When I begin to reflect about this year, I often think about how much it has taken away from my friends and family, but I also know that myself and those same friends and family have grown a lot as people. I often don’t like to bring up my personal achievements in these yearly write-ups, but the biggest win I got this year was being accepted into my university of choice after spending four long years at a junior college. I still remember the day in which I received the news, it was in June. I was working my normal route for work, and I took a break before I went into my next account. I checked the website and found out the news right then and there. I broke down in my car, I was crying. When everything seemed to be some dreary and dismal this year, receiving this small victory felt that much greater. Even getting calls from my peers who also got into their university of choice gave me a glimmer of hope. When I see my friends and family succeed, I get filled with some sense of happiness. I try to live my life helping out others as much as I can, and this year has really refined that trait in me.
Now, as much as being this emotional rock for some of my closest friends and family has been. It has also taken its toll on me, and I will be frank about that. Early into August of this year, almost every morning when I was getting ready to work I broke down in my car. I wept, because it was incredibly hard for me fathom what was happening in my spheres. That allowed me to be in my lowest spot emotionally, but it was a reminder that almost everyone was undergoing the same set of emotions. During one of my first classes at my new college, I brought up the idea of how this pandemic allowed for some of the greatest class consciousness to occur in this day and age.
Everyone is feeling the same raw emotions, and is coming to grips with how the systems are not meant to support the people they claim to protect. When people have begun to shift gears and realize that this individualistic point-of-view is manufactured and when we begin to protect our collectiveness and communities, which are more organic to the human experience, we are able to seemingly understand things on a more fundamental level. While the end of the pandemic is seemingly in sight, I do genuinely hope that my peers, friends and family keep this energy up.
Some of the games I played this year honestly helped me and some gave me this sense of escapism which I often needed after either a long day at work or a long day at school, both activities which reminded me of the current situation everyone was in at this moment of time. Now, enough of this emotional and philosophical nonsense from me. Video games, they are alright folks. Here’s my list.
Call of the Sea – Runner-up
As someone whose favorite movie of all time is The Maltese Falcon, you could say that I am a sucker for media taking place in the 1930s and the 1940s. This period of time, which was incredibly problematic for a plethora of reasons, is one which I adore largely because of the plethora of noir detective stories which emerged from this era.
When I began to read the pitch for Call of the Sea, I was reminded of my love of this period of time. It’s a walking sim meets classic adventure game set in the South Pacific 100 miles from Tahiti, and you are trying to find your husband who disappeared on an island which keeps occurring in your dreams .I was genuinely surprised by this game. Playing it on my Xbox Series S was an absolute delight, because the game is stunning. It’s art direction is varied and is one of the strengths of the game.
One moment you are walking down a stereotypical tropical Pacific beach, only to suddenly find yourself on a completely different stormy and dark beach where there is an overturned ship. Each level is a diverse location which communicates and evokes a different feeling, and as you explore these areas, finding out what happened to your husband Larry is genuinely fun. The storytelling works in tandem with these places because you are finding traces of what happened, each conveying a different theme at time. You will go from thinking that the expedition team is giving up, only to find out that they kept on despite the set-backs. When you begin to fully understand what happened to these people, you learn the ugly truths of the island.Call of the Sea scratched a very specific itch for me, and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year.
A Fold Apart – Runner-up
Communication is fundamental to our experience as humans, whether we are using sign languages, images or even spoken languages. We are always trying to communicate with other humans, and this is the name of the game in A Fold Apart. It is centered around the communication between two people in a long-distance relationship. This game has been on my radar for a long time, hell I demoed this game and wrote about it back in 2019 (which feels like an actual decade ago). This game is important for me this year, because so much of the conversation between the people in the relationship of the game is conveyed through text messages. As someone who gets a lot out of being around people and using spoken language to communicate with people, I found myself turning to text messages in order to talk to people more.
While I do wish the game did a better job nailing its theming and writing, part of me is thinking about the game’s impact and how it captures the nature of long-distance relationships so well. I began to think about this game more as I began to embark on my journey at a new college where I am physically separated by my peers because of this pandemic, and how my only way of communicating to them was through text messages and through a Zoom call.
If you want more of my thoughts about this game, please check out my review discussion I did with Monti Velez from Uppercut on the IP Presents feed.
