2020 Games of the Year Accompanying Blog Post

goty 2020 image

The following text was intended to be the script for a full-length dictated video, but at my typical rate of speech, it would’ve ended up being over 40 minutes of video or so. Judging by how my typical sub-10 minute end of year videos don’t get viewed, I figured that the work wouldn’t be worth the effort for a video that only I would’ve cared about. The video form of this is heavily abridged and posted on my YouTube, but if you want to get the full thing, here’s the original script for that video. Writing this was more therapeutic for me than anything else, so if it seems self-indulgent, it’s because it was self-indulgent.

Accompanying video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KakG8jKO3us

Content Warnings for discussions of depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation 

I intended to write this list out in a way that conveyed what each of these video games meant to me during the period of time that I played them, moreso than any critical response I had to them. This is why I will typically preface my analysis with the time period during which I was playing the game.

For reference, here’s my list of each month of 2020 ranked from worst to best for me:

Screen Shot 2020-12-30 at 10.41.29 AMSo anyway,

10. Ministry of Broadcast (Switch)

10 Ministry of Broadcast

Normally I do not care for dystopic shit. However, we are headed towards dystopic shit being the only form of fiction that exists, and I must learn to adapt. It’s like how I don’t like mid-sized crossover SUVs but I acknowledge that in a decade, every car’s either going to be that or some luxury bullshit I can’t afford or the Warthog from Halo that I also cannot afford. Anyway, I know that a lot of people turned to dystopic fiction this year because the themes of dystopia reflected their state of mind at the time – and a story about a sadistic, race to the bottom game show where the impoverished compete for the chance at survival in a world that deems them fit only for sport and entertainment while the rich watch on, you’d think, would fit in the current context. 

Personally I did not feel or understand or care about any of those themes while playing this game. I did think that the jokes in it were funny, and I like the little crow that your character has a little tet-a-tet with, and I also find it funny how nobody really dies even when you kill them to solve puzzles, so your character has to just sort of interact with the people he fucks over throughout the course of the game at the end of every day and everybody just sort of disdains him more and more at the end of each day. 

I played this mostly in June which finished fourth on the ranking of worst months in 2020 for me, and what it meant to me was this: Fun game with good comedy that I liked playing at the end of the day, reminded me a bit of an Eric Chahi game and I like his games so I liked this one too.

9 – Thrillgate (PC/itch.io)

9 Thrillgate

Thrillgate is a Point-and-Click adventure game from Italian independent developer GABARTS. It is one of the most specific games I have ever played, meaning that I have never played a game quite like it before. It’s got an art style I’ve never seen before, it features audio design that I’ve never heard before, it’s storyline is bizarre in a way that I almost don’t want to describe because I really recommend people play this game. This is a game nostalgic for nineteen-eighties America, developed by a person who was not alive in nineteen-eighties America. It is built off of assumptions and stereotypes and cultural references that I personally would have no way of verifying. 

Point-and-Click, the traditional style at least, the Adventure Game Studio / SCUMM style, is one of my favorite genres, or at least it was until a few years ago when I just sort of stopped feeling like I had the time for them. This is a stupid thought because, on average, a point-and-click game takes like a fifth of the time of a normal game at most, and like a tenth of the time at least. I cannot adequately explain to you why this is, and I have sort of changed my ways over the past few months, but this is the only point-and-click that I really enjoyed this year – Matrjoschka with Love would be I suppose an honorable mention and Headspun, which came out last year, would probably have made last year’s list if I had either played it last year or made a list last year. But I’d fallen out of favor with them for a while and I’m starting to get back what I cared about with them.

I was reading an Ask Reddit thread in October that asked, basically, “What has changed for you personally because of the pandemic?” The majority of responses were the sort of sanctimonious Redditor prose that reads like the speech that a villain gives in a superheroes movie to explain why they got that way, like “I used to think that people were good…. But then 2020 happened… and now I know that humanity is a scourge, we’re all self-focused little rats in a skinner box pressing the bar down to get the next piece of cheese, not even noticing that the cheese has been slowly poisoned over the years to the point where now we can’t even understand that we are the rat in the cage…. So, yeah, that’s what’s changed for me.”

