Connection, Community, and Joy
Wow. What a year, huh? It’s been March for eight months and somehow, amongst the desert of everything else this year, we’ve had a bumper crop of games. I’m not sure if that really makes up for much, but this year I’ve found more connection, community and joy through games than I have through almost anything else. You’d hope I’d be enthusiastic about it all, being a games writer, but my top games of this year are the ones that made me feel like a part of something bigger than myself, rather than being technically the best. They’re the ones that made my everyday that little bit brighter. I’m excited to share them with you.
My game of the year: Tetris Effect: Connected
I only reviewed this a scant few weeks ago but quite frankly I’m annoyed I missed the original’s release back in 2018. It always looked cool, but it was exclusive to PlayStation 4 and I opted for Xbox One to get a budget-friendly Xbox Game Pass subscription the previous year. That subscription finally paid off this year because… holy shit, Tetris Effect is amazing.
I’ve always been big on music in games: I wrote earlier this year about how much I loved Sayonara Wild Hearts’ devoted, inspirational synthpop; Breath of the Wild’s melancholy piano plinking went so far to creating the delicate, wondrous, somber atmosphere that made that game a classic; and Tetris Effect: Connected utilises the accessibility and uniting power of what is essentially festival-ready EDM to bring you on a journey through humanity, connection, and life. Everything about how it’s constructed is designed to bring you deeper, deeper into the music and make you feel something. It’s life affirming, it’s beautiful, and Tetris as a shorthand for games — all games — is the perfect medium to suck you in that little bit further.
It doesn’t skimp on challenge, or make your time easy — that would defeat the purpose. Multiplayer is riotously difficult and playing the single player modes on Expert is a hefty challenge, but this just makes you more involved, more invested, the way battling through frustration and anger to beat a boss in Dark Souls is. Look, everything I can write about this game is hyperbole, it’s just really really good, and it’s my favourite game I’ve played this year.
Honourable Mention: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I played 150 hours of Animal Crossing in a month. I don’t do that much. I played with old friends and I made new ones. We got together almost every night to see what everyone had built, meet new villagers, explore possibilities. It’s the perfect game for the Switch, with it’s little-bit-at-a-time structure, and thrives in a way the technically limited New Leaf or physically limited earlier home console games were never able to.
That said — and I mentioned I was wary of this in my original review — the update system killed everything for me. I have no objection with being time limited by an Animal Crossing game. The point of the entire series is that things are discovered slowly over time with development of your town and relationships happening at a gradual pace. Because of that, after a few weeks, things just… stopped happening. It poisoned the well. Nintendo paraded everything new before me in flashy update videos online, but there was nothing left to be discovered. I could never again organically find things to do: nothing was in the game yet. It didn’t stop people adjusting their system clocks to artificially access things early, and it turned a lot of players off completely.
We’ll always have that first month of pure joy, though. Maybe I’ll rediscover it when the updates are finished.
Honourable Mention: Hades
I only just finished Hades (well, completed a run. It sort of counts) and it made me realise — wow, I’ve played a lot of roguelikes this year: Going Under, Cadence of Hyrule, Enter the Gungeon (I was late to the party there)… I’ve never really considered myself someone who enjoys the genre, since being thrown backwards hours when I forget to save in an RPG makes me give up almost on the spot and I never finished any of those games, but the cyclic storytelling in Hades is motivation, not punishment. The huge variety of ways to play makes every run immensely fun, and the fact that your relationships with characters change as you experiment is just the cherry on top. It’s absurdly well crafted and I can’t not include it on the list here. It just rules, and I intend to put many more hours into it from here. I imagine it’ll hit the top spot in a few other Doublejump writers’ lists as well.
I do want to talk a little bit about those relationships, though. There’s not many games that have the dynamic and the adaptability to build a web of interconnected characters as deep as Hades does. Every action you take — taking more boons from Ares, chatting to Megaera in the lounge, even just patting Cerberus — makes other characters react. They treat you differently, for better or worse. The world feels alive. Not many games, period, do this, and it’s pretty magical. Just needed to heap some extra praise in for this one, even if it doesn’t mean quite enough to be my game of the year.
Honourable Mention: 51 Worldwide Games
Nintendo has an ability to really sprinkle magic on otherwise underwhelming experiences. There’s nothing really special about 51 Worldwide Games on paper: it’s a big collection of traditional board games the likes of which were probably included on shareware floppy disks in 1992 — Chess, Mahjong, Poker, that kind of thing — but it’s everything that surrounds them that makes this game work. For games that you might not have played, of course the rules are there, but in the little explanatory cutscenes that lead in you’re encouraged to just have a go. Playing a board game in real life requires you to understand what’s happening so you can make the game happen; here, the rules are automatically enforced, so while your move might be bad you’ll learn why, how you can improve, and how you can eventually conquer the AI and then your friends, all on your own. This adventurous spirit underpins some of the best games of all time and it’s captured so sweetly here.
