It isn’t bold to say that this year sucked, but it’s equally as played out to say that video games have helped people get through things a little easier. In a year where some of the best games of the generation were released, I found my play habits changing. Games that I used to finish in days took me weeks or months, and far fewer games appealed to me enough to commit to them. Nights that used to be for continuing a single-player adventure were taken over by connecting with friends in multiplayer. I even fell in love with an open-world game; shocking, I know! But even as I grow older and the way I play shifts and reforms, I still can’t help but appreciate the decisions that go into making an experience come to fruition.
So as has become tradition, I want to discuss the pieces of design that stuck out to me in my favorite games of the year. 2020 brought a lot of the innovation from genre mixing. While there were three incredible examples of unconventional narrative structures, most of the list leaned heavily on tested ideas from new angles. While we often fixate on the groundbreaking design ideas, it’s the constant improvements and reinventions of these that push the field of game design forward. I talk about these not necessarily to sell you on them, but to allow myself to dig into why they stuck out in the first place.
10. Astro’s Playroom – DualSense Showcase
None of what Astro’s Playroom offers is something I’d consider deep, and so it feels disingenuous to talk as if I’m the first to discover what makes this game so special. On the surface, the 3D platformer is bundled with the system to show off the capabilities of the PlayStation 5’s new controller. And to be honest, that’s exactly what it is. However, that doesn’t stop the game from exceeding expectations. Asobi Team has become the developer to show off the capabilities of Sony products, from The Playroom on PS4 to the brilliant Astro Bot: Rescue Mission on PSVR, so it comes as no surprise that they knocked it out of the park once again. The team manages to pay homage to PlayStation’s long history while keeping the focus of the gameplay on varied platforming challenges. The cartoonish and mechanical direction of the characters and environment is charming and refreshing, and I can’t deny how exciting it was to see the bots embody moments and icons from my favorite games in the PlayStation catalogue.
Like I said, Astro’s Playroom doesn’t surprise you much, but you’re probably gonna be smiling the whole time anyways. The improved vibration that allows for different surfaces and environments to become tangible can’t really be described justly. The adaptive triggers are given a variety of well-implemented examples, from springs to bow strings to climbing a rock wall. The most interesting aspect to me is the creativity in fully realizing these ideas at all. Game feel is very difficult to get right anyways, but nailing it on a new piece of tech is what’s so impressive. I played this as my first PS5 game because these two features excited me most about the system; I knew that I’d need to feel them to believe them. We have yet to see if any games will make effective use of the new tech, but Astro’s Playroom certainly shows that it’s capable with the right imagination.
9. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time – Expanded Level Design
Against all odds, Crash Bandicoot has ridden the nostalgia wave all the way into a new game over 20 years after the last great installment. I never thought he’d truly be gone, but it’s exciting as a fan since the age of 5 to see Crash back to where I think he shines. The original trilogy has always stood out for its bold style and inventive level design that melds 2D and 3D gameplay together in a way no one has been able to do as well… until now. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time would have fit perfectly amongst its PS1 predecessors while still making use of ideas and techniques only possible in the modern era. The cutscenes feel straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon with tons more personality than I’ve ever seen in these characters. The game is longer and more replayable than previous entries as well, which to some will justify the full $60 price tag. I personally think some of the game feel and control accuracy is a bit off with many jumps and sequences frustrating me, but I haven’t heard that from many others which leads me to believe I’ve just lost my touch.
Toys for Bob has proven themselves with past Crash and Spyro remakes that they understand how to find the fun in a game they didn’t themselves make, but it’s still slightly shocking to see how good they are at creating new content in the same design mindset. The level design of previous entries always stood out to me in a similar way to Mario games, with new ideas and challenges being well taught before they’re expanded upon. The new masks and characters, in particular, add some much-needed variety to the campaign. Crash levels are always interesting to dig into because each has multiple layers packed into its linear structure. The levels can be finished by just reaching the end, but collectibles such as boxes and gems are often placed in a manner that allows for skilled players to blaze through with enough precision and practice. This type of design allows the team to be efficient in their work and open up challenge for a wide range of players.
