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I finished the video and that just ended up staying on my “To Do” shame pile for months, so… if anything here reads as outdated that’s why.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.
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.
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 itch.io 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.
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?
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 CanadianGameDevs.com 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.
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.
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!