Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
Unfortunately I cannot refer to my top games as The Scoties because foul beasts known as “Posters” will, most regrettably, “Tweet” at me with the horrid phrase “The Scroties” repeatedly. As I have just finished all of my Game Of The Year work, wherein I name the Game Of The Year, I am mucho stressedo and don’t have the energy to put up with these craven jokesters. I hate them, and if I say what I want to say that I will do to them, I will unfortunately be banned from Twitter yet again, a fate worse than Death. Here are MY games.
8. XCOM Chimera Squad
While Chimera Squad is plagued with the interminable stench of being a “Cop Game” in 2020, a year where we’ve (thankfully) seen a rise in protests against state violence, it is not a game I can completely write off in good conscience. As much as its cop elements are hard to ignore, Chimera Squad is easily one of the mechanically tightest tactical RPGs I’ve played in a very long time, on top of it being an incredibly dense and interesting XCOM game. Each character feels like a finely tuned version of a class from previous XCOM games, so much so that they break beyond limitations of those classes to become wholly new, fleshed out characters.
My personal favorite, Patchwork, is a drone specialist who thematically fits the hacker archetype, a role historically for taking on robotic enemies and obstacles in other XCOM games. Patchwork is deceptively modeled to fit that role but becomes something else entirely: a walking god of lightning. Patchwork can zap enemies from a long distance which can put damage on a big foe, but also stuns enemies, taking them out of play for a turn. Her lightning effect also chains to nearby enemies, making her very effective against big groups of dudes. Shocking enemies is super satisfying and feels great when you make a big play that takes a ton of huge threats out of the turn rotation, softening up big enemies while also letting the rest of your team deal with whatever is left on the board for a turn. She’s incredibly useful in almost every situation, and an asset to any team.
The coolest thing about Patchwork is that she’s not alone. Her character is not unique in that she’s somehow busted or overpowered. Every character in Chimera Squad feels just as fully fleshed out and well designed. Some of them fulfill much different roles, for sure, but all of them feel unique, powerful, and they have fun abilities that interplay well with each other. Cherub can put shields on friendly units that let them take one attack for free. Combine that with Zephyr’s melee only focus and you have a unit that can run straight into the battlefield, punching people left and right, and being able to prevent damage multiple times per turn. Then, when the shield is popped by an enemy, Cherub gets a charge that boosts his own melee attack and makes it stronger.
This incredible interplay between mechanics and characters easily makes XCOM Chimera Squad one of the most gratifying games I’ve played all year. It’s a good game that’s worth being recognized despite its somewhat tonedeaf aesthetic trappings, because it’s just so well designed and so fun to play.
7. Black Mesa
While I have some misgivings about the expanded Xen area of Black Mesa finally completed in 2020, I still played through the game for the first time and enjoyed it quite a bit. What stuck out to me more than anything else was its use of brutal, mechanical spaces as level environments. The game forces you to make dangerous, death defying drops on thin pieces of piping just to find some kind of way to make it to the next area. It’s a sort of level design that feels agnostic to the player. The Black Mesa facility doesn’t exist like this to make it easy to get around, it exists because that’s just how you build a huge building with weird nuclear reactors.
One of my favorite setpieces is this one in a huge silo. There’s a small office area to the side of it, but all the ways in and out of there are blockaded. At the bottom of the silo is a giant fan. You can get to the fan through some scaffolding, but the switch to turn it on is under the blades. What you need to do is climb down the ladder under the fan, climb on your hands and knees over to the switch, turn it on, and then crawl back over the ladder while it’s slowly starting back up. There’s plenty of time to do it but I imagine the lowly janitor, forced to clean the fan, who accidentally trips that switch and is just stuck down there. If he tries to climb the ladder, he gets chopped up by the fan. There’s a huge pit under the fan that leads to god knows where. The best part about this is that it happened to me. I turned on the fan and just watched it spin on, wondering what would happen, if I just let it run. For some reason, the switch doesn’t turn the fan off. You can’t leave. You’ve already fucked up, you have to load an earlier save.
People who aren’t Gordan Freeman don’t get to load their saves. They have to work in this hellhole. If this were a more modern game, there would have been a failsafe or someone in your ear going “OK Gordon, get to the ladder before the fan starts!” But it’s not a more modern game, and this tiny interaction with a fan and a man says a lot about what the people who created this place think about the people who work there. It’s pure, brutalist, materialistic apathy. They don’t quite make ‘em like this anymore.
6. Among Us
Among Us is really fun it’s like Werewolf but they made Werewolf fun I think that the other players are sus but what they don’t know is I’m the imposter and I’m going to kill them all just like The Joker.