But there was one response that actually got to me and made me self-examine. This guy posted something along the lines of “video games, man… they feel like they did when I was in high school. Now I can get engrossed in a game for hours on end and have no cares in the world except for that game. I can forget about what else is going on and focus with my whole heart on what I love” and that led me to recognize that I have had the exact opposite experience from that. I’m happy for that person, I’m glad he’s found joy in games again, but this year was the absolute opposite for me. 

A lot of the games I played this year – many of which will appear later on this list – I have a bit of residual resentment for. During the period of time when I was jobless, living with my parents, afraid to go anywhere out of fear of getting them infected, I leaned on video games to stand in for the parts of life I was missing. And they just cannot replace the parts of life that I was missing. I felt like Morgan Spurlock near the middle of Super Size Me after he realizes he’s made a huge mistake and still has another few weeks to go eating only McDonalds. Which is unfortunate. I know it’s not the most unfortunate thing possible, like this problem of “I started resenting the medium that I’ve always loved” is not nearly as bad as other people had it, “job opportunity loss and having to move back with my parents” is better than “job loss and homelessness and illness,” but on a personal emotional level it hurt to feel what was at one point a joyful respite turning into basically a valueless occupation of time.  

So that got me thinking – when have I been happiest playing video games before in my life?

And the answers I keep going back to was a repeated occurrence I had during the Fall of 2015 into the winter and spring and fall of 2016. I used to do a DnD campaign thing at my friend Neil’s apartment every Friday at 8pm. We’d generally finish around 10:30pm, wherein I’d return home to my apartment. Once I would get home, I would play a PC game for about two hours before I went to bed. This is how I played a few of my favorite games of that era – Undertale, Shardlight, Technobabylon, Oxenfree. It was like I had stolen time from the world, from life, from school, to enjoy something just by myself.

This November, I moved out and took on a couple of jobs, I got to the point where I’d work days starting at 7:30 AM and ending at 9:00 PM, I had to get out of my own isolated space at the risk of mental devastation, basically. And there was a day where, remembering that I like this style of game, I went on itch.io, bought the first point-and-click game that looked interesting to me, and at about 10:00 PM, an hour after I got off from work, I started to play Thrillgate, and… It felt right again. It felt like I was stealing time again to play and appreciate this weird Italian adventure game. It is obviously flawed, I don’t really understand the decision to make every character a 3D model and have them walk around on hand-drawn backgrounds, which seems like the opposite of the way things normally go, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen it before and I doubt I’ll ever see it again. Getting into the sewers, which is the point of the game’s first act, involves:

  • Turning on the fire alarm system at the local game arcade, then getting water from a hydrant with a bottle you have to steal from the counter at the store owned by a bigfoot enthusiast whose location you can only learn if you give a friend a can of soda and a basket of raspberries because she’s specifically only hungry for soda and raspberries, so that you can pour the water on the exposed wires behind the vending machine in the arcade from which you get the soda that you give to your friend, so that the arcade operator will say the door code to his office aloud so that you hear it and then you can later go into the office, use a floppy disk that you had in your bedroom to download the map data from his computer, then you have to go back to your own bedroom computer to authenticate the disk, then you return to the arcade office to use their printer to print out the map
  • And the way that you get into the sewer itself involves using a magnet – the method of procural of which I have forgotten – to distract two soldiers by messing with the functionning of their guns – which doesn’t seem right but whatever – so that you can steal a rope that’s about five feet in front of them, which you then have to tie to a bucket, which is the prize that you win for giving the bigfoot enthusiast evidence of a bigfoot, and in order to do that you have to cut a sign shaped into a large foot down from a pole in front of a muddy puddle so that it looks like a bigfoot print with the shearers you stole from your gardener, then you take a polaroid photo of the footprint and bring it to the bigfoot enthusiast who gives you the prize of a metal bucket, which you have to combine with the rope and then hang from the well in your yard, which you then descend and end up in the sewers.

