Justin Fleming

Video Games in 2020: An Awards Journal

In 2020 I played through about 20–25 games from start to finish. Some were new, some were old, some I didn’t finish, some I did. Some I had played many times, some I had never played before. But in the year involving large amounts of time trying to avoid going out, it was a great time sit down and play video games or binge media in general. And since we’re still healing from the wounds of The Game Awards, in which a panel of publications and critical thinkers were asked to pick out the best representations of what the industry has to offer, The Last of Us 2 took home “Best Game Direction” and “Game of the Year”. I couldn’t sum up the cognitive dissonance of these two realities more than this Discord post I made shortly before they announced Game of the Year.

But then just recently I also sunk into writing a long thread on Twitter about why I haven’t been jumping on the Cyberpunk “dunk train” and it lead me to this brief dialogue about how the best games doing amazing things are usually the ones we’re playing right now because we’re playing them, and we want to play them, and we keep playing them. Back across 2018–2019 I spent a large chunk of time going through a list of games in my Steam back catalogue and catching up on stuff I had never finished or hadn’t replayed in over 5 years. The result was wonderful, and since then I’ve kinda let the winds carry me on a steady rotation of games in my life, new, old, it doesn’t matter. With 2020 being this strange year where I’m woefully disappointed in how many more views and attention The Game Awards will get compared to the Developer’s Choice Awards, as well as the lens and traits in which we often talk about video games, I’ve decided to make my own game awards in combination with a retelling of what games I carried with me through 2020. I’m going to cover the games I finished or still presently am working to finish as those ones will stick out as landmarks in the time I’ve spent this year. Hopefully you can reflect back on games you played this year and find that there were many ones that are far more deserving of “Game of the Year” and “Best Game Direction” aside from The Last of Us 2. Let’s do this.

In January, I had just wrapped up playing Jedi: Fallen Order, which I wrote about before the end of the year. I segued almost immediately into preparing for the release of Metro: Exodus on Steam and spent time playing Metro 2033 again (this time the Redux version) followed shortly after by Last Light. This had been my second or third time through each game and honestly if you haven’t played the Metro games yet, there’s always a good opportunity for ’em as they’re decently sized first-person shooters with world-rich games. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro games always held a space close to my heart and revisiting these two was comforting in the start of the new year.

Somewhere in that timeline I also finished a co-op campaign of Halo Reach for my first run ever. The Master Chief Collection landing on PC last holiday season was maybe one of the best video game values last year for me as another title from the series came to PC every few months and a year later I’ve spent almost 90 hours playing the various Halo campaigns and its multiplayer. Replaying Halo 2 and 3 really got my brain going about how I feel about 3’s story and I was writing a piece to go up on Medium in which I rewrote Halo 2 and 3, but got sidetracked. It happens. Ultimately I had problems with Reach’s story, but had lots of fun with its multiplayer for weeks. As a result of that, as well as the MCC’s late release last year, I’m giving The Master Chief Collection 2020’s Best Value. Tons of multiplayer, six full single-player games, it’s all there, ready to play, lots of it good to great. Some fans may have issues with the PC port having some of the same issues the original MCC had, and I am quite frustrated by how these games lack subtitles half the time, but not enough games out there get amazing remasters like Halo 1 and 2 get in this collection.

Then, as January concluded, so did one of the long standing great interactive plays of our time: Kentucky Route Zero. This five act point and click adventure game experienced increasing development times across its five acts and it was one of the remnants of my time making Let’s Play videos. I couldn’t play it without streaming it so my few followers could partake in the very quiet and touching farewell that Kentucky Route Zero had in store for me. Gaming culture at large placed Disco Elysium as a game with some of the best writing games have seen in years. And while that is true, I feel like the Disco Elysium hype focuses on the game’s well thought out world and political-economic strains, less on how writing can emotionally pull in and attach to people engaging in a game. Kentucky Route Zero knows this, and has been mesmerizing me for its crossroads of some of the most uncommon conversations about America, life, faith, regret, and death ever had in video games. And it did so by illuminating the lives of others instead of discussing those lives. I honestly cannot wait to go through it with my fiance some day now that the completed version has been nice and updated. I also want to experience the interstitial play “The Entertainment” in VR now that I can. So Kentucky Route Zero wins my award for 2020’s Best Writing. Sometimes a game’s writing doesn’t need to be profound or complex to be the best, especially when we’re talking about video games.