8. Bugsnax – Pokemon Puzzles
From the moment I saw it, I knew Bugsnax was going to fit somewhere on this list. It’s an amalgamation of influences as disparate as Pokemon Snap and Dark Cloud, with a sense of humor and creativity at its core. Many, including myself, theorized a much darker turn in the end than what was given, but the game surprised me nonetheless. The dialogue constantly had me laughing, but underneath you’ll find a gang of misfits each with their own dreams, fears, and struggles to overcome. The game is short but rich with personality. The designs of the Bugsnax themselves were interesting and the way they all interacted made levels feel alive.
The best way I can describe my favorite design aspect of the game is to combine Pokemon with Shadow of the Colossus. Take the cooky creatures and collection aspects of the former and replace its turn-based combat with the environmental puzzles of the latter. Each Bugsnack requires analysis of everything around you: the tools in your disposal, the unique nature of the area, and the other Bugsnax themselves. The SnaxScope camera will give players a hint as to how to capture each of the 100 treats, but Young Horses did a great job adding various modifiers to make things feel more systemic. Because many of these modifiers are used on multiple Bugsnax in different ways, I am naturally learning how to tackle the more difficult Snax as I play. One creature might only be catchable after being melted near fire while another might need to be stunned to be captured; there’s a Bugsnack later on that requires the player to do both, but it felt great to figure that out on my own. I’d love to see this idea expanded upon with even more possibilities and strategies, but what we got was great and led me to Platinum the game.
7. The Last of Us Part II – Stealth Arenas
Before the internet could rally together in the single week it took for CD Projekt Red to ruin their reputation with consumers, they spent almost the entirety of 2020 arguing over The Last of Us Part II. It’s the most divisive game I’ve seen since The Last Guardian, with a lot of the valid criticism lumped in with and ignored in favor of dunking on the transphobes and antisemites. I believe most players loved the game overall, but I fall into the crowd that is two parts impressed and one part disappointed. This section is going to seem like I didn’t like the game, but I genuinely enjoyed my time with it. Everything from the art direction and acting to the accessibility options and tech behind it are refined further than maybe any game before it. My major problems come with the narrative, which I felt was poorly paced and lost a lot of what made the first game so compelling. I forgave the first game’s largely-unremarkable stealth action gameplay because the relationship between Joel and Ellie was well-built. This game’s story came off as thinking it was groundbreaking, when it was telling a fairly standard (but overall well-told) “revenge is bad” story. Without the narrative gripping me from start to finish, I became less interested in the gameplay itself which left me with a feeling of disappointment after the credits rolled.
With that said, it’s impossible to deny the smart design behind the gameplay itself which I found to be improved over the first game even if I might find it standard otherwise. It’s clear that a ton of care was taken in making every action and decision feel as emotive as possible. The gameplay seamlessly moves between narrative, exploration, and stealth arenas, and these arenas are where the gameplay truly shines. Players have a lot of control over the character, with the inclusion of crawling prone contributing to the focus on forward movement compared to the stop-and-wait stealth of the previous entry. Areas had distinct start and endpoints, but they felt open, just teeming with possibilities. The AI is smart and keeps you moving around, constantly ducking in and out of combat. The moments where I lose myself in this momentum are where the game felt amazing; it’s just a shame it couldn’t be a majority of the experience.
6. Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Nook Miles
Like the rest of the internet, I spent my early quarantine days tending to my island and sharing pictures of my terrible decorating skills with friends. The Animal Crossing: New Horizons phenomenon is not something I’ve felt since the summer where Pokemon Go released. This is might not have gotten your parents as interested in games as the mobile craze did all those years ago, but I couldn’t help but notice that friends and colleagues with no real interest in games picked up a Switch just for Animal Crossing. You couldn’t go on any social media without seeing turnip prices or custom design patterns. During a time where we were all adjusting to an antisocial reality, many found solace in the community of islanders. And who could blame them? While not as feature-rich as previous entries upon launch, New Horizons sported a fantastic art direction, charm and warmth from every character, and a ton of real-time work to bury your head into while forgetting about the pandemic.
