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.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

When I pre-ordered my PlayStation 4, I took advantage of an offer from Sony where you got three launch games for the price of two. Like most launch lineups, it was slim pickings, but I went with Killzone Shadow Fall (because it was one of the only made-for-next-gen choices), Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Black Flag was my first AC game and I absolutely fell in love with it. I spent many hours over that winter break clearing every icon on the map and wishing I could pirate around the Caribbean forever. I was so into the game that I’ve since bought and played Assassin’s Creed, AC 2, AC 3, Brotherhood, Revelations, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. I’m not as into the Vikings theme as many others seem to be, but I liked Origins and Odyssey enough that Valhalla was still a definite day one purchase. What complicated matters, though, was the fact that the game was originally slated to launch just a week before Cyberpunk 2077, a game I knew I wanted to play at launch alongside my friends. Well, when Cyberpunk was delayed by three weeks, I felt like a month would be enough time to finish Valhalla before I found my way to the streets of Night City. I was a few days off. [Some spoilers ahead]

I’m framing my experience like this because those last few days of finishing the game felt torturous. I have a very hard time putting games aside without beating them, especially if I’ve already sunk many hours into them. I wasn’t about to stop playing Valhalla when Cyberpunk came out because I was, I thought, right near the end of the game. Except I wasn’t. The game’s narrative structure is a bit loose, because like the last couple of AC games there are multiple branches of the broad, overarching story, each with its own quest lines. You have Eivor’s storyline, the Brotherhood storyline, the present day (Order of the Ancients) storyline, and the Asgard storyline, all independent yet woven together to form the “whole” story. This isn’t necessarily different than Origins or Odyssey, which had similar structures, but the game isn’t exactly clear about how these elements fit together. When I reached the “end” of Eivor’s storyline, I was legitimately unsure if I’d “beat” the game. Further, even after I’d finished the other storylines, it didn’t feel like the storylines had converged in a satisfying way. I think this was, in part, due to the way the last several stretches in Eivor’s story drag on and on. Just when you think you’ve done the last thing, they open a new area that you’re required to conquer. And that word, “required,” is what I think is to blame for my annoyance with the last chunk of the narrative.

Before I get into that, let me say that I understand pacing is a very difficult thing to nail in an open world game. When you give your players the freedom to explore an open world, complete side quests unrelated to the main quest, and finish segments of the narrative whenever they choose, you are essentially leaving the pace of the game and the narrative in their hands. You can include things to remind the player of the main narrative or incentivize main quests over side quests, but the more you do so the more you risk making your players feel more restricted and less “free” in this open world you’ve set up for them. So, it’s a balance, but even when you get it mostly right, players can be their own worst enemies. I have to admit that when I hear people talk about an open world game having “too much side content” or “poor pacing” (due to the aforementioned side content), I want to snap a controller in half. Not really. They are so expensive now. Anyway, it makes me angry. Because side content is, if a game is pretty well designed, optional. You don’t need to participate in any of it. So, if you do, and if that makes you like the game less or feel that the narrative is paced poorly, that is explicitly on you, right? You had a choice to go through the narrative at your own pace or to ignore side content, and you chose not to. How is that the game’s fault? We should celebrate open world games that allow for varying experiences, where one person can mainline the story in a manageable amount of time and another can spend many more hours with optional side content.

My problem with Valhalla’s pacing is that much of the content is not optional. Even if we leave aside the grinding (of side content) that seems required to be high enough in level to complete main missions, in order to “truly” complete the game, you have to go through all of the above mentioned storyline quests. You have to go through all of Eivor’s missions, all of the Asgard missions, all of the present day missions, and all of the Brotherhood missions. In addition to this, the game leads you to believe you’re approaching the climax several times, only to then introduce a new area that you must go through all of the steps to conquer and move the story along.

If I was playing this game in isolation, during a slow summer, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite as irked as I was by it. But we are in one of the busiest release windows in recent memory, and I have a new console and several new games to play. And I stand by my complaint that the interweaving of the four narrative branches is loose and unclear, and I think that played directly into my issue with the pace as well. When added to a few very irksome bugs (which seem laughable now that I’ve also just completed Cyberpunk, but more on that in the next post) and confusing “world events,” which have replaced side quests (so they’re essentially side quests under a different name and with a worse tracking system), I was left somewhat disappointed in Valhalla. Does that mean I disliked it? No! I decided to start with my negative impressions because the crush of new consoles and games to play is clearly affecting how I consume media, so it all felt very relevant and timely. But there was a lot to like about Valhalla, too.