It’s ridiculous, and I spent a few hours over a few nights figuring that whole deal out – on my own by the way because nobody’s put up a walkthrough because this game is so obscure – but it felt right… Like, I was stealing time from life again, I was exhausted from working and I was taking my own time to play a genre of game that I love again. 

This is how I want video games to be, and the next time that something like this happens, hopefully never, but I want to make sure that I don’t lean so heavily on to games that I start to resent them again. In November, I really had to start picking the pieces of my life up again, and this, in a small way, represented one of those pieces.

8. Good Job! (Switch)

8 Good Job

Good Job is like a fun little physics puzzle game about committing OSHA violations. It’s rife with funny little moments of comedy intentional and unintentional, and it works the brain as well. My favorite thing to do was to see what would seem to be the solution to a puzzle, recognize that the solution would take some rigor, thought, and dexterity on my part, and decide to just launch a Fax Machine into the wall between me and whatever I needed and see if that would solve the problem faster, and oftentimes it would.

I played this in June. This game has little significance to anything else, it was just a fun little diversion that provided some simple comedic relief.

7. Pyramida (PC/Itch.io)

7 Pyramida

This is a game from Sokpop collective about building a little society, one which eventually must build a pyramid so that they can escape from the planet before a meteor hits. I streamed it back in September when I was first playing it and it was commented “This looks like a pretty chill time.” And it does look that way, at least to the naked eye. But underneath its chill, cute exterior lay a relatively unforgiving simulation of survival in a hunter-gatherer society. Your people will starve to death quickly, and as you get more people it seems that they starve to death even faster. You can overpick berry bushes to the point where that food source is lost, and the hunting of the deer who come in and out of your civilization can either bear out as a bountiful stock of meat or an exercise in futility and wasted time. 

This game highlights a little bit of how ridiculous it is that human civilization has continued this far to this point. For me to sit down at this computer took millennia of trial, error, starvation, shooting at deers with arrows and missing, and the number of little civilizations I could get up and running for a few days before a crucial little miscalculation in seeking out food or a particularly vengeful skeleton brought about their demise shows just what could’ve been. Makes me appreciate, to a point, the fact that even though things seem – and are – bad now, there has always been strife and difficulty that humans had to overcome, and we as a people are still here.

Now the alien bit didn’t make me think about any of that at all. That whole deal didn’t make me consider a single thing about mortality or humanity. That was just helping a little alien guy out, and I think that if I could help a little alien guy out, I would. But I don’t find it metaphorically significant. I played this in September, which was right with a bullet at the top of the list for worst months for me, and in a way it was a little bit therapeutic. There were so many times I’d play this game, get something building, and with one little mistake I’d be back to the beginning, forced to pick up the pieces and start again. This year, personally, was all about picking up the pieces out of a plan for life that was dismantled by uncontrollable outside forces – about starting again. In order to keep things going for a long while in Pyramida you really have to get the most ground-level simple needs of the people under control, and I suppose that mirrors what I’ve had to do myself over the course of the late summer and early autumn. But I feel like I might be reaching too far to make that point fit.

6. Hotshot Racing (PC / Steam)

6 Hotshot Racing

Yeah this was just a good racing game. Plays like Daytona, looks like Virtua Racing, tracks like Ridge Racer, fun characters like… uh… Motor… Toon… Grand Prix… I think. I played this during October, but I would not link it to any sort of emotional significance, it was just a game I liked and had a good time playing, and that is enough

