Much like every other part of 2020, gaming was a little weird. Games that may have been passing fads ended up dominating several months. Gaming in general became a lifeline for folks who used to only play occasionally. The world was turned upside down thanks to a pandemic. And that’s ignoring the fact that 2020 would have been weird regardless, as the transition from one console generation to another usually comes with its own fair share of stumbles.
All of that said, when we talk about 2020 in the pantheon of gaming years come and gone, I’m not sure where it will land. For many, I think this may go down as one of their favorite years for games. Circumstances being what they are, it’s easy to see how important certain games were to people. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a phenomenon, Among Us turned us all into backstabbers, and everyone loved being horny for their favorite gods in Hades.
Personally, while I appreciate all that, 2020 didn’t quite hit for me. Some of the games in this list are sure bets for all-time favorite games that I will likely return to again and again. And I definitely made some harsh cuts to get to this list—a few really cool games are going to go unmentioned here.
But I also had some false starts with Hades and fell out of love with Animal Crossing months ago. I spoke at length about all the games I finished this year, and all the ones I didn’t. 2020 had great games, but it wasn’t special for me the same way it was special for many others.
The end result is a top 10 that feels personal, uniquely me, and hopefully a little different from all the top 10 lists you’ve read over the last few weeks. If I’m lucky, maybe I can convince you to try out a game you wouldn’t have otherwise. Let’s get started…
10 – Ghost of Tsushima: Legends
Ghost of Tsushima is an open world game that drags its feet entirely too much, with a story that goes in the least interesting direction at every turn. I wish it developed its bad guys, who should have been intimidating and capable warriors, but were treated like fantasy orcs to be dispatched without a second thought. If you’ve seen even one classic samurai movie (or you’ve experienced enough cultural osmosis) you know exactly where this story of codes and honor is going to go. It’s an okay game, but it’s also a terribly uninteresting one.
Which is part of why Ghost of Tsushima: Legends, the free multiplayer expansion that adds 4-player co-op, is such a pleasant surprise. Legends exists in the lore and tales of Tsushima, letting the game’s freak flag fly with demons, magic, and immortal warriors. The game’s combat system sings with the addition of magic, traps, and supernatural enemies.
With 4 classes, 2-player story missions, 4-player survival modes, a true Destiny-style action raid, and a good amount of loot, Legends plays out like a mini version of all these live service loot games that are so popular now. The big difference is that you can get a group together, play it all in a few weeks, and just stop. That’s a beautiful thing.
9 – Astro’s Playroom
I knew Astro’s Playroom would be good because Astrobot: Rescue Mission was basically VR’s Mario 64 moment and no one noticed. What I wasn’t expecting was the particular ways in which it would be good. This pack-in game for the Playstation 5 could have been interpreted as one big ad for Playstation, but thanks to the love and care injected into every easter egg and reference, Astro feels like a celebration of Playstation history.
It’s also an incredible demonstration of the PS5’s DualSense controller. Astro’s Playroom was designed as a DualSense showcase that will show other game developers how it can be used. The pinpoint vibration, which simulates everything from skating on ice to walking through sand, is paired with L2 and R2 triggers that can recreate all kinds of clicky, crunchy, and mushy sensations.
All of that would be enough to make Astro’s Playroom an enjoyable ride for a few hours. What really elevated it into this list for me, though, is the speed run mode. This simple set of obstacle courses comes complete with a leaderboard and notifications for when your friends beat your times. The PS5 interface will alert you that a friend beat your score even if you aren’t playing Astro. On top of that, you can click the notification and load into the speed run instantly!
8 – Signs of the Sojourner
The “games are art” argument has been done to death, but I can’t deny the little lightbulbs that went off in my head when I saw how this little indie deckbuilder played out. The premise is very simple. You are part of a traveling caravan that ventures from town to town, meeting people and exchanging goods. Your goal is to build relationships and acquire interesting items to sell at your shop when you return home.
