The 2020 review of video games

This was the year that I took a self-conscious break from work and finally made good on my years-long threat to play video games. I haven’t spent as much time on a console since I was a teenager. It was nice, a good way to reconnect with the concept of “it’s okay to use time in ways that are not productive.”

But, in order to be a little bit productive, allow me to introduce Sahar Massachi’s 2020 video game review. These aren’t games that came out in 2020, necessarily, just games that I first encountered this year. (Skyrim, while having soaked up a lot of my time, sadly doesn’t qualify). All games are on the Switch.

Top Prize: Return of the Obra Dinn

The soundtrack alone vaults it to stardom

Quite possibly the best work of the last 5 or 10 years, this masterpiece is more like an immersive, fun, work of art that happens to be a video game.

Even people who dislike video games can love this game. The music is so good that I listen to it for fun. The puzzles are exactly the right amount of challenging, and the procedure for validating your guesses is ingenious. this is the sort of game that your girlfriend iwht no hand-eye coordination can play, that your whole family can join in as you play on the couch.

A+. Shows what building a game for love, rather than profit, can achieve.

Notable runner-up: West of Loathing

Real 90s kids might remember Kingdom of Loathing, the php-based browser game (still running strong!). West of Loathing is its stellar spin-off.

Set in a satirical “western” setting, the plot veers into goblin genocide, freaky aliens, the culture of SF, and evil necromantic beings.

“Funny games” are, as a rule, awful. (A Bard’s Tale being the paradigmatic example). West of Loathing is the exception to the rule. Witty and erudite, this combination puzzle game / point and click adventure / basic tactics RPG will draw in jaded gamers and vigilant non-gamers alike.

This, along with Obra Dinn, was the only game I could gleefully play with Sarah — together, at the same time, playing the same character, switching off holding the controller. Given her lack of video game skills (she attributes this to “lack of mario” growing up), that’s a big deal!

Bait and Switch Award: Fire Emblem Three Houses

I am currently playing Fire Emblem. Not at this minute of course, since I’m typing this. But I was playing Fire Emblem right before this, and I’ll play Fire Emblem right after it. I spent over twelve hours playing it every day this weekend.

The game bills itself as a sort of hogwarts-inspired plot: there is a school for fighting/magic/leaders of the continent. And you’re a teacher heading one of the houses! Plus, some battles. And yes, all that is there. What they don’t tell you: the game is also a lightweight dating sim.

Your units have “support” with each other — and as a teacher, you’re meant to help them get closer to each other personally (so that they can fight harder together in battle). As a player, you’re constantly watching cutscenes of your students awkwardly flirt, argue, and teach each other to cook. It often feels more like you are watching an interactive, schizophrenetic movie, than playing a game.

But there’s a twist — your students (and coworkers, boss, dad, and some miscellaneous children) also want to build relationships with *you*. And, for pretty much everyone of the opposite gender (and some of the same gender), “building relationships” feels a lot like flirting. In fact, often, it precisely is. After all, the game wants you to end up marrying one of these people.

I was playing a woman character, and so most of the romantic prospects were men. Mostly students. This felt wrong in a few ways. First, and most importantly, why does the game have you flirt with students? Unethical! But also — I don’t really find joy flirting with men who, again, are my students. So any time a heartfelt moment with one arrived, I’d tense up, afraid of them turning their eyes towards me. Even though most encounters were objectively sweet, and the flirting actually was at a minimum (and kept towards the end of the game, where everyone is 5 years older and has graduated), the whole situation kept me on edge because I was worried the unwanted attention *could happen at any time*.

I imagine this sort of experience vaguely (though with a lot of caveats) feels like the same sort of thing that actual women deal with in real life. (Again, with lots of qualifiers, not least being “the magnitude is different and no switch game substitutes for real experience etc etc).


Nostalgia award: Katamari Damacy

Katamari. What a joy. What a soundtrack. What a reminder of mid-aughts madcap madness, and a gameplay that still has yet to be matched. Katamari combines the simple joy of tidying up with the simple joy of world domination via giant ball magnet thing.

The one thing they still need to fix is so obvious that I’m dumbfounded it hasn’t happened — the game needs an “infinite mode”, where you can roll around to your hearts content with (and this is crucial) no deadline!

Friendship award: Divinity Original Sin: 2

Online coop is weirdly difficult on the switch. The Escapists 2 hasn’t thought through coop move very well. Smash Brothers doesn’t allow online *coop*, only battles against your friends, not with them vs an AI. Streets of Rogue flat out breaks when trying coop. Diablo 3 pulls it off technically, but has such atrocious plot and setting that spending time on it is an insult to anyone paying attention. Pokemon’s coop abilities are a joke. All fail — except Divinity 2.

It’s a marvel that they pulled off this game on a console that is technically a mid-2017 era smartphone in a new form factor. It’s amazing that one can play the spiritual successor to Baldur’s gate on what is essentially a game boy — and do it with a friend hundreds of miles away. Bravo!

Skinner Box Award: Hades

So many pixels have been spread extolling Hades that I’ll keep it brief. It’s reinvented the roguelike genre. It can be a replacement for knitting while talking to friends on the phone, and a challenging full-attention adventure if needed. The story drips out in tiny enough drips to last forever, and large enough drips to keep you interested.

It’s a technological marvel — civilization has come one step closer to the Skinner box. Well done.

Hot Takes

Zelda Breath of the Wild is fine but repetitive. Each zone is the same — find the shrines, do some easy puzzles, fight some bad guys (who respawn soon anyways, so why even bother?)

Cuphead is fun for about 10 minutes before the wonder at the jazzy sound and old-timey graphics fades and you’re left with a derivative (and too difficult) platformer.

Animal Crossing is boring and it’s my understanding that everyone (rightly) gave up on it two weeks in.

Remember how I said that (Loathing excepted) every game that tries to be funny is an abysmal waste of time? The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle is a great example of what doing it badly looks like. (Sorry, creators of the game! I know you worked hard on it, I apologize that I didn’t like it. I did try.)

Undertale is a nice work of art. It continually show you established patterns of a game — then violates different “rules” or norms that you didn’t even realize existed. It’s clearly special. It’s also art more than a game. I wouldn’t call it fun. But it is interesting.