2020

I have to be honest: I kept putting off writing my 2020 wrap-up post. As early as late November I thought about collecting my thoughts on last year’s games. It’s not that I didn’t want to write about all of the wonderful games I played in 2020. I love writing about video games more than almost anything. But 2020 was a weird year, as unsurprising as that may be for me to say. Though the year was filled with excellent and exciting games and gaming moments, the many global and national challenges facing most of us affected me, too, and impacted my gaming experiences and work more than I ever wanted to admit.

If I think about 2020 purely in gaming terms, what an amazing year. Although critical reception for it was tepid, I loved the Resident Evil 3 remake. It wasn’t quite as expansive as the remake for the second game, but I think both remakes were excellent renditions of their parent games. Capcom’s RE Engine produced beautiful graphics, I loved navigating the broken streets of Raccoon City once again, and I was ecstatic to get more time with Jill Valentine, my favorite Resident Evil character.

A new Animal Crossing game is always a welcome addition to any year, and New Horizons was released at perhaps the most welcoming time in history for any game. Everyone seemed to be playing it – Animal Crossing fans, celebrities, politicians, people who have never played a single AC game, and seemingly everyone on every social media platform. It made me happy to see the series get such love, especially since this was easily the entry with the most significant changes in both gameplay and presentation. With every single new AC game, I lamented the lack of new, exciting features. With older titles, Nintendo would add maybe one major new gimmick and a handful of minor tweaks, but I was always left wondering when a true, full sequel would come out. While New Horizons does retain some of the series’ core mechanics, it adds and expands on so many cool features, like crafting, travel, and multiplayer (even if it’s still imperfect). I had so much fun with New Horizons, and even when I sometimes feel sad for “abandoning” it, I still ended up putting over 300 hours into it. A point that I’ve heard repeatedly debated in conversations about the best games of the year is whether or not New Horizons would have been so popular or well-received if it weren’t for the global pandemic. I suppose the degree to which it would have been popular is debatable, but every mainline AC game has been popular without a mandatory quarantine to boost their prestige. Plus, I think people entertaining that idea are conveniently forgetting both the fact that a great many of us AC fans have been waiting years for this game and the persistent popularity of the Nintendo Switch means that the potential audience for this game was huge, regardless. The fact that many people were looking for a distraction from the pandemic may have notably nudged up hype for this game, but it’s a great game in its own right and surely would have found more success than its already-successful predecessors.

One of the things that made 2017 such a magical year in gaming for me was Persona 5, my long-anticipated introduction to the Persona series, which made 2020’s Persona 5 Royal an absolute day one purchase for me. I really wanted the Phantom Thieves special edition, and after finding it was sold out everywhere I was overjoyed to snag a pre-order from Best Buy. The problem? The release date was right when many non-essential stores went into lockdown from the pandemic. Not the most serious problem anyone’s had in these times, but I was worried the in-store pickup (the only option for pre-order) would be delayed or even canceled. Luckily it was not, and it was my first experience with a staple of pandemic consumer life: curbside pickup. Best Buy sent me an email instructing me to park in front of the store and call the customer service desk (later to become an automated process), and once they verified my order number, someone came outside and dropped the game in my backseat. It seemed like such a novel and bizarre process at that point in time, but I was excited to get home and unbox my new treasure. As with the base game, I absolutely loved my time with Royal, and got the platinum trophy for this entry, too.

Speaking of platinum trophies, I’ve been considering replaying Final Fantasy VII Remake to get the platinum trophy for that game, too, because I was so enamored with it but I feel like I could have spent more time with those characters. I was worried that it would slip from many critics’ minds when it came time for end-of-year award consideration, but it seems to have won a fair number of awards from various outlets. The game is beautiful, the music is so nostalgic and magical, and I really can’t wait to see what they do with the next installment, especially after that provocative ending.

