A lot of people point to the 2016 US presidential election as the moment when they were “radicalized,” the moment when they realized that the systems in place were fundamentally flawed and action needed to be taken against them. I definitely wasn’t unaffected. I was a couple years out from graduating college and the election proved I needed to start learning way more. It wasn’t until the literal wheels came off this year that everything coalesced. Video games were primed to be the perfect quarantine activity and served as my favorite hobby by far this year. The video games I played this year seemingly reflected 2020. They revolved around misuses of power, systems made to oppress and the hollow pursuit of justice in a broken world. It was a weird meld to suddenly see my own worldview reflected in the games I picked up. Part of that could be attributed to my new interest. The other could also be that I was finally paying attention.
My top 10 2020 games (plus 2 more Final Fantasy’s for good measure) held together a tumultuous year and expanded my brain in the process. The year in the industry was fucking broken in too many ways to count, a continued surfacing of industry wide problems with work, abuse, racism and government defense marketing. But these were bright spots amidst all that uncertainty. I’ve grown so much in playing and writing about many of these and can’t wait to continue doing so. I’m feeling sappy which to me feels like a coping mechanism for an upcoming year that will feel much the same. I’m taking solace in the fact that games haven’t lost their luster and how much joy they bring me:
Final Fantasy Corner
My favorite game of All Time?: Final Fantasy X
This game means so much to me and I am so glad it 100% holds up. Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for me and games as I realized that the medium could facilitate exciting stories. I’ve found it hard to beat this one, a ragtag crew fighting institutional oppression and reckoning with what it means to make large scale change. It has a great turn based system prioritizing using all of your party members to exploit enemies weaknesses. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors finding which character would effectively beat the enemy. I think a lot of people decry it’s old school approach to random battles, but the battle system works so smoothly that it never feels overbearing. I was immensely surprised by my change in mindset around Tidus and Wakka, two fan hated characters. I found Tidus’ mannerisms much more consistent in my play through this year. He was a star athlete back in Zanarkand so he knows how to effortlessly engage with people and that’s through relentless positivity. It also masks his deep trauma and emotional abuse from his father Jed which becomes pivotal to the climax of the plot. The game smartly ties the player’s victory with Tidus’ emotional growth. I see why people were annoyed with Wakka; he’s essentially the skeptic and devils advocate. In this case that role is flipped on its head as Wakka reckons with his history as a devout follower with the actions of the party that directly oppose that. I found his arc of squaring his spirituality and trauma with the reality of the world and the lies he’s been fed extremely compelling.
Final Fantasy X also holds a special place in my memory as it was the first time I’d played through a game exclusively with a friend. Every day after 7th grade we’d head back to his house to play the game and write new chapters in stories we were working on. There was so much freedom and creativity as we wrote stupid inside jokes into the stories of our comedy adventure novel. I was also being thoroughly wowed by my first JRPG and was so excited to work through it each day. We continued on this ritual eventually playing through Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts. It’s made me a lifelong fan of these series and RPGs. It’s also a time that I refer back to when I’m feeling creatively stifled and shut down. We were making stories for ourselves and having a blast doing it. And that’s my motivation for my hobbies (writing, podcasting) as a whole; do it because it makes you happy. I’m so happy that I was able to rekindle some of that feeling in 2020.
That Old/New MMO: Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn (Patch 5.3)
I feel like I sounded pretty negative in my write up for a game I really enjoyed. I think it’s very easy to point out its shortcomings especially when this base game came out (A Realm Reborn that is) in 2013. The new 5.3 patch served as an improved on-ramp for new players like me, an admittedly Herculean task to help slim down and improve a decidedly large game now. I haven’t reached the point of calling this the “best Final Fantasy” as long time fans point to, but it has been an enjoyable ride through a more story driven MMO. In comparison to WOW, the story is better woven through the quests and includes a lot more cutscenes and indicators for the main path. I like this model more than WOWs even if it did take some of the momentum when there was back to back cutscenes (especially at the end/early patch story content). Raiding with other players was fun also, even if partying with more experienced players made it feel like they were just running me through it rather than strategizing to overcome difficult enemies. I am especially grateful it was all free; I’m still working through the game’s extensive free trial which includes its first expansion. So far, Heavensward has been an improvement over ARR and am excited to continue my Monk’s journey.
The Actual Top 10 2020 Games List
Virtual Island Living: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Just like seemingly everybody, I too embarked to a tropical island with Tom Nook and co. This version brought big changes to the Animal Crossing formula; a larger focus on crafting and shaping your surroundings than just participation in an existing village. I never dove in the same way others on the internet did (and I voiced my frustrations at being player 2) but it was amazing seeing the island creations that players made. I still had a great time at launch, working with Emily (my partner) to gather materials to expand our island and finding new neighbors to invite. One of these days I will spend an extended amount of time back on the island, but I need to get over my immense guilt of letting it sit there for multiple months.