I know there are some people that are annoyed at the series’ move away from stealth and toward open combat, and I have mixed feelings about it. I thought that by the time they got to Black Flag, Ubisoft had gotten very good at designing forts and other areas that required you to find one of several stealthy ways to infiltrate and topple. But sometimes, in my impatience, I wanted to just rush in and murder a bunch of bad guys and move on. Where it was very difficult to do that in previous games, it is very easy (and, in fact, preferred) in Valhalla. Especially as I gained levels and became more powerful, it felt very cathartic to vent my frustrations by running straight into battle, an axe in each hand, flinging myself into hordes of enemies and severing limbs and heads with relative ease. Returning to a previously challenging area later in the game, when I was very powerful, was particularly satisfying, as I felt I was exacting bloody revenge on the foes that had once given me such a hard time.

The game is also gorgeous. As with Origins and Odyssey, I spent a whole lot of time in photo mode, mostly capturing shots of the game’s incredible lighting and atmospheric effects. As I was sifting through my screenshots after playing Origins I remember thinking “how many shots of the sun did I need?” Then, with Odyssey, I had the same problem and thought “hah, I did it again.” And, now, well… I just have to resign myself to the fact that I will always walk away from a new AC game with dozens of screenshots of the sun. Rising. Setting. Behind a cloud. Behind a building. By the water. By a mountain. By itself. I have a problem, okay?

In addition to the graphics being great, Ubisoft continues to be masters of the physicality of open worlds. They are so good at creating topographic and geological environments, and I don’t think they get enough credit for it. I get it. With so much content in a game, how often do you have time to slow down and appreciate the way a river flows from a glacial peak, down to a small lake that feeds into a waterfall that has shorn jagged cliffs into the mountainside and created a system of caves? I found myself taking time to appreciate these things pretty often, but if I had time (and incentive) I would love to spend hours just travelling around the intricately designed worlds of Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, just looking for interesting and beautiful geographic features. A small example that I stupidly did not get a screenshot of: I saw a small tree that was set into an outcropping of rock in a hilly field. The rock on that side of the hill had crumbled, leaving a cleft in the hill, and where the ground became soft and probably mineral-rich, a small tree had been lucky enough to take root. It wasn’t special. There was no particular purpose to it. But some designer had thought about the environment closely and with such care that they added this small detail that most people would probably never even notice or think about. This kind of environmental detail is why, for whatever flaws they might have, I will probably always love these kinds of AC games.

Though the setting of ninth century England wasn’t quite as iconic as Ancient Greece or Egypt, there were some fun places to explore and odd allusions here and there. One of my favorite things to do was find and explore abandoned Assassins bureaus around the country. In fact, I wish there was a bit more to them than a brief environmental/platforming segment and a few scrolls. But I did like them enough as-is, and reading the scrolls left behind was a nice way to tie the long-standing Assassins’ story in with the current history of the region.

Some of the allusions and Easter eggs I ran across seemed very appropriate, and some just seemed… odd. Robin Hood’s band of merry men? Makes sense! A side quest that is based on and directly named after one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? Duh! A character made to look like The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, who asks you to beat up a bishop while he and his band sings “Smack My Bishop”? Yea- wait, what? I mean, yeah, they’re an English band, but what an odd choice. There are tonnes (see what I did there? With the British spelling? Because it’s a game set in England? I should delete this) of very famous British bands that they could have used. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Spice Girls. That one with the dumb, unoriginal, angry brothers. Why The Prodigy? One of my favorite side quests/allusions was obtaining Excalibur, though. I waited until I was pretty much done with everything else in the game before embarking on that particular journey, and I kind of wish I’d sought it earlier. I definitely liked the dual axe thing, but the journey to find Excalibur was very satisfying and using it as a weapon was fun.

And to cram in a few more scattershot thoughts, I will say I thought the depiction of three religions (Paganism, Old Norse, and Christianity) trying to coexist was interesting. At one point, Eivor says “their soft god,” referring to Jesus, which I thought was very amusing. I loved that you could not only pet and cuddle the cats in the game, but you could have a ship cat! A cat! On your ship! Speaking of ships, the naval stuff was meh. Nothing will beat pirating on the open seas, but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to. I did love my rainbow ship decorations, though, with matching happy, smiling shields. Very tonally appropriate. The three witch sisters (the Daughters of Lerion) might have been my favorite quest in the game. They were super hard and reminded me of the Valkyries in God of War, but beyond that I loved their backstory of fallen family, betrayal, and vengeance. The fishing kind of sucked. But you do get into a rap battle with a squirrel at one point, so you win some, you lose some. Overall, I did like the game, but the pacing issues, seemingly sloppy mission design in some areas, and bugs, kept it from being among my favorite AC games.

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