The Best Games of 2020
Illustratie: Gil Elvgren
The past year was a good year for retreating into hobbies, considering all the time we were suddenly spending at home – although, be honest, how much extra time did you really spend on self-actualisation? From now on, you will always know that the excuse of not having enough time to do what you really want to do is just that: an excuse. But, having recently gotten out of a boring 9-to-5 job myself, I must be fair and admit that there`s nothing quite as soul-rending as the ennui of necessary daily life. If only all our energy wasn´t wasted on simply surviving!
Thankfully, we will always have video games to live vicariously through the digital lives and tales of fictional characters. Take a seat and spend what is hopefully the end of this godforsaken pandemic by enjoying these five video game tales, escaping from the walls of your house into the digital environments where you’re free to do what you want without consequence.
5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Nintendo
This Japanese series of world-building ‘social simulation’ video games, going strong for almost 20 years, saw its latest release in March of this year (Two other games on this list were also released in March, around the same date even, which is kind of prophetic considering that’s about when it all started).
Nowadays, if you visit a millennial’s home, odds are you’ll get a tour through their real-life living accommodations, and, if there’s a Nintendo Switch under the tv, next you’ll be shown their Animal Crossing-abode. A friend who had moved close by and who I visited this year (keeping to all the rules, of course), showed me how detailed and immense the game is. You can fish, hunt, chop wood, grow fruits and vegetables, participate in games and sports, decorate your home with thousands of items, hunt for fossils, visit museums filled with your spoils, meet new characters (all anthropomorphised animals even though your player character is human), have them live on your island, and visit the island of your friends by going online – all this is only the tip of the iceberg. The friend I visited had been relegated to a corner of his live-in girlfriend’s island, who celebrated my social call by taking in a new island tenant – a surly cat also named Tom. In these days of social isolation, it’s understandable to consider Animal Crossing a much-needed oasis. It’s darn cute, too.
4. Among Us – Innersloth
Technically released in 2018, Among Us flew under the radar until it blew up in 2020 when YouTubers and Twitch-streamers started playing it (games often become popular by entering the young adult mainstream in this fashion). It has now become the most popular game of all time with a player base of 500 million(!) in November. In the game, up to 10 players each have tasks they must complete on the map, while up to three of them are secretly impostors who need to kill all the other players without being caught. The players have emergency meetings in which they can discuss who the killers are and vote off suspected players. It’s John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) in game form.
In games, I sometimes have an issue with being relegated to the options that the game has provided for you. If you’re an imaginative person, you can find yourself disappointed with your lack of real input. Also, I don’t really like multiplayer. Among Us, however, is truly addictive. The discussions in which you can type your own responses can make a capable liar create dissent in the group and get innocent people killed. Ever read Camus’ L’étrangère? In Among Us, you’ll find people suspecting you for the basest of reasons – mob rule at its finest. These people can vote too, dear reader. The game is free on smartphones and only four euros on PC, so give it a go if you’ve got five minutes to kill.
3. Doom: Eternal – id Software
Id Software are the fathers of first person shooter games. Their opuses Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) introduced all the trappings of the genre, and anybody who had a PC at the beginning of the nineties might remember shooting the two worst types of creatures in these games: Nazis and hell demons, respectively.
Often, games are seen as nothing more than shooting galleries that train impressionable youths to become angry incels, and unfortunately, it is true that the most popular games are often boring killing simulators. But even in this genre, beauty can be achieved. Doom Eternal, sequel to 2016’s Doom, shows the ultimate testosterone monster, the Doom Slayer, as he decimates gorgeously designed hellspawn in beautifully destructed arenas, set to a pumping metal soundtrack by Mick Gordon (seriously, look up Doom (2016) on Spotify and listen to it on your next run – adds 5 miles to your record). The gore is intense, the weapons feel dangerous, and the action just won’t let up. Rip And Tear!
2. Half-Life: Alyx – Valve
Half-Life (1998) is one of the greatest games ever made, and proved games can have compelling narratives in a time when stories in games were often no more than a ‘Congratulations!’ after winning. Half-Life 2 (2004) became a flagship for next-generation physics and graphics in video games. After the last Half-Life game was released by Valve in 2007(!), they went quiet for 13 years. Out of nowhere, a sequel was announced, surprising the entire gaming community. In 2020, Half-Life: Alyx became the first killer app for the still nascent Virtual Reality-technology.
After Gordon Freeman has been locked in stasis by the elusive G-Man, the story switches to Alyx, Gordon’s partner in crime, as she takes the fight to the Combine who have taken over Earth and are stripping it for resources. In VR, you really feel the effects of haptic interactivity as you look around beautiful environments, pick up anything and everything and personally interact with the entire world around you. From putting bullets in your gun, to drawing on dusty windows, to throwing anything on your path against zombified enemies in desperate defense, it truly is like you are really there. Headcrabs jumping on your head makes you throw up your arms in startled flinch, getting shot makes you fearfully crouch behind cover, walking on narrow catwalks at skyscraper height makes your legs wobble.
A proper VR-headset is still around 1000 euros, but if anything validates the price, it’s Half-Life: Alyx. Good to have you back, HL.
1. Amnesia: Rebirth – Frictional Games
Frictional Games, perhaps my favourite developer, reinvented horror (not horror-games, horror full-stop) with the release of their star maker Amnesia – The Dark Descent (2010). The scarce appearance of monsters combined with a terrific storyline and amazing sound design made it so you were truly helpless and terrified playing this game – like a spring that cannot uncoil, you’re constantly fighting that awful urge that you might get scared – which doesn’t help at all when you finally do, of course.
Five years later, SOMA (2015) added an ontologically horrifying narrative to the proceedings, and in this way became the first game to have an effect on my personal philosophies.
Amnesia – Rebirth, a direct sequel to its predecessor ten years earlier, is the culmination of all that Frictional Games has learned. An expedition to Algeria in 1937 goes horribly wrong when the border between our world and a Lovecraftian plane becomes torn. It is up to 27-year old Anastasie Trianon, heavily pregnant (a boon for representation to be sure), to find her way out and help survivors along the way. Demons based on Arabic mythology (ghūls, ifrit, jinn; a nicely unique touch) fill out the role of terrifiers, but it’s the human level that makes the game truly scary. The expedition members come from all walks of life, and none are spared. They are hurt, they want to go home, they break when their loved ones perish. Tasi herself, whispering to her baby to keep sane, is fragile and human.
The locales are absolutely gorgeous; both the scifi-esque Otherworld, destroyed and eternally cast in shadow, and the Algerian ruins, incredibly realistic and eerily familiar if you have ever visited catacombs in the Mediterranean or walked through dripstone caves filled with stalactites and creepy-crawlies.
An absolute must-play. You walk, you hide, you solve puzzles and read Eldritch lore, so don’t fret if you’re not really a gamer – it’s easy enough. And after a hellish session, you’ll be glad your biggest issue is being stuck on your couch.
Tom Breedveld (1994) is working on a film project, trying to make money by writing, and finishing two studies. He can’t deny the pandemic didn’t have a whiff of ‘much needed break’ to it.