Stephan’s Top 10 Games of 2020

Note: I wrote this in December 2020, wanted to publish the same time I finished the video and that just ended up staying on my “To Do” shame pile for months, so… if anything here reads as outdated that’s why. Thanks!

2020 reaffirmed many of my qualms with the games industry that’ve been festering in my soul these past few years. AAA studios pumped out bloated and unnecessary sequels in The Last of Us Part II and DOOM Eternal, souring the fond feelings I had of the games they succeeded. The slimy tendrils of “ The Brands™” who still refuse to be silent wrapped around the few mainstream games I did enjoy this year, manifesting hideous Fall Guys beans and setting up shameful, miserable habitats in Animal Crossing to cash in on the trend du jour. Also, did no one tell the rapist-elect he maybe shouldn’t get a private island in a game meant primarily for kids? Especially after… you know.

Biden campaign launches official Animal Crossing: New Horizons yard signs -  The Verge
Thanks, I hate it.

Thankfully, indie game creators were still breathing hope into my games library.

Something must have been in the indie dev water three to four years ago because this year was unequivocally the year of the Roguelite/like. Hades, Spelunky 2, Toxicant, Rogue Legacy 2, Going Under, Risk of Rain 2 version 1.0, Undermine, Scourgebringer– hell even the original Rogue returned to Steam.

get it?

Thing is, I’m not a big fan of Roguelikes or lites, so while I found great joy in watching the rogue fans in my life gorge themselves I turned to the front page of to find my next meal. The indie scene proved that a new concept, whether swung and missed or executed brilliantly, will always be more interesting than retread ground cashing in on brand recognition- no offense Spelunky 2 or Super Meat Boy Forever.

Just like in 2019, most of the games I fell in love with this year entrenched me in my favourite design mantra: quality over quantity. Most of these games can be beaten in a few hours. The few bigger games I did connect with this year were primarily ways for me to spend time with friends who I weren’t able to see in person for obvious reasons. But even those longer experiences are still quality experiences, free from the vomit-inducing monetization models that plague most mainstream games.

So here are my top ten favourite games I got a chance to play in 2020, I hope you find something that piques your interest and cheers to more amazing indies in 2021!

I also made a video for those of you who are more audio-visually inclined.

voila, video!

Anyways, enjoy reading!

Tetris Effect blew me away when I beat it in VR back in 2018, so I was sceptical the non-VR version launching alongside the new Xboxes (and Windows) would be able to impress me in the same way. It didn’t, but instead, it featured the coolest shakeup to the Tetris formula I’ve ever seen in my almost 2 decades playing Tetris.

In the new Connected mode up to 3 players join forces to defeat a single enemy’s screen, but the kicker is once players have cleared enough lines they initiate a single connected space where all their team’s screens connect and they begin alternating dropping pieces.


This fucking blew my mind the first time it happened. I got into a rhythm with my teammates where we were finding our next spot and dropping pieces within seconds, filling up the screen to send as many lines possible to our foe. It was the most surprising moment I encountered in a game this year, one I probably wouldn’t have been surprised by if I read up on the game or watched a single trailer, but I just saw it on game pass and jumped in. I went back and replayed the Journey mode which still owns, but I’m desperately looking for people to play Connected with, and as it’s crossplay… well, add me if you’re down.

Everyone knows the pitch for SUPERHOT: time only moves when you move. It’s a concept first executed in 2016’s SUPERHOT, then in virtual reality the next year and then brought to every platform under the sun. SUPERHOT Team took some time away from the spotlight to begin publishing games (like one of my favourite 2019 gems Frog Detective 2) but returned this year with what started as an expansion turned into a full-fledged sequel in SUPERHOT: MIND CONTROL DELETE– a game given free to everyone who owns SUPERHOT, which is pretty dope.

This is one of the few Roguelites I really dug this year, as each “level” is a series of challenge rooms with a selection from a random group of upgrades available after clearing each one. I found these bite-sized runs perfect to mediate the rapid boredom that sets in for me in other Roguelikes and lites. If you liked the original SUPERHOT chances are this one’s already free for you in your inventory. If you like Roguelites and want to see an FPS-take on the increasingly crowded genre, this is the game for you.

