2020 saw the launch of a whole new console generation for gaming, albeit one that a lot of people, including myself, didn’t actually get to experience. I’ve been searching for a PS5 since they came out, but I think games like Demon’s Souls and Spider-Man Miles Morales will have to appear on next year’s list – if I can find one by then.
But even if the PS5 and whatever the new Xbox is called didn’t define gaming in 2020, this was still a big year for games. With so much time stuck inside, gaming offered that kind of obvious relief that caused almost everyone I know to pick up playing games in one way or another. Like my list of the best TV, this list won’t contain exclusively games that came out this year, but rather games that were important to me this year. As such, for this list as well I’m ditching my usual ‘runner up’ and ‘best of’ format for something that provides more general highlights of my year.
It seems funny to me to put Animal Crossing: New Horizons on a list of the best games in 2020, because I actually didn’t enjoy it all that much. I loved Wild World and New Leaf quite a lot when they came out, but I fell off New Horizons pretty hard and far earlier than a lot of my friends. But of course, it’s hard to think of a game as quintessential for this year than Animal Crossing, which released just as lockdowns were starting all over the world.
Perhaps over a hundred think pieces have been written about the effect of New Horizons, a game which inspired friends, celebrities and politicians to buy a Nintendo Switch and helped catapult Nintendo into becoming the most profitable company in Japan. So I can’t really say that much new about the addictive cycle of chopping trees and fishing for endless Sea Bass to scrape by enough bells to get that typewriter for my home office before it disappears from the shop at the end of the day – all I’ll say is that in most of my photos and videos from March, if you look closely enough, you’ll see someone playing Animal Crossing in the background.
Ok, so Resident Evil 3, Capcom’s remake of a game from 1999, isn’t actually that good. It’s short, too cutscene orientated, and has a script that is sometimes even more like a terrible B movie than most of the games in the series – which is impressive considering. But I didn’t make a best of list last year, and this year I replayed 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, as well as Devil May Cry 5, which was made on the same impressive RE Engine. And the release of Resident Evil 3 this year seems like a good enough excuse to praise Capcom’s output over the last two years.
Resident Evil 3 might not be impressive on its own, but played and viewed in conjunction with Resident Evil 2, and a much better project emerges. The games, sold together as Raccoon City Edition, are a fantastically interwoven narrative of a city on the verge of complete zombie takeover. With player control alternating between police officer Leon Kennedy, STARS operative Jill Valentine, Umbrella soldier Carlos Oliveria and Claire Redfield, the games manage to tell not only a classic Resident Evil story of political and corporate corruption with some explosions and sewer monsters, but also a couple of surprisingly well thought through smaller stories of people living in the eponymous Raccoon City.
Neither Resident Evil game is what I’d call “well-written”, but the writing in these games shines with a particular kind of self-awareness that doesn’t call too much attention to the fact that it’s self aware. It knows just how to tone its winking puzzle notes and corny one liners. Top it all off with some moments of sincere and successful attempts at cultivating a proper horror atmosphere and excellent map design in areas like the Police Department and Racoon City hospital and you have a duology that never feels like it is stuck in the past, all while paying homage to it.
Professor Layton and the Lost Future is a game I first played on the Nintendo DS when I was around 10 or 11 years old and such carries a lot of nostalgic value for me. Because of this, I decided to pick up the HD remaster of the game when it came out on iOS earlier this year.
There’s much to say about the story, which slowly builds the relationship between Layton and his former girlfriend in a way that makes the ending of the game hit hardest as an unexpectedly emotional climax to a trilogy which was known for bombastic and confusingly convoluted endings. The Lost Future probably has the best story of any of the Layton games because of this emotional throughline, which works wonders at tying the fantastical twists and turns of the usual mystery into something with which the player can truly empathize.
What I would most like to highlight here, though, is the game’s music. Although I played Professor Layton and the Lost Future on my phone, I didn’t play it anywhere I could. Once I started the game, I realised I had to play it with headphones connected. The Lost Future’s best feature, something shared with all of the Layton games, is its wonderful soundscape. The voice acting, especially in the PAL regions, is really wonderful, but my highest praise has to go to Tomohito Nishiura’s score, showing a composer working at the top of his game. Nishiura’s soundtrack for this game perfectly captures the bittersweet core that lies at the heart of Lost Future’s story. Even the tracks for the streets of future London have a melody that makes exploring what looks like a child’s picture book into something more haunting and moody.