There’s also the absence of stakes. It just doesn’t matter. This game came out mid-lockdown, and it was just a breezy, quiet piece of fun. Online multiplayer is effortless and local multiplayer doesn’t require other people to own the game. I played Hanafuda against Japanese people who were much better than me and lost a dozen games before I won anything, and it was fun the whole time. I played Texas Hold ‘Em and didn’t have to think about losing any real money. Fuck Hex though, my brain can’t comprehend it and I lose all the time and I don’t get why and I’m still mad. It’s fine though. I don’t have to play it. There are 50 other games, after all.
2020’s biggest hits and misses:
Hit: Microsoft Flight Simulator
I didn’t really have much fun with Microsoft Flight Simulator, per se, but boy do I respect the hell out of it. I can’t fly a plane, I don’t know what half of the words mean, and I find the air traffic control system nonsensical and annoying. I’m not invested enough to learn how to use flight instruments and master the skies. What Flight Simulator does for me is provide the best virtual tourism experience perhaps ever generated. Using data from Bing Maps (yeah, that’s a service, apparently) alongside a handful of custom crafted and a mountain of randomly generated objects, we now can go and experience the entire goddamn world. It’s an absolutely monumental technical achievement and achieves the platonic ideal of what a flight simulator can be. I’m excited to see it grow and develop, so I can go and experience parts of the world I’ll never see like I’m actually there.
Miss: Cyberpunk 2077
This game releases on my deadline for this article, and quite honestly I’m sure the game itself will be technically incredible and probably a lot of fun. What makes this a miss is the way the pre-release marketing has become emblematic of the sort of aloof, “ironic” bigotry that plagues a decent section of our hobby. I’ll save subjecting people to CD Projekt Red’s transphobia again, but developers need to respond much better when criticised by the community that plays their games. While Cyberpunk 2077 is the focus of this section, though, there were other examples of marketing bigotry this year: Toybox Inc. was forced to apologise for — and promised to release a patch to remove — the blatant transphobia it included in Deadly Premonition 2, only to deliver a half-assed, incomplete attempt. We should all be demanding better.
Hit: New Hardware Releases
What a time! This year we got a new generation of consoles! The PS5 and Xbox Series seem to have quality of life at the forefront of their minds: streamlined UIs, quick loading times, easier installs. This is on top of wild new performance thanks to the wizards at AMD bringing us brand new, massively improved graphics hardware… that’s also available for PCs, alongside NVIDIA’s equally wizardly new silicon. Truly, this has been a year of wild performance and graphical leaps across the board…
Miss: New Hardware Releases
…except you can’t buy any of it. Oops! With manufacturing and shipping hitting big hurdles, demand is outstripping supply on every single piece of new hardware, with most analysts estimating we won’t be seeing regular stock of PS5s or RTX 3080s on retail shelves until nearly the end of the first quarter of next year. It’s not that I don’t understand why it’s happening, it’s just that I’m disappointed that it is.
Miss: Nintendo’s Scheduling
It’s tough to avoid the negative impacts of a global pandemic and it looks like Nintendo sure didn’t. E3 was cancelled this year, but given Nintendo has usually delivered a stellar Nintendo Direct presentation created outside the conference anyway, most expected something to arrive… but nothing ever did. We’ve had some Partner Showcases, and some Mini Directs to show off some indie titles or remasters or re-releases like Super Mario 3D All Stars, but Nintendo is still drip-feeding its new first party content — the primary reason a lot of people own a Switch — very slowly. This year, we got Animal Crossing: New Horizons, 51 Worldwide Games, Paper Mario: The Origami King and… oh, that’s it. That’s the whole list. Everything else was re-releases. At least next year we have Bravely Default II, I guess. Hopefully it’s all just been delayed and we’ll see some pickup early next year. Oh whoops, I did forget Fitness Boxing 2. Phew. I retract everything.
What I’m looking forward to in 2021:
NEO: The World Ends With You:
YES. YES. YES. I can’t believe this is happening. I loved the original The World Ends With You on DS in 2007, and I even suffered multiple times through the vastly inferior Remix versions on mobile and Switch just to experience it again. The fact we’re getting a sequel 14 years on is nigh-incomprehensible but I am absolutely here for it.
Playdate got announced forever ago, it seems. It looks funky. A little spinny crank thing? Funky as hell, dude. Keita Takahashi, the Katamari Damacy guy, has made a game for it? So funky. It’s built by Swedish synth hardware legends Teenage Engineering? The funkiest possible. Hopefully this actually makes it out next year so I can directly inject this concentrated funk into my body. Yes, it is ready.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild 2? Maybe?:
Look, a man can dream.
Time loop stories are great and never get old. I just watched End of Tomorrow for like, the tenth time, and Dark on Netflix is an absolute banger as well. That said, I wait with trepidation to see just how Deathloop will pull things off. I’m potentially in a minority here, but I found the hard resets in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask immensely off-putting, so my fingers are crossed for a more meaningful, cyclical story a la Hades (hopefully you read my paragraph above). Arkane is yet to pump out any real disappointment though, so I’m excited to get my hands on this one… If I can find a PS5 to play it on.
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