I wasn’t quite as smitten with The Last of Us Part II, but part of that might have been the deafening discourse surrounding the game and its release. It seemed simultaneously the best game ever released and the most offensive artifact to soil consoles, and this was before it was even in most people’s hands. People seemed desperate to share their takes on social media, falling over themselves to take sides or point out some new observation. I specifically avoid hype for most games I play because I don’t want my experiences to be tainted by expectations shaded by the opinion of others, but in this case the hype was virtually unavoidable. I had a pre-order and had, once upon a time, been excited for the game, but I couldn’t get the ongoing conversations about the game out of my head as I played it. I got about fifteen hours in and just didn’t feel like finishing, so I quit. I’ve recently had the itch to go back to it, though, in part because I hate leaving games unfinished, so I installed it on my PS5 and will be starting it back up soon.

In almost an exact opposite situation, I had very little hype for Ghost of Tsushima and it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year, easily. The E3 2018 trailer looked beautiful, but the combat appeared to be in the vein of the Souls games, which didn’t seem up my alley. Tsushima was always on the fringes of my radar, and with little else to play mid-summer, I decided I’d give it a shot. If I didn’t like the combat, at least it had what looked like a beautiful open world I could explore. As it turns out, I really loved the combat. It allows for so many different approaches to battles, and I appreciated that switching stances wasn’t an absolute must to defeat most enemies. I also loved the beautiful open world. And the characters. And the acting and exploration and foxes and… well, you get the point.

I also had a great time with Star Wars Squadrons, which was a simple yet thrilling flight sim, and despite being a sloppy, buggy mess, I also had fun with Cyberpunk 2077.  I very recently wrote about my love of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Phasmophobia, as well as my mostly-positive adventures in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and I also had a warm and tingly stroll down memory lane with Astro’s Playroom. Paper Mario: The Origami King was a humorous, adorable trip, and The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope was sufficiently spooky. I also used my quarantine months to catch up on some non-2020 games like Days Gone, Gris, I am Setsuna, Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Yakuza 0, and of course I wrote maybe too much about my giddiness over the new consoles. While I wrote specifically about the PlayStation 5, I did also manage to get an Xbox Series X for myself for Xmas. I set it up and… well… that’s about it for now, but I was excited to unbox it and I can’t wait for games like the next Perfect Dark and that Indiana Jones games that was announced today.

So, well, I guess I did end up revisiting games I’ve played this year. But before I started actually writing, the only thing I could think about was the general, difficult-to-describe affect the pandemic has had on me. The few years leading up to 2019 were incredibly hard for me, in terms of my mental health. I had gotten to some very dark places. In early 2019, I took steps to navigate myself out of those dark places, and by the end of the year I began to feel like I had regained control of my life. Then, well, you know. 2020. Many people have had a much worse 2020 than I have, no doubt. But it was something of a precarious year for me. I remained determined to maintain my mental health. I got into a solid workout routine, I walked my cat every day when it was warm, I kept a daily journal, and I did a fair job of transitioning to online teaching, if I do say so myself. The problem was that I felt like my mental and emotional energy had a limit. I could dedicate only so much to staying healthy, and teaching, and participating in hobbies, and parsing all of the negativity that came with the pandemic and the historically toxic presidential election, that anything above and beyond that felt… impossible? Maybe that seems dramatic, but I don’t feel like I had much time post-recovery to enjoy decent mental health before I was expected to write my dissertation, maintain a healthy routine, become an online teacher, and just deal with the overwhelming, flaming flood that was 2020.

So my dissertation went by the wayside. And it felt okay at first. The general consensus about the pandemic’s effect on workflow seemed to be that it was normal and that everyone should give themselves a break. And I did. For a while. I still am, I suppose. But now that it’s been a year and I’ve made almost no progress, the self-doubt and reality of having to secure more funding or work to hopefully try and finish this thing in 2021 is inescapable. Institutions and professionals urged us to be kind and give ourselves more time, but in reality the expectations and deadlines never really changed. And because my dissertation is on games, looking back and thinking of my experience with gaming in 2020 was… complicated. I’ve played so many great games, and I’m excited for the future of gaming, but my place as a gaming scholar always feels like it’s on tremulous ground. I have moments where the field of games studies feels exclusive and some of the most notable names seem out of touch or, frankly, full of shit. Dr. Emma Vossen, a gaming scholar I admire, recently tweeted that she was publishing her final games studies article in academia, and was leaving ten years of work in the field behind her. Why? Because the field is so filled with scholars who don’t seem to understand games and gaming culture. They are academics first, and many of them seem to have gotten into the field because they saw an emergent trend that held lots of publishing potential. Dr. Vossen and others have expressed the notion that some of the best work on games and gaming culture has been done outside of academia, and I agree. But where does that leave me? I have no idea, to be honest. Confused? Angry? Do I push on, hoping to carve a niche for myself and change the culture? Or do I get out and try and get into a seemingly equally exclusive game coverage industry?

