If there was ever a year that video games earned a noble and proper place in not just our popular culture but our society, 2020 was it.
I’ve lost track of the number of stories and personal anecdotes I’ve heard and read from people who have said with heartfelt sincerity that this game or that helped them weather their time alone at home during the pandemic. For some, it was joking around and playfully lying to friends in Among Us, for others it was travelling through the endless dungeons of hit indie hack ‘n’ slasher Hades, and for still more it was completely escaping the real world and stepping into the virtual reality of Half-Life: Alyx.
The game that got me through the first months of the pandemic was Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I was never a fan of the franchise before, but something about this wholesome and cartoonish life simulator was just what the doctor ordered during a year of isolation. It created a community of millions around the world who visited each other’s little virtual paradises and shared what they found online for everyone to see.
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And though my interest in Animal Crossing gradually waned as the pandemic pushed on, there were, happily, plenty of other games that helped while away the seemingly endless hours of 2020. Whether I was discovering the ruined yet lush landscapes of a post-human world, exploring the complicated relationship between Alaskan siblings with special twin powers, or swinging my way through an urban jungle as a freshly minted superhero, video games served as a welcome escape from the dreary worries of a year like no other.
Here are my 10 favourite games of 2020.
10. Marvel’s Spider-man Miles Morales (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5)
It seems to end almost before it begins, but our brief time as teenaged web-slinger Miles Morales is unforgettable. Not only does this game serve as a grand showcase for nearly everything the just-launched PlayStation 5 can do, from graphics and sound to controller effects and quick loads, it gives us a bit more time to get to know the young hero who is fast becoming a Marvel fan favourite. The sugar on top is that its characters and their relatable problems serve as a beacon of inclusion for underrepresented gamers everywhere.
9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Switch)
I fell unexpectedly hard and quick for this little gem, dutifully coming back day after day to sculpt my island, perform welcomingly familiar tasks such as planting gardens and going fishing, and eventually jump on a floatplane to visit the little personal oases that others had created for themselves. I eventually ran out of things to do and moved on, but for a couple of months this colourful life sim delivered a sorely needed daily dose of delight.
8. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S|X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC)
Though I’ve yet to finish this enormous and sumptuous historical epic (even during a seemingly endless pandemic there are so only so many hours in a day), I know I’ll keep coming back through the holidays and into the new year. Stunning world design, an instantly likeable protagonist — trust me; choose the female avatar option for this one — terrific combat, and an almost endless array of activities coalesce to create an action-packed adventure set within a fascinating period.
7. Gears Tactics (Xbox Series S|X, Windows PC, Xbox One)
The folks behind XCOM need to watch their backs, because The Coalition and Splash Damage have created a worthy contender to sit on the turn-based tactics throne. Loaded with brawny soldiers you can customize and will come to love, Gears Tactics delivers challenging and beautifully rendered combat scenarios that will furrow your brow as you attempt to get all your grunts through each mission alive. It grows a smidge repetitive as things progress — missions come in just a handful of flavours — but it ends well before wearing out its welcome.
6. Tell Me Why (Xbox One)
In a year in which even triple-A game studios have begun to embrace gender diversity and fluidity within their wares, Tell Me Why — the latest narrative adventure from the makers of Life Is Strange — stands out. It’s an earnest and engaging study of Alaskan twins — one a trans man — dealing with life-changing events following the death of their mother. It’s an authentic look at how a rural community copes with change and covers up secrets, with just a tad of supernatural wonder thrown in for good measure.
5. Ghost of Tsushima (PlayStation 4)
It’s admittedly reductive to call this an interactive Akira Kurosawa movie (though, to be fair, it does have something called Kurosawa mode), but there’s no denying that Ghost of Tsushima shares a visual style and respect for history with the renowned auteur. Set during the Mongol invasion of Japan on the intricately recreated island of Tsushima, this open-world adventure delivers thrilling samurai action and compelling drama while sneaking in some edifying historical facts on the sly.
4. Final Fantasy VII Remake (PlayStation 4)
Though it feels short and unfinished, Final Fantasy VII Remake nonetheless wows with its peerless presentation, deep dive into long beloved characters’ lives, and engaging combat — which, thankfully, includes an option for something close to classic turn-based play. And its subtle cliff-hanger ending opens things up for Final Fantasy VII to grow and change in ways most of us never imagined. The only real worry, given how long we waited for this game, is whether we’ll be twiddling our thumbs for half a decade before seeing a follow-up.
3. Demon’s Souls (PlayStation 5)
I was too immature a player to fully appreciate the original Demon’s Souls back in 2009, but after playing and adoring nearly every other game developer FromSoftware released in the years since I was more than happy to revisit this striking remake from Bluepoint Games and Sony IE. Brutally challenging yet (almost) always fair, the stamina-based combat system is wildly gratifying when I’m playing my best, and the game’s dark and maze-like environments are hauntingly beautiful. For me, it was the best game to accompany the arrival of this year’s new consoles.
2. Nioh 2 (PlayStation 4)
I’ve dumped more hours into this semi-historical action RPG than I care to admit, repeatedly revisiting missions and areas to grind my way to a stronger character, collect missed items and simply enjoy the thrill of the game’s sophisticated and intense combat, which never grows old thanks to a mammoth array of weapons and fighting styles that provide seemingly endless tactical options. The Nioh games have been (understandably) lumped in with games attempting to emulate the Dark Souls franchise, but this sequel has enough personality and nuance to establish Team Ninja’s series as a thing all its own.
1. The Last of Us Part II (PlayStation 4)
The choice for top spot on my list this year was never in dispute. Naughty Dog’s second dive into a world in which humanity has been brought to its knees by a deadly fungal pandemic is an emotional roller coaster led by two women on a collision course fuelled by revenge. It is deeply human in its depiction of both heroes, managing the extremely difficult trick of making us care for and empathize with them even as they make horrific choices. That all of this is set within the most realistic and immersive post-human world this rabid fan of post-human worlds has yet encountered just sweetens the pot. If I could take just one game from 2020, The Last of Us Part II would be it.