For me, New Horizons is going to live and die in 2020. It released the week I started working from home and I almost didn’t get it because mall security shut down the line I was in at EB Games (but thankfully my much bolder friend Chris got us in there) and I played it pretty much every day from when it launched until The Last of Us Part II released. I’ve booted it back up twice since that day, and both times I ran around my house killing all the cockroaches and walked around my island remembering I did pretty much everything I wanted to do which was mainly roll credits and then find all the fossils. And that’s that, but that’s all it needs to be.

I had pretty much the same experience with New Leaf back in 2013, although maybe I played it a little bit longer after the big amiibo update, and if New Horizons ever gets a bigger content expansion I’d gladly hop back in. But in a year where my girlfriend and I needed something to do besides go outside, I’m so glad this game was here for us to dive into, to give us routine, something to obsess over and something to connect us to our friends. It’s not my favourite game of 2020, but it is most certainly THE game of 2020.

For someone who failed his driving test multiple times, I’ve only really excelled at driving in Mario Kart, a game I busted out multiple times in 2020 to whoop my friends.

Sporting activities like Tony Hawk Pro Skater’s tapes and letters, art of rally has several overworld levels to play through at your leisure or meticulously crafted tracks to race through with your rally car of choice. As a car illiterate player, this game welcomed me into its arms and let me have a great time on my own terms, setting my own goals and nudged me in ways that never felt as condescending as other racing sims I’ve played, and for that I love it.

art of rally is also a very different racing game to any I’ve played before in that it asks a much deeper question- is driving art? Not are cars art, or is a winding road through a beautiful landscape art, but is the act of driving art? In the same way a painter’s brush creates art on the canvas does a driver’s car create art on the road? Is the motion of a metal body on rubber treads through space a form of expression in the same way a dancer’s fluid movement across a stage is?

Well, yeah.

What if Guacamelee! was a linear level-based arcade game that got soaked in a pastel swirl of cute colours and cuddly characters? That’d be Super Crush K.O., the next game from Canadian indie action powerhouse Vertex Pop, consistently the beacon of hope in a genre increasingly abandoned by indie studios in recent years like the almighty Housemarque.

This game is cute as heck and tight as hell, and I think largely forgotten about in the conversation this year due to releasing so early in January. That and not being a Roguelike. But whether you check it out on PC or Switch you’re in for a good time. Save that cat!!!

The internet phenomenon none of my in-person friends would check out (except Sean, bless you), Blaseball captivated me and pretty much my entire digital friend group for months. What is Blaseball? It’s essentially a web-based score box and standings for a fake league that plays a version of baseball that was virtually unrecognizable by the 5th or 6th season due to all the crazy rules that got layered on when fans vote in at the end of each season. For a much more comprehensive and entertaining explanation of the internet phenomenon, watch People Make Game’s great video on the best sport to grace the internet.

While I fell off in later seasons due to being unable to pay attention 24/7 as you needed to do to understand what’s happening, I am excited to see how they shake it up when they return from the big siesta… whenever that happens.

Internships are heck, and Going Under is the only other Roguelite that resonated with me this year. Going Under is an efficient 3D fighter elevated into another hemisphere by its amazing art style partnered with a brutally funny and scathing script. Skewering nonsensical startup culture, vertical monopolies, the desperate job market and so much more, Going Under dolls out its brilliant story in between runs that kept me coming back, again and again, to hear more.

Janice fights with whatever she can pick up, and this absurd inventory complements the game’s absurd enemies, levels and uh, premise. Doing free labour? For a billion-dollar company?! Fuck that! Going Under speaks to me on a spiritual level, in my own meme-laden vernacular and in my own cynical tone. It’s the most “Stephan” game I played that year… which might be a deterrent based on how well you know or don’t know me, but that’s why I loved it so much.