Each of these conversations plays out as a little card game. Symbols on your cards match up to symbols on the other character’s cards, and a correct match helps your characters understand each other in the conversation they’re having. As you get further from home, the symbols on other people’s cards start to change, indicating the different values they hold. You can acquire similar cards to make those conversations go more smoothly, but you have to let go of other cards in the process.
The rules become the message of the game. Leaving home can change you. You gain different ideas and values when you interact with more people and see more of the world. You may change so much that when you return home, you no longer relate to your friends and family. Or, you can be stubborn, struggling out in the world (except with the few who see eye to eye with you) and reconnect quickly with your friends at home. The card game rules are a brilliant parallel to life, empathy, growth, and change. And that’s why it’s a work of art.
7 – Final Fantasy VII Remake
The opening hours of Final Fantasy VII Remake are out of control. The brilliant new renditions of classic songs, the graphics, the pacing of the action, and an exciting battle system left me with goosebumps. These thrilling sequences happen again and again throughout the game.
If it never let up, or it was edited down to a brisk 15-20 hours, I think FF7R would have made it to the top of my list. Instead, this game can’t help but be a Final Fantasy game. It drags, it’s uneven, it’s entirely too long, and the ending wasn’t made for casual fans like me.
Regardless, this is still my favorite Final Fantasy game ever, warts and all. And while the ending didn’t really work for me, I have to give the creators credit for making some truly weird and risky changes to the original Final Fantasy VII story.
6 – Umurangi Generation
Umurangi Generation snuck up on me, wormed its way into my brain, and hasn’t left ever since I finished the game and its recently released DLC. The premise is simple: explore small environments and photograph a variety of objects and scenarios. Sometimes the objectives require clever thinking and positioning, while other times they are encouraging you to carefully pour over the environment
As you follow the objectives and experiment with the various camera attachments and filters you unlock, the story of this world builds and builds. As you explore you’ll read posters, watch people dance, hang out, fight, and try to survive. The level structure becomes the narrative, as you jump from one scene to the next and suddenly, your landscape isn’t as peaceful as it was previously.
The developers don’t shy away from a message either, and by the end of the DLC it’s quite clear where this team stands on real world politics. In a world where most game developers are quick to reject any political commentary in their games, it is refreshing to see a game that is so frank. Umurangi Generation is Pokemon Snap for lefties, rebels, and Jet Set Radio fans. It’s a shitty, honest world where art, expression, and love collide with war, poverty, police, and giant monsters.
5 – Destiny 2: Beyond Light
Every year there’s a big Destiny 2 expansion, and every year the game bounces around my top 10 list. In 2018 it was my GOTY. In 2019 it didn’t make my list at all. This year, with Beyond Light, it feels like Destiny 2 has hit a comfortable middle ground. The developers have said they cannot repeat the ambitions of 2018’s Forsaken expansion. They pushed the team too hard, and the resulting smorgasbord had me playing the game way too much. Today, Destiny feels like it’s in a healthier place for everyone.
Bungie is having more fun with the story, characters, and lore. Some of my favorite old and new characters are hanging out or clashing in new and interesting ways. There’s a novel’s worth of lore cards I still need to read. And sure, the new villain Eramis didn’t amount to much, but I’m hopeful that there’s more story to tell there too.
Somehow, someway, the space magic and shooting feels better than ever. Playing on PS5, at 60 FPS with a wide field-of-view definitely helps, but Bungie has also continued to make the gameplay more exciting and interesting. I’ve fallen in love with creating unique character builds and trying them out in PvE and PvP, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on ways I can keep the gameplay fresh. Topping it all off is one of the best raids Bungie has ever made, a wild action-adventure that truly embodies the fantasy of Destiny.
4 – Spider-Man: Miles Morales
I kept getting emotional during totally pedestrian scenes in Miles Morales. At the end of the day, this game is as fun and entertaining as any MCU movie, and in a lot of ways the story is just as safe and forgettable as a lot of those movies as well. But there’s something about Miles Morales. Maybe it’s because I’ve already fallen in love with him in other iterations, or maybe I’m just tired of Peter Parker. Whatever it is, I felt a connection with him and this game.