Get me that new Spider-Man! Miles Morales
An upgrade in almost every way to Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man game. The more concise campaign ends up benefiting the entire experience with a more pared down selection of side quests and activities to play through that never wore out their welcome. Not that Peter was a bad character, but highlighting Miles here provided an essential point of view to the Spider-Man mythos. Miles is excited and nerdy just like young Peter is but with a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It helps that his group of close relationships are all fantastic and I would say one of my only gripes with the game is that we didn’t spend more time with them. Insomniac would be smart to make Miles have at least equal billing going forward with their eventual mainline sequel. Also the Bodega Cat costume is just fantastic.
Rage against the machine: Treachery in Beatdown City
Have you been frustrated with the police and government this year? Did you want to punch nazis? Were you looking for any outlet to vent your rage? Well this is the game for you! A throwback to old school beat em ups with a turn based skill system thrown in then tops it with a healthy rage and skepticism at political systems. Your crew of three fighters (good news, no cis white men here!) works their way to City Hall getting caught up with other people’s petty bullshit or outright hostility toward their existence. It’s really funny too, perfect for a good laugh and the easily accessible screenshot button on the Switch. Tremendous way to channel frustrations in a way that’s aligned with the current hellscape.
Monster in the office: Control: AWE
I love Control. It’s mix of 90’s and X-Files era government skepticism and other worldly events played so well as you navigate through a literal bureaucratic nightmare. I played both expansions this year but had such a blast with AWE (“Alan Wake Expansion” cleverly retconning that game’s events as an in-universe “Altered World Event”). Remedy makes the nods in the base game to Alan Wake literal as this serves as a direct follow up to that game, with the titular character guiding Jesse from the liminal space where he’s trapped. Turns out there’s an entire annex of the “Oldest House” that’s been turned over to the monster form of Emil Hartman. Jesse can’t directly damage him adding a big sense of danger when you get trapped in puzzle rooms with Dr. Hartman, making you dodge between light sources to stay alive. You’ll also find plenty of company memos and documents chronicling the shuttering of the department and tapes adding the Bureau of Control’s on the events of Alan Wake. It’s the Control you know and love with all the dark office humor brought along.
Crushing capitalism & found community: Kentucky Route Zero
I saw this long in production game referred to as the “next great American novel” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description of Kentucky Route Zero’s atmosphere and goals. A surreal portrait of the American south KRZ highlights the literal cost of debt on worker’s bodies and the strength and fragility of community. The game is essentially a journey across the Kentucky landscape, but instead takes you through abstract highways (“the Zero”) and vast underground caves and rivers. You’ll meet a variety of characters and the point of view shifts between them to show how each of them struggle to find a place within the capitalist system. It’s a story both of the moment and eternally poignant, highlighting the crushing pressure of debt on people and communities.
Sysphous has nothing on me: Hades
Dying over and over again has never felt better than Hades. The controls are so goddam tight and as I was pushing myself against the difficult learning curve I never felt that the game was being unfair. I kept beating my head against the wall and made incremental progress with each run. Once I finally escaped it felt like the bandaid ripped off and it was an incredible feeling to understand all of the intricacies of the game with such detail. Supergiant’s immaculate writing makes even the runs where you make zero progress feel impactful. Talking with mythological figures (Achilles, Nyx, Hypnos and many more Greek legends) felt like checking in with friends. As you play more you become more familiar with them and each character has their own story path to complete. It’s incredible that a run based game has created something that makes you want to keep playing it that isn’t directly tied to empowering your character in combat.
If I could push back time: Star Renegades
Another rogue-lite that feels really good to play but for completely different reasons. This run based RPG places you in a Terminator-like future where you bounce between planets to fight back the evil machine aliens. Each map consists of 3 days and each days consists of picking 3 places to explore. The turn based battle system is unique as it makes time a literal factor. The enemies actions are placed on a linear timeline at the start of each turn and your job is to strategize how to push their actions back and completely off the timeline using your characters’ individual moves. Once you’ve successfully pushed them off the timeline you’ll “break” the enemy (accompanied by a big sound effect and lettering) and they’ll be open to even more damage. The further you go the more complicated the fights become and it feels so good to string together a big combo with your characters. The runs themselves can be a little long but that didn’t stop me from sinking tons of hours into this overlooked gem.
Take a picture, the end will last longer: Umurangi Generation
The pitch for this game is simple; take a series of photos that fulfills a checklist of requirements on a discrete level. Some of these requests are pictures of graffiti, people, or random objects scattered throughout the level. There’s a timer to find them but it’s not important unless you want to complete the bonus objectives (gates access to new items). The biggest challenge then is finding your photo subjects and finding the best angle or lens in which to take the picture. Once you complete the checklist, a new level unlocks and you move on.