Sorry for the rant. For how terrible 2020 was in almost every other regard, it was a great year for gaming. My future in my field of choice may be murky, but I am still in love with video games, and there are some exciting titles coming out this year and in the near-ish future. Persona 5 Strikers, Resident Evil Village, Gotham Knights, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Breath of the Wild 2, Horizon Forbidden West, and who knows what else is to come. What will the Switch Pro be like? When is the PS5’s next-gen virtual reality headset coming? Wherever life takes me this year, at least I’ll have some amazing games to play along the way.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Alright, I said I would blog more regularly now that I’m at home slightly more than I was before the shelter-in-place order was given, but, well, it’s been a month since my last post. Hey! Don’t look at me like that, hypothetical reader! I want to make a joke about how I have been “busy,” but I honestly do feel busier now than before I transitioned to online teaching. Part of it is a mandatory “academy” that my university is making me take in order to teach an online summer course, part of it has been grading and wrapping up the semester, and part of it has just been trying to come up with and maintain a routine that will help me overcome any possible summer depression or anxiety that might be made worse by the pandemic. Part of that routine, of course, is video games. I have played a lot of Persona 5 Royal these last few weeks, but I’ll save thoughts on that for after I finish the first playthrough (at least). I also beat Resident Evil 3 seven times and got the platinum trophy for it, but I posted that previous blog (on Jill Valentine) after my first playthrough, so I won’t dwell on it much longer. I loved it, though not as much as its predecessor. It’s not as long or spooky-atmosphere-centered as 2, but it’s still beautiful and fun and it has Jill. That’s good enough for me.

So I thought I’d make this post about the other game I’ve spent almost 200 hours with: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I don’t have anything new or profound to say about it. It has quickly become one of those rare games that breach the wall between “gamers” and the non-gamer sector of the public. It’s sold a proverbial buttload, it was (and still is) all over social media, and celebrities were visiting people’s islands and being super nice (looking at you, Elijah Wood).

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Because of this ubiquitousness, I don’t have much to add to the broader conversation on this game and will do what I end up always doing: making it personal. Okay I sound like I’m about to star in an 80s action movie where I seek revenge on this game for killing my family, but I just mean… well, you know what I mean. Let’s, uh, move on. *nervously sweating emoji* My first experience with the Animal Crossing series was the original game on the GameCube. That era of consoles was the first where I was able to buy my own games, so when I got a GameCube I was snapping up anything that looked interesting. Animal Crossing looked weird and, honestly, kind of ugly (not surprising, given that it started its life on the Nintendo 64), but the premise was so completely novel: you lived in a randomly generated village where you could own and decorate your own home, clothes, and town layout, the in-game clock and calendar reflected the real time and date, and you could own homes in your friends’ villages, where you could send villagers letters that they would then show to your friends. This all sounded so wild that I bought it on day one but was convinced that I would probably play it for a week and then move on. But no. Oh, oh no. I spent weeks filling my basement with fish to sell, sent obscene letters to my friend’s villagers so they would, in turn, proudly show them to him when he played next, and (most importantly) collected as many NES consoles as I could so I could play NES games… on my GameCube. I ended up so completely loving the game.

