The Best Games in a Terrible Year
On the day that much of the United States accepted that COVID-19 was going to happen stateside, I first checked my credit card balance and then went to my city’s only GameStop.
I made a beeline for the counter and said, “Nintendo Switch.” The clerk, a white guy with a beard, couldn’t fathom that A) I, a grown ass woman, was buying it for myself in the middle of the work day, B) I wasn’t purchasing Animal Crossing: New Horizons*, and C) I, a person with two X chromosomes, was fine getting the boring black console, the only one in-stock, instead of the limited edition pastel version**. It didn’t matter—I knew what was in that very expensive box was going to be one of my best friends over the next few months.
And it was. My spring 2020 was supposed to include a big wedding, a honeymoon to Italy, and a New Orleans goodbye party. Instead, it was mostly alternating between crying and shutting down completely so I wouldn’t cry when I needed to focus on all of the logistics of things like cancelling a wedding and moving cross country during a pandemic.
We all know how the rest of the year went. I jumped at the chance to write an end of year post for The Punished Backlog because it gave me an excuse to remember 2020 in a much more fond way: the games I played to keep myself sane. They fall into five main categories; I’ve listed four in each, for a total of 20 games.*** I’ve also highlighted my standout recommendation for each group.
If you’re feeling chatty, please comment and share what games saved you this year because I’ll certainly need some more. This list is heavy on 1) Switch games because wow is the Switch cool, 2) female protagonists because they’re dope, and 3) the most concise version of my feelings I could manage.
Note: many of these games are on sale right now on Steam, PSN, the Xbox Store, and/or the Nintendo eShop! Buy ’em and binge ’em.
1. Games That Emulated the World I Was Missing
During my cross-country move, I spent 10 days locked down in my parents’ basement. I neurotically sought out a very niche flavor of game: bartender. I wanted the feeling of talking to people, of making and imbibing drinks, of being in a public place without the crushing sense of the same walls around me.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
VA-11 HALL-A (originally released in 2016, on Switch as of 2019) is oft lauded as the defining example of this mini-genre. Its larger-than-life cast of characters, varied drink list, and budget management makes sure you have skin in the game. Not to be confused with AC Valhalla; see section 4.
The Red Strings Club
The Red Strings Club (2018) is a relatively short story. It’s a cocktail of three acts with a strong splash of mystery; the best section is the longest where you make drinks to get guests to spill corporate espionage secrets. (This is a taste overlap with category #5; read this Vice piece after playing it.)
Good Pizza, Great Pizza
I recently downloaded Good Pizza, Great Pizza (on Switch as of 2020) to make dozens of virtual pizzas and customize my virtual small business (I’m all about the white brick walls and lucky cat). Customers say things like, “I want to hug this pizza!” and “I hate you. For making me such a perfect pizza.” It all makes me smile.
My Top Rec for a Better-Than-Reality Simulator: Coffee Talk
Coffee Talk is fresh off the 2020 presses, making its spotlight position on my EOY list all the better. It nails the cozy coffee shop aesthetic (always rainy, clinking sounds of dishware, vibey jazz) weaving a thoughtful meta plot over the course of a few weeks. The barista of this all-night spot serves lattes to struggling writers, designs custom drinks for werewolves, and makes tea to ease fights within inter-creature relationships.
2. Games as a Social Connector
I might just be too old of a millennial but man, I am generally not that into unannounced Facetimes with friends. Hard pass on phone calls. For sure Zoom-ed out.
Best alternative? Playing cooperative video games with low-stakes (i.e., not Apex Legends where overly competitive people—cough, me—have a hard time prioritizing kinship) and chatting on a headset or with a cell on speakerphone to make the sensation of hanging out much more tangible. Playing games gave my friends permission to catch-up while having fun, or just chill “together” without having to say anything at all.
Star Wars Battlefront II
My sister is a Star Wars superfan. We were able to create a whole new bonding ritual through online PvE matches of Star Wars Battlefront II (2017). We know it released as a flawed game, but developer DICE made a lot of improvements, and we have fun. We always play as the Rebels (she’s a great Lando, I’m an alright Leia), and usually talk about The Mandalorian, cats, and jobs, in that order.
Obviously, the phenomenon of Among Us (2018, though popularized in 2020). That shit is crazy. Every social group I had, even the non-gamers, was playing this. I have nothing new to add to the dialogue re: this game, except that I’m cyan + cowboy hat.
