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The 25 Best Video Games of 2020

When reality plunged us into chaos this year, so many of the best interactive experiences offered us respite.

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The 25 Best Games of 2020
Photo: Naphtali Faulkner

When reality plunged us into chaos this year, so many of the best interactive experiences offered us respite, a feeling of power at a time when it felt as if it had been taken from us. The online community in Animal Crossing: New Horizons allowed us to fill a gaping absence in our daily lives across little islands that fueled the imagination. Persona 5 Royal gave us the catharsis of banding together with friends to take on abusers of power. We stood up against and brought down an empire in Star Wars Squadrons.

Last year, the modus operandi of games was one of disruption, but this year it was one of restoration. At a time when New York City was still largely shuttered, Spider-Man: Miles Morales let us see its streets, and save its people from the forces of systemic oppression. Among Us, a tiny two-year-old multiplayer mobile game of teamwork and sabotage, became a global sensation thanks to YouTube stars, TikTok influencers, and streamers. And while many of us initially took to the new Final Fantasy VII as an occasion to revel in our nostalgia, we were dazzled along the way by how it challenged us through gameplay to expect more from the familiar.

Even with shiny new console hardware out in the wild, the work that impressed us owed less to ray tracing or solid state drives than it did to the willingness to completely shatter conventions. In 2020, so many of the doors in our world closed to us this year, video games opened so many new ones. Justin Clark


Signs of the Sojourner

25. Signs of the Sojourner

The mad genius of Signs of the Sojourner is that, as a deck-building game centered around making connections through dialogue, the game is often intentionally deeply rewarding and utterly frustrating. Through its colorful worldbuilding, cartoonish designs, compelling characters, and catchy soundtrack, it gets you invested in the potential friendships your trader protagonist can strike up while on the road. But the rigid gameplay forces you to then break many of those connections, putting you into no-win situations where you choose between filling a deck with creative cards capable of conversing with members of an artistic commune, brusque cards that can speak to northern industrialists, or logical cards that will be understood by robotic farmhands. It’s a whimsical life simulator, which, in just a few hours, powerfully demonstrates the importance of empathy. Aaron Riccio


If Found...

24. If Found…

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Steven Scaife


Lair of the Clockwork God

23. Lair of the Clockwork God

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio


Wildfire

22. Wildfire

The riveting chaos of Wildfire upends the mannered layouts of its brief, two-dimensional levels. The zoomed-out view of each level gives off a faint sense of omniscience, letting you freely scroll to see the careful patrols and designated hiding spots. But rather than allowing the player to grow comfortable and complacent by honing the same approach over time, the game constantly introduces new mechanics as the forest gives way to dark caves and snowy mountaintops. Sometimes you get new powers entirely, such as being able to use plants to generate climbable vines or bushes to hide in. Water can generate an ice column, freeze enemies, or form a large bubble to carry you upward. Wildfire mostly maintains a thrilling unpredictability for the way it’s permeated by accidents both happy and otherwise, like the flaming guard who flees into a sulfur deposit or the wooden bridge that breaks beneath your falling momentum. It fulfills that all-important requirement of a great stealth game: that there’s considerable joy to experimenting with new approaches and poking at the edges of its ingenious interlocking systems to see what happens. Scaife


Ori and the Will of the Wisps

21. Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is as comforting as it is challenging. Every inch of the game is suffused with calming details, from the soothing orchestral score to the painterly 2D environments, which use layering techniques to bring background elements to life, like the sun dappling gently through a copse of trees and the animals scurrying about. You’ll often die, but you won’t feel too discouraged at any point, as the frequent, automatic checkpoints ensure that you’ll never lose too much progress. The game begins with Ori attempting to help his new friend, Ku, an owlet, learn to fly. Ori, who has no wings, teaches by constantly finding ways to stay aloft, and by the end of the game, players will rarely touch the ground as they string together moves, such as a wall jump, into a bashing carom off an enemy projectile and, then, an air-dash toward a lantern that can be grappled. The fluidity of this ballistic and balletic gameplay helps to set Ori and the Will of the Wisps apart from other platformers. But those are just mechanics. It’s the love Ori shows for Ku, and vice versa, that distinguishes the game from almost every other one on the market. Riccio

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