2020. That just kept going, didn’t it?
Anyway, in honor of this column making it a year, here are the video games I liked:
ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
In any other year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons would have been just another entry into the series, albeit one of the better ones in recent memory. In 2020, however, it became a healing salve, a means of connection across pandemic-mandated distancing and a glimpse into a brighter, more colorful world that let players at least momentarily escape the horrors of reality and flee to a peaceful island with their animal friends. I got to hang out with friends in other states and co-workers I had not seen in months on this virtual island, and that was neat. I have since moved on – I shudder to think what my island looks like now – but for a few months, New Horizons was a major part of my routine and in its own small way a valuable coping mechanism.
Not since Wii Sports has there been a console pack-in game that so richly demonstrated what its accompanying hardware was capable of (come to think of it, there have not really been many console pack-in games since Wii Sports). Astro’s Playroom is an undeniably charming little platformer that sets a high bar for everything else to come on the PlayStation 5. It works as a tech demo, demonstrating the hardware’s lightning-fast SSD as well as the unique abilities of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and rumble (walking across glass feels different than walking across metal, how much the controller pushes back against you tells you how fast your rockets are going). But it also works as a clever, loving tribute to the PlayStation brand, complete with incredibly detailed high-res 3D models of now-archaic PlayStation hardware and accessories and some deep-cut Easter eggs and secrets. I had a big goofy smile on my face throughout, even when the strange control schemes made parts of the game more challenging than intended – it is easily the most satisfying platforming experience I had in 2020 and a tremendous steal at the cost of free (with purchase of $500 video game console).
FINAL FANTASY 7: REMAKE
Final Fantasy 7 is a pivotal game for millions of players around the world, and a heavily influential entry into the role-playing genre that hit, for me, at exactly the right time in my formative years. The game has left an outsized impact on the industry, and so it would have been so easy for Square Enix to simply remake it with prettier graphics, a more coherent and modern story, and call it a day. Heck, since the story was going to be split up into multiple entries due to its length (the first game in the Remake would cover roughly the first fourth or so of the original game’s story) it would be an easy cash cow as players lined up to buy each new game at full retail to get an updated hit of nostalgia.
But by the end of this game, it was clear that was not what the team was going to do. To discuss what made Remake so fascinating, I must essentially spoil the ending. Hence, I will officially throw up the spoiler warning flag. Scroll down below the picture of Spider-Man below and you should be safe if you want to play the game.
The team behind Final Fantasy 7 Remake knew going in that fan expectations were high, and they were dealing with the weight of expectations. So why not implement those pressures into the game’s story? Throughout the game, players are beset by strange wraiths that interfere at key moments in the story without much reason or rhyme – it is only when one of them saves party member Barrett Wallace from an early death that the player starts to notice something is up. Barrett was not supposed to die in the original story, and as the game makes explicitly clear shortly after, the wraiths are interested primarily in making sure everything happens as the player expects – they showed up at those key moments to ensure the story played out as it did in 1997.
From here, the party goes into a dimensional rift where they do battle with alternate versions of themselves and mysterious, otherworldly creatures while visions of key moments in the original game’s plot flit across the screen. A long story short, the primary antagonist Sephiroth appears to realize that he is fated to be defeated in this timeline as he was in the 1997 game’s timeline. To stop this, he appears to manipulate the protagonists in the 2020 game into killing the embodiment of those fates that controlled the timeline (and, on a meta-textual level, acted as the player’s own expectations). They do, and suddenly the world changes – a character whose death is a major motivation for protagonist Cloud’s actions in the original game suddenly never died at all, sacrificial lamb Aerith is no longer at peace with her short future because her death is no longer preordained, and 23 years of established lore is now out the window. The developers, characters, and player are all entering uncharted territory together.
At the end of the game, as I stared at the screen in admiration of the nerve it took to spend millions of dollars and countless development hours blowing up the story that meant so much to so many just to make a point, it occurred to me – the title has two meanings. Not only is it a remake of the original game, you and the heroes have inadvertently remade the world. If the developers play their cards right, they have the potential to craft not only a loving tribute to the original game but a fascinating reinterpretation of it.
I have known this story backwards and forwards for over two decades and once again I cannot wait to see what comes next.
Okay. Spoilers are done.
SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
I have already written at length about how much this game influenced me to pick up a PlayStation 5, but even as the easiest of marks for a Spider-Man story I was surprised at how much I was moved by what Insomniac Games did with this not-quite-sequel, not-quite-spinoff to their 2018 Spider-masterpiece. The game is significantly smaller in scale than its predecessor – it can be finished in less than ten hours if you are hustling and the optional side missions are fairly small in number – but this works to its advantage as it tells a smaller, more intimate story that balances giant superhero set pieces with joyful holiday family dinners, personal betrayals, and Miles’ struggles to live up to the mantle of his mentor (as well as some fascinating re-inventions of deep-cut Marvel lore).
It is a story that resonates in the current moment, not only due to its open embrace of Miles’ biracial identity and prominent placement of Black Lives Matter iconography in story missions but also due to its exploration of intersectional themes of class and race – I am hard-pressed to think of the last time a video game explored the idea of environmental racism and the exploitation and gentrification of POC communities by major corporations. By the end, I was a little disappointed to be reminded that the next sequel will once again focus on Peter Parker – being Harlem’s Spider-Man was infinitely more meaningful and compelling.
Plus, there is a cat, who is also named Spider-Man, and the cat can come with you on your adventures. That alone would make it Game of the Year if it weren’t for…
While it didn’t have an unruly goose as its protagonist and is therefore a downgrade from 2019’s game of the year, Hades nonetheless was my favorite game of 2020 in a genre I do not generally gravitate toward. The roguelike genre, wherein your progress is a constant cycle of dying, restarting, getting slightly further, and dying again, is not necessarily always my idea of a good time. However, with titles like Dead Cells and 20XX showing that you can marry gameplay styles to that loop that uphold the expected challenge while also making it fun to play, I figured it was worth checking out after the hype. I am extremely glad I did.
