Games of the Year — 2020

Mike Kelly
9 min readDec 14, 2020

What a fuck of a year, huh? Let’s talk about video games instead.

10. Genshin Impact

So rarely does a game come along that mixes old ingredient in a new way. Genshin Impact draws from a number of influences — Breath of the Wild exploration/puzzles, a free-to-play model with gacha monetization, and an aesthetic that is pure anime fantasy bullshit. Incredibly, this mishmash somehow works, creating a story of political intrigue across multiple distinct nations and utilizing a huge cast of characters. In its own way, it redefines what a game can be in the modern age, and will doubtlessly spawn imitators of its own.

9. Factorio

There is beauty in tuning a logistics chain to make it efficient down to the last fluid ounce. Factorio is an absolute monster of a factory builder, as you build extraction, production, transport, and research networks with a ludicrous amount of depth. Stranded on an alien planet, you must create structures and systems to build up your capabilities to eventually build a ship to take you back to the stars. From simple beginnings of a rudimentary coal-powered mining drill, industry spills out until you command a bona fide nuclear-powered megafactory that strip-mines metals from the earth and turns them into iron gears, steel vehicles, rocket fuel, and complex computing arrays. It’s an incredible triumph of system design and addictive gameplay that really has no equal in gaming.

8. Paradise Killer

Paradise Killer oozes with style, as confident as it is bizarre. An absurd remix of vaporwave aesthetics and cosmic horror, you take on the role of “investigation freak” Lady Love Dies as you attempt to solve a demonic murder in the waning days of the 23rd island in a repeating cycle constructed by a cabal of worshippers of a dead pantheon. You interact with an absolute wealth of unique characters, from the metal-armed Doctor Doom Jazz, the haughty architect Carmelina Silence, and your sentient AI laptop, Starlight. As you explore this world, serenaded by 80’s smooth jazz saxophone, the world that you discover is rife with mystery, political intrigue, and the horror felt as you stare into an infinite abyss. Paradise Killer should be cacophonous, but it succeeds as a truly unique experience.

7. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Vanillaware creates beautiful games, but with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim they have matched their art with a story that stuns with its breadth. The game follows 13 main characters in a tale that spans hundreds of years, fully defining each character in the ensemble. Each of these teenagers, pilots of the futuristic Sentinel mechs, deals with responsibilities far beyond their ability to comprehend while navigating their own interpersonal relationships against the backdrop of a war of annihilation. The game twists and turns, redefining motivations, shifting the perception of the enemy, and even character memories. I haven’t ever played something quite like it.

6. Ring Fit Adventure

In Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo has finally achieved their dream of marrying games to fitness. Growing upon the past success of Wii Fit, their newest venture comes with an actual pilates ring that functions as a controller. This simple shift allows for a wider range of exercises — arms, legs, core, cardio, and even yoga. However, beyond just the hardware, the game is actually a well-designed and fun experience. Styled like a JRPG, you fight monsters throughout the countryside, doing squats and crunches to hit weak spots, all while chasing the final boss: an incredibly cut evil dragon. In a pandemic where exercise opportunities were scarce, Ring Fit got me through.

5. XCOM: Chimera Squad

No tactical combat game dominates gaming like XCOM. The 2012 reboot delivered a combat system so finely designed that it has been used in everything from Mario to Shadowrun. Chimera Squad evolves that system to bring life to brilliantly characterized members of a special division within a futuristic police force. There’s Godmother, the tough-as-nails sergeant on the front lines firing her shotgun. Zephyr, the alien hybrid who flows through combat using only her fists. Or Cherub, who wields his kinetic shield as a bulwark against enemy fire. Each bite-sized mission offers a glimpse into the corruption of City 31, the first experiment in human/alien coexistence. In the absence of a full sequel, it’s heartening to see Firaxis putting out these weird experiments, especially if they work as well as Chimera Squad.

4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing was the one Nintendo franchise I never got. The open structure, real-time clock, and generally lackadaisical vibe always left me craving more structure, more direction. But when the pandemic hit, I just wanted to go outside. New Horizons became a lifeline and a way to cope. Instead of feeling locked up, I could go to my island, talk with my animal friends, and do anything I wanted to. I would garden, catch bugs, go fishing, or just hike into the woods. I could even visit friends’ homes, limited though it was, and live a life where everything was simpler. No screaming news feeds, no health and safety protocols, and nothing to do except sit and listen to the waves. Escapism, to be sure, but a much needed respite from a world gone mad.