Dialogue choices in games suck ass. Most of the time, anyways. They’re often arbitrary decisions meant to provide some sense of control while guiding you to the one or two endings the narrative designers need you to land on. Different flavours sprinkled over the same low-fat, butter-free, disappointing popcorn. Signs of the Sojourner asks the all-important question: what if they didn’t suck? What if there weren’t dialogue choices at all? But rather we designed a visual system to convey the often messy, often difficult ways human communication actually works?

Players build a deck of cards (wait no, come back) with a symbol on each side, and sometimes a special effect at the top. Players place these cards alternating in turn with the person they’re talking to on a horizontal line of spaces, trying to connect the symbols on each side to successfully move the conversation forward. It’s an incredibly simple system that devastated me each time I couldn’t connect with someone I needed to and felt so good each time I reached the end of a conversation successfully. Nothing has more accurately captured the nuances and frustrations of actually talking to people, and it’s worth checking out to see this system is executed even if you don’t care about narratives and even if you don’t like deck builders.

As I said on our 2020 wrap-up episode of the podcast, Dépanneur Nocturne is like a nice cup of hot chocolate. It’s a little late night adventure to a local bodega to find a present pour mon bichette. A solo dev’s little passion project, this game feels ripped out of a magical night in the designer’s Quebecoise life with fantastical, astrological elements added and very Canadian references made.

Whatever you do, make sure you insist on using the facilities here as that tangent was my favourite of the whole experience- and one I missed on my first playthrough. Also, play through this game several times! It’s short, you can make it home to your bichette in 10 minutes if you want or 30-40 minutes if you want to really meander and test the cashier’s patience. I want more intimate, personal games like this one. I applaud indie game coop studio KO_OP Mode for letting their designers put out these passion projects with their support and I hope more studios will follow suit.

Kentucky Route 0: Act V is the end of a 7-year long episodic adventure that wrapped up at the start of the year- followed by Kentucky Route 0: TV Edition for consoles and PC Edition which collected all the Acts in one package and added little interstitials between each episode.

I really struggle to put into words why I like Kentucky Route 0 so much.

It’s a game whose meanings are hard to sus out, but game whose meanings are so captivating and fascinating to sus out. I don’t know if what I think the game is trying to say is actually what that game is trying to say- and I don’t think it matters.

Haunting passages like these are peppered throughout.

Much like Night in the Woods (my favourite game of 2017), Kentucky Route 0 is a tale of late-capitalist fallout in the American rust belt. It’s a story of people at the end of their rope, struggling for stability and answers. People discarded by the economy, failed by their government, abandoned by civil society and left to their own devices. But it’s in this dire state they find each other, and this miserable life is punctuated with beautiful moments that give hope- or at least respite.

It’s a game I still think about all the time. In many ways Kentucky Route 0 is a game about the journey, not the destination. It’s such a different game from anything else I’ve played. It’s unique and refreshing in a way I really needed this year after I was getting more and more cynical with all the games I was seeing, playing and, well, cyberpunk.

Love that bird…

It provides a sense of peace and a pacing I really appreciate and really needed this year. I think this game transcends what games and interactive media can be in many ways, and that probably sounds pretentious and douchey but I think it’s true.

Kentucky Route 0, with a story that’s very hopeless, gave me a lot of hope for videogames, for how we can pull together and work together, and live and love together to make the world a better place- and make life worth living.

It’s on all major platforms, check it out.


Thank you so much for reading! I’d love to know what you think of my list, if there’s a game you’re going to check out now or one you think I missed that I should play. I really appreciate every person who takes the time to read my work and I’d love to know what you think in the comments below!

Stephan’s Top 10 Games of 2019

2019 was a year of conflict in the games industry and community. We witnessed the start of a war for the very heart of PC Gaming’s soul as fiery Steam fanboys fought tooth and nail against clicking a different icon on their desktop. We saw developers endure horrific online abuse for accepting financial support from Epic to help create their games in exchange for timed exclusivity. I personally don’t care what launcher my games launch from, as long as they launch and they’re good but what do I know. There’s also amazing indie titles free on Epic every week so maybe Steam users just get off on dumping money into Gabe’s bank account…

The games industry is reaching the place the film industry did in the 40s and 50s when growing workplace mismanagement and abuses pushed workers to form labour movements that led to film crews and actors unionizing. We’re seeing organizations like Game Workers Unite have huge groundswells of support and official trade unions being established, most notable being Game Workers Unite UK which has received support and solidarity from other long-standing unions in the incresingly not-united United Kingdom.

