I’ll refrain from making any sweeping statements about what it was to play games in 2020, given everything that’s happened this year. Instead, I’m going to go right ahead and get out of the way of my list — these were my favorite gaming experiences this year, aside from my perennial game (Into The Breach, which I’m totally back into, by the way), games that gave my brain a beautiful place to go, a fun problem to solve, an escape, or a much needed sense of adventure.
Blaseball is something else now. I haven’t played it in a long time (and I’m ok with this, go with god, Blaseball!), but for several weeks this summer, I ran, on a near-hourly basis, to baseball dot com, made bets, voted for blessings for my beloved Hades Tigers (the team I chose at the beginning, way before they were good), and had a great time.
9. Mobius Front 83
After Animal Crossing (and… naturally, Into The Breach), this Zachtronics tactics game is the title I put the most time into this year, around 88 hours of Reagan-era tank and aircraft combat. While I struggled early on, I found myself playing one more game, one more game until I had conquered a particular map, learning every quirk of each unit and making my way, slowly but surely through the narrative as it became more sci fi.
I haven’t played much Fuser myself (yet!) but I’ve loved Niki’s Fuser streams so much, and thought about music differently since encountering Fuser in the wild, that I’ve enjoyed it sufficiently for a spot on the GOTY list. This is something that I’ll be playing in the new year, and hopefully the years to come, and I’ll be enjoying other people playing it (DJing with it) for even longer.
7. Kill It With Fire
Immersive sims aren’t dead! They are simply being made on a smaller scale (well, in between Arkane releases, anyway!). Kill It With Fire is one such brilliant example, a puzzle-y, small immersive sim set in a more focused location, with a gleeful sense of humor and appreciably wacky physics engine (and interconnecting systems working under the hood). Honestly, I love this for me.
6. The Pathless
I only came to The Pathless last minute, but I’m so glad Steven mentioned this game to me. It’s a gorgeous take on the action-adventure, a little bit Breath of the Wild and even a touch of older 3D Zeldas, with a gorgeous, mysterious world to traverse. It feels incredible to move around this world, its puzzles are satisfying to engage with, and it looks and sounds like a dream.
5. Cloud Gardens
Another last-minute addition to my list, I only played this gorgeous game about “rewilding” a few days before a draft of this list was due. But I’m so glad I did. Like a number of games on my list, it’s a smaller title with very focused mechanics, an environmentally-aware vibe, and a dedication to doing a few things very, very well. It’s both a freestyle building simulator and a deeply satisfying puzzle game, set in a series of vignettes: little gardens in boxes that formed some of the early design philosophy of Super Mario 64 and later Super Mario 3D World and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker. Small, contained worlds with interesting interactions and satisfying mechanics are pretty much catnip for me!
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I mentioned this on a podcast, but I’ve played this every single day since it was released. It’s my warmup game every day — as I eat breakfast and drink coffee and look through emails and plan out my day, I also tend my gardens and find presents for all my villagers and see what cute little fashion items are in Omoplata’s shop. It’s a relaxing game, sure, but this iteration has enough going on that my daily sessions feel worthwhile and pleasant. While other folks used this game as a social platform (and I did, a bit, with my partner and some friends), New Horizons functioned more like an especially cute or goofy meditation app for me – a happy little check in and dose of stability each day.
I didn’t play as much Hades as many other folks on the team, but that’s ok — I still loved this impeccably designed, gorgeous, colorful game. By my estimation, Supergiant hasn’t made a bad game yet. Or even a mediocre game. Hades is so satisfying to play — mechanically, in terms of story content, character details, and lore, and the game makes an otherwise punishing genre accessible and even inviting. I’ve always been a sucker for Greek Mythology, and Hades both has a lot of fun with it (that gorgeous, horny art and voicework!) and stays true to many of its themes.
2. Sludge Life
Sludge Life came out of absolutely nowhere for me. First, it had this positively wild trailer featuring a cat with two kitty buttholes, so I felt the need to write about it. Then… it came out, and it was at once a very bright, creative indie game with focused mechanics and also a platformer and a tiny open world, one that opens up before you in fascinating ways (both mechanically and narratively). Like Umurangi Generation, it wears its politics on its sleeve (both a penchant for environmentalism and fair labor politics), and it does so with a sense of humor and a cleverness that awards attention to detail and curiosity. Both of these worlds were an incredible pleasure to explore this year, and I’m grateful for the teams that created them.
1. Umurangi Generation
I often like to use my number one GOTY slot to evangelize a game that I’m really excited about. I almost don’t want to overhype Umurangi Generation too much, because it’s a game I enjoyed so much precisely because I went in fresh, without the weight of other folks’ expectations. I knew our former editorial intern Ren loved it, I knew it was a game about photography, but beyond that, it was all new the first time I stepped into its vibrant, day-glo world.
Umurangi Generation works so well because its mechanics are very much in tune with its fiction: you are a photographer, documenting the days after an unnamed environmental disaster (among… other phenomena) has basically doomed the planet. You take pictures of the world around you, of people making their way, doing their best, or just hanging out. You have bounties and goals that encourage you to use different lenses, asking you to very literally see the world in new ways. And you gain access to filters that let you play with your images in fun, creative ways. It’s a bright, neon, jarring game, you may even say, a cyberpunk game closer to the original definition of the genre, and I really fell in love with it this year.
The Last Of Us Part II, Carto, Mixolumia