I’ve played every mainline game since, and spent a fair amount of time with each, but I have to admit that I was always disappointed when a new game would come out. The original game looked rough because it was a last-gen game (essentially) ported to new hardware, so with every new iteration I waited for a huge leap in graphics and general presentation… but that never came. Each version of the game had some twist on the core concept but I always felt that it wasn’t “growing up” in terms of presentation like it should. That changed with New Horizons. The simple style is the same, but Nintendo has finally seen fit to #bless us with modern, crisp graphics. The fish, the water, the sky, pretty much everything has a nice sheen on it. Or maybe it just looks normal and I’m just used to blurry, low-res graphics. Either way, I love it. So, without further ado, I’d like to take you on a tour of my island: Isla Brie. I think every town I’ve had prior to this has been named Gotham, but I wanted to change it up so I named it after two of my biggest celebrity crushes: Alison Brie and Brie Larson. That way, if I ever end up in a situation where I’m flirting with one of them I can totally be like “hey, I named my Animal Crossing island after you” and it won’t be a lie! Hey. Stop – stop laughing. Please. Stop… laughing. 😦 ANYWAY, Brie Larson is also a huge Animal Crossing fan and has been playing New Horizons and posting about it on her social media accounts (@brielarson), which warms my ever-shriveling heart.

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Let’s begin the tour in my home. As always, it takes forever to get a healthy amount of furniture to decorate with, so this is definitely a work in progress. Here is my living room, which I’ve made into a kind of meditative garden. Impractical? Yes. But the snapping turtle I decided to keep as a pet needed a home where he could roam free and feel comfortable, so we just kind of hang out by his pond and occasionally I feed him sushi. I haven’t named him yet but apparently I’ve decided that his gender is male, so I will name him Ewan McGregor so that if I ever end up flirting with him, you know what, never mind, we’ve been down this road and it ended with you laughing at me so let’s move on.

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Before I discuss my very pink and very messy bedroom, I want to comment on my outfit. What’s that? I’m the absolute definition of cute-yet-glamorous? Oh, stop, you old flirt. *slaps arm playfully* But seriously, this game and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp are the only two games that I regularly crossdress in. I’m not against crossdressing in real or virtual life, but I typically try and make characters that look and dress like me. So why the dresses? Because they. are. so. cute. Seriously, the dresses in these games are so pretty and I like looking at them, so if you run into me on an island somewhere, I will probably be in a dress. Sup. And my favorite color is pink, which should explain why my bedroom looks like a stereotypical 8 year-old-girl’s dream room. It needs some work, too, but as with the rest of the house, it’s a work in progress.

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I also have a little bathroom to the side of my room, here. I have taken full advantage of the ability to upload real pictures to a third party site and then import them into the game as custom designs, but I didn’t place them with much thought… which is why both Ana de Armas and my cat, Bellatrix, appear to watch over you as you bathe. I mean, Bella will definitely lay next to the tub with me in real life. Ana de Armas has never done that. Yet.

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Next up is my workout room. Before the Quarantimes (I stole that from my friend Amy – hi, Amy!) I was a few months into a really solid workout routine. I was going to the gym five days a week, I had lost 17 pounds, my clothes were fitting better… then, after the Great Plague of 2020 hit, I continued to run outside a few days a week and lost a few more pounds, but I’ve fallen off the wagon in the last couple of weeks. I signed up for a gym because that has always been the best way for me to stay motivated, work out my entire body, and lose weight fast. So I made a virtual gym in the game, with added drum set because I wish I could play the drums and it seems like a pretty good workout.

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Here is my office. It’s where I do important things like play foosball by myself, do puzzles, and watch porn. I really have been doing puzzles in real life, which is why the aforementioned friend Amy (hi again, Amy!) sent me the puzzle in the game. I had a few puzzles in real life from a “party” I threw for one of my classes a few years ago, so I decided to make them a new quarantine hobby. The first one I did was a 750 piece Breath of the Wild puzzle, and it was very challenging but rewarding, so I have been hooked ever since. Every day, I wake up, make coffee or tea and breakfast, and sit down to work on a puzzle for a bit. It’s something I actually look forward to when I go to sleep.

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Okay, so the entries preceding this have been like “I have this in real life too!” but I assure you I don’t have a grave or a skeleton or a samurai sword in my basement. My basement is very old and dark and creepy, because this house is 150 years old, so… I mean, I guess I can’t say for certain there’s not someone buried down there. And if they were a samurai, then there very well might be a grave, a skeleton, and a samurai sword in my basement in real life. That’s so ridiculous and probably totally impossible, though, right? HahahawhatwasthatnoiseIthinkitwasaswordunsheathingI’mgonnadie.