Deep Rock Galactic – Runner-up
This game literally slid onto my list last minute. Deep Rock Galactic is honestly some of the most fun I have had playing a game this year. We had begun to do “Party” streams on Wednesday, and one of the games we had begun to play was DRG. I didn’t know much about this game besides the fact that it is you and some friends diving down into some planet to harvest minerals and make money?
That said, when we began to play this game more regularly on Wednesday, hopping on with Alex, Mike, Jarrett, and/or Scott was something I really looked forward to. . This game gave me that same sense of socialization which I seemingly missed from being in my classes and through work. Hearing other people’s voices which aren’t my peers through my computer, my co-workers through my work-phone or even my friends through a phone call was incredibly pleasant for me. I don’t really play multiplayer games except the occasional local Mario Party game and Smash Bros, butlaying DRG with my IP peers brought me a lot of joy and levity which I really needed near the tail end of this year. I look forward to playing with those folks because these moments were some of my favorites throughout this year.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Runner-up
Here is an excerpt and link to my piece about ACNH because it captures all of my feelings about the game –
“I’ve always enjoyed working outside. I like having the sun beat down on me, I love breaking a sweat. The biggest thing for me is that I can see the physical side of the work I have put in. If I spent four hours clearing out and weeding a plot of land, and then have someone come in and plant some seeds, that brings me lots of pure joy. I like doing the nitty-gritty work, because it makes me feel good and it’s incredibly rewarding.
There’s something special about that work, which has always made me love it. Between growing crops for people who don’t have access to the resource or simply just teaching the basics when it comes to agriculture in some regards. Even teaching people how to use tools properly, anything I can do to help grants me the feeling that I am giving back in a very special and intimate way. However, due to certain circumstances going on in the world, the current effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, I am currently unable to do this. Specifically help out at my community garden.
However, when I began to play New Horizons, it had seemingly begun to fill that part of my life. There is that special kind of magic that happens when I am digging holes to plant flowers or trees. It doesn’t really fill that void but it is a nice temporary replacement for now. For me, tending the land in Animal Crossing is arguably my favorite part. That’s not because of the fact that I am making the island look how I want it to look, in fact it’s the complete opposite. I am planting fruit trees near the villager’s houses and flowers near their homes because it grants me that feeling of helping and giving to the people who need it.”
Skate 3 – Runner-up
Now, you’re probably wondering why I put a ten year-old game on this list when two other fantastic skating games are out this year. The answer is simple actually. I played Skate 3 before those games came out, and I will say that as much as I love Session and THPS 1+2 Remastered, Skate 3 brought me a lot of joy this year.
Throughout junior high and highschool, I was a part of that culture in San Diego. I wasn’t the greatest at performing tricks, but I could smoke people in a race. So much of my love of skating comes from skating around parts of San Diego with friends and finding more niche gaps which weren’t being occupied by other skaters. We didn’t go to skateparks because at the time that felt very mainstream and what formal skaters did. Being distanced from that culture made me yearn for it, especially after I played Session and Skate Story at PAX East this year, so I picked up Skate 3 on a whim
While I did the core story of Skate 3, most of my time was literally doing the exact same thing that me and my friends did 6 years ago. Finding gaps to master and really tight inclines to race each other down. While I had friends to do this same thing with in real life, part of the experience for me in this game was solitary. I enjoyed doing these little things by myself, and oftentimes booted up the same playlist which me and my friends blasted when we were out being hoodlums which just filled me with nostalgia in the best way possible.
Forza Horizon 4 – Runner-up
Cars. Cars are pretty and cars go vroom.
Last of Us 2 – Runner-up
As someone who has middling feelings about The Last of Us, I didn’t want to play the sequel. A good friend of mine pushed me to play it because he doesn’t play games often, but wanted to chat about this game with me. Some great pieces of criticism from Maddy Myers over at Polygon and Rob Zacny over at Waypoint muddied my feelings going in. However, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the game much more than I thought I would.
When the game opens up on the first day in Seattle during Ellie’s storyline, and you get to explore that open world section, I really fell in love with the game. Watching Ellie and Dina’s reactions to the music store and some of the other abandoned spaces in that area was truly a delight, and was one of my favorite parts of the game. That was one of the true highlights for me because it humanized these characters in a very real way.