The first official Game Developers Union in the world! 🇬🇧🎮💪

All of this will continue into 2020, as big money from companies like Epic disrupts the Steam monopoly and union-busting efforts from studios like EA and Activision push a deeper division into the heart of the games industry. But while all this is happening, studios are still making games. And a lot of the ones made by indie developers are actually good!

So through all the muck and drama of the past year, I want to highlight the top-notch games I got a chance to play. Experiences that I think show off the best of this medium and anyone who hasn’t heard of or tried should notice. I played 50 video games released this year and curated a selection of my 10 favourites to share with you.

I also tried making a video this year to accompany this post, and ended up spending way too much time on it.

I hope you enjoy!

~ 10 ~

If you put Super Metroid in front of someone for the first time, after that person has played a platformer or Metroidvania developed with more modern design sensibilities like Guacamelee! or Hollow Knight, they probably won’t enjoy it. But what Super Metroid, and the nostalgia it carries for so many people, represents is the isolating feeling of exploration, the gradual powering up of one’s abilities and the tense boss fights won with a sliver of health remaining, barely achieving victory after failing so many times before. All of that is captured in Gato Roboto, and it actually feels good to play.

You’re a cat, you’ve crashed your captain’s ship by sitting on the keyboard and now you’ve got to suit up and save the day. Dive into the beautiful monochromatic laboratory on which you’ve crashed and explore the winding corridors, one platform at a time. Gato Roboto doesn’t fuss around, you know what you’re doing from the get-go and it delivers tight platforming, great little boss fights and an hilarious script I think anyone can appreciate. Platforming sections are mixed up by forcing players to exit their cat mech suit to progress through certain areas making you incredibly underpowered and the game becomes a bit of a bullet-hell. It’s tight, cheap and well worth your time, especially if you love speedrunning or finding every collectable in the world’s many nooks and crannies.

~ 9 ~

You don’t really understand what you do in Superliminal until you see it in action. By moving objects around a space from a first-person perspective you change the size of those objects relative to where you moved them from. This is the core mechanic you’ll then use to solve increasingly bizarre, brain-busting and sometimes hilarious puzzles through the game’s 2-3 hour playtime.

I beat Superliminal in one sitting, and in an industry increasingly valuing quantity over quality when it comes to what you’re doing moment to moment one of my favourite things a game can do is present an interesting premise, mechanism or style (in this case all three) and deploy it in a game that doesn’t drag on for 50 fucking hours to justify price of admission. It’s interesting, it’s deliberately designed not to waste my time and it gets in and out before it can become boring. Bravo.

~ 8 ~

I forgave this game’s abysmal performance on my Xbox One because of how awesome it was. I sat through minutes-long load times, a stuttering frame rate and a few crashes because this game is fucking rad (and I’ve seen how it’s supposed to work on PC). I loved just floating around the Bureau of Control, discovering each of this game’s amazing side-missions, collecting and reading redacted company files and mowing down the game’s antagonists called “the hiss” with Control’s exceptional third-person combat.

I’ve never seen Twin Peaks, the television series everyone keeps comparing this game to, but I think I’d enjoy it if the story is nearly half as engaging as Control’s psychedelic, 4th wall breaking adventure through a pseudo-FBI headquarters. I’ve also heard that Twin Peaks closes off with a disappointing, unsatisfying conclusion to its story… and it also shares that with Control– although with the teased Alan Wake crossover DLC I think they’re prepping something more interesting to close out with.