Then I moved onwards into February proper and played Metro: Exodus. I had really strong critical thoughts about this game. Metro: Exodus is a problematic sequel that I ultimately enjoyed, but only for about half of the game’s runtime. Some would call that a game only half-good, but it’s not that the back half of the game was bad. The world was still breathtaking, the combat sequences were still engaging, and Exodus had managed to make me curious about what happened to every new zone that other people called “home”, much like the game’s predecessors. But its mechanics in zones beyond the opening salvo only led to frustration and the story was…just okay, in the end. It could’ve been better, but it doesn’t feel like the end of the line for the Metro series. 4A Games stepped out into the open with this one and tried something drastically new for themselves. As a fan of the series, there was a lot to love here, I just hope 4A knows what parts worked in the beginning and what parts were already influencing the later parts to leave a not-so-great taste in the mouth. Being able to so easily comprehend what worked and didn’t work in Metro: Exodus leads me to award it 2020’s Most Transparently Average Game. Worth my time, but if you haven’t played Metro games before, consider its predecessors first. These thoughts were, once again, something I had semi-completed on Medium, but the writing was getting so long it was turning into a Noah Gervais video outlining so much of the plot that it got exhaustive and I felt like my words would never quite get to the point fast enough. So I axed it.

Part of the reason I had so much trouble staying on my writing was because video games kept coming up in the “dump it” timeline of winter in 2020 that kept occupying my life out of a sense of urgency. When I heard Black Mesa: Xen was having a limited beta testing in late 2019, I figured it wouldn’t be actually finished for at least another year. Low and behold, literally seventeen days before Half-Life: Alyx, Black Mesa shipped version 1.0 on Steam. I had already played the mod when it originally came out years ago, then went back in a couple times more after it launched on Steam a few years later. And now I could play the game, in its entirety, Xen and all, to try and cram it in the weeks prior to Half-Life: Alyx shipping. I managed it. Crowbar Collective have been working at this in different fashions and team groups over the past 15 years and it’s a testament to 1) the willpower of its creators and 2) the absolute insane amount of work it is to modernize a game like Half-Life 1 to whatever current moment fits what we call “modern” in terms of video game graphics and design. It’s why no matter what happens on the Steam awards, I’m labeling Black Mesa 2020’s Labor of Love award. 15 years, they’ve more than earned it. Black Mesa’s a great way to play Half-Life 1 again. But I do want to stress that again element. The Xen chapters are breathtaking, absolutely beautiful, and just a tad too long for their own good. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Crowbar’s way of expanding the various different realizations of the Half-Life universe. People should experience Half-Life 1 the way it was if they can, it still runs well in Windows 10 last I checked. But Black Mesa is the literal best runner up if you can’t enjoy it that way, and it’s improving over the original in some places.

Considering I had been waiting 13 years for the next official Half-Life game, I obviously not only finished Black Mesa in a matter of days, I went ahead and binged Half-Life 2, Episode One, and Episode Two just in time for Half-Life: Alyx’s release the very next day after finishing Episode Two. I distinctly remember working longer days that week and spending as much time experiencing that game as I could. If you have VR, you’ve probably already played it at this point. And if you haven’t yet but you can, it’s the game that VR promised we could have one day. I’ll always remember the time I ran behind a porta-potty to avoid gunfire, found a grenade at my feet, and had to scurry the door open, get in, reach out and slam the door shut to protect myself from the explosion. In plenty of other games outside VR, that’s just finding some cover. In VR, that’s a fake lived experience. I’m on my third run recently, enjoying every second of the developer commentary. A game like this wouldn’t win Game of the Year, it’s not flawless, and it’s not as impactful on gaming culture as we’d like it to be because it’s just not that accessible due to it being in VR. But for me, this was 13 years of waiting fulfilled. Only one other game this year is going to come this close to Justin’s Most Fulfilling Moment in Games in 2020.

