Games of 2020 – What’s New is New Again

It is hard for me not to fight hardest for the new. Especially here, in games, the new expands the vocabulary of what we can do so greatly that it changes what we even dream can exist. This year’s entry might be “the best Assassin’s Creed so far,” but there’s a strong chance it won’t be anymore five years from now. Games like Outer Wilds, Baba Is You, Into The Breach, Death Stranding, and Return of the Obra Dinn – these games change what I think about when I think about games entirely. They form incredible emotional connections to me, even the ones that have no narrative whatsoever, because they are such special visions of what we should strive to make.

This year, these six games felt the freshest of everything I played. None are flawless. All are deeply special. And, yeah, shout out to Umurangi Generation and 13 Sentinels, which would go here if I’d only written two blogs and not separated three games I can’t shut up about into their own article. And, well, when they’re no longer works in progress, I’ll be writing about World of Horror and Phasmophobia in a similar blog, too.

Hades

Hades. Zagreus looks down on the lava of Asphodel, stating, "I won't back down. Not now or ever."

A Sampler Playlist

Zagreus, son of Hades, Underworld princeling, uncovers the scandal of the underworld. Unfortunately, that scandal is the identity of his mother – so he’s going to do his damnedest to escape the underworld, sword or spear or railgun in hand to thwart his father’s “security.” No matter how thrilling the escape attempt, if he can’t best his father and all his minions, he’s going to wind up face down in the bath of blood that ends the hall leading up to dad’s desk. But every attempt, the player gets a little smarter, and the other denizens of the underworld might have just a little more to say.

Hades is, mechanically, the least “new” of the games presented here. Its combat mechanics are similar to those in Supergiant’s first game, Bastion – the whole team has come along, building on their style, making better and better games with each at-bat, with more focused art, more variety in the music, more thoughtful storytelling. It is an action game and a rogue-lite with the sort of “base-building” mechanics at the heart of Rogue Legacy. That base building mostly happens either by trading collected resources for upgrades or by giving gifts to your fellow lost souls.

Hades. An unknown chaotic god, adorned with batwings, a halo, and a coat decorated with faces says, "...The Olympians have all grown soft... would you not agree?"

But what makes it fresh is the incredible synthesis between all the game’s best elements. Traveling from Tartarus up to Elysium, you receive boons from the Olympic gods you know best, all of whom have signature gameplay benefits that match their personality. Aphrodite’s boons have the ability to charm your foes and make them fight on your behalf for a brief time – Poseidon sends waves crashing against them to push them away from you, giving you the space to choose your prey without suffering under their claws and staves. All these gods are funny, well characterized, petty but friendly, and most of them are very attractive. Everyone’s attractiveness in this game, thankfully, feeds into the gift-giving – there’s a lot of flirtation, and, yes, a few characters you can actually date, but that gift giving also reveals new dialogue, new storylines, and new jokes. And the only way to see those scenes is to keep fighting your way out.

Synced up with all of that is the wonderful music of Darren Korb, further expanding on the folk vibes of Pyre and adding some really fantastic metal to the mix. Those who’ve spent time with Korb’s work know he’s consistently able to capture character themes and help define the setting of his games through that music. That’s true of the game’s lyrical folksongs, sung by Orpheus and Eurydice, long lost lovers who you’ll have the opportunity to meet. But it’s the choice to build out epic instrumentals, most of which extend to be eight or nine full minutes before looping, that makes for such a clean experience while playing – most playthroughs will be interrupted long before you hit the end of a music track, either by reaching a new area and theme or by meeting your demise in the trials of combat.

Fighting as Zagreus feels so good. Zagreus is fast, responsive, and he’s just as fun to control as you deliberately watch your opponents and wait for clean openings as he is to mash out as much damage as you can, as fast as you can. All six weapons, and all their customizations, and all the boons and talismans you can use to build your run, feel great to use (if not to you, to another player – I’ve heard every one of them defended by now.) I’ve now gotten good enough at the game that I can think to myself “oh, no, this run is doomed” and can figure out the kind of boons I need to fix what’s wrong and get a surprise win.