~ 7 ~

I’m hard-pressed to name another game this year that had me laughing out loud all by my lonesome the way this one did. It’s an incredibly sincere and almost childish game that bares the personality and wit of its writer and designer: Grace Bruxner. Now, I hate the way our industry creates “auteur” game designer celebrities like Hideo Kojima, David Cage, Tim Schafer and others. While they have all created prolific games, yes, they were aided by teams of dozens and sometimes hundreds of incredibly talented artists, programmers and designers. But Frog Detective, I’m quite comfortable saying, is a Grace Bruxner game- co-developed with Thomas Bowker, of course.

Frog Detective is genuinely one of the most endearing, witty and delightful games I’ve played in years. While I solved the first case back in 2018, Frog Detective returned this year with a new thriller… the case of the invisible wizard. It’s short, about an hour or so to complete, but as I say again and again- games should strive for quality, not quantity. And that hour I played was Quality with a capital ‘Q’. Brilliant writing, terrific characters and an hilarious climax- Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard applies the old addage “brevity is the soul of wit” to everything but its title.

~ 6 ~

Ah, Grindstone, you beautiful bastard of a game. Free from the multiple premium currencies that plague the matching genre. Unbound by the level design geared to force players into shelling out cash for progress. Untainted by advertisements upon each and every death. You, dear Grindstone, are a beacon of hope in a genre I thought was lost to the freemium marketplace. Only you, Grindstone, could provide me with refuge from the droll of day to day activities like bussing and going to the bathroom.

Grindstone… you gorgeous, disgusting game about strategic monster slashing and satisfying skull bashing. I’ve never put more thought into a loadout in a game but you, with your simple 3 slot setup and dozens of weapons and armours, provide so many strategic options. I shall sing your praises until the end of time! And I shall not renew my AppleArcade subscription until your sequel releases. You’re a damn fine videogame, dear Grindstone, the best mobile game released this year- no matter what The Game Awards say.

~ 5 ~

There’s a point in Untitled Goose Game where you’re instructed to steal a child’s glasses. It seemed simple enough, but to acquire this child’s glasses I had to get him to trip- by untying his shoes. And not only did I trip him, but where we were standing he fell face-first into a puddle. Drenched, battered and now blind I tormented this child, chasing him into a telephone booth so he had to call his mother for help, stealing his toy and putting it back on the store shelf so he had to buy it back from the store owner. This would most definitely be the point in his life a therapist 20 years from will fixate on, drawing all of this person’s anxieties, pain and self-doubt back to this one traumatic day a goose fucked his shit up.

And that’s just one person. Goose fucks up an entire town’s day, and I still don’t know why. The science shows geese aren’t actually that antagonistic, that this aggressive persona is something we’ve projected onto them. So then why? Why traumatize the villagers. Why destroy a priceless vase, push a bucket onto a man’s head, honk to make someone hit their finger with a hammer… for the fun of it? For the fantasy of ruining the lives of so many people and facing no legal recourse? For the thrill of stealing someone’s valuables and hearing the smack of webbed feet as I flee the crime scene, just out of arm’s reach? Yes, actually. That’s exactly why.

~ 4 ~

Before someone starts whining “yOu CaN’t CoUnT A dLc As A gAmE oF tHe YeAr” you should know there’s over 40 new levels in Celeste Chapter 9: Farewell, an entirely new original soundtrack composed by IGF award winner Lena Raine and if you suck as much as I do roughly 20 hours of new content here. That’s enough to be one of those filler, in-between AAA games where the publishers consider it low stakes enough to put black people on the cover.

Celeste Chapter 9 is aptly named “Farewell” as it’s a goodbye from the small team of developers bewildered their 2018 platformer touched as many lives as it did- including mine. But it’s not a goodbye you can receive unless you truly demonstrate you know this game as well as they do. That you understand how wavedash chains and almost pixel-perfect jumps are what make this game one of the tightest platforming experiences ever crafted by mere mortals with computers.

If you’re persistent enough to perfect every screen section by section, almost like a pianist perfecting each bar of a song through repetition, then you will be rewarded. Every time I land at the end of a screen I’ve spent half an hour rehearsing is such an amazing feeling of accomplishment. This chapter is platforming perfection, and with every screen cleared you’ll understand why it’s so deserving of its own spot on the list.

