In a year that blockbuster movies were delayed en masse and people were confined to their homes for months at a time, video games played a more important role than ever in our lives.
With the new Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 finally making an appearance last month, 2020 was also a last hurrah for a generation of consoles, a time when developers had worked out how to squeeze every ounce of power and efficiency from the hardware to create the most advanced games we have seen to date.
In no particular order, here are the games that brightened our days during endless afternoons of lockdown, and, in some cases, helped push the medium of video games to new artistic heights.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
From the vantage point of December, the hysteria that surrounded the Spring release of the Animal Crossing: New Horizons – a game about establishing yourself in a town full of amiable villagers – already seems like a relic of a mysterious bygone era.
Was my Twitter timeline really filled with people negotiating over the price of virtual turnips? Did Elija Wood and Stephen Fry really drop into people’s digital villages to cheer them up? Was there really a serious debate in ostensibly serious publications over whether the game’s cheerful shop manager Tom Nook – a raccoon, for what it’s worth – was secretly pushing a neoconservative agenda on the world’s children? Yes, yes and yes.
What is also strange about Animal Crossing: New Horizon was how quickly it disappeared from our lives, as if we’d been inoculated against its strange, addictive brand of monotony. Perhaps this really is the game that best defines 2020.
The Last of Us Part 2
Few games have been so hotly anticipated as the follow-up to 2013’s The Last of Us, a slow-burn, cinematic zombie thriller that managed to conjure a near-perfect blend of writing, graphics and gameplay.
Remarkably, few people were disappointed with its sequel, which drove forward the original game’s fierce blend of horror and tragedy, taking the story in dark new directions while keeping the stripped-back gameplay that was able to draw in players who don’t usually spend their evenings hunched in front of a PlayStation. A true video game milestone, this will be held as a high-watermark of the medium for years to come.
It’s perhaps appropriate the one of the best games of 2020 was actually released back in the relative health and prosperity of 2018. The sleeper hit from Supergiant Games, which emerged from Early Access this year, is a cartoonish roguelike dungeon-crawler set amid the pantheon of Greek gods.
It sees you battle to free yourself from Hades and the overbearing influence of your father, who happens to be the literal ruler of the underworld. While the gameplay is frenetic and progress system subtly rewarding, it’s the writing that makes this one of the most unforgettable gaming experiences of the last few years, drip-feeding more meaningful dialogue than you can eke out during a single play-through, and making you feel like a real part of this fascinating, claustrophobic world.
Although not yet technically released, it would be remiss not to give a passing mention to CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, a game that will finally be in the hands of fans later this week following a string of high-profile delays.
Perhaps the most ambitious open-world game ever created, it sees your character negotiate the future-dystopia of Night City, interacting with its bizarre denizens and forging a narrative of your own making over potentially hundreds of hours.
Whether it can live up to the promise of the developer’s last game, The Witcher 3 – considered one of the finest games ever made – remains to be seen.
Half Life: Alyx
Gamers have been clamouring for a follow-up to the seminal Half Life series since it was left on a cliffhanger in 2007. What nobody asked for was for that follow-up to be a virtual reality-only adventure using the developer’s proprietary hardware Valve VR.
Until it was released, that is, and it was… really good. Like, genuinely pretty great, not just ‘decent for a VR game’. While virtual reality remains a nascent medium, Half Life: Alyx is now one of its poster children, and a must-play for anyone who’s invested in a headset.
The final release of this fan-made game is one of the more heart-warming stories of 2020. A remake of the original 1998 Half Life – sanctioned for commercial release by IP holder Valve – has been in some form of development for 16 years.
Repeatedly dismissed over that time – not unfairly, I must say – as one of those projects destined to fail, developers Crowbar Collective took everyone by surprise in 2019 when they announced a finished product was close. Even more surprising is how brilliant it is, a ground-up redesign of the original game that completely overhauls the much-maligned final “Xen” levels.
Beyond anything you could reasonably expect of a fan collective, this is an essential title whether you’re old enough to have played the original (guilty) or a younger player yet to experience one of the most important releases in the medium of video games.
Following the frankly absurd success of Fortnight (and to an only slightly lesser extent PUBG, from which it borrows much of its DNA), the online battle royale genre seemed to have been explored in all of its permutations. We had a “serious shooter” version in Apex Legends, a zombie version in Dying Light: Bad Blood, and even a Tetris version in Tetris 99.
So Fall Guys surprised even its own developers when over the summer it became the title on every Twitch-streamers screen. The goofy series of It’s a Knockout-style minigames saw players take control of glitchy, imprecise avatars and fling them around assault courses trying to win tournaments that relied as much on luck as skill. Exactly the kind of mindless fun we all needed this year.
Another game that’s actually a throwback to the before-times, Demon’s Souls is a remake of From Software’s 2009 title, which went on to inspire the world-conquering Dark Souls series.
But there are remakes, and there are remakes from Bluepoint, the developers who rebuilt Shadow of the Colossus in spectacular fashion back in 2018. This is another huge win for Bluepoint, bringing the formerly hard-to-find software crashing into the laps of modern gamers.
Brutal, inscrutable and so mysterious people still debate its nuances more than a decade after release, this is the title that birthed the “souls-like” genre, where players learn through repeated and unforgiving death to foes that at first seem utterly invincible. This remake brings fresh and startling beauty to the ravaged land of Boletaria, making it the first essential next-gen title.
Ghost of Tsushima
Confined to our sofas for months on end, we all needed a little escapism this year, and Ghost of Tsushima has that in spades. Set in ancient Japan, Sucker Punch Productions’ game provided a vast and beautiful world for you to roam at your leisure, a place filled with potential samurai mischief like hiding in long grass and hacking people to pieces with a sword.
While it pushed few barriers in terms of writing or gameplay, Ghost of Tsushima is beautiful a playground in which to lose yourself, and a source of more screenshots than any game I can remember.
Kentucky Route Zero
In what was something of a running theme this year, the release of the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero marked the end of a long-running project that dated back to 2013.
If The Last of Us Part 2 is a smart blockbuster, Kentucky Route Zero is an indie darling, a surreal, elegiac pixel-art exploration of what happens to those left behind in the wake of economic ruin.
Set in a dreamlike version of the US state, in which a whisky conglomerate essentially owns the local workforce, it’s a sad, touching and resolutely slow-paced adventure that tiptoes the line between narrative video game and art project.
Wonderfully soundtracked by Ben Babbitt, this is one of the most original and innovative games ever made, and one that should have pride of place on your digital shelf.