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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

Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1

5. Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1

Cosmo D’s signature eccentricity has never felt as fully realized as it is in Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1. The game finds you making and delivering pizzas, albeit to illicit ends: Your employment is part of a roundabout plot to steal the valuable saxophone belonging to the pizza parlor owner, a famous musician turned pie purveyor. The handful of city streets are an abstract collage of disparate parts, from talking buildings to furtive energy drink labs, held together by a jazzy musical signature, in the pleasantly evocative soundtrack and especially in the varied instrument sounds that accompany dialogue text. Even the pizza-making is musical, with sprinklings of sauce and cheese and other toppings creating an aural symphony of satisfying creation on their way to the oven. A game so crammed with silly jokes and strange sights could have easily come off as remote or superficially weird in less assured hands, but Cosmo D weaves this reality with a blissful sense of life that makes the inclusion of a camera seem only natural. Where other games include camera modes in the expectation that we’ll be wowed by the technical wizardry that comes with chasing realism, Tales from Off-Peak City spurs you to document a community in the throes of slow erosion, its mad inspiration being transfigured into something else. Scaife


The Last of Us Part II

4. The Last of Us Part II

The consequences of Joel’s stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the game’s sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellie’s eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joel’s surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellie’s vendetta, as she’s barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of “adults” playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well we’re doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this game’s grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned war’s crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston


Umurangi Generation

3. Umurangi Generation

You and your friends haunt Umurangi Generation’s futuristic New Zealand like photogenic ghosts, bearing witness to the neon devastation and military occupation of Tauranga Aotearoa by capturing it on camera. Each level in this first-person photograph ‘em up has a loose set of objectives—a certain number of spray cans in one shot, a specific word, an object—but how you compose the shots that fulfill those objectives is ultimately up to you. Developer Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner has crafted a veritable photography sandbox, with scenes and images to discover and present through your choice of subjective lenses amid beautiful interplays of darkness and searing lights, tweaking the saturation and exposure as you go along. The rich photography suite is engrossing enough on its own, but the mechanics mingle beautifully with the game’s vibrant setting and palpable mood of disenfranchisement under a police state, of looking up at the signs, the rubble, and the graffiti and wondering who you are, what you can do, what purpose you’re serving. With an atmosphere of youth rebellion augmented by chill beats courtesy of Adolf Nomura, a.k.a. ThorHighHeels, the game becomes a sort of Maori-inflected Jet Set Radio by way of Neon Genesis Evangelion, offering a vivid cityscape of people grappling with a walled-in, nigh-apocalyptic new normal. Scaife

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

2. Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife


Hades

1. Hades

Death in the roguelike dungeon crawler Hades is neither failure nor punishment. It is, in fact, the only way to succeed—to further the story and learn about the world and its people. Death in Hades is a friend. Quite literally, since both the deity Thanatos and the Styx riverman Charon are helpful NPCs. And like everyone you meet here, you must meet Death gracefully. It helps that our hero, Zagreus, is the son of Hades, and already in the realm of perdition. He’s known nothing else, and when he fails in his attempts to climb out of the eternal pit, he simply goes home: an ornate, handsomely aestheticized labyrinth where he’s surrounded by famous figures from the Greek underworld, all unique personalities with rich (after)lives, wants, regrets, petty grievances, and deep moral standings that shift over the course of the game, and all written and voiced with razor sharpness. The fantastic dialogue and voice acting alone would be enough to make Hades stand out from the pack this year, but the implementation and delivery of that dialogue is where the game becomes transcendent. And the ways in which the writing seems to account for every change in load out, every inch of progress, changed relationship, and success and failure alike is staggering. Every run will take you through the same realms, but rarely the same conversations. Whether or not they make it to the surface, and the achingly beautiful paradise beyond, players will have changed the world, and they’ll do so dozens of times over before they’re done. Hades is a master class in substance over style, a game that loves and respects its players just as much as it loves and respects its characters. In every aspect a game can be, it’s perfect. Clark

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