5. Super Mario Bros. 35 (Switch)

5 SMB 35

I did a whole video on this one but I thought of another thing and I’ll put it here: So I can remember being in the seventh grade, in early 2008, talking to my friends, all of us were Wii owners, about trying to play certain Wii games online. I remember my friend Alex insisting that Nintendo needed to put out a microphone headset for the Wii so that players could talk during games. I disagreed, because I thought it would be annoying, all that I ever heard about were the horrors of XBOX Live voice chat, kids yelling slurs during like Halo 2 and shirtless dudes doing huge bong rips in Uno. I didn’t understand why I’d want that in Super Smash Bros. Of course, this was during a time when we were recognizing that we’d unknowingly made a gamble by getting Nintendo Wiis in 2006 and 7 when we were all eleven and twelve years old, which was that we were going to enter the angsty teenagership period of our lives during the console’s lifespan. When we were all pre-pubescent, the Marios and Kirbys seemed fun, and when we were all post-pubescent we recognized that we couldn’t think that Mario and Kirby were cool anymore, and we were stuck with the Nintendo Wii, which meant we had to start trying to think that the paltry WGWBs (Wii Games With Blood) were both good and cool, like Mad World and Red Steel. We also started to gravitate towards wanting the online voice chat functionality of XBOX Live and PlayStation Network, which was inaccessible to us because we bought, to quote scripture “That Wii Shit”. 

I liked it that way, though, I liked just the knowledge that I was playing Mario Kart against real, though mostly anonymous, people without needing to hear whichever slurs they were going to say to me as a 13 year-old. Nintendo did eventually put out a microphone thing for the Wii, which came with Animal Crossing and I very rarely used, and it was only used in around ten titles, the closest to a big multiplayer game like Halo or Killzone being The Conduit, which I did not play and to my recollection neither did anybody else.

Twelve years later, and the Nintendo Online experience, exemplified by Super Mario Bros. 35, remains fairly anonymous. This stands out even more in 2020, a year when online multiplayer gaming stepped up and tried to replace person-to-person socializing, with y’know, Animal Crossing, Fall Guys, Among Us, Phantasmagoria… And yet, I still mostly prefer this experience. This is the only game I primarily played in online multiplayer on this list. I fell off of the sort of pseudo-social voice-chat-enabled online multiplayer gaming hard about when I got to college and I stopped playing Counter-Strike: Source, and I’ve never honestly enjoyed it since. I still like playing games against people, the online social stuff just doesn’t work for me. I think it’s the same reason why I didn’t do ZOOM social hours or dating or whatever during the year after a certainpoint, it’s why I’m not on Discords, the internet just doesn’t provide what physical person-to-person contact does for me. I thought something was wrong with me for a long time because of that, which is stupid considering I gravitate towards the form of interaction that was the only type of interaction possible until maybe a decade and a half ago at earliest.

I know that Among Us and other social games helped a lot of people socialize when they couldn’t otherwise, and that’s great, but I just can’t adapt to that lifestyle (and I tried). Super Mario Bros 35 is a remnant of the online style of play that I like the most – the same online style of play that I liked even back when I was twelve years old correctly assessing that The Conduit wasn’t going to be an effective answer to Halo – mostly anonymized chaos, just playing and knowing that there are others playing but not feeling any social obligation.

4. Terra-Nil (PC / Itch.io)

4 Terra Nil

Terra Nil is a free game you can download on itchio. It’s sort of the opposite of a resource-management simulation, it takes place after a specific planet has been completely colonized and stripped for parts, and your job is to restore a natural ecosystem, leaving the planet effectively without a trace of human contact at the end.

Terra Nil was a September game, which means that I was playing it during a very low point in the grand scheme of the year mental-health-wise, which means that there are plentiful interwoven fibres of significances that must make up my understanding of Terra Nil, in some ways. To put it out there most straightforwardly, I started treatment at a mental health facility during the morning of September 14th, and I ended up downloading this game from itch.io that same evening. Yet, I think at the time, I missed out on the most obvious piece of connection between my personal experience and the game’s narrative.

Did I feel a sense of connection to this game about trying to rebuild something that was naturally there after it was stripped away during a point in my life when I was trying to regain control of both my mental sense of being and any sense of a future that I could deem to be worth living? I am sure I did in the back of my mind, but I do not remember and have no textual evidence of ever explicitly making that connection.