I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. Hades is the game of the year because its complete package design, aesthetic, and writing make a game that feels beautifully fresh, all while reimagining how strong writing and story can fit into a game you have to start over every half hour. Truthfully, Hades feels like such a consensus masterpiece that detailed reasons for it to not be the Game of the Year would require their own article – I don’t feel like doing that here. Hades central thesis may best be summarized by my favorite line from Chaplin’s City Lights – “Be brave! Face life!” I think the game’s angry carpe diem ethos felt great to sit in through 2020.

Hades. Zagreus battles Theseus and The Minotaur.

Signs of the Sojourner

A Sampler Playlist

Echodog’s Signs of the Sojourner places you as the inheritor of a small-town shop in a loosely fantastical world, setting off to the nearby townships to find valuables to keep your home afloat. The gameplay of Signs of the Sojourner is simple – you and an NPC you’re talking with take turns playing cards, trying to match symbols from card to card in order to communicate with one another. Each “round” is cooperative, where you and the NPC are trying to meet common ground. If you complete a conversation successfully, you may make a trade for something new to sell back home, keeping your town thriving one day longer. You may also make a friend who will take your story in new directions.

What makes the mechanic so smart is that each town you visit has its own culture, and each card symbol has its own cultural meaning. Triangles represent factual logic, squares forceful directness, circles emotional reasoning. Due to your limited deck size, you’re quickly going to find that you can’t get along with everybody. So you end up finding your own cultural niche and either sticking to where you grew up or venturing out into the world past home.

The game ends up using this mechanic really effectively to communicate something about cultural difference and assimilation without ever being too direct about this fact, and it uses this smart, small mechanic to reinforce something that writing traditionally can only do through outsized stereotype. As a result, the characters tend to be much subtler and have more variety than the usual concept of “towns with culture” can offer. A place where people are creative thinkers ends up not having to mean everybody is an artist – sometimes, it’s an old crank who’s constantly coming up with conspiracy theories.

Signs of the Sojourner. The game introduces XN-220, citizen of Rimina, who speaks in circle and diamond shapes. It states XN-220 is "An older model of android, rarely seen." About the city of Rimina, it states, "Rimina lies among the hills, overlooking terraced vineyards and the coast far below. Packs of children run across the crumbling limestone walls around the outer limits, pretending their sticks are ancient swords." The game offers the player the ability to move on without meeting XN-220. It is day 22, and day 26 is the day the player is due back home.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer. Stella sits aboard her ship, fishing at sunset.

A Sampler Playlist

Farming simulator meets action platformer, Spiritfarer’s Stella has taken up the oar from a retiring Charon, dedicating her afterlife to sending troubled souls into the grasp of Hades. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the first souls Stella will ferry through the Everdoor will be those closest to her – Uncle Atul and childhood friend Gwen are the first aboard her vessel, which could use some work. Building a home on the titular Spiritfarer is the perfect opportunity to go on one last adventure with the loved ones and friends you’ll be sending on their way.

For most players, I suspect the characters, the story, and the artistry are what will be the main draw of Spiritfarer. The hand-drawn characters are rendered with bold colors and designs that stick in the brain, and their animation is expressive far beyond the borderline animatronics of most games. Their personalities are bold, and while I didn’t enjoy spending time with every one of them, I did want them to find their peace. The game trades in a deep sincerity that at times put me on edge. But I felt those moments of secondhand embarrassment and I found myself questioning whether that was a fault in the game’s tone or my own comfort with such child-friendly bluntness.

That isn’t to say the game is humorless – the game is as equally interested in making light of the petty flaws that drive wedges between us. Your best fence to sell your goods to is a rancid hoarder who has become an onion man. Guests on your boat include an obnoxious scold, an insufferable live-action roleplayer, and a serial philanderer. Traveling to cities and work sites, you’ll meet with smugglers, a rap group called the Dice Boys, a film director who barely has the time of day for you, and a labor riot, all of which are written with a modern sense of humor that works far more often than not. The game’s ability to handle these moments of comedy and urbanity make the moments of sincere grief feel their gravity.