While the main draw of the Layton series lies in their clever puzzles and playful stories, the music is what elevates the series into the realm of the great. Sadly, Lost Future remains the peak of the games, showcasing the series firing on all cylinders. Still, it’s lucky something this odd and sad got managed to get made at all, smuggled in the cloak of a puzzle collection that even Phoebe from Friends loves to play.
Hideo Kojima’s status as a genius stands on somewhat shaky ground. His games have ranged from inspired to tiring and Death Stranding, his first project unrelated to the Metal Gear series in many years and his first under new company Kojima Productions, falls often to the ‘tiring’ side of the equation.
I have yet to finish Death Stranding and when I do, I imagine that I might regret placing it on this list in the first place. But the joys of walking around the countryside are something that has yet to really be gamified, and Kojima’s stab at it in Death Stranding is largely successful. Walking in this game is not only fun, it is often serene, a mood big budget video games do not often focus on capturing. The game’s trick is in the extent that it chooses to engage the player. For the most part, you can switch off during many of the long treks through the post apocalyptic American landscape. But the game pulls you in just about enough by using risks such as tripping, toppling and some mild stealth section sections to keep your mind active enough to stop you completely zoning out. In that way, Kojima’s game manages to effectively deliver on its premise of being a walking deliveryman, even when the game’s driving, action and story often leave something to be desired.
Like Professor Layton, however, what I would like to highlight in Death Stranding is the music. There’s something inspired about the way Kojima deploys the soundtrack in Death Stranding – made up of a collection of his favourite indie bands, Kojima often holds back on playing any music in the game’s open world, instead favouring silence. Occasionally, however, the game drops in a track as you walk, the effect of which has yet to wear out its welcome for me. Even though Death Stranding is a game that seems to be perfect for podcast listening, I can’t play it like that in fear of missing a needle drop. And as such, I have no choice but to zone in to Death Stranding and zone out of reality.
If Death Stranding nails the minute to minute feeling of walking, then A Short Hike captures the emotions of a long walk through nature. Or maybe more accurately a short walk. A Short Hike is only around an hour or two long on the first playthrough, but as a fan of short games and someone with increasingly less and less time to sink into long ones, the self restraint shown by developer Adam Robinson-Yu is appreciated by me.
Using a style that evokes 3D games on the Nintendo DS like Phantom Hourglass, the tiny open world of A Short Hike has been compared to 2017’s Breath of the Wild, but to my mind more evokes the little playgrounds of Super Mario Odyssey, all teeming with things to see and do. Although the controls and movement options of the game are extremely simple, and the characters you meet around the island light on dialogue (although full of personality), the game brims with that same sense of the mild excitement you get on a wandering walk, where your brain is free to become distracted by the sights around you.
If you were to ask me my favourite gaming experience of the lockdown, it would not have been Animal Crossing fruit trades, nor the countless games of Smash Bros Ultimate that I lost hopelessly in – it was instead replaying the From Software classic Bloodborne with two of my friends who were otherwise completely unaware of the game or its contents.
Bloodborne isn’t a particularly lockdown focused game, although if one wanted to, parallels are there to be drawn between the Healing Church’s incompetence in containing the scourge of the beast that results in people cowering in fear within their homes. However, it’s unlikely that we’d ever have found the time to play through a 30 hour plus game, including the fantastic Old Hunters DLC without the “help” of the pandemic.
Still, if I can have any excuse to play through one of the greatest video games produced, especially with some real life jolly cooperation, then it would be foolish not to take it. I can’t talk much to the combat of Bloodborne without sounding like a bit of an idiot, given that my knowledge of Souls combat doesn’t extend particularly far. But I can talk about the story, perhaps one of my favourites in any form of media.
Bloodborne takes advantage of its medium more than most games in telling its story of plagues, academic and religious hubris, creatures from beyond our understanding and the interplay of dreams and reality. From the game’s opening of werewolf hunting in a city to its ending of fighting a manifestation of motherly trauma inside of a space created by the collective conscious of madmen, Bloodborne spools out information about the tragedy of the city of Yarnham so slowly and smoothly, utilising every trick in the design book, that a whole course could be centered around its manner of storytelling.
World building is a form of narrative that is most suited to video games, as only in this art-form does the player actually inhabit and interact with the world itself. Miyazaki’s games are not alone in understanding this, and indeed not perfect (the occasional over-reliance on item descriptions as a narrative device occasionally makes deciphering the story akin to reading an encyclopaedia) but in general they have an excellent grasp on environmental storytelling, where even the way locations fit together play into the grander narrative. Nothing in Bloodborne feels arbitrary or pointless – everything from Cainhurst Castle to Mergo’s Loft feels deliberately in service of creating one of the most complete, enchanting and terrifying worlds ever imagined.