Friday, January 1, 2021

The Games That Mattered To Me in 2020

2020 was a terrible year for a lot of people. For me, it was fine, but it was hard to watch how bad it was for so many other people, and it was especially hard to constantly argue about COVID, politics, racial justice in America, and the other big topics that made 2020, 2020. 

But while everything else fell apart, videogames showed up this year in a big way. 2020 was a great year for games. And of all the great games that came out this year, seven in particular added a lot to my life. Let me tell you just a little bit about each one here, and I'll do a deep dive on my personal game of the year, Hades, in another post.

Wingspan Digital Edition

Last year, I told you the whole story of how I came across the physical version of Wingspan and why it's so important to me. Birds continued to play a huge role in my life this year. I checked for updates on the developer's Twitter account and elsewhere all year until finally on September 17, 2020, the digital version of Wingspan finally released on Steam. By the time I went to buy it, a coworker of mine had already bought it and sent it to me as a gift.

The digital edition turned out to be everything I wanted from it--a faithful recreation of the physical version, with animated birds, ambient bird calls that adapt to which birds are on the current board, bird facts read aloud to you when you play a bird you've never played before, a meditative, calming soundtrack, and smooth play for both single-player and multiplayer experiences. It also had one perk I was not expecting: fun achievements. I don't always chase achievements in the games I play, but the bets achievements are little hints and invitations about what's possible in the game if you try different things. Wingspan's digital edition does this perfectly--I got a lot more out of the game by trying to go for all the achievements, and after dozens of hours of playtime, I finally got them all, and it felt awesome.

Wingspan is also important to me this year because I actually played several rounds with both friends and family, and it was a great way to get together virtually. I would've really missed playing Wingspan with people this year if not for the digital edition. Because of the digital edition, though, I feel like I didn't miss a beat, and instead got to dig even deeper into one of my favorite games and play way more than I would have otherwise, despite everything that happened in 2020.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

This game slid in out of nowhere into my life on December 4, 2020, when I randomly saw a tweet talking about it. I seriously cannot believe that with 85%+ of my internet activity being birds and videogames, no algorithm anywhere found a way to present this game to me until then.

But maybe that's for the best, because that way, I didn't have to wait long before its release. The game came out on Apple Arcade and Steam on December 11, and I played for hours that weekend--several of them with one or two of my sons--and enjoyed literally every second of it. If someone were to try and specifically design a game just for me, I don't know how much better they could do than Alba. It's basically Pokémon Snap but with real animals, with a fun cartoony art style, and a splash of little-girl-vs.-corporation underdog story to go with it. It's a short and sweet game, but one that will honestly stick with me for years, and one I can only hope spawns imitators for me and my family to enjoy in the future.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

There was a splash of discourse this year about games and "fun" thanks to Neil Druckmann, director of The Last of Us Part II, who said in an interview with Buzzfeed, "we don’t use the word 'fun.'"

I get what he was trying to say and that's all fine, but what if a game was dedicated to almost nothing else but the idea of pure fun? For me, that's what Fall Guys feels like. Everything about the game feels bursting with laughter--the art, the design, the marketing, the social media presence--every aspect of the game seems to just want to get you to smile, no matter what. Whether that was their goal or not, that's 100% exactly what it did for me. Every time I played this game, I just had a ball (even if I did occasionally shout in frustration when my character fell down). 

And my kids did too. One of my favorite gaming moments of the year was watching my 4-year-old son make it all the way to the fourth round of a game of Fall Guys by himself, with only 16 other players left out of the original 60 in the game. He and I were both more and more excited with each round he qualified through, and even though he didn't win, seeing him so proud of himself and so excited to get that far is a moment I won't soon forget.

The best part is, that's exactly the kind of moment this game is built to provide, again and again and again. The largest scale example of this is also one of my favorite gaming moments of 2020, when streamer TimTheTatman finally got his first win in the game with over 300,000 people watching him.

For my own part, I've won just four games of Fall Guys total in all my time playing it, and each one is a highlight of my gaming experiences this year. But even when you don't win the whole thing, every minute of Fall Guys is just fun and funny. I don't think I'll be able to completely leave this game for a long, long time.


I had a lot of fun in a lot of games this year, but the first couple hours with Fuser are probably the best I felt playing any videogame this year--and beyond. You see, Fuser makes you feel like a genius, while also legitimately letting you create something. It's pure DJ fantasy--if you've ever had even a little bit of a desire to freely blend together different songs and create remixes, Fuser crosses the entire gap from thought to reality for you and makes being a DJ as easy as playing a videogame--but in a way that lets you still create a mix that's all your own. The first time I played this game and it all came together for me, I literally just starting pumping my fist in the air wildly and would've jumped up shouted in delight had there not been three children sleeping less than 20 feet away from me. It just feels so cool.

I've never really played Minecraft and I didn't try Dreams this year, but I imagine the feeling must be the same to people dedicated to those games--finally putting the pieces together and feeling like you really made something real and new while playing a game. That's the feeling Fuser gives, but within minutes instead of hours, and with dance beats going the entire time.

The campaign gameplay of Fuser is essentially just one long tutorial, introducing you step-by-step to more and more and more and more tools to really create something. I love it so much. It's not a perfect game, and honestly it's more tool than game, but it's delivering something that no other game can deliver, and for me--a person who likes music and has dabbled with making music but doesn't really dedicate real time to it--it was literally a dream come true. It still feels like magic every time I play it. Like Fall Guys, I think this will be a game that I keep circling back to in between other stuff for a very long time.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." He had a good run being right for about 2500 years, but on August 14, 2020 he was forever proven wrong with the release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2. This game started up and I was instantly a child again.

