by John Rogers & various contributors
The video games that kept us sane in the year of Covid-19
In a year that most of us were happy to put in the bin, video games were a bright spot. Quarantining at home came as a shock to the system for many, so traversing simulated landscapes, competing with friends in online multiplayer, or evacuating reality for far-future wonderlands proved an invaluable form of escapism.
Console sales went through the roof accordingly. Nintendo’s handheld Switch system became a hot commodity, selling out worldwide. Lapsed gamers returned to the fold, and first-timers decided it was time to give games a chance. A timely Oxford study about video games being good for mental health went viral. The millions who found solace in the gentle environs of Nintendo’s smash-hit cute-‘em-up Animal Crossing: New Horizons didn’t disagree.
All this, and the arrival of the next generation too, in the bulky shape of Playstation 5 and the XBox Series X. With all that in mind, we asked some of our gamer friends – from critics to streamers to podcast hosts – to share their top games of the year. Some chose 2020 releases, and others personal favourites regardless of release date. From AAA blockbusters to viral multiplayer games to artistic indies, their lists reflect the ever-expanding diversity of the medium.
We hope you enjoy comparing notes, and perhaps discovering something new to try out yourself. For more weekly video game coverage, be sure to subscribe to the RAR-affiliated podcast Gaming In The Wild, with new episodes every Friday evening on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and everywhere good – and stay tuned for more RAR gaming coverage in 2021.
Co-host of Time Played 3hr
Umurangi Generation (PC)
“A game about taking photographs at the end of the world, this is a pretty small indie game that’s on PC now, and coming out on Switch in 2021. It’s a first person photography game in a cyberpunk world, with a lo-fi aesthetic, and hardcore lo-fi beats playing all the time. You’re given objectives you need to photograph, a time limit – although you don’t have to stick to it – and you complete the objectives to move on to the next level. The way it tells a story is wonderful. It’s told subtly through the environments you explore.”
Wide Ocean Big Jacket (PC)
“A short vignette of a game about two adults and two kids who go on a camping trip, where nothing of particular merit happens. I love games that are gentle and soft, and tell a small, intimate story. Between the writing, the small interactions, and the tiny effects you can have on the space, it made for a lovely, warm afternoon gaming experience.”
Orwell’s Animal Farm (iOS)
“I played this one during a weekend away on my iPad. I’m always interested in adaptations, and how people do it. In this one, you’re effectively running the Animal Farm, and trying to sustain it for as long as possible while running through the plot of the book. There’s some conflict there about who to side with, and how to make the farm survive. A fascinating little game.”
Art of Rally (PC)
“I grew up playing driving games. My dad’s big into cars, and I didn’t like playing violent games. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a racing game, although they’re often pretty samey. But Art of Rally is really about capturing the feeling of driving a rally car. It’s an isometric, top-down, low-poly aesthetic, with fictional representations of classic rally destinations in Finland, Japan and Norway. The career mode runs you through the history of rally driving, with cars of different periods. It’s a racing game with a warm, gentle, meditative vibe.”
Cyberpunk 2077 (PC)
“There’s a lot to unpack with this one. It’s important to mention some stuff: that company has had issues with trans representations, crunch, delays, and shady embargoes on reviewers. And… it isn’t finished. So with all that said – the game is fascinating. I’m playing on a mid-to-high PC. CD Projekt Red does a good job of creating warm, humanistic characters, and that’s in this game. I’m really enjoying the density of the world. Walking and driving around is a treat – the cars, all the architecture, and people everywhere. It has a really strong vibe. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a really good PC. But you get some great characters, and a wonderful sense of place.”
Dani aka Girl With Box
Twitch streamer, also on Twitter
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Switch)
“This one came out in March, right when we were on lockdown, and I immediately got sucked in. I had the Gamecube version when I was growing up, so I have some nostalgia for the franchise. It provided this wholesome outlet when we were at a really dark and uncertain point in the year. I played over 200 hours in the first month. It’s easily a favourite from this year.”
Just Dance (Nintendo Switch)
“I live in New York, so I don’t have the space that one would need for a true Just Dance experience. Again, my level of investment in this game came from being stuck inside all of the time. Dancing is a big hobby of mine, and I found that this game was a really nice reintroduction to it. I used to go to dance classes, and now that I can’t do that, this was a really good proxy for me.”