The Jackbox Party Pack
I put together a 30-page PowerPoint manual for my parents on how to screen share Jackbox party games with their friends. I joined for a few rounds of Drawful 2 (2016) and Quiplash (2015), and there’s nothing like a good giggle to make the distance apart feel smaller.
My Top Rec For Social Games: Destiny 2
Bungie is doing hot girl shit now that she’s free from her ex, Activision. Destiny 2 (originally released in 2017) is being updated constantly. As of this year, it’s free for everyone. It still is beautiful. Combat, hella smooth. My college roommate and I have been putting in a couple hours every month on Destiny 2’s Gambit mode and convoluted campaigns. While I have no idea what’s going on with the leveling systems any more, I appreciate that Destiny 2 is true to herself—she, like my friend, is always there when I need her. Also, RIP Cayde-6.
3. Replaying Old Favorites as Mental Comfort Food
I was rereading Harry Potter at the beginning of the pandemic before J.K. Rowling 2020-ed that (can I use that as a verb? Let’s try it). Sometimes, you just want that old good.
The Flame in the Flood
I rebought The Flame in the Flood (2016) this year for the Switch. It’s a roguelike wilderness survival game that follows protagonist Scout through the post-apocalyptic American South accompanied by an upgradeable raft, a sweet blues soundtrack, and a very good dog. It has an intriguing big picture campaign that keeps you sailing down the river to find something better.
Ready to replay the trilogy, I reinstalled the original Mass Effect (2007) and was instantly comforted by those synthy tunes, that trash combat, and the promise of Garrus Vakarian. Like many others, I have been long dreaming of a remaster and lo-and-behold, 2020 actually delivered for once: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition was announced in November. I stopped my replay early to save up my enthusiasm for its release “early next year” (lol, I’ll keep dreaming).
OK, this next one’s a cheat—I played the early access version of Ooblets (2020) this year on Xbox One. Since it’s new, I clearly hadn’t played it before, but there is something so familiar and comforting about this game. It pulls in the kinship elements of Pokémon (dance battles, only!) and the farming-and-checking-in-on-my-townies of Harvest Moon. With its bubblegum color array and sweet plunking tunes, it was like a big hug. Just like my weird little mushroom Ooblet wearing a top hat, I can’t wait to watch this game grow.
My Top Rec For Throwbacks: Pyre
Context: Supergiant, a very cool company that actually treats its employees well, has been the indie darling this year for its new launch, Hades. I’m not gonna lie: I’m not that good at Hades. I am impatient and don’t like losing, which unfortunately runs counter to this game. So, it’s not going great (even though I haven’t been able to stop playing it, and Hades itself is very emblematic of 2020).
By contrast, I am a huge fan of Supergiant’s last game, Pyre (2017). This game slaps. Pyre, like Hades, has beautiful art, fast and exciting gameplay, characters that feel real, and an engaging story. Pyre is like FIFA meets Pope Francis meets NBA Jam. So, if you like a lot of the Hades elements but, like me, you suck at it, check out Pyre. Plus, it’s got a lot of replayability. Please note that it does play a lot better with a controller than a keyboard/mouse.
4. The AAA Game I Could Lose Myself In
You know the one: massive map, seemingly infinite side quests and collectibles, big budget graphics that razzle dazzle you out of remembering the dumpster fire year you and everyone else have been having.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020) does its (expected) job and then some. A new (to the series) settlement functionality adds motivation for protagonist Eivor, regional leaders are more richly realized (Ceolbert! Soma! Oswald!), and you can get a ton of pets including a historically accurate cat for your ship.
Control came out in late 2019, and I played the DLC that arrived earlier this year. If you haven’t played Control yet, treat yourself. It sticks out in my mind as some of the freshest combat I’ve played with some truly out-of-the-box, gorgeous level designs. I convinced my partner to try this over Christmas and after three hours, he said he already liked it more than the 80-hour AC Valhalla playthrough he had just finished.
The Outer Worlds
I technically played The Outer Worlds when it came out in late 2019. Thinking back on it, that’s the game that accurately scratched my “grim future” itch. (Booooo, Cyberpunk 2077.) If you liked Firefly, you’ll appreciate the feeling of being root-and-tootin space rebels with a crew that hangs out on your ship just like Serenity. As you may have heard, it plays like space Fallout and it’s really not a bad thing. Detailed with just the right amount of side quests, The Outer Worlds is enjoyable and refreshingly does not go on forever.
