Looking down at my games of the year list, I quickly realised that finding an overarching theme was going to be a challenge. Everything I enjoyed had been so remarkably different, on a real range of platforms. It was then I realised that perhaps the theme was the variety. Having spent most of the year living and working in one room, with no chance of travel beyond the local ASDA, trying out different game genres has become a way for me to break routine.
One of these surprises came in the form of Crusader Kings 3, the medieval grand strategy made by Paradox. I’ll admit I previously steered clear of grand strategy titles under the assumption they were dry and overcomplicated, and while Crusader Kings 3 is certainly the latter, that chaos is what makes it so compelling. The systems create personal adventures that are ridiculous and uncontrollable, and letting events wash over you as you navigate your family through the carnage makes for some unique storytelling. That and eating the pope, which is also an option.
There was a brief moment in time, early lockdown, when everyone played Animal Crossing: New Horizons obsessively (possibly a little too intensely given the game’s time-gating mechanics), and those few weeks brought something lighthearted and creative to what had been a dire situation. We would all visit each other’s islands and proudly display our handiwork, while learning how best to prank our friends as creatively as possible. One memorable occasion involved creating a Blair Witch-style horror dungeon, in which we all faced the wall while another victim friend entered. On the more wholesome side, I found myself inviting strangers over to my island to help them get new items and fruit with a Swap Shop. A communitarian effort to overthrow the Nooks at last.
Yet while Animal Crossing created a sense of homeliness, I was also longing to travel far, far, away – and Star Wars Squadrons was there to help. The first time I took control of a TIE-Interceptor and entered a multiplayer match – with the knowledge the person tailing me was determined to kill me unless I could outfly them – was a terrifying and thrilling experience. For the days when I reviewed it, I became a hotshot imperial pilot, my room and chair transformed into a cockpit. Perhaps I will treat myself to a VR headset this Christmas, after all.
I shouldn’t pretend that everything I played this year was new to me: Call of Duty has landed itself back on my games of the year list, this time in the form of battle royale mode Warzone (yes, that came out this year). Scrounging up cash for loadouts and coordinating on when to use killstreaks made it the perfect game to hop into with friends after work. The battle royale’s best innovation is surely the gulag, a scrappy and tense way to keep players invested after their first death, and a welcome second chance in a genre where being sniped after 10 minutes of sneaking is a real possibility.
But now, it’s time for the ultimate example of why you should push yourself out of your comfort zone. Until this year I would never have imagined myself playing an isometric roguelike with extremely punishing gameplay, and yet Hades is undoubtedly my game of 2020. Rewarding the player for their unsuccessful runs, be it with story beats or new skills, is a brilliant way to create a sense of progression and positivity where other roguelikes would feel brutal. Every run feels fresh thanks to the seemingly-limitless dialogue and unique ability combinations, and when those abilities click to create an overpowered build, you feel almost unstoppable: god-like, I suppose. Smashing up enemies feels crunchy and satisfying, but Hades also has a tenderness to it, with characters opening up and softening over time. In a year where I’ve often felt like I’ve been doing the same thing over and over again, I’m glad Hades was able to help me break free.