However, when it came to doing the combat and stealth sections I found myself simply just avoiding those encounters as much as I could because I found it much more enjoyable than watching Abby or Ellie have a long kill animation . One of my biggest complaints about the game is how Naughty Dog tries to tell you about this cycle of violence which occurs in this post-apocalyptic world of theirs and how this is the human cycle.
While I enjoyed the relationship Abby builds with both Lev and Yara, I didn’t enjoy when Yara not only dead-named Lev, but told Lev’s story when it’s not her right to do so. That did a disservice to Lev’s character because it should have been them explaining it to Abby, because it is Lev’s story to tell.
Watching Abby subvert the cycle which Naughty Dog is pushing on the player with Ellie was refreshing. Abby’s arc is all about redemption. We are supposed to view her as this ruthless killing machine, but when I was done beating the game she wasn’t that. In fact, she wants to take care of Lev more than anything and be a part of a community.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the sexual assault issues from Naughty Dog, the poor labor conditions during this game’s development, Neil Druckmann and Troy Baker’s poor behavior on social media following the game post-release, as well as the Sony PR reps getting seemingly mad at critics for their coverage of this game.
AC: Valhalla – Runner-up
I have a serious love-hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, because there is so much I really enjoy about this franchise but there is also a lot of bloat attached to it. I remember watching my dad play the first AC right after it’s release of that game, and I had never seen an open world in a game before. As someone who really loves history, part of my love of these games is watching Ubisoft spin a take on a certain historical period. I played most Assassin’s Creeds to completion. I had some serious skepticism before I dove into Valhalla because I was burned during Odyssey and I really think vikings are boring as hell. However, my expectations were exceeded with this game.
While I have only spent 60 hours in Valhalla and have not beaten it yet, I have had a really great time exploring the lands of England. It is an absolute delight. Part of the open-world exploration scratched an itch for me in a way I haven’t encountered since I played BOTW for the first time. Just riding my horse and looking out on the horizon and seeing a tower or some remnant of a Roman structure made me feel like I was exploring this world in a very organic way. The map is also not littered with things to do. Objectives are spaced out which makes exploration that much more fun for me. I also find the overall narrative light-hearted and is making for a good romp, and hunting down The Order of the Ancients aka Templars also very fun.
Much like love for The Last of Us 2 is shadowed by the issues plaguing that studio, part of my enjoyment of this game is shadowed by the plethora of sexual assault allegations which came from Ubisoft at large. Following hot off the heels of the #MeToo movement, we witnessed a huge outpouring of allegations and stories coming from the games industry. The reports and stories which came out of Ubisoft at large are damning and revealing a company culture which is hurtful to its laborers. I genuinely hope that Ubisoft changes for the better.
Persona 5 Royal – Runner-up
I have not beaten a JRPG since I first played Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga over 10 years ago.. Persona 5 Royal is that game which broke the cycle for me. I played about 25 hours of the original game but couldn’t muster up the strength to continue. However, I made a bet to one Alex O’Neill earlier in the year. If I beat this game, he would send me 60USD for it. If I didn’t beat it, I would be down 60USD. We had a back and forth near the beginning of the quarantine about comfort and media, and he mentioned how P5R was a place of comfort for him much like how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a place of comfort for me. This is the type of game where I need someone to talk to during the entire experience, and have someone seemingly guide me throughout it. This altered my relationship with this game in a very interesting way, and brought me closer to Alex throughout the 90 hours I spent in this fictional version of Tokyo, Japan.
I think Persona 5 Royal is a good game, but has some writing problems which hold it back. The game is a very young adult novel at times, centering themes about how adults are bad and how youth is a power to collectivize and help usher in a new era of thinking and culture. These ideas of cultural revolution are fascinating and have real world implications which we have seen affect the culture at large, and I think P5R does a good job of touching base for these ideas but does not capitalize on them.
For example, the palace for Okumura is a turning point for me. We see this man abuse and overwork his employees, and we see the workers being affected by this, but it doesn’t dive into these issues as much as I wish it did. It seemingly just says that this man’s labor practices are bad, and I wish the game was making an effort to comment on issues like this. This was one of the many moments in which I wanted the game to dive deeper than what it was giving me. I also don’t like how the game handles queer folks and queer writing.
