The Pits: Best in Video Games 2020

Editor’s Note: Feel free to post as big or as small of a list as you would like below but please keep your lists contained to these posts and do not make your own post or fill up the OT with them. The winners will be announced alongside the other winners of The Pits the week of 12/21 and will be calculated by adding up your lists (10 points for first, 9 for second, etc. with 5 per awarded for unranked Top 10 lists). Ranked lists with under 10 contenders are totally fine as well. The preference is for ranked lists to aid in determining a winner, but you are not required to rank them.

Gaming has been mainstream for many years now, regularly outgrossing concert tours and Hollywood movies. But 2020 was the year when it felt like we finally collectively acknowledged that fact. Trapped inside due to a global pandemic, many casual gamers dipped their toes into heavier fare. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, and Phasmophobia became international smash hits. Popular politicians streamed themselves playing Among Us. Hunger for more gaming content pushed vtubers to the top of the YouTube algorithm. And if that weren’t enough, we had not one, but two major console launches, both characterized by demand severely outstripping supply.

For me, the biggest change was getting back into multiplayer gaming in a big way. Left 4 Dead 2, Golf With Your Friends, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection occupied many of my evenings. I played through both A Way Out and Biped with an old classmate. While I will always see gaming as primarily a solitary endeavour, I’ve grown to appreciate its ability to bring people together, even when they’re hundreds of kilometres away from each other.

So for the first time that I can remember, my year-end top 10 list includes a game that I played mostly in multiplayer. It also includes a number of vital, interesting single-player titles, ranging from indie labours of love to AAA blockbusters. Without further ado, here’s my list.

The Top 10 Games of 2020

All screenshots are my own. The header image is from Haven, a game that I didn’t have time to complete for possible inclusion on this list.

10. Tell Me Why

There’s a certain irony to the fact that some of the most intimate stories take place in locales where the physical distances between people are the greatest. The bulk of Tell Me Why‘s action happens in and around a tiny Alaskan town, the kind of place where Juneau is regarded as “the big city” and your “neighbours” are a short drive away rather than just across the street. And it’s also the setting for French developer Dontnod’s most intimate story yet, a tale of personal identity, family secrets, and fractured memories. The journey of twins Tyler and Allison captivated me from the opening sequence to the epilogue, and it will stay with me for a long time.

9. Golf With Your Friends

Does it border on professional misconduct to honour a game this hilariously janky on a year-end list? Yes. Am I going to do it anyway? You bet. Golf With Your Friends provided me with some of the purest fun I had with video games in 2020. As the title suggests, Blacklight Interactive’s mini-golf simulator is really meant to be played with your friends, and half the fun comes from watching them tackle a tricky hole with a combination of ingenuity and silliness. The other half comes from the ludicrous power-ups and obstacles that make a mockery of the concept of “physically possible.” You’ll probably clip through the geometry at least once per play session, but you’ll be laughing too much to care.

8. Ghost of Tsushima

Every screenshot or video clip of Ghost of Tsushima screams, “money.” You can see it in the fields of gently swaying flowers. You can see it in the forests of falling golden leaves. You can see it in the idle animations of protagonist Jin Sakai’s equine companion. It’s all so luxurious, so sumptuous, so gosh darn rich. But boy does it pay off. There’s nothing quite like trotting through Sucker Punch’s digital recreation of Tsushima on horseback, soaking in the sights. It helps that beneath the lavish exterior, there’s a damn fine game, combining Assassin’s Creed-inspired open-world action-adventure shenanigans with a genuinely thrilling combat system and a story that presents tough moral questions with no easy answers. The PlayStation 4 couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.

7. Timelie

Timelie is one of the cleverest puzzle games I’ve played in years. At first it seems like a basic stealth puzzle game, like a series of Invisible, Inc.– and Frozen Synapse-inspired brainteasers. But the game keeps introducing new mechanics and building on the complexity of its challenges, culminating in a moment in one of the final chapters so jaw-droppingly ingenious that I’m still in awe that the designers pulled it off. Even more impressive, this is Thai indie studio Urnique’s debut title. I’ll certainly be watching what they put out in the years to come.

6. Wide Ocean Big Jacket

A cynic might say that Turnfollow just keeps making the same game: a brief, cozy adventure with an emotional core and an aesthetic best described as “construction paper.” And sure, that’s an accurate description of Wide Ocean Big Jacket, but it’s also one that belies its uniqueness and its narrative depth. This is an experience that’s willing to tackle both adolescent romance and the drama of middle age with maturity and wit, all while feeling more real than almost anything else I played in 2020. Wide Ocean Big Jacket might just be a camping trip condensed into a single hour. But it also might just be one of the best games of the year.

5. Necrobarista

The warehouse-turned-café at the centre of Australian studio Route 59’s Necrobarista is a liminal space, existing where the realm of the living and the realm of the dead meet. It’s a place where you can stop for your last cuppa joe before a barista-cum-psychopomp shepherds you into the afterlife. It’s also a trendy coffee shop with an eclectic clientele, including both regulars and first-time customers. But most of all, it’s a space that feels imbued with history, a space in which countless lives have lived and will continue to live. If that all sounds a bit lofty, it’s because Necrobarista is one of the most literary games I’ve played, and I don’t mean that in the sense of references to books and plays. What I mean is that the dialogue, the pacing, and the way the story unfolds remind me of the kinds of novels I used to curl up with on my bed between semesters of university. It reminds me of how those novels effortlessly mixed small-scale human drama with big ideas. Necrobarista isn’t just a motion comic about death; it’s one of the best-told stories of the year.

