2020 was not a great year for massive AAA games. Numerous delays and problems with the largest scale games marred many releases. But Indie Developers, small scale experiments and long running games concluding meant the competition for Game of the Year 2020 is filled with quality.
Reminder: the ten games below are the games that I have played that I enjoyed the most. Many things will be missing, many games I played this year were expanded on from releases outside of 2020.
10. Golf With Your Friends
There’s a lot to be said for small scale multiplayer games on services like Gamepass. Golf With Your Friends is a perfect example of this. It’s minigolf on some wacky courses with modular rules. So far, so minigolf. A reasonable facsimilie to engage with as you play through with a couple friends on voice chat. You know what a golf game looks like. Charge power, hit ball, go round course, get ball in hole.
Then you start messing with the rules. Maybe you need to add mario kart style items to cause chaos. Maybe everyone should be taking swings at the same time. Because chaos is hilarious. And Chaos with friends is even better.
THE CHAOS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES.
Single player chaos this time. There’s a category of in development game I follow because I’ve been sold by a GIF on twitter. Teardown is absolutely from that list.
It’s a puzzle heist game. You need to steal several objects/break several things and as soon as you break the first one, an alarm will call the guards. Don’t escape in time or don’t meet all the objectives, you fail.
What is to be done?
Tear the level down. Break through Voxel walls. Build ramps out of ruined vehicles. Find a perfect route through the level to accomplish objectives without any regard for proper demolition safety or building regulations.
Tightly designed levels and an open ended approach to puzzle solving mean Teardown absolutely deserves to be on the Game of the Year list.
8. Star Wars: Squadrons
Honestly, I put a lot of this in my review. Squadrons aims for a specific womp rat sized target and bullseyes it. Even without VR/HOTAS bells and whistles, I got to spend various parts of this year in the cockpit of an A-Wing. A feeling of verisimilitude in the part of Star Wars that I care about most.
It’s a small scale experiment from EA Motive that did exactly what it intended to do.
7. Crusader Kings III
I’m yet to actually complete a game of Crusader Kings III. Paradox’s grand strategy series had always intimidated me, through the size of both the menus and the DLC list. But when Crusader Kings III launched, I was able to get past all that though. See, I’d been thinking about it wrong. I’d been thinking like it was Stellaris. Stellaris is a grand strategy game, simulating war/economics/politics on a galactic scale.
Crusader Kings 3 is a story engine following a dynasty.
Short term objectives and requirements give way to long term planning, which gives way to watching as my dynasty spreads through the world. Until it all goes wrong in spectacular fashion. You feed Crusader Kings III inputs in a very minor fashion, it spits you back out four hours later as you put down your fifth peasant revolt because those ingrates don’t understand that you HAD to murder your wife, because she was conspiring with the king of France. Fools.
A coffee shop in the centre of Victoria, Australia where the living and the dead can co-exist for a little bit at least. The dead get 24 hours to work out what they want to work out.
Sumptuously rich visual style for a 3D kinetic novel. Goofy character designs with huge eyes. Funny, incisive dialogue, with a great tool tip option that highlights specific words for a cute aside. Most importantly, between the dialogue and the art, everything has a very tongue in cheek, real feeling tone. And then they suckerpunch you with philosophy and heartbreak as soon as you start to sink into the world. Excellent writing all round.
The best part of Necrobarista though is the understanding that lettering in your visual novel is not something to just be skipped over. The screen presence and delivery of the subtitles ends up giving the game a superlative quality of its own. That little something extra that gets it here on the Game of the Year List.
In a list with Kinetic Novels, point and click adventure games and weird browser clicker experiments, somehow I still think Squad is the most niche thing on here.
100 players working through a teamwork focussed modern military simulation that’s had just enough hard edges sanded off to make it approachable to play. Ludicrously loud, hyper violent, utterly unforgiving. And yet.
A game that pays off teamwork better than most multiplayer shooters. A sense of scale that lets you watch the whole battle develop over the course of an hour long match. A voice chat system that is essential to good teamplay and encourages a roleplaying comraderie that other team based games would kill for.
All of this from an Indie Developer/publisher that’s built from the bones of former mod makers. More than that, they’ve taken their success and spread it around. The spiritual siblings of Beyond the Wire (WW1) and Post Scriptum (WW2) are in development right now using the same engine, from different teams. I can’t wait to see what they become. I fully expect each to appear on a Game of the Year list in the future.
