Will co-hosts a podcast with Brad called Brad & Will Made a Tech Pod and streams regularly on Twitch. He still plays a bunch of PUBG, but also plays more single-player and indie games these days.
This was a weird year, which caused me to play a bunch more games than I normally do, I streamed a lot more, and yes, I still played a LOT of PUBG. (On that note, the current team working on the game seems to really understands why people like to play PUBG. Theyve added a bunch of straight-up nonsense this year--spike strips, gas cans that you can pour out to build elaborate fire traps, dirt bikes, bombs that will kill everyone in a building--fun stuff! They even added planes, so now you can drop bombs onto people. And its all nice and balanced. Nice job PUBG!)
Its impossible for me to separate this years list from nine months of quarantine, when most of my human interaction with people outside of my immediate household came from games, video conferences, or video conferences while playing games.
The top three in this list are explicitly not in order. Theyre all my games of the year.
Ive loved a few Animal Crossings in the past. The GameCube version was a weird thing that my partner and I played on the reg for a year or two. The 3DS version is inextricably linked in my head to brunches at Dennys with friends when my daughter was a newborn. This years version is the quarantine edition. Its both the fastest to get started and the slowest to get to the part of the game that I really like. The game dumps so many new tasks on you at the beginning that you always feel like you have a bazillion things to do.
Unfortunately, all those tasks kept me from doing the things that I really enjoy about Animal Crossing until Id upgraded my house and done a bunch of other nonsense. Once the animal residents were doing their weird business and sending me goofy letters and gifts, I was fully in, but if Im honest, Im not sure I would have made it to that point if were I able to, you know, leave the house.
And in our weird quarantine world, Animal Crossing has been a social hub and an impromptu game design workshop. Like a lot of people, Ive been to parties on Animal Crossing islands; but the kids are taking this business to the next level. Sure, my daughter plays with her friends on their islands, but theyre making up their own games that just happen to use Animal Crossing as a setting. They started with freeze tag in the museum, then progressed to insect and fish hunts, and now theyre terraforming their islands to make them better for scavenger hunts. If Nintendo was able to capitalize on this by giving players access to the tiniest bit of game logic, theyd birth a whole generation of game designers.
As Im starting to think about a life after the quarantine, I also wonder if Animal Crossing is going to be one of those games that is ruined forever for me. I wonder if Ill ever want to play an Animal Crossing again or if it will forever be a reminder of the year my family and I spent at home.
Supergiant does this thing where they make games that are mechanically perfect while simultaneously telling complex stories filled with well-realized characters. And while the character progression, God mode, and skill trees all combine to make a game thats a delight for almost every kind of player; its Supergiants commitment to storytelling that I found most remarkable.
I played Hades for a few hours before I even noticed that something unusual was happening. As I failed my nth run and was talking to an NPC, I realized I hadnt heard any repeated dialogue, even from characters I encountered multiple times in the exact same context. There was no trickery or magic, Supergiant simply recorded unique lines of dialog for every possible permutation of every NPC encounter. And they recorded enough of them that I hadnt heard any repeats in 10 or 15 runs worth of dialogue. When I figured out why theyd done this, I realized I was midway through one of the handful of narrative-based games Id played that was only possible to tell as a game--this version of the story of Zagreus couldnt be told as a book, comic, TV show, or movie.
And that wasnt enough for them. They also made this game accessible to almost everyone. God mode, which gently ramps up the players relative power each time they fail a run, should be the model for roguelikes, roguelites, and all games going forward. Im 100 hours in and still discovering new secrets on every run.
Before I could really play Alyx, I had to learn how to play Alyx. I had to learn how to traverse the world, I had to learn that I was able to handle the smooth motion, and I had to learn how to interact with the world--grabbing, dropping, throwing, and blocking. And, I had to learn how to shoot, reload, and change weapons using my hands, instead of a series of hotkeys mapped to a controller or keyboard.
And the reward was huge. Alyx introduced me to Jeff, who is one of the most unrelenting enemies in videogames. I hate Jeff.
But I also love Jeff. I usually hate stealth sequences in games. Jeff is literally the worst creature imaginable to fight in a game. If he touches you, youre basically dead. Hes impervious to bullets. He detects every mistake you make, whether its an errant shot or bumping into an object and making the tiniest noise.
Jeff is a video game asshole.
Once I started treating Jeff the same way Id treat a wild animal that was stalking me, I realized I was going to be able to handle Jeff. The first rule of dealing with Jeff is to always know what youre going to do if he notices you. Be prepared. This sequence forces you to plan your route through a world that feels as real as the real world as opposed to mapping a series of finger and arm movements to that of pixels on a screen.
Theres a brain thing that Half-Life: Alyx did to me that hasnt happened in other games yet. My brain handles navigating the real world and games (even VR games) differently. Usually in a game (2D or VR) my internal representation of the world is a 2D projection of the world--like a minimap. Instead of making the minimap for the Jeff sequence, my brain treated it like the real world, which led me to play the segment like I would if I was being actively hunted in the real world. It was terrifying.
