There are so many games. The Nintendo Switch sees 30 releases a week. More than 50 PC games come out a day on Steam. Fifty. A day. And yes, most of them are shovelware or just plain drivel, but that only makes things worse for the little gems that are hidden within. In such a crazed market, it’s not possible to rely on communities sorting the wheat from the chaff, just hoping that anything worth playing will reliably rise to the top. Greatness is getting missed all the time. My mission is to search through that shit to find the diamonds.
So bearing this in mind, here are some of 2020’s finest games that you’ve likely never heard of before. None has the finances nor the ambition to compete against the excellent AAA games and indie darlings that dominate the regular Best Of lists. But they’re just as deserving of your attention. Here are nine of the best games you could buy from 2020.
Welcome To Elk
PC, Xbox One
Arriving on the tiny Scandinavian island of Elk, a directionless 20-something woman named Frigg is visiting to work an apprenticeship with a local carpenter. However, in Triple Topping’s gentle adventure she very soon becomes involved in the conflicts and relationships of the few citizens of Elk, which often play out in the form of hearing their stories. Sometimes this is a traditional speech-bubble led dialogue, other times it’s in a stunning DDR-style singing variant, and in the game’s most special moments, it’s videos with the real people on whom the characters are based, telling their stories directly to camera.
This is a game that’s not just made of stories, but is about stories themselves. Frigg’s part in this tale becomes a multi-layered metanarrative, as the game puts in brilliant idea after brilliant idea, then just as quickly throws them aside for the next. I especially loved how in its own telling, it becomes a dissection of the ethical implications of the words “based on a true story,” while never not being an engaging and witty story of its own. This deserved to be a massive hit, and yet tragically went widely ignored. So let’s make up for that now!
Wintermoor Tactics Club
PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
You know what crossover you’ve not played yet? It’s tactical RPG meets visual novel. Well thank goodness you now can, in a game that I was certain would become a breakthrough hit in 2020. Set in 1981, Wintermoor Tactics Club recalls the time when a high school’s extracurricular clubs were all forced to battle via snowball fights to decide which would be the only one allowed to carry on. The principal said so.
You’re Alicia, in the copyright-avoiding C&C tabletop club, and of course with all those skills you’re well set to take on the likes of the equestrian club, the Young Monarchists, and, of course, the New Wave fans. Action involves both the tactical role-playing snowball fights and D&D-like battles you play with your club members to practice for the big events. Both are extremely approachable, entry-level deliveries of the genre. Then betwixt these come the visual novel conversations, unravelling the deeply strange politics of the school, and — thankfully — none of the usual shenanigans you might expect to find when combining “visual novel” and “high school.”
It just doesn’t make sense that this didn’t become one of 2020’s indie darlings — it has every single ingredient in place, with its teenage banter, 80s nostalgia, and deep love of tabletop gaming at its core, all in a fantastic, lengthy and well written game. Developers EVC deserve to be noticed.
This is one of the funniest games you’ve never heard of. And it hurts me to the core of my soul that this has received precisely ONE Metacritic review since its release in June, and that was by me. Uphill Promise’s game is about being the judge in charge of Space. You must arbitrate between known alien races for a week (the average span anyone survives in the role), choosing sides in extraordinarily funny arguments, and thus steering the story you experience by the deliberate or inadvertent allegiances you form.
Such decisions can have rather big implications. Genocide is not off the table. And each race does go some way to deserving it. It’s worth replaying a couple of times to see just how differently the hilarious events can play out.
Presented in crude pixel graphics and without voice acting, it’s hard to sell on its screenshots. But seriously, this absolutely rules. Quite how a text-only game manages to deliver comic timing with such stunning precision defies me, but my goodness, I laughed out loud so very many times while playing this. Who doesn’t want to laugh out loud so very many times right now? Exactly. Grab this with both hands.
The Last Survey
2020 has been quite the year for astonishingly well-written games that were either too strange or too unlucky to get noticed by the wider press. It’s fair to say The Last Survey falls into the former camp, but it’s well worth a look. Written by avant-garde visual artist Nicholas O’Brien, the game is a sort of essay on corporate greed and exploitation of resources, which is perhaps as pretentious a sentence as I could hope to type — and yet the game feels without pretentions.
It’s presented primarily as the internal monologue of a geologist, reporting the bad news of a survey to the CEO of a company that mines rare earth minerals. His exquisitely well written text is accompanied by superb line-art animations, and while this visual novel offers relatively little direct influence over its direction, there’s no other medium that could deliver a story this way. I realise that describing this doesn’t really make it sound like a rip-roaring riot, but trust me, this is some of the best writing you’ll have ever read in a game.
Switch, iOS, PC
There’s a chance you may have encountered Barbearian as an iOS release in 2018 — this action RPG-meets-bullet hell roguelite garnered a fistful of very positive reviews on telephones that year, as well it deserved. But when it came to PC and later Switch this year, Finnish solo indie dev Kimmo Lahtnien’s micro-brawler went gruesomely unnoticed. Notice it!
This is all about rescuing minions to add to your roster, while surviving waves of attacks from ludicrous numbers of enemies, in a series of three-part missions. What’s so fun here is the need for tactics, but tactics in the midst of madness. Rescued minions can be upgraded between mission runs, then constantly respawned in battle from a pool of energy you must maintain.