What I do remember is that this game has no time limit, relatively low stakes, and has the right amount of challenge that you get into that Czsczientmihaly Flow State thing fairly easily. It was somewhat therapeutic, playing this game, because it gave me the space to think about what was going on around and within me while playing it. That, in short, was what this game was to me. It’s a game about regeneration, and the experience of playing it, perhaps in an auxiliary sense, was regenerative for me as well.

I almost feel more gratitude towards this game than anything else.

3. Super Mega Baseball 3 (Switch)

3 SMB 3

I already did a video on this one, so I’ll just direct you to that for analysis. For the year-end significance, I realized something in retrospect that I didn’t connect at the time. Super Mega Baseball 3 came out on May 13th. I consider March 10th, 2020 to be the last day of a previous life for me.That was the final day of a life that I liked living that I understand and have accepted that I will never quite get back. 

Of many difficult things presented by the pandemic, one of the underwritten difficult aspects is the fact that the future is basically nonexistent in any specific sense. I buy a planner at the beginning of each year – I don’t think I will for 2021, but whatever – and as typical, I wrote out, in January and February, all of the things that I was planning to do. Concerts I wanted to attend, movies I wanted to go to the cinema to see, every match of both my hometown and adopted town soccer teams, album releases, conventions I wanted to attend, and after about March 10th, almost all of that became basically null, and every time over the course of the rest of the year that I opened up that planner, something that the version of me from February had planned for was sitting there, a reminder of the life that I wasn’t living. I eventually threw the planner away.

This part still remains, and is going to remain for at least a while longer. During August, as a sort of coping mechanism, I opened up a savings account for the 2026 World Cup, because I was and remain fairly sure that that competition will happen. Anticipation is one of the things that brings flourishment to life. When one loses everything specific that they look forward to, they lose all specific sense of the future, and at least for me, when the future is a non-specific void, I tend to fill it with pain and fear. April, in particular, was one of the worst months for this.

During that month of April – with everything either cancelled or at least in a flux of postponement – Super Mega Baseball 3 was the one thing that I could honestly and specifically look forward to. And it delivered! I played it basically non-stop through May, June, and July. It is, in all likelihood, the best baseball game I have ever played, it’s up there with the best sports games I’ve ever played, it’s as good as its predecessors and in many ways better (though I will love the second game much more than I could love the third forever) but I will always appreciate it as the one thing I had to look forward to during a time when I had nothing else.

2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

2 ACNH

This game meant more to me than I could write out accurately. There was a point where I felt viciously defensive of it in a way I haven’t been viciously defensive of a game since I was in junior high school because I think it provided me stability and something to labor over during a very listless period in the spring and early summer. 

I think the most important note I can put to this game was this – I played Animal Crossing daily from its launch in mid-March to the middle of July. And one day in July, I just stopped playing it, and I haven’t touched it since, and I probably never will again. There is a bizarre tendency that I have wherein I tend to lock away most works that are highly emotionally important to me. I was enthralled with the show Daria in high school, but I didn’t watch its last season or the movie because I didn’t want to get to the point where there was none left to see. I have had effectively the same favorite band since high school, british emo group named Los Campesinos, that was so important to me in high school that I did not listen to the album that they put out during my Freshman year of college for two years, which was stupid, because I later found out that it was one of my favorite albums ever, but I had cared about them so much in high school that I almost wanted to lock those intense memories back during that time period. 

I am a little embarrassed by the way and intensity with which I outwardly loved Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 record “E MO TION”, which I appreciate for what it meant to me at the time but I have not listened to it front to back in probably over two to three years, and I haven’t listened to any of her newer work since then. In terms of video games, I haven’t gone back and replayed games like Oxenfree, Undertale, Shardlight, or Her Story (though that last one has very little replay capability). 