The elevator pitch for the game is simple: you are Zagreus, the son of Hades (aka the lord of the Underworld in Greek myth). Like most kids, you are rebellious and tired of living under dad’s roof, so you embark on a quest to escape the underworld and get to the surface by battling through dear old pop’s hordes of undead minions while receiving bonuses and new abilities in the forms of “boons” from the gods of Olympus who really want to see you supplant your dad for some reason. When you die, you collapse into the river Styx and are carried back to the House of Hades to regroup, spend resources, get better gear, and try again.
The premise is straightforward, but what is masterful about SuperGiant Games’ work is that it cleverly marries the fictional world to its gameplay design. Greek myth is full of stories of heroes given impossible or un-ending tasks (like Sisyphus, who is in this game and a very nice guy), of gods and demi-gods revived and reborn. A perfect fit for the rogue-like genre if ever there was one. More than that, though, the game gives you a compelling reason to go through the mythological dog and pony show every time by parceling out a little more of its story, your reasons for wanting to get to the surface, and the complex web of relationships between its characters. There is a reason why the relationship between Zagreus and Hades is so strained, why the gods are so keen to help, and why one of the Furies seems especially mad at Zagreus every time you fight her. Death becomes less of a punishment than a means of advancing your progression and the story – meaning it never gets frustrating and in fact becomes incredibly addictive as you try “just one more run” to see if you can beat that boss or enemy that stymied you. Even if you don’t, a little more of the world is revealed to you between runs.
Everything about this game, simply put, just works – the deep combat system evokes both Diablo and SuperGiant’s own masterwork Bastion, giving you tight control over everything Zagreus can do as well as a streamlined series of commands and inputs that can nonetheless be partnered with different weapons and boons to make strategically powerful builds. The writing and voice acting is above reproach, and a genuine pleasure to experience. The art style is something to behold, with some truly beautifully rendered and diverse character designs that challenge the homogeneous depiction of the Greek pantheon in other media. Per my Switch’s clock, I spent about 50 hours with this game and I still go back to it when the urge strikes. Hades might not re-invent the wheel, but it builds on the other stellar games in SuperGiant’s library with a compelling cast and story to make something that is truly special and unlike anything else in 2020. I cannot recommend it enough.
Honorable Mention for a Game that Absolutely Did Not Come Out in 2020:
Fortnite is not a new game – by my count, it is like two youth crazes ago – but 2020 is the year I truly discovered it after a long period of skepticism not only toward the game but also the genre of which it is a part. The Battle Royale genre, in which players parachute onto a rapidly shrinking island expanse and do battle to be the last person or team standing, too often for me leads to a frustrating gameplay loop of loading, landing, dying, and having to restart the progress again when some Red Bull-addled eight-year-old pops you one.
(It didn’t help that Fortnite developers Epic Games have been embroiled in one of the most eye-rolling legal battles of 2020, attempting to pass its multibillion-dollar self off as the underdog fighting for justice against fellow multibillion-dollar corporation Apple, but that’s neither here nor there.)
This year, though, the game piqued my curiosity as respected games commentators talked about how much fun they were having with it. I watched with great curiosity as the game threw Marvel Comics’ misunderstood planet-eating antagonist Galactus in as a special boss. One of my Twitter pals said they put in a more traditional deathmatch mode and the gameplay loop that had thrown me off the game years ago was no longer an issue if I did not want it to be. Toward the end of 2020, the game’s new battle pass let you dress up like the Mandalorian and unlock Baby Yoda. Okay. Fine. I decided to give it another shot. In short: it was one of my favorite discoveries of the year.
Fortnite, unlike many of its battle royale contemporaries, is incredibly accessible. The gunplay is straightforward, building stuff is easy, and the plethora of quests and objectives give players something to do beyond just building and shooting other players. You can do stunt driving, become an unwitting participant in an ongoing battle between dogs and cats, and search for buried treasure, making progress without firing a shot.
But what ultimately drew me in and kept me going is the surprising whimsy of the game – it is bright, colorful, and fun. Thanks to its tone and wild crossovers, at its best it feels like a giant sandbox where kids are throwing their favorite action figures around. The cast of characters includes a commando snowman (Snowmando), a mysterious gunslinger with a stack of pancakes for a head (Mancakes), a feline bodybuilder (Meowscles), and a giant sentient banana – and that is before you add in the surprisingly effective crossovers from Marvel (Black Panther is in this!), DC Comics, Star Wars, The Walking Dead, the NFL, and other major brands.
Yes, it is yet another form of marketing aimed at young people, a celebration of corporate intellectual property wherein players can pay to be advertised to. Yet, there is also just a sense of joy to the proceedings that is hard to shake. With the wacky locations, vehicles, wild physics, building elements, and extensive cast of colorful characters, it is more akin to the late, lamented Disney Infinity than it is Call of Duty, and boasts an extensive non-violent creative mode to boot. In short – Fortnite is actually…fun, and that is something that feels all too rare in games today. Turns out the kids had it right.
Until next time: yes, I know it is February.
By: Dr. Bryan Carr
Bryan Carr is an Associate Professor in the Communication, Information Science, and Women’s & Gender Studies departments. Among other things, he is the host and producer of “Serious Fun”, a podcast taking an academic look at popular culture on the Phoenix Studios podcast network. He has over 18 different outfit loadouts in Fortnite and can stop whenever he wants. He won’t, though.