3. Crusader Kings 3

From humble beginnings as the Duke of Sicily, my house rose to unify the Kingdom of Italy, usurp the Holy Roman Empire by murdering all extant heirs, and then wage a decades-long war against the schismatics of Byzantium to re-found the true Roman Empire. Then I deposed the Pope and converted all of Europe to Judaism. On a whim.

Crusader Kings 3 is the next evolution of Paradox’s Middle Ages legacy-management opus, and contains infinite potential for stories within its machinery. You can play the role of an earl in the smallest backwater county in Bavaria trying to keep his serfs fed, or start as the overseer of the ascendant Persian Empire sandwiched between crusading knights and the ever-dangerous horselords of the steppe. As a ruler, you must navigate decisions small (should I get a cat?) and large (should I murder the King of France?), all in service of the survival of your line and house. When the histories are written, how will they remember you?

2. Hades

When you play a game from Supergiant, you expect best-in-class visuals, music, and animation, as well as writing that leaps off the screen. Hades is the culmination of years of public development, and by leaps and bounds exceeds the lofty bar set by their previous games.

You play Zagreus, the forgotten son of Hades who repeatedly fights through the depths of the underworld to escape to the surface and meet his long-absent mother. Along the way, the wayward godling receives boons from his Olympian family that grant new ways to navigate the depths. Powers harmonize with each other to provide incredible variation in the fluid combat. Between 6 weapons, 10 gods with over 20 boons apiece, not to mention dozens of trinkets, weapon upgrades, and unique encounters, no two runs will ever be the same.

Even more than its superb combat, what elevates Hades is its narrative. I have done over 60 escape runs and I don’t believe I have ever seen a single line of repeated dialogue. There is a dizzying amount of writing that actually comments on your gameplay actions — I have repeatedly faced the Fury Megara (your former paramour, by the by), and she has grumbled about specific skills I used to defeat her. The cast interacts with each other, sometimes commenting on your quest, but other times simply gossiping about other denizens of the underworld. And even the “end” of the game provides a completely satisfying conclusion while providing leave to continue your journeys.

Hades is truly a masterpiece, a game that knows exactly what it wants to do and does do with style, subtlety, and art.

1. Kentucky Route Zero

“Hark the voice of Jesus callin’. Come and work for Him today.”

When I played the first act of Kentucky Route Zero way back in 2012, I didn’t get it. It seemed to me an overpretentious art piece, a magical realism story set in Appalachia where the deliveryman Conway had to find and travel the fictional Route Zero on his final consignment. Along the way he passes the vague specters of buildings that speak to past community and industry, long since decayed. I wrote it off as an interesting diorama, but ultimately forgot about it for nearly a decade.

“It’s dark and a-raining and I’ve got to go home / I’m on my long journey home.”

This year I returned to KR0, with eight years of life added. The final episode was to be released, and I sat down to play. This time, the story bore into my heart. Those that traveled through the somber palette of the Kentucky countryside evoked a melancholy in my soul. The measure of my life had changed and I finally saw this game for what it was. Not a simple tone piece, but an aching lament of modern life.

“It’s too late to love you now / It’s too late, I’ve made my vow.”

KR0 looks at people living in a world where economic forces constrain and erode. It tells of how capitalism invents new forms of debt that lay claim to the souls of people. The unrelenting imperatives of profit subsume humanity, molding it as the clay they need. It shows the perversity of a system where simple bodily autonomy is denied — you must work to maintain your health, and if work destroys your health, well, then you must have done something wrong. Debt and shame are the weapons that companies force you to point at your own head, convince you to live your life in fear and guilt and blame yourself for it. Communities existing in the echoes of capital wreckage can be destroyed by the slightest stirring of these oblivious forces.

“The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

On its surface, this is an adventure game — point, click, read. Choices are made in which the memories of these characters are defined. Slight puzzles are solved. But all this is in service of the greater allegory. It calls every player to use it as a prism to examine the modern world. And not just through gameplay —one interlude shows you a community theater performance, another gives you a real-life telephone number rife with prerecorded trees, yet another lets you craft a song of loss performed in a roadhouse filled with forgotten people. KR0 desperately pleads with you to open your eyes to the reality of the world you live in.

“I’ve heard of a land of joy and peace and wonderful light.”

After nearly 10 years of development, this game is finally available in full. It is the first game I have ever played whose ambition was fully realized, and a precious few that stunned me to silence while in its grip. No words I write can do it justice, it must be played, seen, and most importantly — heard.

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Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.