And you’d think that means, “Welp, he finished Alyx and probably started it over right away” but think again! Doom Eternal was on the horizon shortly after! In fact it came out days before Alyx. So instead I spent some time playing the 4th and 5th episodes of Life if Strange 2 with my fiance. Finishing that game made me realize I may not have much interest in DontNod games from here forward. Not because they’re bad. Quite the opposite, I think we need more games exploring adolescent themes in this vein. I’m just not so sure DontNod are going to strike the crazed nightmare fuel that Life is Strange 1 did. I cannot, as a non-marginalized person, consider if Life is Strange 2 is telling a story well or correctly about two American citizens that fall into a marginalized category. But I know DontNod worked hard to create a sense of empathy and a strong narrative about the importance about the bond between these two brother characters in the game. DontNod have since already released two more games this year following similar formats, which for me sounds off an alarm that they are moving too fast for their own good to really take in some lessons and learn how to grow these games to be better than what they are: Earnest, though a little awkward, and wild. I want more games like these, I just don’t want the same games again (which is what DontNod’s “Tell Me Why” and “Twin Mirror” seem to be doing). By the time we finished Life is Strange…quarantine had already hit. And that altered plans even further. For now, Life is Strange 2, despite being finished in 2019, gets the award for 2020’s Sign of a Series I’m Not Gonna Care About Before Long. These are good games and a market for someone, I’m just not sure I’m going to be ready to go when Life is Strange 3 gets announced. I’ve already skipped out on Tell Me Why and Twin Mirror. Who knows how I’ll feel later.

We going there

I started Doom Eternal in March quickly after Alyx and finished it by April 9th. I uninstalled it shortly after and I haven’t really looked back wanting more ever since. While enjoying the game, I found myself enjoying what I personally consider to be the wrong things about this game. I call them the wrong things to enjoy mainly because the things I loved in Doom Eternal were all the things I didn’t really care about in Doom 2016, which would be the art direction and the background lore. I know Doom 2016 included readable UAC lore on everything, and I’ve read it all, I know it was pretty funny and metal at times. And in many ways I love how dedicated Doom 2016 is to portraying the UAC Mars base from Doom 3, but a version of it we can see. It’s great. But I was way more caught up in the ingenious design decisions in Doom 2016 that made us feel like the unstoppable threat those hell lore tablets spoke of regarding the “Doomslayer”. So for me, more of the same sounded good with Doom Eternal, but in more ways I was looking forward to the follow-up to 2016’s soundtrack with Mick Gordon at the helm again. And maybe using that cool sword thing. That’s not exactly what happened though. Instead I burned through Eternal, frustrated at its steeper difficulty until I toned it down one notch to just “Hurt Me Plenty” and found that still challenging enough compared to my ability to play the previous game at “Ultra-Violence”. That wasn’t what actually frustrated me though.

I found myself as a player who simply falls into the landscape that finds just about everything in Doom 2016 preferable over Eternal. I felt like Yahtzee’s review summed up my feelings really well, and I also felt like the same hat trick again just wasn’t working on me quite as well except when the game gave really cool lore background to the Doomslayer’s life, that stuff I couldn’t put down and wanted to stare at a lot. Meanwhile I fell into the camp that had problems with a combat design that required me to approach every fight a very particular way or I was going to have an awful time of it. It certainly made the gameplay something new to learn and a challenge to uncover, but once mastered it only made the sensation more frustrating. The Marauder is the culmination of that design, leading me to flipping off the enemy every time I bested him from the comforts of my home. And yet, I appreciate the weight with which an entire culture at large was able to discuss and look at game design in such a way to realize what it is that we prefer when it comes to Doomslaying. People who preferred Eternal’s methods weren’t wrong, they’re legitimately just preferring an approach to the FPS design that leans closer to a character-action game. And so that’s why despite having iffy thoughts about Doom Eternal, despite preferring Doom 2016 over it, I can’t help but give Doom Eternal the award of 2020’s Most Well-Debated Game Design Choices. For a game that’s been kicking around time and time again since the 90s, that’s good. The longest standing FPS series of all time should be making us debate what makes a good shooter. Doom Eternal accomplishes this in spades, blood, and guts.