4. Kentucky Route Zero
I don’t think I give enough credit to good scene framing and setting in games. Kentucky Route Zero has the stagemanship of the finest theatre. Beautiful two dimensional staging with foreground and background effects, like a shadowbox around a single plane.
It’s an esoteric point and click game concerned with subtly presenting you with a world and power structure that’s completely failed the people it was supposed to serve.
Kentucky Route Zero is absolutely fascinated by how the form of a game can be bent and twisted, especially in the short interludes between acts. In one, you watch a play, and take part in the same play, and all of this is happening to characters in the game world while also being created by characters from the game world. In another, you just work through the many menus of a helpline for an in universe organisation, piecing together elements of the world that communicate so much detail in such an economical fashion.
Act V and the TV edition launched this year, ending a development cycle that started in 2013. It’s been worth the wait to play through the whole thing in one go.
I spent a lot of the the latter half of 2020 participating in the Cultural Event known as Blaseball. Short version, it’s Baseball by way of SCP/Nightvale style weirdness, in the form of a cookie clicker esque browser game, with an ongoing narrative driven by fan communities interacting with the developers.
Most importantly, Blaseball is the greatest example of pack bonding by Humans, maybe ever.
Blaseball has limited actions available to the player. You choose your team. (Claws Up for the Baltimore Crabs, first team to Go Up or Climb!) You can bet on the outcomes of matches with coins generated by your team’s wins. You can take that money and spend it on votes in the weekly post season election, or improve how much cash/peanuts you generate/consume. (Kinda like a clicker game)
So you’re watching, and through the elections and voting and placing bets, can interact with this world very gently as part of the overall mass of players.
The “gameplay” such as it is, is meagre. And yet Blaseball may be one of the finest Transmedia/Fan driven/Alternate Reality Games I’ve ever enjoyed. A rich community comprising newsletter summaries, live commentary broadcasts, dozens of roleplay twitter accounts and a hyperactive discord/wiki all gathered to collectively create a “canon” of stories and interpretations of events that played out according to the cold unfeeling algorithms of the Blaseball game system. Each player is literally just a stack of statistics. That’s all.
And yet Players comprised of nothing but statistics and randomly filled text fields developed arcs and legends. Jessica Telephone and the Dial Tone. The Saga of Jaylen Hotdogfingers with the Redemption of Mike Townsend.
The entire stupid sequence of events that led to the Snackrifice of the majority of the Unlimited Tacos and the subsequent rise of Pitching Machine. The reign of the sentient Pitching Machine. Then the time the Baltimore Crabs caused a black hole to Swallow the sun, permanently replacing it with Sun 2.
Then of course, the end of season 10. The Time the Greatest Players in the Hall of Fame killed a Peanut God and his team of Peanut enthralled idol players, bringing an end to the Discipline Era.
Blaseball has existed for less than a year. I hold the stories generated by that community in the same regard as the most detailed EVE online corporate war stories. It is compelling in a way that only the greatest community driven games are. Easily one of the finest experiences of the year and absolutely deserving of a place on the Game of the Year list.
2. Umurangi Generation
Capturing the small moments at the end of the world, as you live through it. Literally. It’s just you and your friends travelling between levels as you try to deliver your courier packages and take some excellent photographs.
Take all of the required photographs in a level, make your delivery, move on. Some of these are fairly simple, Take a photo of Two Cats, for example. Almost a puzzle game as you try and piece together the instructions to find where the game wants the perfect picture from.
Really impressive storytelling through dense environmental cues and clever repeated use of level design.
Umurangi Generation is a masterclass in economical storytelling. Beyond that, recognising that the player wants to edit and manage their own photography, then giving them a sweet of tools to do so, is excellent in it’s own way.
The music deserves accolades of its own. Soothing lo Fi beats to record the end of the world to in one of the most all around Stylish contenders for Game of the Year.
I could say more nice things about Hades here, but I feel like i’d just be repeating the gushing I did in my review.
Supergiant Games make great video games, that use their medium to tell good stories. Hades is just the latest example of that. The sheer workmanlike excellence that Hades displays ensures it was always top of the list for Game of the Year.