2018’s Spider-Man game was a lot of fun, but Miles Morales manages to do just about everything better. It’s a tighter experience with better controls and gameplay. The combat is far more fun thanks to Miles’ venom powers. And you don’t spend a chunk of the game helping the police set up a surveillance network around NYC. Oh and raytracing? Very cool!
This is the rare big-budget, open-world game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I actually enjoyed collecting everything and making sure the map was 100% complete before starting the final mission. And it’s a game short and great enough that I can easily see myself revisiting it again and again.
3 – Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Speaking of games that do not overstay their welcome, Wide Ocean Big Jacket asks no more than 60-90 minutes of your time. Packed into that short playtime is more charm, heart, and hilarious storytelling than most games can manage in dozens of hours.
For a few minutes I didn’t know what to think of it. You play as an aunt and uncle taking their niece and her boyfriend on a camping trip. The gameplay amounts to walking around and interacting with items and characters, and then reading dialogue. When characters speak the world drops away. The story is told on black screens with the character’s face and text in a white font. It’s amazingly simple and even more surprising in how well it works.
I implore anyone who is tired of current games, looking for something new, or just interested in a good story to check this out. It asks so little of you and gives so much back. More than that, it feels like a call to the game industry at large, letting them know that there’s so much more to this medium than shooting and stabbing people.
2 – The Last of Us Part II
This is probably a good time to say I contain multitudes. For my last two picks I gushed about their brevity. With Wide Ocean Big Jacket I held it up as a call away from violence as the main method of telling game stories. And now here I am with The Last of Us Part II in my number 2 slot.
The discourse around this game was so thick that I’ve probably spent more hours listening to spoilercasts and reading articles about it than I did playing it. The effect has been similar to watching The Last Jedi, a film I remember loving, but has since become so ridiculously controversial that I feel uncomfortable telling people I love it. The Last of Us Part II is in a similar boat, and I feel similarly weird gushing about it.
Maybe it’s deserved in a way. This doesn’t feel like a game to be liked. It is a game made to evoke strong feelings, good and bad. It’s trying to get under your skin and make you question the so-called heroes. It makes you languish in violence for 30 hours and when you can’t take it anymore, it puts you back in control to kill for 5 hours more.
Despite that, it never feels unnecessarily edgy, and it has a ton of heartwarming moments. It’s a big game with a lot of ambition and a complicated, messy story to tell. It has truly scary combat, something I really appreciate in a game that is trying to question violence. It is an incredible achievement—one that is undermined by the toll it unnecessarily took on the team that created it, but nevertheless—a game that will stick with me for a long time.
1 – Paradise Killer
Putting Paradise Killer as my number one pick both makes a lot of sense and feels incredibly personal. As I said in my full review, this game feels laser-focused to some of my more particular tastes. Seriously though, who thought combining a Phoenix Wright-esque visual novel murder mystery with a first-person platforming collect-a-thon was a good idea? And that is a mere sample of the wild concepts that collide in this game.
The magical thing is how all of it combines and works so well. I remember starting Paradise Killer and getting blind-sided by ridiculous proper nouns and its vaporwave aesthetic. But it wasn’t long before I was prodding suspects, coming up with theories, and excitedly combing over the island.
In between dialogue I spent hours climbing up buildings and hunting for secrets, indulging in the kind of simple exploration few games offer these days. Those breaks allowed me to process the story and think through my theories, while also falling in love with this world and its cast of characters.
All of that said, I don’t really know who I would recommend this game to. I think it’s something you have to find and gravitate to on your own, and if it ends up connecting then you’ll be in for a treat. For the rest of the world, this is a game destined for side-eyes and odd looks.
That leaves me in a bit of an odd spot. My game of 2020, my favorite game of the year, and a game that is destined for a spot within my favorites of all time, is something I probably wouldn’t actively recommend to anyone.
Oh well. That’s 2020 for you.