Fall Guys (PS4)
“I’ve never been so mad at such a cute looking game! This one took over Twitch at the height of its popularity. I enjoyed my time playing it, and watching other people play it. I still only have three crowns to my name, to this day. I had victory stolen from me multiple times. It’s a really fun game – even through the stress.”
Among Us (PC)
“This one also took over the conversation on Twitch, even though it didn’t come out this year. I’ve met a lot of people playing this game – I’ll know one person and get invited to their lobby, then meet their friends. It’s a murder-mystery mind game. There have been some great moments to come out of this game for me, both as a player, and watching other people playing it.”
The Last of Us Pt. II (PS4)
“The opening ten minutes of The Last of Us hooked me, and it was the same for the sequel. Naughty Dog do an amazing job of storytelling. The philosophical questions that they ask and the divisive ending made for a divided reception – but those were the things I really liked about it. Much like in life, there are no neat answers to those questions, and I appreciate that about it. I can’t overstate what a lasting impression this game made on me. I mean, we even had to do a therapy session to get over what happened!”
Co-editor, Radical Art Review
“Much hyped and long in development, Dreams is a game that allows you to make games. It has an inbuilt music creator, and you can do 2D and 3D digital paintings, and make VR spaces. It’s made to be accessible, and to be an experimental workshop for people to make and share experiences and environments. There isn’t much ‘game’ to it – seeing what other people have made is the best part. PC gamers have had a modding community for decades, but console gamers have never really had a chance until now. With publishing direct to Steam on the horizon, it’s going to be interesting to see what it becomes long term.”
Death Stranding (PS4)
“This Hideo Kojima game pissed off a lot of people. It’s awkward, and silly, and it has some bizarre creative choices. You’re a courier in a world where the last vestiges of humanity live in bunkers underground; your character does deliveries, and is tasked with rebuilding the internet, and society. You can see – and add to – structures that other players have built in the landscape, so there’s an element of cooperation, even though you play alone. It’s all about isolation and connectivity, in the end, which had added meaning in 2020. There’s a steep curve of attrition in the first 20 hours – but as it progresses, there are moments that are touching and beautiful.”
Hollow Knight (Nintendo Switch)
“This is a metroidvania, on a massive scale. Made by a three-person team, it has a great art style and great music. You play a little spooky/cute creature that has to explore The Hallownest – a huge abandoned underground structure, like a collapsed ant’s nest. It’s technically challenging, and the combat is hard. It doesn’t care about you or your plans. But after a while, you get good, and it’s worth it. I’m looking forward to the sequel in 2021.”
Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Nintendo Switch)
“I’d never played these classic nostalgia games. The Switch is my first proper Nintendo console. Mario 64 is a landmark game that everyone seems to have played, and I hadn’t, so it was really fun to see what it’s like. I replayed the original Mario Bros too, on the Switch’s SNES emulator. Even though they’re old, they don’t feel clunky – Mario games are timeless.”
The Last Of Us Pt. II (PS4)
“This game is an emotionally draining slog in many ways, but the mood and characters set a new standard for what you can do with a game as a cinematic proposition. I was mildly traumatised after finishing it – it took a few days to recover. There was a big backlash to this game’s complexity. It was weird to have a backlash from gamers, about gaming getting more serious about storytelling.”
Games critic, follow on Twitter
Final Fantasy VII: Remake (PS4)
It was a long time coming, but seeing the exploits of the first couple of hours of the PS1 original stretched into a 40 hour game that allowed us to explore a significant portion of the city of Midgar was worth it. It would have been just as good with the original’s turn-based combat, but the new system deserves a pat on the back. The story was twisted just enough to keep the integrity of the original, while also expanding the horizon of possibilities for what’s still to come.