If I stop dead in my tracks and say “I love this and I’m never playing this again,” it means that I feel very, very highly about it. I realize that it’s weird, I don’t know anyone else who does that to themselves, but I did it with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Like with Terra Nil, I almost feel more gratitude than anything else with this game, and as a result I feel strange both trying to speak on it from a critical standpoint and putting it behind a different game on this list.

1. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 (PC / Epic)

1 THPS 1 2

When I first heard that Activision would be publishing a remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, my first thought was “Wait, didn’t they just put out that HD remake like three years ago?” Then I checked, and it was actually eight years ago. Which I think is a fine amount of time to wait, especially after the first one and its follow-up both sucked. The second thought that I had was “well, I’m not going to buy it this time. I have been burnt too many times before.”

During the Summer of 2012, I purchased Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, basically immediately after launch. I beat it within the span of days, and I can remember even at age seventeen feeling a deep sense of hollowness, knowing that it wasn’t a good game, and I had only played it out of obligation. On September 29th of 2015, I went to the GameStop near my apartment and bought a copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. On its launch day. After reviews had come out and confirmed that it was a bad game. The woman behind the counter, after I requested a copy, asked me the second most embarrassing question I’ve ever been asked regarding any video game purchase:

“Are you sure?”

I wasn’t. I brought the game home and put it in my XBOX One, waited the few hours for the entire game to download because, infamously, the disc barely contained what could be called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. After playing it for about an hour and a half and confirming that the reviewers were correct, the GameStop clerk’s suspicions were correct, and the truth that I knew deep down in my soul but wanted to pretend wasn’t there was correct – It was a bad game – my roommate came into my bedroom, saw me playing it, and asked me the most embarrassing question I’ve ever been asked regarding any video game purchase:

“Did you pay money for this?”

I said yes. He asked how much. I said sixty dollars.

Not wanting to repeat that embarrassment, I remained steadfast in believing that I wouldn’t purchase this game throughout the summer. Then, after watching like ten minutes of a Giant Bomb quick look of the demo, I pre-ordered it about four days before launch. I then spent about an hour and a half one night playing just that Warehouse demo, piling two minute session atop two minute session and recognizing – but not really letting myself believe – that the series I remember loving, the one that had had as much of an effect on me as a child as the Zeldas and Marios had on all of the other game reviewers who have a much easier and less embarrassing time talking about their youthful game experience compared to me – was there again.

September 2020 was the worst month probably of my entire life. I think I’ve already said this. If you’ve already made it this far in the video you have already somehow baptized yourself in the way that my brain functions to the point where I feel fine dictating what I’m about to dictate, or you are my dad and you already know this. The odds in early September were not in favor of the fact that I am able now to sit here and refer to it in the past-tense. I was in such a bad state mentally in September 2020 that I had to seek long-term professional psychiatric help at an institution.

The most basic level of why I ended up falling that far mentally was this feeling, this understanding that my life, as I knew it, was over and was never coming back – Everything that I had enjoyed about my life prior to the pandemic was steeped in being an educator in a face-to-face environment, and at the time, my brain interpreted a future wherein I could enjoy and embody what I really cared about would as impossible. I was convinced that, as I defined it, life for me could never be ‘good’ again.

And though… This connection is undoubtedly going to seem tenuous, because it is – I am about to compare my sense of my entire purpose of existence to the quality of a video game series that I care about a lot – I really thought that this series could never be ‘good’ again, either.

And I am grateful that I was wrong on both accounts. 

It was inexplicable fully in the moment, and it is inexplicable now, but this game – after probably a fifteen year period since the last game in the series that I considered to feel like a proper ‘Tony Hawk game’ – felt like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. 

It’s a peculiar, specific feeling, one that I could only have had at this age, this far separated from the early part of my life when I was playing these games the most, having had the experiences that I’ve had in the years since… It strikes me that I could not have appreciated this game the way that I have if it hadn’t come out under these circumstances, in this year. I don’t know what kind of judgment I could make out of that.

 

About Joe Bush

The guy behind JoeBush.net and a lot of other things
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