2020 has been an important year for video games, and not just because we weren’t supposed to leave the house. There were two major console launches—the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X—as well as big titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the Final Fantasy VII remake, and Cyberpunk 2077 (we said big, not good!). Slate staffers recently convened to discuss what they played to pass the time in lockdown, what games surprised and disappointed them, and how many hours they honestly spent in Animal Crossing.
Karen Han: I don’t think it’s out of line for me to say that this was the biggest year for games in recent memory, not just because of new console launches but because I feel like, thanks to the pandemic, we had a lot more time on our hands to be playing games. Is that fair to say, at least for this group?
Daniel Schroeder: I think you’re spot on. I’m often on top of the gaming discourse, but only ever through podcasts and reviews. Before this year I never had chunks of time big enough to descend into and obsess over a new game like I like to. This year I was able to sort of keep up!
Seung Park: I think that’s absolutely true, for me at least. Some anecdotal evidence: I picked up Animal Crossing the week it came out and racked up 40 hours in the first seven days. That has never happened before, and partly that’s a testament to the great gameplay loop that Animal Crossing has but also to the amount of new free time I had on my hands when all of my other entertainment options (going out to dinner, movies, etc.) got furloughed.
Melissa Kaplan: I can also attest to this. Before, I considered myself an infrequent gamer, but passionate and engrossed when I could be involved. With large swaths of uninterrupted time, I’ve been able to immerse myself in new and old games and explore games that I’d had on the back burner for years. I’ve become one of those people following up on what studios are releasing and researching titles people like.
Benjamin Frisch: For sure. More than ever I was looking for games to occupy my time this year, and I definitely played things I wouldn’t have in any other year.
Han: I feel like Animal Crossing: New Horizons was probably one of the biggest culprits when it comes to absorbing time into a black hole, but I’m curious to know what else you guys really invested in this year. I’ve sunk about 90 hours into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as of this morning. What has been good enough to grab your attention enough to merit hours and hours of play?
Park: Apart from Animal Crossing, I was pretty hyped about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla so I grabbed Odyssey in the run-up and put 110 hours into it, driven by its gorgeous open world and fun (if predictable) story. Kind of ironic since Valhalla itself turned out to be kind of disappointing for me!
Schroeder: I am so glad I mailed my Switch to my mom so she could play Animal Crossing (and Zelda: Link’s Awakening) because I did not want to see the number of hours I’d sunk into it. But the real times suck for me came with the release of Spelunky 2.
Frisch: The Civilization series has always been my go-to time sink, and I hadn’t touched Civ VI, which is a great game, until this year. I also dipped into Final Fantasy XIV for the first time during the early days of lockdown. I played … way too much of that game, and enjoyed it while I was playing it, but looking back I didn’t come away from it feeling like I had gained much. I don’t think I could tell you a single character’s name. MMOs are maybe just not for me.
Park: I can’t tell you how many times I bounced off Final Fantasy (across many games). There’s just so much exposition and pregame to sit through.
Schroeder: I’ve been so tempted to get back into an MMO. My little brother has been wasting his days on World of Warcraft again.
Frisch: They are dopamine treadmills, to be sure.
Kaplan: I put 150 hours into Dragon Quest XI, as I’m a fan of the old-school franchise for NES. There’s a component of the game that lets you play everything in 2D/8-bit, and there are flashbacks to the older games. It’s a bit more limited than other RPGs I enjoy, but there are a lot of interesting fight moves to unlock and a lot of twists and turns in the story. Once I was done with that, I thought I’d try this game called Dark Souls because I craved more of a challenge. Oh boy. That’s where I currently live.
Han: Seung, I’m curious what’s not working for you in Valhalla! It didn’t immediately click for me, but I’m having a lot of fun with it right now (mostly trying to improve my settlement like I’m playing a Harvest Moon game instead).
Park: Well … I think the biggest reason Valhalla didn’t grab me as much as Odyssey did was that the world felt a little bit claustrophobic. In Odyssey you’re met with this expansive, oceanic world that seems boundless. Compared with this, Valhalla’s map, with its smaller rivers and hard demarcations between quest regions, felt smaller. I did like how its story was structured—kind of like series chapters—but that didn’t really come together for me either. I think I made it to Lunden before I lost interest in the overarching plot. Combat also felt a bit heavier and not as responsive as Odyssey’s, although that could’ve just been my build. (I usually like fighting with daggers and swords a lot more than axes and blunts, which was bad for my Valhalla play-through because that game has very little in the way of daggers and swords.)
Han: Daniel, Spelunky 2 is still a total mystery to me—what is it about the game that you love?
Schroeder: I adore that game and keep returning to its constant death-and-repeat cycle because it balances thrill and frustration so well. The game is about an explorer descending into a series of caves inside the moon, but the story is thin because that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for its unforgiving brutality. And the game is cruel, with an abundance of monsters and traps ready to murder you at any moment. But it’s cruelty with a purpose. Nothing is particularly difficult; there’s just always so much going on that if I’m not paying attention I’m finished. So every death is an accident of my own design. Which makes each new discovery, every new world or secret uncovered, a big win. Even just getting one level deeper than I did in my last run is a more satisfying feeling than I’ve had with any other game in a long time.
