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“What a year 2020 was,” I say with the fullest intent of blasé cliché. But staying inside well away from a deadly virus meant ample free time with which I played a comparatively shocking abundance of games. Here are my favorites, as well as four honorable (and dishonorable) mentions, presented in a loosely categorized non-linear format. (And if you want the no-frills list, it’s available at the bottom of the page.)

Where else to start but with the happenstance common theme of many games on this list: the gates of hell. Hades (#7) is an addictive substance with its endless randomized permutations on at-button-click-satisfying hacking and slashing. However, what sets it apart from other quality action roguelikes is its narrative design. Every death advances an ongoing free-flowing narrative that seamlessly molds itself around your travails, tumbles, and triumphs. I’ll never forget seeing Megaera sulking at the bar after besting her for the first time, the moment that I realized the game was truly something special. Even though its magic did eventually bounce off me as such moments grew thinner, Supergiant did groundbreaking work in expanding what a roguelike can be. There’s nothing quite like it on the market, something that can also be said for Monster Train (#6), another roguelike that weaves together deck building and tower defense. Learning to exploit the interplay of building a deck of minions and spells that synergize to fend off waves of onboarding angels is rewarding in and of itself, and the many class pairings means the experimentation never ends. Further, the developers have released consistent content updates since launch, effectively doubling its longevity. …


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When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was announced in 2018, I had a moment of tears-down-my-cheeks euphoria. Beyond being a favorite franchise of mine, no Nintendo platform had ever been more perfectly suited for it than Switch. However, in the interim between its announcement and release, I realized that I may not have the time to sink into it that I desired.

Then 2020 happened.

The floodgates of free time opened due to COVID-19, and New Horizons’ launch at the outset of the quarantine could not have been a better happenstance. Not only did my newfound bevy of free time allow me to digitally bask in my DIY island longer but it was also the perfect getaway from an unpleasant world. Perhaps a bit too perfect as in the first month I’d spend all day playing and then some of the night, quickly going through the motions of establishing my town with complete disregard for reality. …


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The COVID-19 quarantine is perhaps the most universally felt event of our lifetimes. Everyone is feeling the impact of being shacked away with no clear idea of when life will return to any sense of normalcy. But as noble and necessary a task this is in the name of public health, it also goes against the innate social nature of humans. Everyone is disconnected from the people and routines they’ve always been accustomed to. Inevitably, loneliness arises and for some who struggle with their mental health, their burden is amplified.

I fall into that latter category and being holed up by myself in a NYC studio apartment has done my multiple ailments no favors. Further, for the first weeks of the quarantine I didn’t have access to my therapist, divorcing me of the medical help I’m used to. Thus I found somewhere else to turn. Somewhere where I could find camaraderie in my struggle without the stakes of alienating myself from people I know. Popcannibal’s Kind Words proved to be exactly that platform. …


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A great story is more than a string of plot points. Characters are what drive us to resonate with the memorable moments they act within.

When you think of Final Fantasy VII, flashes of Aerith’s death and the Nibelheim incident flash through your mind. You remember Barret recounting the tragedy of the friend and town he failed to save, and Red XIII’s homecoming. You may or may not want Cait Sith and Yuffie erased from existence. But you definitely fondly recall arduously climbing 59 flights of stairs to breach the Shinra headquarters. Why fondly? Because spending 5 minutes climbing virtual stairs is only engaging if you’re doing it with characters you’ve grown to love. The banter between Cloud, Barret, and Tifa make the act not only something you enjoy against the odds but also a trek you actively choose to relive in the remake where it takes twice as long. …


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Our fondest childhood memories tend to be those spent with others. Be it creativity or mischief or moments of shared serenity, bonding is what builds us.