Immortals: Fenyx Rising (PS5)
While playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey this year, I found myself wanting an Ubisoft-made adventure game set in Ancient Greece that wasn’t tied to that IP, that could more freely engage in fantasy and mythology. Little did I know it was coming in the shape of Immortals: Fenyx Rising. Many were quick to call it a Breath of the Wild clone, but there are a lot of mechanics and content there that allow it to stand on its own. There’s tonnes to do, and the beautiful art style looked fantastic on Playstation 5.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything Vanillaware has developed, and 13 Sentinels is no exception. Not having delved too deeply into the Visual Novel genre, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but I was quickly hooked. Few have told a story from thirteen well-developed viewpoints, and Vanillaware completely nailed it. The combat segments were great distractions, and everything comes together at the end, when the full genius of the game is revealed.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PS4)
Yakuza is a series that I’ve regretted not following over the years, and I remedied that in 2020 – just in time to catch Like a Dragon in its release window. While I don’t mind the combat in previous iterations, it sometimes began to feel like a means to an end. Going turn-based in this game was a bold move, and it worked beautifully. Like a Dragon breathes life into the franchise with a likeable new protagonist and new character classes, while continuing the side-content and storytelling that this top-notch series is known for.
Cyberpunk 2077 (PS4 version on a PS5)
While the experience was flawed, and many say the game is unfinished, playing on a next-gen console made it playable (despite crashes and a bug that stopped me from getting the Platinum trophy). The world CD Projekt Red has created is one of the most expansive, beautiful cyberpunk places we’ve yet been able to explore. I found the characters and story to be completely immersive, the skill trees fascinating, and I had a great time overall. It made me nostalgic for the first time I played Fallout 3 – just trying to talk and tech your way out of situations, and killing and scavenging to survive.
Critic, streamer, tweeter, host of Gaming In The Wild
In Other Waters (Nintendo Switch)
A modern text adventure in which you explore an alien ocean as a sentient AI. In contrast to immersive underwater games like Abzu and Subnautica, In Other Waters dispenses with human senses, instead showing the world as an AI might see it: via topographical maps, biological samples, a crisp UI, and catalogued human-made descriptions. There’s an engaging missing person story to unravel, but the real joy of the game is in the vivid sense of discovery as you explore the depths of Gliese 667Cc.
A Short Hike (Nintendo Switch)
Originally released in 2019 to much acclaim, this miniature open-world adventure got a second wind with a 2020 console release. It’s the story of a teenage blackbird who’s taking a summer vacation on a pastoral holiday island of Hawk Peak Provincial Park. As you wander around in search of phone signal, you meet a cast of charming and hilarious animal characters, each with a story to tell. It’s a relaxing, mellow, intelligently written feel-good game. I’m grateful that it exists.
The Pathless (PS4)
A game that’s more than the sum of its parts, The Pathless is a thrilling mythic journey through a blighted land. As The Hunter, you’ll run flap and glide at high speed through a world littered with history, ruined buildings, and the remains of a decimated civilisation. You’ll piece together a war-torn history, and cleanse five biomes of colossal, polluting demons. The themes are deceptively familiar, and the presentation and gameplay slick and stylish; but beneath the glossy surface lies a surprisingly rich and resonant creation.
The Last of Us Pt. II (PS4)
This controversial blockbuster is ostensibly a hyper-violent post-apocalyptic zombie game, but it transcends what we might expect from the genre. It’s a layered, complex story about grief, revenge, the cyclical nature of violence, and how enemies can become demons in our own mind to the point where we’re blinded to their humanity. I was bereft after finishing it, and it haunts me still. I don’t love it – there’s a jarring, alienating lack of kindness at its core – but as an artistic achievement, it’s undeniable.
Kentucky Route Zero (Nintendo Switch)
I’m perpetually in awe of KR0’s scope, ambition, and boundless creativity. It’s a slow, meditative magical-realist journey that’s more of an ensemble artwork than a traditional video game. It challenges the limits of the medium by including theatre, visual art, TV and cinema, experimental radio, live music performance, literary dialogue, and myriad cultural references. This strange parallel America spilled into the real world – there was a hotline you could call to get an abstract voice message every day, and one of the plays staged in the game has since been performed out in the wild. A watershed moment for games-as-art, its influence and legacy will only grow from here.
John Rogers is an Iceland-based journalist. He is the Gaming Editor of the Radical Art Review and the host of Gaming In The Wild