Kaplan: Man, Daniel, this makes me interested in Spelunky 2, as someone who just got into Dark Souls. That game is merciless when it comes to bringing about the player’s death, but the outcome of that experience for the many players I’ve talked to about it means that even the most minor milestones feel gigantic. I’ve developed more of a respect for this level of challenge—it doesn’t fill me with anxiety so much as it really makes me feel like a part of the game. And it’d be nice to get this from a game without so many undead, creepy things.
Han: Melissa, do you think your passion for Dark Souls will lead you to the new Demon’s Souls remake?
Kaplan: I absolutely want to play Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls III, which I’m told connects with the original DS story a little more closely than Dark Souls II did. My limitation is that I only have a Nintendo Switch! I picked one up in 2018, when I had a little more time before joining Slate, and Breath of the Wild made me love gaming again. So I need to pick up a PlayStation. I think I do fit the category of person whom 2020 turned into a bigger gamer. I never even thought I’d own more than one console at a time. Once I do pick one up, I plan to play Valhalla and the later Final Fantasy games. But I think the only 2020 title I’ve played is Animal Crossing. I have a pretty gnarly attic filled with pandas.
Han: Has anyone has tried this year’s most-talked-about release, Cyberpunk 2077?
Park: I’m playing through Cyberpunk right now and I’m enjoying the story so far! The characters are great and you can tell [the creators] put a lot of work into the dialogue. Combat is so-so, although I’m hilariously OP at the moment thanks to a weird bug where I got duplicates of every weapon I picked up during a quest. I haven’t run into any massive bugs or crashes (playing on a new, beefy PC), but I’m sure that’s not the case for many others.
Frisch: Man, Cyberpunk 2077 is such a minefield! I’ve had a few game-breaking bugs on my PS4 Pro, which has dampened my enjoyment for sure. Even besides the glitches, there’s something that feels surprisingly basic about the game. Like, I didn’t expect it to be a deeply political game about the evils of techno-capitalism or anything like that, but cyberpunk as a genre is so rich in potential allegory for all sorts of contemporary social and political problems, and so far in my play-through Cyberpunk 2077 has … none of that. It’s a game about hellscape capitalism, produced under hellscape capitalism (see: all the labor reporting about CD Projekt Red), so maybe that isn’t surprising, but it’s a shame that a game that has so much technical ambition seems so much less ambitious as a story. I don’t mean to say it’s an awful slog or anything like that—I’m actually having quite a bit of fun with it—but it isn’t the transcendent experience that the studio’s previous game, The Witcher 3, had me hoping it would be.
Park: It’s also basic in a technical sense, I feel. It’s a wide, sprawling open world, but there just isn’t a lot you can do in it. The gun shops, bars, etc. all feel alike. All consumables have the same buff or debuff. The police A.I. is hilariously basic and spawns and despawns out of nowhere. The braindance sections are basically “scroll until the highlighted section and look for a yellow magnifying glass.” Ben, you also have a good point about the metanarrative around Cyberpunk. I do like how we’re coming into a time when more and more game reviews are pointing out this inherent tension between games that have dystopian themes and the culture that these games are created in. Speaking of reviews: If there is an inflection point around Cyberpunk, I hope that it’s the way gamers assign value to game criticism. You can’t say that you consider games to be an art form and then turn around and demand that game reviews simply be about “Is the game good?”
Han: I want to ask about another gaming lightning rod from this year: The Last of Us Part II. I think it was at the center of a lot of discussion with regard to the question of games being art, and also games needing to be so grimdark in order to be considered worth taking seriously. What did you guys make of it?
Frisch: I don’t have anything to say about the game itself because I didn’t play it, but the reason I didn’t play it is exactly because of that grimdarkness. For me, it seemed too bleak for our current year!
Park: I haven’t played it (I’ve been tired of zombie media since, like, 2007), so I can’t comment on the game specifically, but my impression of the whole “video games are art” discourse is that if you look at the games that get commonly brought up as evidence that video games are, indeed, art, they’re always the same games: Bioshock. Spec Ops: The Line. “Walking simulators” like Gone Home and Dear Esther. The Last of Us, for sure. And that ties into the notion that the best games we can offer to the general public to convince them that video games are all grown-up now is only if they have serious themes or have some kind of “mood” associated with them (usually grimdark, like you said). Which I don’t think is true! Complex, nuanced themes can happen in fun, colorful, jovial settings.
Kaplan: Right, what Seung said. Video games are under so much pressure to be reframed from their roots of being for kids, like we need a mature premise to rationalize still playing them as adults. But games give you the power to exercise logic and problem-solving, engage with a story, and employ strategy and tactics. Who cares if you’re doing it in a world made of ice cream? (Relatedly, can anyone recommend a game with a world made of ice cream?)
Schroeder: I am allergic to Serious Games.
