Every list and review of 2020 you’re going to read will begin with the usual, expected and deserved rant about the complete shittiness we’ve all had to deal with, individually and collectively. And many of them, like this one, will tell you how grateful all of us should be for being able to enjoy the escapism provided by video games. For me, from a crude list of over 20, there were five in particular that stood out.
Guildlings made its debut at the tail end of last year on Apple Arcade and received a substantial enough update in October for me to include it here. It’s a charming, upbeat game about Coda, who becomes stuck in a hand-me-down smartphone and convinces her sister and friends to use their special abilities to help set her free by saving the world. This involves tackling kitchen appliances, crabs and garbage bags, as they can become sentient obstacles during your journey. But you don’t use violence in this fantasy world. In fact, a snide remark is just as useful as recharging your characters’ phones during your “battles”, as the only objective is to manage your guildlings’ moods. It’s so refreshing and unlike anything else in recent memory, but as enjoyable as watching weekend cartoons as a kid.
By contrast, Kentucky Route Zero is tonally different yet just as magical. It begins as a simple story of an antiques delivery driver making his final stop across the eponymous state. As you continue, you encounter characters reminiscing of times spent with each other and elsewhere, creating a deep, dense world where the dialogue could easily fill a few books. I’ve discussed KRZ before, about the politics, themes and messages hiding behind rich layers. What I think is remarkable is just how stuck our own politics has become, similar to how characters in this game feel. For example, it’s fascinating how we’ve made it unacceptable to suggest a return to higher marginal tax rates for the wealthy (let’s try 60%?), or improve environmental standards with better regulations. These sorts of things, about economics and social welfare, are hinted at throughout. And whereas our politics has become an all-consuming culture war, with so many of the docile working poor (who don’t consider themselves that) happily worshipping wealth, it’s amazing to see it portrayed absent of all necessary rage, just with the melancholy and powerlessness in KRZ. It’s a perfect reflection for the pathetic state we find ourselves in today.
Although both of their art styles are wonderful and individually unique, there are similarities in the 1930s-set Call of the Sea and the trippy Tales From Off-Peak City. As Norah in Call of the Sea, you sail towards a mysterious island near Tahiti, aware of some strange details of your husband’s recent journey there. In Tales, you’re tasked with stealing a prized saxophone in the basement of a pizzeria. Both of these stories become creepier and confusing, unsure not just of an end in sight, but where and what the heck that could be. Although I can digest a horror film, horror games have become unplayable for me with age. What I find equally terrifying but more inviting is having a world become stranger as you figure out a mystery. Both of these games have this in spades, and I’m almost certain they will be inspiring many designers for years to come.
The game that looks most out of place here is Alba. Ustwo had me worried when they made the two excellent Monument Valley games, as I was unsure how they’d be following these up. Clearly, I was an idiot, because last year’s Assemble with Care is quite close to perfection, and Alba is such a delightful, fun adventure that you’d have to be villainous to hate it. As the young teen Alba on a Mediterannean holiday with her grandparents, you’re asked to take pictures of wildlife and explore the small island. However, you quickly come across a stranded dolphin on the beach. After gathering elders to help with its rescue, assisting other animals and looking after the environment is your new mission.
What’s common among these choices is not that they each provide a perfect digital adventure, but the stories within them. Each one begins with an optimistic journey in a new world or environment, only to take us towards darker themes or serious tones, snatching our innocence along the way. The year has laid bare the sniping between different classes and groups of people, about who and what is essential, as our world has buckled under the pandemic. But here, it’s become even more obvious just how much of a necessary respite video games are for so many of us. It’s good to take long, deep breaths.