Now in April, I was looking for a way to interact with my fiance while the whole state stayed in quarantine. So I bought Telling Lies, something I had been hoping to do for a while and we had fun piecing together the story. Sam Barlow’s previous creation “Her Story” showed there was still room for really genius innovation in the industry in some of the most mundane of concepts. And it was hard to say before I touched this follow-up game whether or not something like this “search engine video tool” has legs. But I found myself even more engaged in Telling Lies, with pages and pages of names, notes, and scribbles by my side as we played the game. It took up our time wonderfully and made strong improvements over the original. It could probably stand to use a video slider in its player so I don’t have to hold rewind or fast forward, but Telling Lies, unlike Doom Eternal, wins 2020’s Coolest Improved Innovative Design for me, even though it’s a 2019 title. After Telling Lies, some early Epic Game store sales launched and I bought and played two more titles from 2019 that I wanted a good opportunity to experience. The first was last year’s Outer Wilds, the absolute best video game to adapt the experience of space and everything humanity feels about it. Razbuten has a good video about it, comparing the efforts we place within Outer Wilds to that of making major changes take place (or saving our world, or our lives). For me Outer Wilds perfectly demonstrates through mechanics and design just how dangerous it is to do things in space and why space exploration really is a big frontier for us. But the game also doubles as undoubtedly the best puzzle game I’ve played since Portal or Myst. The galaxy is the puzzle and coming to grips with how this universe you’re in works helps you solve the great riddle of life here in this video game. Like many before me have said now, Outer Wilds is a game I want to forget and learn how to play all over again. Even a year later Outer Wilds is 2020’s Best Dang Puzzle Ever.

Right after Outer Wilds, I picked up Control. I already wrote up a lot of my thoughts on Control, but that was very narrative and theme focused. So it’s worth mentioning here that Control is just…a superb shooter. The art direction and graphics are absolutely stellar and the vibe is something you really won’t get in other games out there. But I don’t think any other game was more fun to do the usual “shooty-shooty” stuff than my experience was when playing Control. It’s visceral, it’s loud, it’s chaotic. The way one conflict can mess up a room and feel brutal hasn’t been replicated in video games since 2006’s F.E.A.R. And that’s saying something. It’s definitely my favorite Remedy game now and definitely deserves recognition as 2020’s Craziest Shooter despite it coming out last year. Halo 3 dropped in July and I would have played it, but my fiance and I went for a spookier video game and I played the first Dead Space with her. She likes horror, it was a good time. With a new horror game in the vein of Dead Space having been announced at the Game Awards recently, I’m happy to label Dead Space a minor 2020 award as A Game from 2008 that Still Totally Holds Up in 2020. Event Horizon meets Aliens meets Resident Evil, yes please.

In July after finishing Dead Space I took a more pleasant trip in space and played through Tacoma with my fiance. If you haven’t experienced the interesting take on future space capitalism, AI, and the lives ordinary people might wind up living, it’s worth taking a peak at. Tacoma’s a few years old at this point, but is worth writing about in this year log. It’s a good time. It’s worth noting that at this point in time in July, The Last of Us 2 had been out for about a month and the debates were still going hot and wild everywhere. And so in having a critical conversation about the original game with my friend, they recommended God of War on PS4, something I had seen to completion in a Let’s Play, but with less on my horizon in the summer, I figured I’d do both. I bought The Last of Us in July and and sprinkled it across the summer months with my fiance knowing the growing bond between Joel and Ellie would be one she’d enjoy. It still remains a really well done story in video games with a protagonist of questionable character quality. Meanwhile, I burned through God of War on my own time. Neither of these games really need awards from me either, being more than a year old but aren’t so old from our memories that we need to provide these games some sort of new recognition in my head. But if you have a PS4 and aren’t getting a PS5 yet and missed these two, try ‘em.