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With my home out of the way (I’m skipping the kitchen because it’s not a kitchen without counters and I know those Nook kids are just holding out until I’m desperate and then they’ll be like “oh, you’re interested in these counters? Just 400,000,000 bells!” but I’m not bitter), let’s move to the museum. The museum is not customizable, of course, so there’s a good chance that my museum looks like yours, if you play the game. However, the museum in this version is so god damn beautiful and serene and soothing that I want to post pictures anyway. Is that okay? Can I do that? Sheesh. Giving me all the attitude. I intend to completely fill my museum for the first time ever in this game. I’ve only ever finished the fossil wing in previous museums, so I am determined to remedy that this go-round. Anyway, look at these pics. If I was dating, I legitimately think it would be cute and fun to have a virtual date at this museum.

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Enough of the confined spaces. Let’s start making our way around the island, shall we? Speaking of cute date locales, this little beach setup has everything you need for a virtual romantic romp: a cozy bonfire to huddle up to and talk about the fall of capitalism, a sand castle that you can pretend to build together because it’s already made, a beach ball that doesn’t move, and much more. Ladies, ladies, please form an orderly queue for this once-in-a-lifetime dating experience.

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Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, here is Godzilla(-like) toppling the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Haha, just kidding. It’s already leaning. He’s just admiring it.

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“But, Joey,” I can hear you saying, “how did a Godzilla-like creature come to invade your island? Surely you’re not relying on nuclear energy to power such a small area of land? Where would you even build a reactor?” Okay, well, you’re oddly very invested in my island’s infrastructure and power sources. No, we don’t run on nuclear power, though I think when done safely it’s our most efficient option. Instead, we have a wind farm on one of our upper plateaus!

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We also have a lighthouse, and when you look at the door and windows on it you can tell it is obviously not made for people my size. When combined with the rack of squid left out to dry, I can only conclude that a very small squid fisher lives in it. Is that a band name? That could be a band name. Joey C. and the Squid Fishers. We play mostly nautical-themed covers.

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Anyway, let’s move on to… hold on, my phone is ringing. Seven days?

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I saw a very cute set of designs for Zen garden sand on Twitter (posted by @uuTg1Ou0smRbBB, designer code MA-0398-2700-9169) so I snatched it up and made my own little garden, where I like to imagine I go to relax and write in my journal. Journaling is another part of the routine I’ve been trying to maintain during quarantine, so I’m starting to see a pattern in that I am basically just living my Animal Crossing life as a mirror of my real life. What is happening to me.

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And this, I mean, this probably requires no explanation. It’s your standard, run-of-the-mill gnome baby summoning. Everyone has one of these laying around their island somewhere, I’m sure.

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Also, let’s not talk about this dark period in my island’s past.

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That’s it for the tour, but I also want to say that I’ve had a lot of fun visiting friend’s islands! It’s a lot easier to visit other towns (islands) in this version, plus way more people are playing this entry, so there have been lots of opportunities for island hopping, which is very exciting. Remember my friend Amy? The one from earlier (hi, Amy!)? She has a very beautiful island named Sunnydale, after the hellbound town from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Our other friends, Tabitha and Tirzah, have gorgeous islands of their own, and we visited Tabitha’s island to celebrate their birthday in-game. We ran around and played hide-and-seek, we kept popping party poppers all over the place, we fished… it was a lot of fun. Here we are on that day (it’s me, Tabitha, Tirzah, then Amy.. bye, Amy!):

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Phew. I’d really meant for this to be brief. Just a few pictures and an equal number of dumb jokes. But I guess when you spend 200 hours on a game you end up having a lot to say about it. Honestly, I think it’s more that I turned this into a kind of chronicle of my quarantine routine. Oh well. If you’ve read this far, hello. Hi. What’s up? Want to go on a virtual museum date with me? *smoochie face emoji* And if you are Alison Brie or Brie Larson, I named my island after you. 😉 ❤