My Top Rec For a Game That Costs $60: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019) instantly lets you know, “Hey, you’re gonna get real into this game, and then you’re going to have to play it two more times to really get it all.” Oh, I see, a little sprinkle of Nier: Automata. I used to hate turn-based tactic games but this Hogwarts-flavored adventure made me care about each of my students, developing their skills to maximize combat. I was rooting for my kids every step of the way. Like OG Fire Emblem games, you can turn permadeath on, but I couldn’t let any of my babies go. (To be fair, I’m the person that restarts a whole section to save one NPC who can barely be bothered to say thank you.)
5. Detective Games That Made Me Feel Life Has Some Definitive Answers
Is that a delusional desire? Hell yeah it is. Life is a journey, 2020 isn’t new as much as it makes crystal clear how broken America is, balance is an effort not a state of being, etc… But even knowing that, I often just wish that parts of life were solvable, proof that things clicked into place, that justice—with enough work—could and would always prevail. Hence, detective games.
One particularly emo weekend, I needed a new game and browsed my Xbox Game Pass subscription with 36 hours left until I came across Night Call (2019). Night Call puts you as a recently attacked cab driver who’s pressured by Parisian police trying to catch a serial killer before it’s too late. I enjoyed this random find so much that I stayed up late to finish it. While a little buggy, Night Call is extremely well-written in its customer dialogues, visually intriguing with its neo noir aesthetic, and has great custom music.
I’m a big Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney fan. I think animals in old fashioned clothes are funny. You can imagine my delight when I learned about Aviary Attorney (originally released in 2015, ported to Switch in 2020) where you play a private investigator/lawyer that’s a falcon in 1840s France. I bought it immediately. It’s clever (I had some true lols), thought-provoking (since it’s set in the French Revolution, it goes to some dark places), and engaging (there’s a clue-hunting portion and a court case portion).
During the first hour of Paradise Killer (2020), I thought, Eh, this is too weird even for me, I’m not gonna like this. And then I played it for 10 hours. This game is eccentric, and not just because it takes place in an alternate universe afterlife or that a naked blue demon pops up around the map and heckles/supports you or that your name is Lady Love Dies or that your best friends are a Kenyan assassin-turned-Lyft-driver and her Turkish skeleton bartender husband. You’ll be dying to solve the mystery (sorry, it was right there).
My Top Rec For Sherlock Holmes Gamers: Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) is honestly one of the best games I’ve ever played, mystery or not. I played this soon after its release so its place on this list is a lil’ bit of a lie but what if I promise to replay it after publishing this piece? Return of the Obra Dinn is a one-man masterpiece framed in the conceit of insurance investigation (I know you’re eye rolling but bear with me) that includes secret Chinese treasure(!), time travel(!), pirates(!), mermaids(!), the kraken(!)… I mean, how could you not want to play this game?
+1 for luck: Tangle Tower
I played Tangle Tower (2019) on a trial of Apple Arcade on my iPhone but it’s also on other platforms and wow honestly I’ll buy it on Switch just so I can give the devs my money so they can make more games. It’s a phenomenal, fully voiced mystery with puzzles and great art. My only gripe is that I wish the last act went on for just a bit longer than it does. That being said, it’s definitely still worth your time.
Thinking About What’s Next…
I’m hoping to get to Spider-Man: Miles Morales soon, start on holiday gift Battle Chef Brigade, and get on that Disco Elysium console port as soon as it’s out. Please tell me about the games that saved you this year so I can try them in 2021! Or at least add them to my backlog.
*I’m sure Animal Crossing: New Horizons is great. I never played any of those games growing up, largely because I’m not a patient person (remember, I’m crap at Hades) and I couldn’t stand to wait in real time for anything. I was extra annoyed that he assumed I wanted this stuff because I was a girl.
**OK I would’ve freaking loved that option even without playing Animal Crossing because it’s dreamy af but I didn’t want him to know that.
***I thought I was being clever with 20 games for 2020 until I remembered that literally two seconds before, Sam Martinelli told me he was doing a top 20 list, so kudos to Sam. Speaking of which, I’m excited to read his list where he convinces me I really should play Animal Crossing.
PS: If you are a fan of The Good Place, you’ll know what I mean when I say that GameStop shop was my Chidi-peeps-in-the-chili moment. And if you haven’t seen it, add it to your Netflix queue for 2021. You’re welcome.