What impressed me most about the game’s design was the Nook Miles system. This type of randomized daily task system is new to the series but not to the wider gaming landscape, with mobile apps and games-as-a-service products constantly vying for your attention. However, I think it fits perfectly into the experience. Many people, myself included, burned themselves out very quickly on the game, but it was designed for longevity. New events and objects are added every month or two, but Nook Miles are the way to keep every day fresh. Instead of just doing your daily chores like hitting a money rock and digging up fossils, players will be encouraged to do a variety of activities to earn the Nook Miles currency. One day you might have to talk to some villagers and pick up weeds, while the next you’ll spend it fishing and selling excess items. Animal Crossing has always been a timeslot in your daily routine, but Nintendo managed to make that time a little more dynamic each day.
5. Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Platforming Upgrades
I already wrote about Ori and the Will of the Wisps earlier this year, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. However it cannot be understated how much of a marvel this game is for me. Ori and the Blind Forest was an achievement of art, music, and platforming design, so it’s no surprise that the sequel manages to capture everything I loved about the original and improve upon it. The exciting escape sequences return, but with the addition of climactic boss fights. The world is more vivid and dense with detail and secrets, and the frustration has been streamlined pretty well. Combat has a lot more variety with multiple weapons that feel distinct. Moon Studios didn’t have to break the mold to deliver an incredible game.
As with the first game, the real draw is the fact that the upgrades you receive mostly go towards broadening your platforming skillset. While you may start the game jumping on every platform and unlocking every door, you’ll end the game traversing the world in the blink of an eye. The movement in the game feels incredibly fluid and easy to master, and I’m glad so much of the level design guides players down that road. Metroidvania upgrades are usually just keys to a new area, but games in this genre really shine when movement is encouraged because of how often you have to traverse the world. This is a game I see myself coming back to often, just to feel that sense of speed and skill once again.
4. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim – Character-Based Narrative Structure
I think the best piece of praise I can give 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is that I have no clue how it all came together. It’s difficult to describe without spoilers, but the gist is that the game spans 200 years of history across 13 playable characters that is three-parts visual novel and one-part mech battle RTS. It is a convoluted and obtuse piece of sci-fi media that impresses because it has the guts to attempt it and it still sticks the landing. Vanillaware games have always been known for their gorgeous 2D art, but the modern lighting techniques and various time periods really stand out to make this the studio’s best work to date.
Like I said, this is a gutsy game to make. The player controls a staggering 13 different characters, each with their own uniquely-compelling story. Each character’s tale constantly crosses with other characters and includes time travel and flashbacks galore to tell one complete plot in a bunch of out-of-order chunks. The entire cast manages to grab your attention with well-developed personalities and twists around every corner In addition, the player has to command these characters in mech combat against an onslaught of alien machinery. This gameplay and each character’s story is very segmented, allowing players to tackle things in whatever order they’d like to understand the bigger picture. To maintain some level of coherence and pacing, certain characters or fights are gated until you make enough progress elsewhere. You’ll have to trust me when I say that playing the game, it never comes across as overtly confusing. Sure, the story probably could’ve been told linearly. However, the overcomplication manages to make 13 Sentinels stand out as one of the best sci-fi stories in all of gaming.
3. Ghost of Tsushima – Cultural Gameplay Loop
Ghost of Tsushima is the game that surprised me the most in 2020. Most things about it seem standard for the overly-saturated open-world action genre, from the map with a checklist to very basic stealth options. I don’t usually enjoy open-world games without a sticky mechanic to keep me around. Just like The Last of Us Part II, the game might not do much that hasn’t been done before, but it definitely does it better than most competitors. The art direction is simply stunning, with bright colors and gorgeous landscapes spanning every inch of the world (I even used Photo Mode a ton, which I never do.) The story didn’t shock me, but each character was acted to perfection and the themes of trying to balance survival with honor rang true throughout. Combat felt simple, but with a lot of tools to allow for a variety of playstyles.
