ever again. That being said, it feels like a game in which I stumble upon answers, and I am uncertain if I could go back and solve every puzzle without banging my head against a few walls.


Sherlock Holmes The Devil’s Daughter

For once, I actually decided to play one of the free games I’d been redeeming on the Epic Games Store, and I’m happy that I did. Crimes & Punishments had challenging puzzles, an actual need for detective work, and complicated decisions that made me want to pick up Devil’s Daughter, which is largely the same with a more profound story layered atop it. The production values aren’t the highest, but this game makes up for it with satisfying gameplay and a bit of b-game charm that make it recommendable (even if I did buy it for 80% off).


Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium is perhaps the most unique game I played all year, and maybe the only game I’ve played where brain functions are correlated to RPG mechanics. The writing is poignant, and the game clearly has a message to convey, which it does without sacrificing its own swagger for even a moment. I definitely plan to replay it in 2021 with The Director’s Cut and will eagerly wait to see what ZA/UM does next, and to see if something can replace ‘Ecstatic Vibrations, Totally Transcendent’ as my alarm clock.

Games I didn’t get to but maybe should have

  • Paper Mario: The Origami King

  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

  • Manifold Garden

  • The Last Campfire

  • Yakuza Like a Dragon

  • Ori & The Will of the Wisps

  • Final Fantasy VII Remake

If you put a gun to my head and demanded an ordered list of ten I would hastily compile this one

  1. Hades

  2. The Last of Us Part II

  3. League of Legends

  4. Omori

  5. Spiritfarer

  6. Kentucky Route Zero

  7. Ghost of Tsushima

  8. Umurangi Generation

  9. Persona 5 The Royal

  10. Doom Eternal

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