As a farming game, Spiritfarer is solid! Every resource has its own minigame, whether it’s mining the ore rock itself, fishing from your boat, or working the sawmill, the loom, and the The time management involved in being productive is satisfying, though I ended the game with a lot of materials I had no outlet to sell or use. But that farming makes for a great excuse to enter a meditative state, one that is supported by the fact that Stella’s a fun platforming character to move through space – unlike some games, she feels complete before you get access to some later traversal abilities, and those just make you feel even more powerful.

I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – so far, I’ve played nine. Truthfully, Spiritfarer isn’t so much the tenth – it’s the eleventh. But Spiritfarer remains a game that challenged me to think about how full a game you can make without combat. Spiritfarer is a terrifically entertaining platformer without death – and a platformer constantly mired in it. Its earnest heart will make it a shining game to point toward when I am sick of playing action games dedicated to murder.

Spiritfarer. Stella has assembled Uncle Atul and three more guests for a feast at a lamplit patio. Atul says, excitedly, "I knew you would pull through."

Blaseball

A Sampler Playlist

Fundamentally, Blaseball is a free browser game best described as baseball mixed with Dungeons & Dragons. The game takes place entirely in a small probability generator and a huge legion of fanart, fan fiction, fan twitters, fan bands, fan Discords and subreddits…you get the idea. It’s hard to write about because it’s the most absurd and dense game of 2020, and it’s such a freeform object that it’s hard to pin down. The game is returning from a four-month siesta on March 1st, following a major wave of new development, so a fair warning that when the game comes back it may be fairly different from what I describe. I think Quintin Smith’s video above does a great job explaining what Blaseball was in 2020, so if you want more details, I highly recommend it.

The core of Blaseball is the sport simulator, using athlete stats to determine nine-inning games every hour mostly recognizable as baseball. Each of these games is between a roster of twenty teams, and upon joining the game you’ll choose a favorite based on their name (I went with the Hades Tigers first, before finally settling in with the Seattle Garages) before being able to see their record or their players’ stats. Probability for each game is calculated before the game starts based on those stats, and the primary play mechanic is betting on these games to try to earn cash. Using that cash, you can cast raffle ticket votes into the election held at the end of each week, which will pass a new decree and grant several smaller boons to different teams in the league. This sort of betting mechanic is familiar to those who’ve spent time with the SaltyBet streaming game on Twitch, and the election mechanics work sort of similarly to TwitchPlaysPokemon.

Blaseball fan art of a blaseball card for Seattle Garages athlete Allison Abbott, who is chewing gum and carries a nailed bat.
Art by M. Lee Lunsford

And, like Twitch Plays Pokemon back in 2014, an idle fandom will create its own jokes, its own lore, and its own space to discuss strategies. If the Helix Fossil was enough for a twitch chat to start a meme cult dedicated to its praise, Blaseball has managed to take that and run with it for just about every player in the simulation. The Blaseball Discord is home to the chat where people watch games live, private discussion boards for each team to discuss strategy for the upcoming election, and dedicated channels to posting fanart, fan-wiki lore, and real nerdy statistical analysis. Unlike a lot of fandoms, it’s not just artists or meme creators, though there are plenty of those too. Blaseball fans organized a community driven nonforprofit named Blaseball Cares, dedicated to utilizing the fandom to donate to causes like the Milwaukee Freedom Fund and the California Community Foundation. An organization calling themselves the Society for Internet Blaseball Research publishes properly formatted research papers.

Then there’s The Garages and Fourth Strike Records, musicians who have banded together internationally to produce music reflecting the DIY sensibility of fandom, entirely with lyrics about a fictional sport and fictional athletes. All the songs in the sampler playlist were written by fans, on their own dime, and they’ve maintained a respectable following even while the game has been gone since November. Your mileage is going to vary on this one – if you take pleasure in bands like They Might Be Giants, The Mountain Goats, and The Decemberists writing lyrics that couldn’t possibly exist without being entirely predicated on some real specific nerdy shit, there are some well-written bangers in the…14 albums and musical that have already been written by now. I definitely haven’t listened to all of it, and I don’t think I could recommend doing so in earnest, but my favorite is the chorus of In the Feedback (in the sampler above.)