Once you get past the gentle onramp of the first few hours of the game and the terrifying trip through Jeffs section, my mastery of the games mechanics left me feeling like an unstoppable killing machine. By the time I reached the final levels of the game, I was powering through combat and was overwhelmed by what I was experiencing. Not only is the world built and lit like a massive budget traditional title, but you can also interact with it in ways that would be impossible in a traditional 2D game. You use so many verbs when you play as Alyx, whether its depth-charging zombies from a catwalk or throwing rocks to bait guards into barnacles, it never got old. Even with the traditional Half-Life cliffhanger ending, the game doesnt overstay its welcome.
And when it was, it was clear to me that Alyx is my benchmark for games in VR.
If Hades is the roguelike for everyone, Fall Guys is its Battle Royale equivalent. 60 beans enter, one bean leaves is easy for anyone to understand. Thanks, Tina Turner!
But the battle royale structure and a vague aesthetic of that Japanese game show with the smashy walls wouldnt have made this a regular fixture of my year if the games werent absolute bangers. Sure, there are a few stinkers: Tail Tag, Perfect Match, Tail Tag, anything with Eggs, and Tail Tag; but the vast majority of obstacle courses and prisoners dilemma simulators are the perfect mix of satisfying and challenging. Even when Im playing well, Im on the cusp of a I didnt think something that makes me this frustrated could be this fun.
P.S.: Fuck Tail Tag
Wavelength is the perfect party game. The setup is simple: you draw a card, which has two opposed (but not necessarily opposite) ideas on it, and you have a dial that has one small region of a half circle marked. Then you have to come up with a singular concept that will let your friends identify the precise part of the dial thats marked.
When everyones happy and the collective group has made their best guess, you flip the dial up with a satisfying thwomp-click and find out how well you truly know your friends.
Wavelength bills itself as a game about mind-reading, which isnt inaccurate, but I find that the conversations about language that it spawns are the best part of playing the game. Everything is about framing, it turns out. On the range from Large to Small, where does Jupiter rank? Sure, on a purely human scale, Jupiter is enormous, but in the realm of astronomical objects, its peanuts compared to Betelgeuse or even the Sun. What was your friend thinking?
Spelunky is one of my all-time favorite games, despite the fact that Ive put hundreds of hours into it and remain terrible at spelunking. Spelunky 2 is no different. Its really difficult. The moles are just bastards. Im absolute garbage at it. And Ill keep poking at it for a period of years until I either get good or get lucky with an easy seed.
Secretly, I always knew I had the power to be a kick-ass DJ, with the power to mash up disparate songs effortlessly. Fuser lets you grab the drum stem from A Tribe Called Quests "Can I Kick It?", the keys from Post Malones "Better Now", and flip back and forth between the vocals from Shania Twains "Any Man of Mine" and "All Star" to make an impromptu dance anthem/musical nightmare mashup. Its magic, in that Fuser lets you commit musical crimes, and then makes them sound goooooooood*.
I spent enough time in the early 2000s playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, 3, and 4 to internalize the maps as real places. Im more familiar with The Hanger and School II than a lot of places in the town I live in now, thanks to hundreds of hours of split screen skating with friends. After years of disappointment in the newer Tony Hawk games, Vicarious Visions nailed the look, the feel, and the sound of these games in a damn near perfect remake.
And playing the game on Twitch with the music off to avoid the DMCA heat reminded me how integral the music is for THPS. The weird mix of punk, metal, ska, hip-hop, and Goldfinger makes the skating come alive. Music, it turns out, is fundamental.
It turns out that the only thing I like more than figuring out how to blow up space ships from the cockpit of a fighter is figuring out how to take them apart, one piece at a time, by hand, under the constant threat of explosive decompression or a reactor meltdown. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a puzzle game set in a capitalist dystopia where you (and an infinite series of you clones) has to figure out how to extract the most value from EOLd space ships. Its in early access, but Im happy enough with whats in the game right now to recommend it and Ill keep playing while Blackbird finishes the game.
I spent way more time playing golf with my friends this year than I ever would have anticipated in 2019. I havent spent this much time with videogame golf since Links for the original Xbox was a thing, and the reason is simple. Instead of engaging in power-fantasy golf, where youre a stat upgrade and the right club away from driving 500 yards, PGA Tour 2K21 balances marginal equipment upgrades with increased risk, so you can tweak your clubs to suit your playstyle instead of having to grind for the God Tier, level 100 ultra-sniper driver before you jump online. That, combined with a bazillion first-party and user-made courses and the ability to compete against folks from my Twitch community in a season-long tournament using the Societies feature means Ill be coming back to 2K21 until 2K22 is out.
Ive dipped into Stellaris multiple times since it was released, but at some point I listened to a podcast where Austin Walker told tales of his Stellaris campaigns, and I realized Id been approaching it the wrong way. Instead of trying to min-max my way through a strategy campaign, I needed to approach this monstrous collection of competing game systems as an RPG to experience rather than a game to beat.
So I fired up a new campaign, switched my Twitch stream to backseating encouraged, and let my race of authoritarian rock people loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. I didnt manage to win the game, but during the two weeks I played, I couldnt wait to see what happened next. And with the help of Twitch chat behind me, I didnt have to constantly agonize over every single decision--they helped me figure out where I needed to micromanage and what I could afford to ignore in favor of The Narrative.
Will Smith's Top 11 Games of 2020 - Giant Bomb
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