While I think the overall writing for the game falters at times, I genuinely enjoyed some of the character work. I like Ryuji as the brash jock, Makoto as the by-the-books geek, and Morgana as the supportive second-in-command. They were mainstays in my party, partially because each of them reminded me of myself. They all reflect a part of myself which I identify with, and seeing them as extensions of my character made the experience more fun for me.
One of my motivations for completing this game was to see where the soundtrack went next, because I think it is the best part of the game. Shoji Meguro absolutely killed this and produced one of my favorite soundtracks ever for a game. It speaks for itself, and when I was introduced to a new palace theme I was excited.
Ikenfell – GOTY
Ikenfell is a game which I had literally no expectations for. I picked it up when it was apart of Xbox Gamepass on a whim, and it would be the most impactful 18 hours I put into a game this year. Ikenfell was the thing which brought me out from a dark place. Right when I began to play the game, I was starting my first term at a new college that I still haven’t physically been to and my anxieties were at an all time high. I was worried about how my peers and my instructors would look at me and respond to my thoughts through virtual school as I come from a junior college. In-person meetings are always easier for me to adjust to because me and my peers occupy the same space, and I read their social cues easier than I read them through a screen. While watching the protagonist, Mariette, find her way through a place which was incredibly foreign to her, I saw myself in her shoes. I felt the anxieties which she had, and during that moment in time it hit harder.
When Mariette begins to explore the Ikenfell campus grounds, she embraces it like a kid in a candy store. She’d only heard about it in stories and in the letters from her sister, Safine, and what Mariette had seen with her own eyes was true. The experience is soured for her quickly, though. Early on something fishy is happening, and the entire game is a wild goose chase for Mariette to find her missing sister. . When Mariette begins to find Safine’s friends, you discover that Safine didn’t tell her friends about Mariette. I felt so sad finding this out. When you idolize a sibling like how Mariette idolizes her sister, only for them to not even acknowledge your presence when you aren’t there really hurts.
A good chunk of the game is spent battling and while I really enjoyed the battling system, the ability to simply skip battles is an incredibly pleasant feature. One of my biggest complaints about RPGs in general is that you spend more time battling and not enough time focusing on the narrative, so just skipping them made the game that much more fun for me. I do think some of the battles you do in Ikenfell are smart because they find inventive ways to make almost complex battles occur on a three by twelve grid. You not only have to be cognizant of where the attacks land but where certain characters and enemies fall onto the battle timeline. It’s a really good mix of retro-RPG battles in a bite-sized package, and most battles don’t last long.
One of the reasons I really enjoy this game is because the cast of characters is diverse. In particular, it isn’t pandering like how other forms of media approach queer and NB characters. This game is written by LGBTIA+ folks, and it comes through in the writing because it is not trying to show their sexuality as a part of the character. It’s just who they are and doesn’t define their personality. Moments like that are telling to me about the writing and the care that went into the writing. Hell, the game is full of queer relationships and one of my favorite characters, Gilda, is actively trying to grab the attention of Mariette, who’s completely oblivious to her advances.
There were a few times during my time spent with Ikenfell which just broke me. It is a game which often puts on this happy, bright face with a cheery soundtrack but when a moment of sadness happens, it’s a punch to the gut. The soundtrack does a lot of work in making the game truly succeed, and aivi & surasshu nail Ikenfell’s. The last time a soundtrack evoked this kind of emotional response for me was when I played Celeste in 2018. I spent many moments just crying while playing this game, and it was right when the credits rolled in the epilogue that I just openly wept.
Ikenfell blew me away on almost every account. The combat, the story, the world-building, and soundtrack all made for such an incredible and memorable experience for me. Going into something with no preconceived notions is one of my favorite ways to experience things, and there are few games that I play where this happens. So much of my time spent consuming media is watching trailers, reading critique, and hearing things from peers. When a project like Ikenfell comes across your desk and you know nothing about it except that it just blows you away at every twist and turn. That moment is when you realize why something like Ikenfell is so incredibly special. It’s not the flashiest game of the year that I played, but it is without a doubt the most impactful game I’ve played this year.