~ 3 ~

You can’t buy a soundtrack for APE OUT– that’s because there isn’t one, or rather no soundtrack composed in the traditional sense. Instead, YOU are the composer- the Ape is your pen, the stylish environments and vistas of this unsuspecting world are your staff and the splattering blood of thrown enemies your ink with which you put the notes down.

Every action you take in APE OUT feeds into the game’s reactive music system, deploying frantic symbol clashes, screeching trumpets and driving drum fills as you ramp up your destruction. At the end of APE OUT you haven’t merely beaten a game. You’ve composed an entire jazz album wholly unique to your playthrough. Every level a one-of-a-kind recording created by your route to freedom, littered with the percussion, bass and brass of your warpath.

This game doesn’t rest on its laurels, although it does feature a gorgeous scratchy art style and frenetic, exhilarating combat. It instead takes a genre that I’ve become oh so familiar with this past decade, top-down action-arcade games, and strips away everything except the pure, unadulterated core. APE OUT puts the primal power of an ape wronged in your hands and begs you to go apeshit on everything and everyone.

~ 2 ~

Late-stage capitalism is truly a hellscape. A growing unstable gig economy, rampant wealth inequality and a laughable housing market where my landlord thinks a 25% rent increase is “appropriate to meet the demands of the current housing market.” But it’s also birthed one of the most polished, most perfect FPS experiences I’ve laid my hands on in Apex Legends, a game I’ve sunk 250+ hours into and haven’t spent a cent on.

That’s right, this fantastic game that gave me so much cost me NOTHING. It gave us the ping system, something I’ve instinctively tried to do in every multiplayer game I’ve played since and been disappointed every time when it was absent. The mid-game respawn that lets you be the clutch teammate who brings it back against all odds (something Fortnite ripped off within weeks, along with the ping system). And who could forget the cast of endearing, hilarious and at times intimidating characters whose personalities struck a chord with my friends and I so hard we still recite lines to each other, even in other games?

If this mecca of diegetic game design served to me for $0 down, subsidized by a microtransaction-fueled marketplace where gamers buy skins for guns they’ll forget about in a year, is another symptom of late-stage capitalism well damn, maybe constant housing anxieties are worth it…

Just kidding they’re absolutely not. Nova Scotia please pass rent control laws soon I’m scared.

~ 1 ~

The world of A Short Hike is not unlike many games I’ve played before. With a range of activities and pastimes very obviously riffing on Animal Crossing, a cast of weird and interesting anthropomorphic characters who very much reminded me of Night in the Woods and a thematic platforming premise serving as an allegory for personal growth that reminded me so much of my favourite game of last year, Celeste. And what a lineup of games to reference.

A Short Hike is Comfort Food: The Game. I know that anytime I feel down or need a pick me up, this game will be there. This is a game I’ll be booting up many times throughout my life to escape the cruel world to fly around its scenic mountainsides and babbling brooks. To fish with my animal friends, dig for treasure and explore the beaches for shells.

A Short Hike is also the game that I think could serve as one of gaming’s great ambassadors to those uninterested in traditional genres like shooters or MMO’s. This game holds a place on my proverbial shelf where I pull off games to recommend to those in my life who want to get into games but can’t master the first-person controls I find instinctive after using for years. A Short Hike earns the top spot on my list by being the very best games can be, and it’s a game that will stand the test of time, looking and feeling just as good in 2029 as it did in 2019.


Thank you so much for reading! I’d love to know what you think of my list, if there’s a game you’re going to check out now or one you think I missed that I should play. I really appreciate every person who takes the time to read my work and I’d love to know what you think in the comments below!

Interview with Pepper Grinder Designer Riv Hester

As with most of the designers I talk to on this site, I first discovered Riv Hester through Twitter. More specifically, through a gif of his gnarly game Pepper Grinder which was retweeted onto my timeline (I forget by who, but clearly someone with good taste).

Continue reading →