The lines between work and play are always blurred with this job, which is often more a privilege than a problem. Playing things for a job is still a treat, of course, but this year the lines have blurred just a little more than usual, for obvious reasons – and so above all my favourite games have felt overwhelmingly not like a job at all and, instead, solely like play.
There are a few I want to shout out: Spider Man: Miles Morales, Astro’s Playroom and the remaster of Demon’s Souls are all right up my street in their own way, I’m sure, but I’ve not played them because of the sheer scarcity (and, honestly, hideousness) of the PS5. But I’m sure they’re great. The first then is Game of Thrones: Tale of Crows, which is also the most obvious one, on the non-work front. It’s been consciously built as a ‘healthy’ take on the idle genre that’s proved so popular on mobile, which suggests a playing experience equivalent to a plate of overboiled broccoli and dusty quinoa but is actually wonderful. It’s a gorgeous, restorative game, full of pastel skies and melancholic wilderness, intricately drawn art, and meticulous writing that you just sort of waft through, deciding the fates of little men with all the considered detachment of an RTS, but none of the stress. I really love it, and it sits at the forefront of everything I love about the new wave of wonderful games coming through on mobile, and the progress of Apple Arcade.
A lot of games have gone for the ultra-wholesome tone recently, none more than Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which charmed me completely, but also felt just a little like a series of compulsive obligations – like work – as opposed to something to innocently noodle away with in spare time. In that sense, A Monster’s Expedition has it beat, a game that totally masters the Sokobond style of puzzles and plonks it satisfyingly down next to a cosy, beguilingly laid-back tone. Part of me wishes it would go on forever – but again, games that go on forever aren’t always the healthiest either – and the sense of reward for completing each miniature island is totally unmatched.
The problem of endlessness is also something Football Manager 2021 would have something to say about, rightfully. It’s one of those rare games that never ends but doesn’t need a tacked-on metagame or sense of false obligation to keep you hooked. This year’s was especially good – and against all odds, given the disruption not just to development but the sport it simulates itself. I adore FM, always, but putting out such an intriguing and noticeably different-feeling version in 2020 is a monumental achievement. As I’d tell the lads in-game: [Passionate] Well done, I’m delighted with the result and the performance.
Hades is my next favourite, a game that’s utterly dripping in slickness and verve. It’s extraordinarily well-written – only rivalled by, of all things, the main characters of Cyberpunk 2077 for me this year, which almost snuck onto this list in spite of everything – but it also plays like a dream. I played this until I think I sprained my thumb, and then kept on playing even though it really did actually hurt. Terrible at it, and it’s been resoundingly Tumblr-fied online – which, like judging games by whether or not you can pet the dog, can feel just a little bit tired now – but maybe that’s just 2020 talking. It’s masterful stuff, deep and simple, both grab-and-go and if you want it to be, alarmingly complex. What an amazing thing it is.
Finally, the game I really want to talk about is Backstabbr, an online browser game based on the 1959 board game Diplomacy and one that I think was made ages ago – but I discovered it in 2020. Diplomacy is imperious, intimidatingly so, requiring a genuine ability to look your closest friends straight in the eye and lie, and then shove a couple knives in their back while you’re at it. But in this browser-game form the human element is half-diminished, becoming a sort of pen-pal game about role-playing as princes and chancellors and spies. I played this during the first lockdown, back in April, and soon found myself standing over my desk, staring into the lines and dots of the map like an agonizing war commander, or gazing longingly at the rain-pattered window every morning, awaiting word from some Italian duke or first lady of France (we didn’t really go in for historical accuracy, you might have noticed). Apparently JFK and Henry Kissinger used to play it by post, which is what it feels like – a little bit, if you have a very active imagination – when you play it with friends remotely online. It’s a silly thing, but a true classic that kept my brain going, and I love it. Anyway I can’t vote for that because it didn’t come out this year, so: Tetris Effect: Connected. It’s the best Tetris, so that’s that.