Trapped indoors by the coronavirus, I traversed virtual worlds to try and make up for all the places I couldn’t go and the international travel I couldn’t take. I relapsed and got back into World of Warcraft and Destiny 2. I squeezed every last drop of Bioware magic out of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I reinstalled Hellgate: London. I finally made the time necessary to give both The Elder Scrolls Online and Warframe a fair shake. I even managed to sink a worrying thirty or so hours into Elder Scrolls Blades.
If we’re ranking games by time spent, that’s half my list right there. But while these might be the games that I probably played the most, the above are not necessarily the games that stuck with me this year. They’re not the ones that I couldn’t put down or stop talking or thinking about. They delivered the frequent thrill of watching in-game numbers go up, but such ephemeral delights rarely deliver the kind of satisfaction that etches itself themselves into your long-term memory. They filled the time well but they rarely felt like time well spent.
Those that managed to meet that criteria made their way onto my 2020 Game of the Year list, seen below.
Honorable mentions: Dune, Necrobarista, Life is Strange 2, Blaseball, Hollow Knight, Going Under and Bloodborne.
10. Umurangi Generation
The fact that Umurangi Generation isn’t higher on my list is probably more to do with the time that’s passed since I played it than anything else. If you haven’t heard of it, the short-hand pitch here is that it’s essentially Pokemon Snap meets Neon Genesis Evangelion with a truly outstanding soundtrack.
The melancholic cityscapes of Umurangi Generation inspire you to make your own fun, find your way and even bring some souvenirs home with you once the credits roll. The refreshingly original setting, economic-but-evocative storytelling and creativity-driven mechanics made it one of the most unique games I played this year.
Riot’s team-based tactical shooter, which launched on PC earlier this year, is markedly-less approachable than Blizzard’s hero brawler but it manages to hone in on and address a lot of the lingering long-term issues that have driven me away from Overwatch over the last twelve months.
Even if it means I’m sometimes on the losing end of some truly-freakish gunplay, the tension and precision involved goes a long way to making Valorant feel more kinetic on a moment to moment basis and rewarding to play overall.
Right now, it feels better to lose at Valorant than win at Overwatch.
8. Dante’s Inferno
I fucking love Visceral’s Dead Space trilogy. Yes, even the one where you fight a moon made of aliens. Unfortunately, the lack of a PC port meant I never properly experienced Visceral’s grislier-than-thou take on Catholic guilt. This year, I rectified that omission. I tracked down a copy of Dante’s Inferno on PS3 – and I’m glad I did because I have not played an action platformer as audacious and over-the-top in what feels like an eternity.
Moment to moment, the chaotic combat and gruesome level design in Dante’s Inferno are legitimately a lot of fun but it’s the way those qualities intersect with the premise – which is ostensibly adapting Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece – that elevates the whole affair into pandemonium.
Seeing The Divine Comedy translated into late-2000s AAA video game design is objectively hilarious. The first level of this game sees you fight in the crusades, suffer a mortal wound and then beat the snot out of the Grim Reaper when he comes to collect. Shortly after this, you choose to either forgive or punish Pontius Pilate for his sins through a Dance Dance Revolution-style rhythm mini-game minus any sort of soundtrack.
It’s high-key incredible that EA greenlit and bankrolled this lunacy and a genuine tragedy that the trilogy that Visceral clearly wanted to make died an early death. If admitting I like Dante’s Inferno more than God of War means going to gamer hell then throw me into the pit.
7. Genshin Impact
Despite harbouring a respectful – but heartfelt – dislike for Breath of the Wild, I remain drawn to the specific breed of traversal-oriented open world adventure it popularised. Unsurprisingly, this made Genshin Impact’s pitch of less weapon degradation, an original fantasy setting and more traditional RPG number crunching super compelling from the get go. Persevering through the initial onslaught of overbearing voice-acting, I fast found myself losing hours to the lands of Teyvat and the game’s Avatar: The Last Airbender-inspired elemental combat mechanics.
Of course, beyond just offering a different spin on the framework that Breath of the Wild established, the thing that’s really fucking exciting about Genshin Impact is just how ambitious it is for a free-to-play title. Even if it’s got all the usual live-service trappings like daily quests, a battle pass plus the gacha-style microtransactions that have made Genshin Impact somewhat controversial, there’s still an enormous amount of single-player content here for zero up-front cost. Add to that the ability to pick up and continue the adventure by yourself, with friends and on PC or mobile interchangeably, and you’re left with a massive game that’s easy to jump in and out of and chip away at as your spare time allows.
I can’t say with certainty that I’ll still be playing Genshin Impact in twelve months time but I can promise I’ll still be thinking about how this game has completely blown away my expectations for what mobile gaming can offer when it comes to fidelity, depth and long-tail appeal.
6. Watch_Dogs 2
After seeing the first game debut to a decidedly-muted (or, at best, haphazard) reception, I had pretty much written off Watch_Dogs as a franchise. It didn’t have the historical hooks of Assassins Creed and I didn’t have the patience for yet another by-the-numbers Ubisoft open world adventure. Nevertheless, after seeing the cult following emerge around the sequel (and how willing Ubisoft were to literally give copies of the game away via uPlay), I got curious.
What I found wasn’t perfect but the world, character and personality of Watch_Dogs 2 brings to the table a feel grounded in a specific time and place that’s stuck with me months after I finished playing. Similar to something like HBO’s Lovecraft Country, it did a great job of depicting characters who feel like they have some degree of interiority, genuine camaraderie and a relationship with the culture around them. Marcus, Wrench, Josh and Horatio and Sitara talk about board games, TV shows, politics and their fears about the encroaching surveillance state in the way people I know talk about those things.