Frisch: The games-as-art debate is so boring to me. Games are self-evidently art. We have this dumb debate about every new medium, we did it with comic books in the ’90s until Maus convinced boring people that comics were Actually Good, and I’m sure we’ll continue having it with games and internet culture for the foreseeable future. But, like, we don’t have to!
Han: Are there any other 2020 games you all feel strongly about? I know at least one of you has thoughts about Genshin Impact.
Frisch: I was really surprised by how much I loved Final Fantasy VII: Remake. I loved the original game, and given its rough development history and the trajectory of Square Enix’s recent output, I wasn’t expecting much, and yet! It’s a fantastic game on its own that both honors and subverts its source material in interesting ways, and it was just a joy to go back to that world, which I thought was fleshed out really beautifully. I would also just like to recognize this incredible moment as both the best and queerest moment in all of gaming in 2020:
And I am our resident Genshin Impact skeptic. I get that there is some enjoyment to be had in exploring the world of the game, and it has really nice color styling, a facet so many games overlook. It’s bright and colorful in a very welcoming way, but once you start actually engaging with the games systems, all the fun gets sucked away for me. The movement is stiff, the combat is clunky, and the game has so many currencies! So many! Which are used in order to buy loot boxes to unlock loads of generic-looking anime characters with minimal personality. I guess the best I can say is that it’s impressive for a free-to-play game, but I can’t help feeling like Genshin’s massive success is a harbinger for more big games structured around a potentially exploitative loot box grind. No thank you.
Park: I think the 2020 game that I felt the most personal attachment to, and was very happy to see succeed, was Star Wars: Squadrons. It’s an AA game that unapologetically does one thing, and does that one thing very well. I don’t think it’s a serious game-of-the-year contender, but it definitely was the most focused, and free of bullshit, out of all of EA’s Star Wars efforts so far. Plus, I hear it’s amazing in VR. If more of us had VR rigs, I’d bet, between Squadrons and Half-Life: Alyx, that this end-of-year discussion would be much different.
I haven’t played Spelunky 2 yet, but I did play Hades! (How’s that for a segue?) As a non-roguelike-lover, Hades took the biggest thing that I really don’t like about roguelikes—the permadeath—and made it into something to look forward to. There’s a genuine sense of progression there.
Frisch: I also liked Hades, although not as fervently as many people did. I beat the main big-bad once and then put the game down. Did anyone here get deep into the postgame?
Schroeder: Hades is great, and the way the story unfolds over multiple runs really makes it special. All the characters have a lot going on. I still have three or so runs left before I finish the main story, but I love all the sexy Greeks and the combat always felt so smooth.
Han: I feel like Hades has been the surprise breakout of the year. Speaking of breakouts, though, what about games like Among Us or Fall Guys, which have become pandemic hits? Are any of you devotees?
Kaplan: I haven’t followed it personally only because I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer. But the memes are fun.
Frisch: Not a devotee, but the few matches of Fall Guys I played were very fun, although it had minimal hold on me. This year was a good one for these smaller competitive games (I also enjoyed the brief time I spent with Super Mario Bros. 35). I wonder if they would have caught on in different circumstances, though.
Park: I do think there’s something to be said, by someone smarter than I am, about how games like Among Us and Fall Guys—which allow player-on-player shenanigans and voice chat—have gotten popular at a time when many of us are isolated from one another. I’m not a fan of Among Us. I am extremely very not good at lying! The only time I stomached playing as the imposter, everyone caught me in a lie about how I was somewhere else when that was logically impossible. Which is how the game is supposed to work, I understand. But I hated it.
Kaplan: What an honest soul!
Park: A right honest angel, I am. (Unless we are playing Mario Kart. In which case I will crush you.)
Han: Any last thoughts on the games of 2020, or gaming in 2020 in general? I personally want to shout out Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, which was my top game of the year.
Kaplan: Just that I’m not a financial adviser but it might be a good time to buy video game stocks.
Schroeder: Paper Mario: The Origami King is the first game I’ve 100-percented, and I am still lost without Bobby the Bob-omb. It’s the first time a Nintendo game has made me feel real emotion, when Bobby sacrificed himself and I realized I would never actually see him again. I just never expected Nintendo to commit to killing a Mario character. After I saw his ghost I was heartbroken. It was a beautiful moment from a story perspective because Mario had to comfort Olivia and it both demonstrated the difficulty of loss and of comforting those who have lost others. I still think about Olivia sitting in the caves crying. Part of the reason I 100-percented the game was a hope I would encounter Bobby again, but after I let myself sit with it I appreciated the choice, and loved having to actually feel in a Mario world.
Frisch: Yakuza: Like a Dragon was such a wonderful surprise for me! It was my first Yakuza game. Your main character is in his 40s (!) and all your party members are just working people, which, to my anime-weary self, feels absolutely revolutionary. This is the first Yakuza game with turn-based RPG mechanics, which is what drew me in. Mechanically, the battle system isn’t super distinguished, and it wears out its welcome a bit over time, but it has so much heart that it’s hard not to love it.