The Best Video Games of 2020 – The New Yorker

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In the Before Times, on transatlantic flights, I would often assume the role of a deadly virus that threatened the human race. The key to success in the game Plague Inc., from 2012, is to mutate in ways that both hasten the viruss spread and impede a vaccines development. It was perversely enjoyable to pass an hour, forehead smushed against a window, swiping toward extinction. But 2020 spiked that small pleasure. Much like transatlantic travel itself, role-playing a pandemic can appear, at the moment, to be rather unseemly.

Not so for video games at large, however. The medium is ideally suited to coronavirus lockdown, when the boundaries of the physical world contract and the imagination strains for freedom. Games offer a chance for the housebound to visit distant lands, for the unemployed to experience the satisfaction of a completed task, for the lonely to interact with others. If youre a skeptic, this mightve been the year you picked up a controller.

Not everyone was convinced, of course. In quarantine, many parents saw the quasi-divine power that games hold over their childreneven as those games provided surrogate playgrounds, places where friendships could be nourished. Some veterans, too, might have been thrust into an uneasy relationship with the form. Personally speaking, video games, with their synthetic rewards and twinkly distractions, didnt quite manage to assuage my weariness with the world this year. Perhaps thats because they so often present us with a world in crisis, one which we alone can fix, usually through violent means. The capacity to order chaos is comforting, arguably the mediums greatest appeal, and yet I increasingly find these particular kinds of stories hollow. The idea that the great issues of our time can be solved by weapons, for example, seems to me not just a weakness of games but, increasingly, a failure of the human imagination, with consequences on a global-industrial scale.

Still, away from the corporate mainstream, artists continued to offer alternatives: games that were bold and nourishing, and that made a tough year just a tiny bit brighter. Here, in no particular order, are some of the best.

Hades (Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac)

Most riffs on the ancient Greek myths fixate on grandiosity: the gleam and power of Zeus and his extended family. Hades is truer to the source material; here is a world of Kardashian-esque gossip and intrigue, loyalty and bitchiness, all enacted at the celestial level. You play as Zagreus, a son of Hades who, in the throes of teen angst, is desperate to escape the underworld and join his kin on Mount Olympus. Hades, an infuriating father with boomer energy, is only too happy to see you try, though he places a series of minions in your path. The games difficulty is part of its joy; you quest closer and closer to the exit before, health depleted, you are sent back to your bedroom. The storytelling is perfectly pitched, and the thrills of the shifting maze invite endless attempts.

Animal Crossing (Switch)

Animal Crossing arrived at the perfect moment: as the pandemic eroded the shape of our daily lives, the game offered the gift of a steadying routine. It placed us on a deserted island, where we were left to pursue small taskscatching fish and bugs, chopping trees, planting flowersthat were comfortingly achievable and tied to dependable rewards. The sunny isle provided an escape from the cloying familiarity of our homes, and the games cast of anthropomorphic animals offered a set of manageable relationships. Most profoundly, it allowed us to feel a modicum of control amid the chaos. What more could we want?

The Last of Us Part II (PlayStation 4)

This exquisitely rendered, deeply brutal game evokes an old maxim: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. The story follows two young women in a post-apocalyptic America, where scavenger communities battle for territory and dwindling resources. Revenge motivates each of the women, who belong to warring factions, and the game builds to a gruesome conclusion: a protracted fistfight, without music, in which we are forced to become intimate, reluctant participants. The game is a towering technological achievement, and tastefully writtenbut its critique of video-game violence can feel patchy, partly because its own brutality is so slickly entertaining. Still, its a compelling study of fruitless vengeance, for those who can stomach it.

Through the Darkest of Times (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, iOS, Android, PC, Mac)

This strategy game opens in the Berlin of 1933, just as Hitler assumes control of a progressive city ravaged by the Great Depression. You play as the leader of a small group of citizens who, in the years leading up to the war, choose to resist the Nazi Partys excesses. In weekly turns, you gather the team and allocate various resistance-related tasks; success depends on how wisely you delegate. Throughout the game, youre treated to historic scenes that chart key moments in the prewar years. The story sometimes draws clunky connections to our own moment, but it also provides a sharp depiction, for those too young to remember, of how despotism can take root and bloom.

Cloudpunk (Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One)

It was a good year to celebrate the delivery driver, and Cloudpunk answered the call. The game has you deliver packages, in a beat-up car, in the city of Nicalis, which is lifted straight from Blade Runner: its all humming hovercrafts and blistering neon. Your objective is simplemake as much money as possibleand youre pushed along by a radio dispatcher and the warm torrent of a synth soundtrack. Playbour, as some academics have called this kind of toil simulation, has an elemental appeal, but Cloudpunk adds a dash of intrigue to the mix: according to your dispatcher, you can never ask whats in a package. Still, you cant help but wonder, and the tug of curiosity is matched by the voyeuristic thrill of dipping into and out of citizens lives.

Disc Room (Switch, PC, Mac)

Disc Room is a return to one of gamings primal challenges: How long can you evade this dangerous thing? From a birds-eye perspective, you dash your character around a small room while avoiding a succession of spinning saw blades. Dodge to survive is a vintage game mechanic, first popularized in arcades in the early eighties and then perfected, in the two-thousands, by the Japanese studio Cave. But the genre is undergoing a renaissance, and Disc Rooms sly interpretation provides a gritty, compelling distraction.

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The Best Video Games of 2020 - The New Yorker

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