For that reason, I couldn’t get enough of these characters and this setting. Given my own mixed-feeling about how dystopic the real San Francisco is, this genuinely surprised me. Watch_Dogs 2 is the first open world game I’ve played in years where I went out of my way to clear the map of side missions and DLC rather than check out at the credits. The moments I enjoyed the most in Cyberpunk 2077 were the moments it reminded me of this game. Take from that what you will.
Watch_Dogs 2 attempts to skewer the wider mythology around Silicon Valley and untangle the complex and intimate relationship that we have with the technology around us. Even if that endeavor is ultimately left a little hamstrung by Ubisoft’s petulant reluctance to own up to their own politics, the willingness of a AAA-game to tackle these topics at all cemented it as one of the more unexpected titles on my Game of the Year list.
I have fallen for Supergiant Games’ Hades no less than three times. I am nothing if not a sucker for remixes of Greek mythology, after all.
The first was following its initial announcement at The Game Awards. The second was about a year after that, when I jumped back in to see how the game had evolved. The third teed up nicely with the game’s formal launch earlier this year. Once cross-save finally comes to the Nintendo Switch version of the game, I’ll probably go back to it once again.
I’ve long been a fan of Supergiant’s approach to game design, specifically how they approach failure states. Hades builds on and evolves this tradition nicely but still manages to find ways of breaking from away both the developers usual formula and what you expect of modern roguelikes or other run-based titles.
Where story is usually an afterthought for these kinds of games, Hades is positively dripping with narrative tension, flair and flavor. Right out of the gates, it incorporates rather than shies away from its inherent video-gameyness and that makes the thrill of victory all the sweeter. Live. Die. Try again.
4. Twilight Imperium
Twilight Imperium is a big game with an even bigger reputation. Featuring dozens of playable factions, the physical 4X strategy board game has been a staple of the scene for decades – and for good reason. It’s superb at balancing depth, diversity of play and, as opposed to a lot of similar games, Twilight Imperium is great at keeping you engaged even when it’s not your turn.
As someone who also recently started studying International Relations, Twilight Imperium is also a fascinating canvas for thinking about broader theories of global realism, liberalism and constructivism. This is probably not going to be everyone’s experience with it but, personally, I found Twilight Imperium a really compelling avenue for taking such ideas out of dry textbooks and into something more tangible.
For all the complex tech trees, unique abilities and dice-based combat, it’s the challenge of managing and maintaining relationships with both your galactic rivals and allies that matters the most in Twilight Imperium.
3. Death Stranding
In a year where I spent so much time trapped indoors, the crags and dunes found in the PC port of Hideo Kojima’s “post-apocalyptic postie sim” proved to be an unexpected avenue for escapism.
Going into Death Stranding, I knew Kojima would be throwing a lot of weird shit at the wall. Nevertheless, I was surprised by just how robust the systems in the game are and how effortlessly they engineer the kinds of emergent encounters that you just can’t wait to share with people. Where other AAA experiences feel interchangeable and generic, Death Stranding feels bespoke.
Even if the big picture plot here does somewhat-buckle under the weight of all the unwieldy and stray ideas it tries to rope in, the experience of walking a mile in the shoes of Sam Bridges is extraordinarily charming. Few games have ever gotten me quite so excited about the prospect of investing in infrastructure in the way that Death Stranding does.
2. Legends of Runeterra
Like Valorant, Riot’s card-battler feels like it was poised to take advantage of everything that I had grown tired of in other similar games. To be frank, Legends of Runeterra feels the anti-Hearthstone. Both by the standards of the genre and free-to-play games writ large, Legends of Runeterra is shockingly generous, polished and feature-rich.
Instead of funnelling players towards ladder play, Legends of Runeterra provides plenty of other paths for progression. Rather than revel in chance and chaos, Riot have chosen to emphasise individual agency and faster, more reactive play.
As opposed to subverting and remixing its source material in the way that Hearthstone does, Legends of Runeterra feels like a seamless extension of it. It’s awesome to see this world and these characters realised in this new way and, as one of the rare few who legitimately enjoyed Valve’s Artifact, downright thrilling to see a digital card game that isn’t Hearthstone stick the landing.
1. Paradise Killer
If there’s any single thing in Paradise Killer that elevates it above the other games on this list, it’s the sheer and unadulterated confidence of Kaizen Game Works’ debut title. At every level, and no matter how weird this cosmic conspiracy thriller gets, it never shirks away from its own unique brand of bizarre. The relentless optimism and terrific soundtrack make even the dullest parts of your investigation more than just tolerable but joyous. Aside from all the, y’know, bloodshed and ritual sacrifice, Paradise Island is a gleefully upbeat place to simply inhabit.
The other thing that stands out is just how concise it is. The plot here is complex, tangling together decades of distrust and revelling in the ambiguities its heightened reality allows for. And yet, right up-front, Paradise Killer makes it almost-painfully obvious whether or not it is a game you are going to like. In a time where AAA experiences have become increasingly bloated and sprawling, an experience as straight-forward as this one is down-right refreshing.
Beneath all the verve and vibe, Paradise Killer is also an incredibly smart game in terms of form & structure. As someone loves murder-mystery visual novel games like Danganrompa, Phoenix Wright and the Zero Escape, one of the most impressive things about Paradise Killer is just how apparent that the team behind this game thought a lot about what does and doesn’t work about the genre. Where the pain-points are and where opportunities lie. Rather than live with those limits, they’ve sought to turn them into opportunities – not just to help this thing reach a wider audience but to help propel fans of the genre to new heights.
A transcending sum of its parts, Paradise Killer is the best thing I played in 2020.
Fergus Halliday is an Australian freelancer, the former editor of PC World Australia and the co-creator of A Murmur or Two, a podcast about the Hellgate London spin-off books. You can follow Halliday’s work via Twitter.