Building Legos is exactly that pivotal bonding experience for many kids. It’s how the company has endured as a physical media brand for the better part of a century. Yet I’ve never found their forays into video games (of which there have been many) to quite capture that interpersonal and self-explorational magic. Most have tied in with films or the company’s original brands to create action romps in the Lego aesthetic. The recent Lego Worlds tried more literally to take the physical product into the digital realm but lacked a strong identity in the shadow of the ever-present Minecraft. The other problem with trying to replicate Legos digitally is that the magic of building is the tactile experience of placing bricks. …


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Ever since the Wii era, Nintendo has had a “quality of life initiative” that largely never came to full fruition due to the passing of its champion Satoru Iwata. However, one series carried its torch— a series that happened to spawn one of the company’s best-selling games. Wii Fit was in concept the perfect match for its console’s wide demographic most interested in family and lifestyle-oriented entertainment. The pitch of a revolutionary new way to work out in your home was an easy sell. Utilizing a balance board peripheral, Wii Fit registered the player’s center of balance to monitor exercises. It was impressive technology for its time but there was a fatal flaw: the game itself did little to keep its players engaged, what with its sterile presentation and lack of design hooks. So while it may have sold well, anecdotes often shared the sentiment that people fell out with it rather quickly. …


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It’s a statistical fact that most people don’t finish video games. Whether it be life getting in the way or overwhelming difficulty or just not enjoying one’s purchase, only a relative handful of a game’s players will see the credits roll. So it may seem insane then that Reventure, a game about winning through losing, asks players to complete it 100 times over. How does it seek to accomplish such a task, and in what ways does it succeed and fail?

To be upfront: saying you have to beat Reventure 100 times is a tad facetious. It’s essentially a game about collecting endings, some of which can be found within a minute. The first fates many players will encounter include getting shanked by a minion after walking out their back door (bam, playthrough over, start again) or tripping on a pebble after walking out their front door (bam, playthrough over, start again). Or they’ll grab the legendary sword and stab the Zelda-esque Cave-Dwelling Elder, just to see what’ll happen (also pretty quick). Yet while these endings are doled out fast and loose early on, the developer’s hurdle comes in keeping players engaged past the initial blitzkrieg of humorous game-overs. …


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Anime and related Japanese media have thrived off of subversion ever since the tactic was popularized by Neon Genesis Evangelion’s psychological deconstruction of the mecha genre in 1995. However, this past decade in particular has taken such slight of hands to the extreme with countless anime, manga and visual novels/games built to play on audience expectations. In turn, audiences have learned to pick up on all the cues that a writer is feeling sly. Seeing archetypes and cliches flipped can be enjoyable nonetheless but the commoditization of this narrative technique has left it feeling normal, defying its nature.

This is the landscape that Doki Doki Literature Club was borne into in 2017. Writer/Developer Dan Salvato’s deconstruction of the harem genre quickly reveals itself to be not what it seems from the outset; the first thing that appears on screen when you load the game is a (necessary) trigger warning, followed by another and another. Even if you removed the warning, the game’s dark-twist-to-come is heavily telegraphed early on through words related to self-harm slipped into “poetry-writing” segments. And while the visual novel spends its next few hours going through the expected motions, one little moment is all it took to set Doki Doki Literature Club apart from its contemporaries. …


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For the past few console generations, HAL Laboratory has been relegated by Nintendo to being “the Kirby studio.” However, on the relative down-low they’ve also helmed BoxBoy, a series of small-scope minimalist puzzle games.

BoxBoy revolves around Qbby, a sentient block who conjures up strings of non-sentient blocks that protrude from his body. By various means you use these blocks to maneuver through platformer puzzles riddled with dangers. It’s a charming formula, but across three 3DS entries it became clear that the game was repeating itself.

It’s for this reason that BoxBoy’s first foray onto the Switch is so exciting as with it came a new co-op campaign. While this feature was sold on the back of the split Joy-con form factor, the real intrigue for me was how the addition of a second character would re-contextualize established level design tenants. …


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We’re in the throws of indie season and thus April brought a swath of incredible titles — new, ported and remastered. Here are some thoughts on the handful of titles I played.

Cuphead

Few feats of passive media fascinate me like those of 30’s era Walt Disney(/Ub Iwerks) animation; you’re talking(reading) to the guy who has a sketch of Mickey’s iconic Steamboat Willie whistle pose hanging on his wall. As such, I’ve coveted Cuphead ever since its reveal. Studio MDHR captured the aesthetic and tone of the formative era of Western cartoons picture-perfectly, frame by frame. With the game finally finding a new home on Switch, I finally had the chance to play it. …

About

Tim Rattray

Writer-person ruminating on game design and narrative. My other blog: ThoughtsThatMove.com

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