Among Us is very good but it also posits a hypothetical version of Among Us that I want to play that’s 8 hours long (on average) with 1 killer, 9 crewmates, an extremely long kill cooldown and tasks that are near endless to complete. I would like to play a hell version of this game with friends where finding a body is an almost traumatic experience. I want to go mad trying to figure out who the killer is, and whether there even is a killer or if this is a series of unfortunate accidents. I want to accuse everyone. I want to drive my friends mad to the point where they eject me into space. I wasn’t an imposter. I want them to feel remorse and regret after having to put up with me for hours yelling about how certain people are suspects despite the crimes being so far apart with no clear indication that they came to one conclusion that they had, that it had to be me. Basically I wanna play The Thing The Game. I would like that very much.
5. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
In a time of remakes galore, remakes as far as the eye can see, good remakes, bad remakes, remakes of everything under the sun, FF7R stands above and beyond what remakes can be in our modern era. What makes FF7R so special is that it manages to flesh out its source material to such extreme fidelity that the environments tell the story of a metropolis with unbridled inequity in a way that its previous iterations could only gesture at in the past. Tons of love, care, and attention went into making what was just the opening hours of a huge JRPG into a well crafted and polished adventure.
It’s no secret that I have misgivings about the ending of this game, and pretty much everything in this game that has to do with Destiny Ghosts, but it’s also a game that takes bold swings in not just recreating its source material, but expanding on it as well. Every new scene that’s added with Biggs, Wedge and Jessie is a treat. Every extra piece of dialogue that characterizes Aerith as a way more playful, but street smart buffoon is excellent. Every addition to the Wall Market that makes it way more like a living, breathing tourist attraction instead of a weird pit of creepy, horny dudes is sublime. Every new iteration on the strange designs and enemies that felt weird and arbitrary in the original game feel natural, playful, and charming. There were very few parts of FF7R where I didn’t have a big, doofy smile on my face. It captures the charm of the original with the fidelity and original ideas of a contemporary action game. It recognizes that Cloud’s weird edgy bravado is largely an act, and plays into his aloofness and inability to connect with other people. It’s such a well crafted idea of what a remake can be that I’m extremely excited to see how it tackles the rest of the game.
With how the game ends, it’s obvious what comes next isn’t going to be a full remake. It doesn’t need to be that either, it’s a game that should feel confident enough to make bold swings without needing to justify it with Destiny Weirdness. Still, there are parts of the original that I would love to see get the same treatment as this game that would feel genuinely disappointing if they were left out just to do something completely weird and different. I want to see the Temple Of The Ancients. I want to see Cloud’s breakdown. I want to see Wutai. I want to see Nibelheim. I want to see the gang just hanging out at Costa Del Sol. I would absolutely love to see the Gold Saucer and all the silly ways they redo every single weird minigame in FF7. Hell, I’d even love to see how it handles Fort Condor and the weird strategy minigame. FF7 feels so ready for reinterpretations and reimaginings that I trust this team wholeheartedly to do every inch of that game justice.
4. Nioh 2
Nioh 2! Nioh 2! Nioh 2!
It’s Nioh, but they did it again, baby! Nioh was one of my previous GOTYs, so I bet it’s not surprising to see it here. While I didn’t love it as much as the original, Nioh 2 is still an extremely fun game to play and manages to tell a rich story about friendship and betrayal. Also, it’s got an extremely buckwild ending sequence that made me shout “Oh Word?” I don’t know if I have a lot to say about it other than that it’s an extremely fun game that manages to do some really cool things with Nioh as a franchise.
While I’m sure Team Ninja probably has some apprehension about throwing out any elements of their combat considering how highly well regarded it is, I do hope the next game feels sufficiently different from these two. Nioh 2’s biggest weakness is that, while introducing a ton of new gameplay elements tied to your Yokai abilities and some brand new weapons, it still feels a little bit too much like the original Nioh. Still, keep up the good work! Great stuff! It’s been very fun chanting “Nioh 2! Nioh 2! Nioh 2!” at every opportunity I could. Very excited to start chanting Nioh 3. I know you guys aren’t making Nioh 3 but I’m gonna chant it anyways.
Nioh 3! Nioh 3! Nioh 3!
3. Crusader Kings 3
I’m pretty new to Crusader Kings and a lot of strategy games as a genre, and while CK3’s focus isn’t necessarily on doing a cool strategy on someone, it’s still a game that revels in political intrigue and telling great stories entirely through its mechanics. It’s a game where I can become a child king of Bulgaria and a bully at school starts tormenting me. That bully is also the prince of the Byzantine Empire. It’s a game where I can play as a murderous warlord king who loves war and not get very far in developing my empire, but when I take control of his duplicitous son, Huge Chad, I am able to blackmail every other nearby county into fealty. It’s a game about living the fantasy of being a ruler of a small, inconsequential track of land, and having all of the local lords all plotting to take it from you while the entire world passes you by.