This game is so much more than that. Umurangi (meaning “red sky” in Maori) uses environmental storytelling to show a world on the brink of collapse. The first relatively normal level, taking place on a building rooftop, suggests somethings up as there are little blue jellyfish scattered around (that you are penalized for taking photos of too). Eventually you find yourself in the middle of a war zone, dilapidated cities, and underground shopping centers that show how the world is succumbing to Kaiju attacks. This isn’t escapist sci-fi; you’ll see images of UN troops and their failure at addressing the conflict and memorials to the fallen. It’s really amazing how many world details you can glimpse through movies posters, newscasts and graffiti placed throughout the closed off levels. The Macro DLC (a must play) coalesces the main games ideas into a more aggressive tone. You’ll visit an arcade/club where the rich go to escape, an underground collective, and eventually a protest against the occupying UN forces. That last level is so evocative after the last year of BLM protests showing medical stations and collective action at work (you’re even penalized for taking photos of protestors). When it eventually goes wrong, it’s haunting and the way the final moments change the camera removes any passivity between lens and player that might have existed. It’s truly a game of this moment.
The soundtrack is just perfect. It traffics in lots of golden era house, jungle, electro and all kinds of dance music goodies. It matches the vibe of the game (Dreamcast era specifically) with a perfect specificity. It also just happens to cover my favorite genres of music ThorHighHeels hit this one out of the park.
Surprising meta fiction: Final Fantasy VII Remake
I thought I knew what this game was, but boy was I wrong. The lead up to this shot several warning flares; the remake would be split into multiple games, first focusing only on Midgar and replaced with real time combat rather than turn based. I didn’t trust that a compelling story could be made out of just the beginning of the game and I’ve been burned by Square combat (hello FFXV). Not only did they completely nail those last two parts but they effectively built out the world and added a meta layer over the whole game. Remake becomes a commentary on remaking games and devolves into KH levels of abstraction where you literally fight alternate timelines made manifest. That last part has proven divisive, but the final fights and ending effectively adds another mystery layer on the future of these remakes. It feels like they’ve blown off the doors of the story and I honestly have no idea what to expect for the future installments.
That wasn’t even my favorite part with real time combat that actually makes good use of pausing to input commands. Square has been trying to do this since 2001 (!!!) and never has it felt this good. Even on normal difficulty the game is punishing and requires you to switch between all the members of your party to take down enemies. The long fights never feel sluggish and winning fights is incredibly rewarding. The expanded scope of Midgar is more uneven with boring puzzle and side quest design. The character moments are a huge high point especially the extended role of Jesse. Formerly relegated to minor Avalanche member, here she gets an entire story arc and her grounded nature and flirtations with Cloud are charming. I guess my only detraction is they never added a “Part 1” or any sort of signifier to this game? If there was backlash to the misleading title it seems to have gotten drowned out. This is probably the game I thought about the most this year and it would’ve been my GOTY if not for:
I love mysteries and detective fiction and when games can pull that off it’s an absolute delight. I initially thought this game was more along the lines of a visual novel (something closer to Phoenix Wright) but was blown away when I picked up the real thing. Here is a detective game where you actually do the fucking work, exploring an open world looking for clues to solve your mystery. You’ll uncover more mysteries the more digging you do and it’s up to you when you want to bring your evidence back to the judge for the inevitable trial. All of the characters are pitch perfect for a murder mystery meaning there’s some sort of dirt on everyone on the island (even Crimson Acid but she’s more mask off than everyone else on the island so there’s less evil machinations going on and more “I’m going to get mine” vibes). I loved interacting with the characters and nothing was more exciting than suddenly hitting on a nerve that completely changed the tone of a conversation. I was a real goddam detective figuring out who murdered the syndicate.
Did I mention that this all takes place in an artificial world? That’s built to resurrect alien gods that gave people power? And that this is the 24th time they’ve tried to create the ideal “paradise?” And that you and the other cast of characters are all immortal? The setting and character names are all outlandish (in the best way possible) which makes exploring every nook and cranny of the island exciting. Finding out details of the lives of regular people, the background architecture and logistics of Paradise and the conflicting ideologies of its rulers all prop up the games excellent exploration of power. That the system is rotten doesn’t come as a shock but exploring how certain people benefit from it was always intriguing. Which leads to Paradise Killer’s amazing end trial, less of a send off checklist of solving the murder and getting the “true” ending. Instead you’re tasked with doling out “justice;” you hold the power to condemn people. One person may not have been directly involved but do their actions still warrant a guilty verdict? Does someone’s intention matter? Do any of them deserve to go free for their compliance with the world’s events or is this entire trial a sham? The open ended nature of the trial means that you decide what actually matters, whether that’s handing out guilty verdicts or letting people go free. It was a refreshing end to a genre that’s usually closed off with the inevitable reveal of the murderer. I absolutely loved my time with Paradise Killer.