The Blaseball fandom rapidly ascended from niche community into cult object, and the experience of listening to a pretty catchy garage rock song about a really bad fictional pitcher probably calls to mind Homestuck and bronies. It’s a mixed bag! There are times where the fandom gets very possessive of the game and their favorite characters, and it creates an unwelcome tension. And the never-ending onslaught of games on the hour through the workweek, the rate at which the rules of the game can change within just two or three weeks, and the number of community events that can happen may leave it totally inaccessible to those who haven’t been invested since the beginning.

What’s kept me following the game week to week is really the work of Blaseball developer The Game Band, who have done an excellent job giving us new experiences each week. When the elections happen at the end of each week, it’s an opportunity for them to unveil some new eldritch god who plans to interfere with the experience or some absurdist new rule change that has a new way to threaten our players. The climax in those original twelve seasons was a war with The Shelled One, a literal peanut god that threatened fantastical violence against the players’ favorite athletes. It’s a wonderful vehicle for light fantasy storytelling – players are invested in the teams and athletes of Blaseball already, so the developers can very economically raise the stakes by trusting that just about any change they make will set off a new wave of theories, strategies, and fan works. It’s the dream of every MMO to have players scheming on how they can effect the game itself rather than just build their own character to maximum strength, and Blaseball manages to do that while the only real “direct” interaction players have with the game is gambling and raffles.

I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. The first run of Blaseball is the game of the year because games like Blaseball simply don’t happen any other way. The independent spirit of the game itself, its generosity to fandom work, and the freewheeling strangeness of Blaseball require incredible dedication and confidence the likes of which simply don’t tend to happen in the profit-driven mainstream games industry. I’m not sure Blaseball could have happened the way it did if COVID didn’t have us all cooped up in our homes. Hell, I’m not sure it could have happened the way it did if actual baseball had been able to finish its full season in 2020. I’m very curious to see how the game feels when it returns on March 1st, and I’m hoping they use it as an opportunity to welcome anyone new and curious and to invite those who fell off back into the fold.

Blaseball fan comic. Wyatt Quitter explains the history of the last season to a fellow player on the Tokyo Lift, stating, "So then The Garages were all like, 'What if we exploited a loophole in this popularity contest to resurrect the dead.'" The new player responds, "That sounds like it was a bad idea." Wyatt responds "Look pal, I haven't even gotten to The Snackrifice."
Art by Jonathan Ying.

If Found…

If Found. An eraser on screen peels away sunset into nightfall on an old, decrepit house covered in vines and moss.

A Sampler Playlist

When Paste Magazine posted its 40 Best Games of 2020 List and ranked If Found… as the second best game of the year, I knew I had two choices – to play it immediately after finding out it existed, or to allow it to fall to the background like We Know The Devil, Ladykiller In A Bind, Butterfly Soup, and Cibele. “Acclaimed visual novel about LGBTQ+ experience” is the new frontier of prestige games nobody talks about after year-end list season now that strategy games are becoming cool again.

This game, from Irish developer DREAMFEEL, is maybe two hours long. It also, according to my wife, may barely be a game.

Unlike the popular forms of visual novels in the west based on dating sims and choose-your-own-adventure novels, you do not make choices in the vast majority of If Found. Your primary mechanic is erasure. If Found… tells two running narratives, the primary narrative in the form of a diary. Your primary interaction is to read a section of the diary, erase any marks scratching things out, and then to erase the text and drawings in the diary themselves. The act feels violent. It feels intrusive. I love this mechanical choice. But, no, it’s not very gamelike.

If Found. A journal page, with significant sections scratched out or marked over. You can clearly read the dates Sunday 12th, Dec 13th, and 14th, the name Colum O'Malley, and the word Sorry.

The first narrative, a frame narrative, is that of the lone astronaut Doctor Cassiopeia, stranded in deep space, trying to find her way home. The second, the diary narrative, is that of 23 year old astronomy student Kasio, who can no longer live in the closet in 1993 Ireland and is now presenting as her gender. Kasio leaves her mother’s home to stay with her friends in a condemned old house, a rock band made up of a gay couple and their lead guitarist/vocalist Shans. She keeps a diary of her life at this time, full of fun asides, character sketches, and scratched out unwanted thoughts.

I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. If Found… is the game of the year because it best understands the monumental stakes of feeling. If Found… allows its characters to say hurtful things. The fact that you are not directly playing as Kasio, but as the eraser, allows you the distance to judge character moments for yourself. And it presents this story in a way that is familiar, but never unwelcome.