It’s a game about marrying a chaste nudist for political gain, but then also falling in love with the court medic who had, just this last year, treated you with leeches. It’s a game that’s equal parts dead serious and completely silly, and I don’t think anything else can strike that tone without putting on some kind of ironic knowing smirk. Crusader Kings 3 is the least ironic game out there, and it treats every single real, actual historical figure like the bumbling, flawed humans they really are.
2. Kentucky Route Zero
The only reason this game isn’t my #1 is because I finished it after I had locked in my #1, and that’s just how it goes. I’m sure that Cardboard Computer would find that just fitting, because Kentucky Route Zero is about, among many other things, entropy and building upon the ruins of what’s already there. This game is truly beautiful. It’s a little hard to talk about and maybe even a little hard to recommend because, well, it’s a narrative game but it’s not about pushing a plot forward. It’s an adventure game but it’s not about picking up clues to solve puzzles. It’s a game about people, those who are alive and those who are ghosts. I could summarize the entire plot for you in a couple of sentences and I would not come nearly close enough to describing what’s so great about this game.
It takes place in 5 acts, with 4 interludes in between. One of my favorite pieces of game design is one of these interludes, titled “Here and There Along The Echo.” The entire interlude takes place in front of a phone. It’s an older push button phone and operates exactly as a phone does, which is comically unintuitive. Also in front of you is a number that you can call. Everything you can do in this interlude is truly delightful, and I sat for longer than I should have just listening to all the different things I could.
Kentucky Route Zero is about treasuring people, even after all the forces above our heads continue to let us down. It’s about finding the art people left behind, treasuring those closest to you, riding the roads late at night when nobody else is around, and knowing that you’re not alone. Even if it’s just you, even if you’re a human or an animal or something else entirely, even if you’re alive or if you’re not so alive, that there’s always going to be somebody who cares for you.
1. Umurangi Generation
I don’t know how to say that 2020 has been a unique and distressing year for everyone in a way that doesn’t sound like a useless platitude. It was terrible and violent and every single day felt like we, collectively, have been barreling headfirst into a future that is dark and terrifying and will only end in disaster. Umurangi Generation is a game that somehow manages to tap into this specific emotion, this existential dread, and lets you know that you aren’t alone. While I’m not much of a photographer, the lens you see through implores you to examine every single inch of Umurangi Generation’s meticulously crafted levels. It asks you to watch the final days of a dying planet, the inadequacy of a failing government, and the normal everyday lives of the people who live in each of its cordoned off, designated zones. It wants you to see how normal people still live, knowing that the end is coming, and its beauty is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of pure, depressing nihilism. People still hang out, have friends, make dance circles, and take pictures of each other. We’re all still living and doing what we can to live a normal life in progressively less normal conditions.
What I love most about this game is how Neon Genesis Evangelion is a clear inspiration for this game, but it’s a game working in conversation with its inspiration. Eva is about huge robots trying to save the world, only to hopelessly have every victory snatched out from under you. Eva’s quiet moments show sparsely populated city centers; huge cities completely empty because, after the first two Impacts, there’s barely anybody left. You hear cicadas, and more importantly, you don’t hear people. Everyone that’s left is in designated quarantine zones or in their own independent cities outside of NERV’s circle of influence. Umurangi Generation is a game that asks you to put yourself in the shoes of one of those people. You are not a protagonist; you are not Shinji. You’re one of the bystanders that has to sit by and watch Shinji do his best in the face of inevitable destruction. The mechs and the monsters you see in Umurangi are so distant from your station in life that the most you can do is take a picture.
In a lot of the environments of Umurangi Generation, you can find graffiti that tells the story of a people whose government has let it down time and time again. It’s hard for that not to resonate in 2020, where in America, a white supremacist leadership has only given its people a total of $1800 to somehow survive a lockdown that has seen many people lose their livelihoods and their homes. Umurangi, though, is not about the end of the world, it’s about the people who live in it. It’s about doing things for yourself that are fun and make you comfortable. It’s about finding beauty in the spaces in between, where people still live their lives. Much like the hundreds of thousands of in-game pictures the official Umurangi Generation Twitter account retweets from its players, it’s about creating something for yourself and enjoying it together with other people. Your friends, your family (found or familial), and every nice stranger you meet who’s going through it side by side with you.
And it’s about having a penguin as a sidekick, and that’s just wonderful.