Of course, with summer nearly over I nabbed last year’s massive indie darling: Disco Elysium. I played it from August through September and just about everything everyone says about it is true. I’m still not so crazy about the weird parts of your mind talking to your character at moments in the story, their fatalistic “you’re doomed” speeches. But as the game progresses you come to terms with why they’re there and why they show up to berate you when they do. Your character really is the most wounded, emotionally broken cop there is and is floating around life with a death wish. But Disco Elysium really took my hands and went dancing with me in its early moment when I found a critical piece of evidence on a die roll heavily weighted against me that totally turned my opportunity at solving this murder on its heels. It was nuts, and really makes you feel certain qualities of a good D&D session that other RPGs haven’t in the past. Disco Elysium wins my award for Game I played in 2020 that I most instantly wanted to start over after finishing it. And since the game is now fully voiced compared to 25–30% voiced as before, I’m looking forward to doing so. I’d also welcome a sequel with the ending the game sets you off on. It’s an amazing time and so rarely do games take one murder mystery and expand the implications around it to a full scale world. There’s a reason this game took awards home last year, it deserved it.

Right as my fiance and I wrapped up The Last of Us 2 we got started on Amnesia: Rebirth. I’m still working on a bigger piece about this game in context with Frictional’s history making games, but I’m not sure that it’ll actually come out. It too is quite long winded. That being said, Amnesia: Rebirth is a clear evolution of Frictional’s horror game design finding new ground by using voiced characters and progressing story designs found in Soma, and placing those designs at home in the Amnesia universe. It’s also a game that tried to grip some subject matter that could’ve easily gone very very wrong. And I think for some players, the game did go wrong for them. Pregnancy is a very alien and discomforting subject matter for some people. And making the protagonist a character who is carrying a child that is going through some growth spurts off camera every few hours is something in the horror genre normally reserved for some lower-grade schlock. But if you’re one to try and put your head into a role, Amnesia: Rebirth works. It’s not a game trying to be gross and disgusting regarding motherhood. It’s instead trying to make you comprehend just how much danger you’re in and gives you a new motivation for trying to survive. For me, it worked. For my best friend, it worked to a lesser extent, he wasn’t quite as engaged with the symbiotic mechanics where you rely on comforting your unborn baby to reduce your fear levels. He found it as a nuisance more than anything. For others, I imagine they had to quit the game the moment they realized where this story was going. But as the end game revealed Rebirth’s last mysteries and its last choices, I was pleasantly surprised to find there wasn’t too much of a twist, just a very empathetic protagonist dealing with difficult circumstances and trying to brave them. Much like motherhood can be to some people. Amnesia: Rebirth wins 2020’s Best Horror Game because horror in games isn’t dead so long as Frictional still breathes. I hope this game shows the world there’s room for carefully and respectfully exploring experiences otherwise mute in video games. And if it doesn’t, it at least showed me that.

Also dead center in the middle of October was Star Wars Squadrons, a game that managed to fulfill my wildest dreams: To play some X-Wing and TIE Fighter battles in a VR space. Squadrons is the runner up for 2020’s Most Fulfilling Moments in Games, only because Alyx managed to bring me a new Half-Life game too. But it cannot be understated just how fun Squadrons is in VR. It’s hard to recommend the game for players who can’t experience it in VR without buying it at a slight sale. $25–30 is a much more reasonable price considering it only has two multiplayer modes and a storyline that’s only about 8 hours. That sounds lengthy, but considering its progenitors like X-Wing Alliance and TIE Fighter would last 20–80 hours in story missions, Squadrons does feel on the shorter side. The devs keep updating and adding free content to this game though, as well as extra fighters. I am curious to see where it’ll be in six months or a year. The story is quite flat, the characters don’t have a lot of depth, and you have none. But the VR experience makes up for that in absolutely making a baby out of any Star Wars fan as you get to experience all these cool ships and environments up close and personal. Getting to walk around the hanger bays and inspects ships from various angles was amazing. Turning my head mid-combat to see a protocol droid at my back sounds like just a cool little detail, but for me I just kept repeating, “OH MY GOSH THAT’S SO COOL!”. So Squadrons wins 2020’s Childhood-Fulfilling Game” There’s nothing quite like this experience. In fact this little clip perfectly sums up Squadrons in VR :