If Found. An eraser on screen transitions between the fields of Ireland at night and Kasio walking with Shans.

Paradise Killer

Paradise Killer. An interview between Lady Love Dies and Crimson Acid at Crimson Acid's apartment. The transcript reads:
LADY LOVE DIES: |Get on with it."
CRIMSON ACID: "The Holy Seals are the holy grails of secret hunters. They're so locked down and under wraps. I was losing sleep each night thinking abou tthem. I knew K. HX designed the second Seal so I started talking to him. I also knew he was obsessed with me."
LADY LOVE DIES: "Obsessed?"
CRIMSON ACID: "More than I expected. I thought he was just horny for me."

A Sampler Playlist

The moment I heard about the vaporwave murder mystery where you can initiate the final court case five minutes into the game, I knew it was a game I was going to *have* to play before I began considering Game of the Year. The expectations were high for the story of Lady Love Dies, the exiled Investigation Freak who is called back to Paradise Island when the entirety of The Council is murdered just before the Perfect 25th Sequence. Your old friends, the members of The Syndicate of immortals who are trying to resurrect old alien gods, seem eager to sweep things up before you do your job. Lot of secrets in the time you’ve been exiled. Lots of old friends to catch up with.

You’re probably thinking – Alex, that’s a lot of proper nouns.

And you’re right. One of the great joys of Paradise Killer is figuring out how all these proper nouns fit together in a story that ends up taking seriously the pain and exploitation built into a society structured to sacrifice everything for some old ideals of success.

Playing the game is, well, a classic first-person exploration game. As Lady Love Dies, you scour the environments of Paradise Island, through roman plinths and absurd statues and yachts, meeting your nasty demon friend Shinji along the way, finding evidence and interviewing your old friends in The Syndicate. All of them have secrets – you tend to find those out by finding something on the island that someone wanted to cover up or by talking to someone. Maybe the Grand Architect Carmelina Silence’s alibi contradicts something Doctor Doom Jazz told you about the autopsy. Maybe you found an extra knife somewhere hidden, one that surely had nothing to do with the murders, right?

That process of combing through the island is deeply melancholy. For reasons you’ll discover later, everyone but the remaining suspects in The Syndicate have already left the island, one way or another. You find yourself exploring the remnants of an island that’s already dead. There are ghosts of citizens looking for one last peace before annihilation. Alongside evidence related to the case, you find pamphlets talking about worker conditions, squirrelled away contraband punk music and pornography, whiskey that’s been bottled from another island long ago. The game uses that vaporwave aesthetic to really highlight that sense of loneliness like all those great abandoned mall videos do.

Paradise Killer. A beach coastline with apartment complexes and a tall spire in the background. Statues of purple marble depict goat heads and other pagan iconography.

There are solid facts that can be uncovered – with enough time spent on Paradise Island, listening to its city pop, buttering up the information broker/sex icon Crimson Acid or the religious fanatic Witness to the End, all players will reach the same conclusion as to *exactly* who killed the Council in that closed room and how they did it. As long as you play enough to see their bodies, you’ll probably get a good sense of the picture. But it’s the fact that you’re allowed to start the trial immediately that means you may never be 100% sure how much more game there is to play, how many more betrayals there are to uncover, how many more blood gems or collectible mementos there are to find. And, as Trevor Richardson wrote excellently in his piece about the game, you will always be asked to present “your truth” – justice and truth don’t share a name in Paradise.

At this time, that Paradise Killer is my game of the year. Paradise Killer is the game of the year because it is the bravest new vision executed with the most complete package. Its warm, funny characters, its vaporwave, Dreamcast-era aesthetic, its methodical and contemplative gameplay, its themes of economic exploitation, lust, accelerationism vs. privilege, and its twisty, page-turner plot make it the greatest revelation of any game I played this year. The applecart for Danganronpa and Zero Escape has officially been overturned. I want to play one of these every year until I die, even if I never play one this great again.

Paradise Killer. The game offers the A button to talk to Henry Division, a man possessed by a caged demon, bound in the Desolation Cell.

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