I’ve been working for a couple months on a much larger piece about the game that I don’t want to spoil too much. However, the thing that stuck out most to me was the game’s ability to weave its cultural values into the gameplay loop itself. When you look at the different points of interest in the world, most will seem uninteresting compared to other open-world games. Instead of hunting mythical creatures, you’re following foxes to shrines of worship. Rather than uncovering audio logs from long-lost civilizations, you’ll sit and write haikus to reflect on your journey. Throughout the game, Jin and his allies often discuss their values of honor and spirituality before launching attacks on enemy forts. Based on my interpretation, it seems that samurai often find calmness before the storm of battle to clear their mind and focus their actions. That adds an entire new layer of meaning to the points of interest, allowing players to enter Jin’s headspace through their own actions. My time between freeing captives in camps was spent taking in the natural beauty of the environments and climbing shrines to pay respect to the kami. I took around 6 months to fully finish and Platinum the game, and this feeling I unintentionally developed over my playtime sticks with me even now as I’ve moved on. I can’t say many games have had that effect on me.
2. Hades – Roguelike Narrative Structure
Those who keep up with my writing might recall that Hades nabbed the #8 slot on my year-end list in 2018 after its early access launch, but I think it’s important to bring it up again because of its impact on the year. It only took 4 releases, but the wider gaming sphere finally seems to understand why I love Supergiant Games so much. It’s not enough to discuss the art team’s unique painterly talents or Darren Korb’s masterful composition that might top all of his other soundtracks (and I own Transistor’s on signed vinyl, just so you know what that statement means to me.) It’s so much more than a roguelite with a story. The sheer depth of playstyles encouraged by the game’s many weapons, weapon aspects, keepsakes, upgrades, and boons makes each run feel unique. It’s really the culmination of every good idea the studio has had in the last 10 years.
My piece 2 years ago on the game softening the blow of a death still holds true, and even moreso now that the game is complete. I grew up obsessed with Greek mythology as many kids are, ravenously tearing through the Percy Jackson books and following Wikipedia rabbit holes about specific myths. Somehow, the team managed to give new life and personality to these characters that still remain faithful to the stories. I cared about what everyone had to say to Zagreus whenever he’d come back from a run, and I’m impressed that I never heard repeated dialogue across my playtime. Roguelikes are usually able to keep players going for one more run with good gameplay, but Supergiant managed to develop a narrative system that fit within the roguelike mold and made it the reason to keep playing. I never cared if it was just a few new lines every half an hour. It was never about the destination; it was always about the journey.
1. Paradise Killer – Adaptive Narrative Structure
Usually, someone can pick out my favorite game of the year just by looking at the handful of games I tweet or write on this blog about. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Paradise Killer is the game that my mind always comes back to. That city pop/jazz fusion soundtrack has worked its way into my rotation for when I’m doing work. The character designs are over-the-top and each personality feels right at home in this vaporwave universe. The beaches are littered with iconography of almost-Lovecraftian gods; patterns and architecture blend 80’s technology with nostalgic consumerism; and of course there are pastel shots of sunsets and space galore. Exploring and investigating the idealistic island allows a peak into a civilization founded on betrayal and zealotry, and the lengths you’ll go to uncover it all is important to the experience.
The game sets players free on an open island after a locked-room murder, with the goal of delivering justice before the world ends and a new one begins. You can start the trial whenever you like, and anyone you choose can be convicted of the crime with enough evidence. The facts of the conspiracy are there for the player to discover, but the game will never outright tell them that their deductions are correct. It paints a picture of the justice system and detective work we don’t often see, let alone experience for ourselves. Players love the twists and turns of a trial like in Danganronpa, but what if the protagonist didn’t find that one key piece of evidence that will convince everyone to change their mind? An innocent person may take the fall. Seeing the final trial in Paradise Killer unfold in different ways by accusing different characters of the crime opens up a wider discussion of what truth is when we’re already looking for someone to blame.