I will admit the Last of Us 2 is a game that wouldn’t die in our heads and minds in 2020. The evolution of the Dadification of Games over the past decade has been weird and strange. And I wanted to replay the other 2013 game that was trying to do something with AI companion characters that still lives on in the hearts of others. That would be Bioshock Infinite. I don’t know that I want to award that game anything, I enjoyed it at the time but it’s hard to judge whether the merits of this game age well when so much of the game is wrapped up in its twist and what the players haven’t yet pieced together. I will say I wound up enjoying The Lutece Twins and the game’s shared universe stuff more than everything else going on in the game, despite the fact that Elizabeth makes for an interesting character. I can’t say she’s compelling as her changes are more rapid than I remember them being, and Colombia just isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Rapture is. A lot of what made people love Bioshock was sacrificed to make Infinite the way it is, and parts of that game that got made as a result were interesting and fun, others were…not great to even disturbing. And it may not be things you remember either. Everyone sees the problem with how the Vox Populi are portrayed in the game, as well as its leader Daisy Fitzroy. But for me, in the game’s credits, I saw this during the various “thanks” from the devs:

Born to crunch!

And so, here on the topic of crunch, I’ll talk about the most recent game I’ve completed in 2020: Hades. It’s 2020’s Game of the Year for me, as well as the game that wins my personal award for 2020’s Best Development Studio Showing Us How Games Should Be Made. Hades is a phenomenal game that shows how there’s still room for growth in even some of the most tired of genres and fictions. Before I played Hades, I never really had much of a taste for the Greek gods and goddesses. I knew who they were, I’d read the books, heard the stories, but it never gripped me. Even with video games, God of War only really became appealing to me after the background switched over to Nordic mythology. But Hades changed that opportunity for me by giving these characters the dimension of mechanics and giving them room for personality like I’ve never known I wanted before. I loved it. And to top it off, Hades also made hands-down the most engaging version of a roguelike I’ve ever played. So many ones I’ve tried before didn’t offer up the right mixture of character growth in the right way to make your success an inevitability. Even after 50 hours of Enter the Gungeon, I still don’t feel any closer to beating it. But Hades I cleared and I could tell I was on the run that was going to clear it.

Supergiant hasn’t made a bad game yet, a fact some may feel wary of in this time and place where companies like CDPR and Naughty Dog are letting fans down with controversial working conditions and simply putting out games that are hyped beyond possibility and coming out differently than expected (well, it feels safe to say TLOU2 went the direction expected but the culture’s reaction at large went in directions we’ll consider controversial). And I’ll not curse Supergiant by saying they can’t make a bad game. But I think Supergiant’s ingredient of taking care of the people who work there is hands-down the most important part of the recipe for shipping a good game. There’s other factors too that are significant: We need to stop or slow down the race to make the biggest game ever. Supergiant games are built on a model that has adapted over the years, but still primarily stuck to top-down or isometric views with specific mechanical styles. They’ve chased similar art designs or approaches to artistry over the years (see: Beautiful, a blend of 2D & 3D that isn’t trying to focus on fidelity). And those models make for a cheaper development cost than that of Cyberpunk 2077. Does that mean companies like CDPR shouldn’t make games like Cyberpunk 2077? No. Less often?

Yes.

Games like Cyberpunk 2077 or GTA 5 or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey should come out when they’re ready, they should launch when they’ve had significant time to cook, and companies should be careful when jumping from one genre to the next. CDPR could’ve made a smaller-scale RPG shooter in the vein of The Outer Worlds first, they could’ve made a story-shooter first, anything to comprehend just how different making a futuristic cyberpunk-esque video game would be for the company. But they didn’t. Lots of companies don’t settle for less or refinement once they’ve tasted success. Supergiant does, they take the legos apart when one game is done, start a new creation, and refine it better the next time. It’s still mostly the same lego bricks, some new ones added in here and there, the themes and genre are different. But Supergiant has managed to make four fantastic lego sets over the span of nine years. And there’s no way in the underworld that I’m going to put the biggest spotlight I can on any other game this year than Hades, nor any other company more than I can on Supergiant. It’s worth your time so very very much.

Business admin graduate with a passion for games and music.