It’s frenetic and fun, and ideally suited to be played on Nintendo’s handheld.
iOS, PC, Switch
I think something went wrong in 2020. Oh, OK, yes, you’re right. Everything went wrong in 2020. But one such thing was a real failure of astoundingly good indie games not getting noticed by the big-name websites. In any other year I feel that Machineboy’s third-person adventure Embracelet would have been winning awards left, right and centre, championed everywhere for its combination of warm, gentle loveliness and deeply honest portrayal of the inherent angst of being 17.
Jesper is a said 17 year old, a Norweigian teenager on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting the remote island of Slepp to return a bracelet for his recently deceased grandfather. Things begin by living the relationships between Jesper and his mother, and his visiting her dying father, and then eventually his arrival and exploration of Slepp. Oh, and the bracelet has magic powers, able to give the wearer super-strength. But that’s not very important in the big scheme of things.
It’s that which makes Embracelet quite so special. It has this fantastical element that’s central to the core storyline, and yet it never feels more important than the friendships depicted, or the personal lives of the island’s remaining inhabitants. Jesper makes friends, potentially has a relationship, and helps out with issues afflicting the people he meets. Your choices have some profound effects on the story you experience, but it’s always one that’s touching, truthful and deeply engaging. With elements of both A Night In The Woods and Oxenfree, it earns its comparison with both, plus adds something so many games forget to even care about: cinematic direction. If 2020 weren’t such a dick, you’ve already have played this, but now it’s time to put that right.
There’s a new name to watch in the indie world: Owl Skip. This one-man development team has been troublingly prolific already, releasing some 18 games in 2020 alone. Amongst them was one called Family, and it showed off a needless amount of talent. It’s a sort of detective game, in which you piece together a family tree of fictional musicians from the 1980s London music scene, by listening to excerpts of the different bands’ songs (all written and played by Owl Skip), listening to a fictional radio program about the era, and reading through fictionalized excerpts from music magazines, diaries and band riders of the era. It’s a bit like a giant logic puzzle, but with songs.
Then just two months later came Rivals, a spiritual sequel, this time set in the US alt-country scene from 1995 to 2010. The premise was very similar, although this time it was about working out the order of the chapter titles of a book written about the collective of musicians, their break-ups, bitter recriminations, and new projects. Again, Owl Skip played all the music, only drafting in others to provide voices for some of the tracks.
Both are fantastic projects, with Family catching a little attention from the British press, but the more internationally accessible Rivals getting all but ignored. At the end of either, it’s hard to shake off the sense that you just learned about some important bands from their respective eras, and remember that it was all made up by a guy. Which is testament to just how good they are.
The Heartbeat You Never Had
Creators Raphaël Dely & Marine Theunissen describe The Heartbeat You Never Had as a “game poem,” which is just about perfect. It’s about a minute long, it’s free, and it’ll play in your browser from Itch’s site. It’s about the grief and loss that comes with a miscarriage-confirming scan, and oh my goodness it’s wrenching and beautiful.
My wife and I have been through four miscarriages, and the honesty and pain with which this poem is delivered resonated strongly. Your involvement is to click the red and black image to advance the text of the poem, but at the same time with each click you create a heartbeat. The heartbeat the kid in the scan didn’t have. In writing this game, the couple delivers what the title states, giving their lost child a brief moment of life. It’s heartbreaking, but damn, it’s an incredible piece of art.
There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension
This is my game of the year. Not my “unknown game of the year.” Overall. Draw Me A Pixel’s genre-defying madness is one of the most spectacularly funny and clever games I’ve ever played, bursting with so many tremendous ideas, that deeply and brilliantly satirizes pretty much all of gaming.
It begins with a conceit that’s not totally original: it demands that you do not play it. It makes its own “play” button very difficult to press, goofing around with increasingly silly ideas to try to put you off. And that alone would have worked — it is funny and engaging enough that it could have rested on those laurels. Hell, I was already set after it began with a splash screen telling me, “When this icon appears, exit the program immediately to maximise your chances of corrupting your autosave. Thank you.” Then came the moment where the large metal “T” fell off the “The” from the title, and I was able to pick it up and drop it such that it shook the screen enough to shake down a mute button — one I could briefly use to stop the game’s constant berating. Just these ideas, piling on top of one another before you’d finished laughing with the previous ones, would have made my day.
But it goes on to become something utterly extraordinary. I shall not spoil most of its brilliance, but I will detail one particular moment. By its meandering paths it somehow becomes a spoof of early ‘90s LucasArts adventures — but unlike almost any other spoof of the same, this one is good enough to match its inspiration. And then, utterly brilliantly, you go ‘behind the scenes’ of the game, as if it were on a set, and start meddling with the scenery and props to influence the way the puzzles play out when you return.
After I played this in August it became my mission to get it noticed by the wider press. I screamed and I shouted, and I’m proud to say it ended up getting glowing coverage in the Guardian, on RPS, and in EDGE magazine. But that’s still not enough! It needs to be noticed by the whole world. I shall not rest until everyone realises this is the Game Of 2020, even if it takes until 2025 to do so.