4. A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986

The Hong Kong-set open-world action-adventure title Sleeping Dogs is one of my favourite games of the past decade. The highest praise I can give Oracle and Bone’s A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986 is that it’s just as good at evoking a sense of place as Sleeping Dogs, a game where you could walk around and soak in the sights. The wonderfully descriptive prose, the detailed background art, the city pop soundtrack, and (oh my gosh!) the outfits (the outfits!) all contribute to making this digital version of mid ’80s Hong Kong feel alive. It’s a time and place brimming with possibility and excitement, but also, as the characters discuss, with uncertainty over what will happen once British control of the territory is ceded. Moreover, it is unfortunately a time and place where gayness is not widely accepted. It spoils nothing to say that A Summer’s End is a lesbian love story. The magic is in seeing how protagonists Michelle and Sam’s romance unfolds against the gorgeous, fascinating backdrop that Oracle and Bone have recreated and how they deal with the difficulties that arise.

3. Yakuza: Like a Dragon

After seven mainline Yakuza games, two Kiwami remakes, and the Kamurocho-set spinoff Judgment, it was clear that Sega and the folks at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had gotten making Yakuza games down to a science: build (or reuse) a dense, urban open-world map, use it to tell a gritty crime drama punctuated by brawler combat, and fill the margins with goofy side stories and amusing diversions. But with series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s story concluded, RGG had a clean slate. So they built a map thrice as big as their previous ones, used it to tell a gritty crime drama punctuated by turn-based JRPG combat, and filled the margins with goofy side stories and amusing diversions… Wait, rewind a sec. Did I just say “turn-based JRPG combat”? You bet I did! Yep, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a full-fledged party-based JRPG, with levelling and classes and elemental attacks and an enemy codex that parodies the Pokédex, because why not fully commit to the premise? It’s a surprisingly fun and snappy system, full of intentionally silly, over-the-top moves that are a blast to execute, but also boasting a fair amount of strategic depth. However, the combat system isn’t the only thing to change. Transporting the setting from one of Tokyo’s red-light districts to a set of adjacent neighbourhoods in Yokohoma allows the game to feature a multicultural cast of varying socioeconomic statuses, providing opportunities for commentary on contemporary Japanese society. The tone of the story also shifts considerably from the series’ previous entries, from cable TV crime drama to primetime soap, helped along by the passionate, heart-on-sleeve new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. These changes keep the long-running series feeling fresh, even in its eighth entry. If RGG can continue churning out Yakuza titles at this level of quality, then as far as I’m concerned, the series deserves to last as long as they wish.

2. Paradise Killer

How do you even explain Paradise Killer to someone? “It’s like Danganronpa, except there’s only one case, and you can initiate the trial without collecting all the evidence. And there’s magic and blood rituals and gods and— oh, by the way did I mention that the gods are real? Yeah, they’re real jerks! But their worshippers are even bigger jerks, because of all the genocide and slavery and human sacrifice. Anyway, it’s like Danganronpa — it’s even set on a tropical island paradise, like Danganronpa 2 — except it’s super-vapourwave. And it’s also really, really horny. Oh by way, did I mention that this game is also an open-world first-person platformer? I really should have mentioned that.” Phew. If that description sounds like something that interests you, then I urge you: please play Kaizen Game Works’ Paradise Killer. It’s certainly one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever played. But it’s also one of the most compelling, keeping me glued to my screen for hours on end as I poked and prodded at the game’s world to reveal its characters’ secrets. I’ll probably never again play anything quite as weird or memorable as Paradise Killer, and I’m immensely glad for its existence.

1. Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The key to making a great platformer is making the player character feel like an extension of the player’s mind. I can’t double-jump, glide, or even do an aerial somersault in real life, but I can imagine it, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest, lets me play out my acrobatic fantasies in stunning detail, animated with laser precision. There’s beauty all over Moon Studios’ latest outing, not just in the characters’ movement, but also in the hand-painted backgrounds, the stirring soundtrack, and the vibrant colour palette. There’s even beauty to be found in the game’s storybook narrative, a masterclass in pulling at the player’s heartstrings. What I always come back to, though, is the joy of movement, of floating across windswept deserts, of swimming through misty swamps, of launching myself off geysers in lush rainforests. Ori could have coasted off pure visual and aural appeal. The fact that it’s also a deep Metroidvania with razor-sharp controls and cleverly-designed environments cements it as the best game of 2020.

Honourable mentions: Bright Memory; Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout; Genshin Impact; If Found…; Infini; In Other Waters; Lair of the Clockwork God; No Straight Roads

Revisiting 2019

Being stuck inside for much of the year gave me an unprecedented opportunity to catch up on some of the games I unfortunately didn’t have time for in 2019. Finally, I was able to venture into the brutalist halls of The Oldest House in Control, trek through the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest in Life Is Strange 2, and confront (some version of) Xehanort in Kingdom Hearts III. So how does my revised top 10 of 2019 shake out? Let’s see.

  1. Super Mario Maker 2
  2. Life Is Strange 2
  3. What the Golf?
  4. Astral Chain
  5. Heaven’s Vault
  6. Control
  7. A Short Hike
  8. Baba Is You
  9. AI: The Somnium Files
  10. Manifold Garden

And now it’s time for your top 10 lists, one for your top games of 2020, and another for your top games of 2019. Any game released between January 2020 and now may be included on the first, and any game released in 2019 may be included on the second. Please submit your lists by noon EST on Sunday, December 20th so that I have time to tabulate them.