We didn't have any game consoles or a PC that could play real games in my house when I was growing up, so most of my formative gaming experiences were in friends' houses. Tony Hawk came up multiple times, in multiple friends' houses, and I probably worked out dozens of hours of playtime across several different Tony Hawk games without ever owning a copy myself. I distinctly remember one sleepover where everyone else had fallen asleep around me on the couches in my friend's basement, but I stayed up for several more hours trying to beat the whole campaign before the morning, hoping the whole time that no one would wake up and take the controller from me.

Within seconds of booting up this remastered version of the first two games, I was back in that basement, and the game felt exactly how I remembered it. It's truly amazing to me how quickly the muscle memory came back and the combos I worked out at friends' houses 15+ years ago came back together in minutes. 

Before the full game released in August, Activision released a demo of a single level of THPS 1+2 that you could only play for two minutes at a time, but repeat as many times as you wanted. I literally played just that two-minute demo for five hours. I was back in the same river, and I just didn't want to get out.

So you can imagine that when the full game did come out, I dove headfirst into that river again. It was pure joy. The combos, the skaters, the fashion, the soundtrack--it was all back and all just as fun as I remembered it. I dedicated myself to unlocking all the hidden characters as fast as I could, which turned out to really push my skills to new heights because the challenges required to do that were not easy at all. But this time, I actually owned the game, and I could take all the time I needed to figure it out. Little Paul back in that basement couldn't be happier with how things turned out for him.

Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales

If you've been around this blog before you might know that the original Marvel's Spider-Man back in 2018 was a big moment for me. I will always love that game. But honestly, I think Miles Morales is a better game in pretty much every way.

Miles Morales has the unique honor of being the only videogame I've ever played that brought me to tears at the end. I don't want to spoil anything but let's just say that I think the characters in Miles Morales are so well done, and the team at Insomniac that made this game make it so easy for you to care about every single of them.

Miles Morales is a much shorter game than the original but every game system and mechanic has been touched up in big and little ways, and it's simply a better game for it. One of the most interesting differences to me is how Peter's game was focused on saving the city of New York, but Miles's game is very focused on helping the people of Harlem. This difference touches every aspect of the design from top to bottom, and I think it's the biggest reason I like Miles's game even more than Peter's. Peter would get calls from Yuri about what the cops were doing and how to help them--drug busts, car chases, store robberies--but Miles has an app with requests from his neighbors--stuck on a window-washing platform, lost cat, missing merchandise at a local shop. While Peter's game used the "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" phrase plenty, Miles's game makes that so much more of a reality. By the end of the game I felt like I knew and cared about the people of Harlem and I was actually serving them. Peter's game didn't make me feel that about the city of New York. It makes Miles Morales a really special game, and I can't wait to see what Insomniac does with the next Spider-Man game.


I've used a lot of superlatives throughout this post--after all, these are my favorite 7 games out of dozens that I played this year. But let me be perfectly clear: Hades is my favorite game of 2020, and probably several years in either direction.

Hades has it all--edge-of-your-seat, push-you-to-your-limits game design; emotional, surprising, and satisfying storytelling; world-class vocal performances; a harmony of game and narrative that surpasses almost anything else I've ever played; characters you grow to love and genuinely miss after you stop playing; art that pulls you into a familiar but wholly original world and makes you want to explore every nook and cranny; music that glues all of this together and lifts it all to new heights. Hades deserves a spot next to the all-time great games on every level. 

I've been a fan of Supergiant Games for years--Transistor appeared on my list from 2016, and Pyre on my list for 2017. Pyre won the honor of being my highest value game in 2017--getting the best cost-to-playtime ratio of any game I played that year, with $0.42 per hour. I've loved every game from Supergiant, but Hades takes everything great about what they've done and launches right off the top of every chart.

According to my Epic Games client, I've played Hades for 151 hours, 50 minutes, and 28 seconds. That means Hades blows Pyre out of the water: $0.13 per hour. That is surely my best cost-to-playtime ratio of all time, and that playtime puts Hades in my top ten games of all time in terms of playtime, and probably the top five for single-player games. Playtime is just one imperfect way to measure a game, of course, but it's a concrete, objective measure and says a lot about a game. 

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Hades is that it did all of this--and in my opinion deserves a spot among the highest-praised titles in gaming history--and it was made mostly by 20 people. 

In business terms, Hades goes against a lot of the current wisdom--it's a new IP using familiar but unlicensed characters, made by a small team with strict policies about work-life balance that directly oppose most of the current videogame industry standards, released in early access on a brand new platform (Epic Games Store in 2018), and only released on one major console when it reached full 1.0 release this year (Nintendo Switch). According to current business wisdom, Hades shouldn't have succeeded as much as it has, but I can only hope that the rest of the industry looks at Hades and Supergiant and tries to follow suit.

There are so many things to talk about with Hades, and so many ways to talk about them. I can't say it all here, but I will try to say the most important things in a follow-up post soon.

And that's the list!

2020 is surely a year that we'll all remember for a whole host of reasons for probably the rest of our lives. But years down the road, while we're talking about COVID and elections and everything else that happened back in 2020, I'll also remind you about these seven games. It was a crappy year, but it was really a great year for games. Thank you, videogames and the people who make them, for showing up in such a big way just when we needed you most.

P.S. If you made it this far, as always, thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts. If you'd like to hear more thoughts from me about videogames, I've gone full millenial now and started a podcast with a couple friends, called Chance Time! Check it out here if you're interested! Thanks again, and have a great 2021!

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