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.

Working on My Night Moves: Cyberpunk 2077

Before I write my 2020 year-in-review, I wanted to put proverbial pen to equally proverbial paper about my time with the last two games I played in 2020, starting with one of the most avidly discussed games of the year: Cyberpunk 2077.

The discourse around the release of Cyberpunk is fascinating in its own right, but I’m not about to get into much of that. Like others, my experience with the game was impacted by expectations based on unfulfilled promises and years of hype, but I did my best to distance my immediate experience with the game from what I thought the game “should” be. It was hard, though, as it always is when a game is hyped to hell and back. And I’m not here to cast blame, as I think the fault in this particular situation is spread pretty equally between CD Projekt Red, gamers, and media coverage. The more I played the game, the more I felt empathy for anyone having to review it. Every time I found myself disappointed at something I felt was missing or underdeveloped in the game, I tried to take a step back and gain some perspective. What would I think of this game if I had never heard anything about it? If I had never played The Witcher 3? If I had no clue about what this game was supposed to be? So my thoughts here are mostly a result of a struggle to maintain that perspective while also being honest with myself about the many ways this game failed me. [Spoilers ahead]

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my experience in Night City. As a fan of open-world RPGs, I really liked some of the core gameplay, and the narrative was also pretty solid. I love getting absolutely immersed in RPGs – feeling like I am in this world, living this life, making these choices. But I frequently felt like the game kept me from feeling thoroughly immersed and lost in the fantasy of this really cool world that the developers built for me. It started with the character creator. While I was able to make a character that did look a lot like me, I was kind of surprised by how limited my choices were, especially because you can’t change them later. I went into this game with the perception that everyone’s V would be super unique, but given how (relatively) limited the options are in the character creator, I imagine there are a lot of very similar looking Vs out there. That wouldn’t be a big deal if you could go out into the world and get custom tattoos, hair styles, eyes, etc., but you can’t.

That (admittedly very minor) disappointment set the tone for my early hours in the game. Every new mechanic or system came with some level of “…oh. Okay.” The driving is very unsatisfying, the shooting felt loose and imprecise until I got a very good gun, the city streets felt empty and not nearly as bustling and full of life as I’d expected, and then there were the numerous bugs and crashes that have been widely documented by others. I played the PS4 version on a PS5, so it wasn’t even the worst version of it. It crashed 36 times in my playthrough, and virtually every play session was filled with little odd bugs and glitches here and there. Cars falling from the sky, sound going in and out, objects floating where they shouldn’t be, I fell through the floor a couple of times, and more. The clunkiness wasn’t limited to the bugs, though. There seemed to be some questionable design and balance issues, too. The biggest of these confusing decisions is probably how shallow the life paths seemed. From the previews and interviews released over the last couple of years, I was expecting the opening hours of the game to be spent on a very specific set of missions that shaped your character through the lens of whatever life path you chose. As a Nomad, I was looking forward to hours in the desert, learning combat and exploration while hearing tell of the seedy and shady deals going on in the big, scary city. The game had different plans. I started in a garage in the desert, sure. Then a very stereotypical small-town sheriff came in and gave me a very stereotypical “your kind ain’t welcome ‘round here *spits*” lecture. I say “stereotypical” but I was into it. “I’m just passing through,” I said to him, certain he would rue the day he treated me so sore. I just knew our paths would cross again as I went about my business in their small rural town. He would probably be my first rival. A nemesis I’d have to take down just before embarking on my ultimate journey into the heart of the city.

The game said “lol cute story but no. Go to the city. Go to the city now,” and almost immediately put me on course to head to the city. Worse, I couldn’t even explore the opening desert area. I left that garage after reassuring the sheriff I meant no trouble, parked at a nearby diner to look around and start exploring the world, and almost as soon as I got out of my car I had a warrant issued and the police chased me down and killed me. For stepping out of my car. This was a game design choice. One that seems specifically meant to dissuade exploration and experimentation. They wanted me to stay on track and get to the mission that would bring me to the city, so I barely felt like my life path choice meant anything. I was talking with my friend Tab at the time, and we agreed that it feels like the developers must have gutted the life paths. After that brief rural opening, there is a fast moving montage of my exploits with my new friend, Jackie. This seemed like shorthand meant to make up for all of the character development and gameplay onboarding that was supposed to take place in the opening life path section of the game. Further, once I was in the city and doing missions, some things felt unbalanced, like stealth and hacking. Later in the game, I appreciated the different ways that you could approach some missions. It was clear that real thought had gone into making some levels satisfying regardless if you went in and hacked everything, snuck around and took people down stealthily, or charged in guns blazing. Early on, however, the hacking and stealthing paths seemed impossible or just out of reach, even if you allocated lots of perk points to those skills. Now, that could be poor, lazy design and balance, but if you imagine that a chunk of the early game was jettisoned, it actually makes sense. If players were meant to spend 10-15 hours doing missions and exploring their respective life paths before starting the shared mainline missions, then they would probably have enough experience/perk points to take on those early missions in a variety of ways, instead of being forced to defaulting to mainly guns.

I didn’t want to spend this much time griping, but here we are, I guess. Before I get into the things I liked, one last complaint. In pre-release material, CD Projekt Red made a big deal about the myriad styles in the game and your ability to mix and match to find a style that best fits “your” V (which, let me slip in an extra complaint and say that I felt like V was very much not “mine,” and I wish I had had more influence over his behavior and attitude). Maybe there are combinations of clothing that work, but I was almost always walking around town looking like a goofy, gaudy Kevin Federline impersonator (you are very welcome for that incredibly dated reference). It’s a byproduct of an RPG where everything is stat based, sure, but that conflicts with the immersive aspect of an open-world narrative where you’re really trying to inhabit your character. I can mix and match elements to create an okay looking outfit, or I can actually survive gunfights and pick the pieces that have the best stats. I chose the latter, and because the game is in first person I would often forget about what I was wearing. I would start getting into the story and feeling really in-character, like an up-and-coming badass, ready to climb my way to the top of Night City. Then I would see something cool and pop into screenshot mode. And I ope.

Okay, okay, I can hear you saying “didn’t you say you liked the game and enjoyed your time with it? That’s not what I’m reading here.” And now I can hear you saying “uh, how can you hear me? I’m not a real person and even if I were, we’d be miles apart.” And I have no answer for that other than to say stop sassing me, dear fictitious reader. I did mostly enjoy my time with the game. While the game certainly looks and feels clunky in places, there was also a lot of visual flair that I appreciated. I’m not at all an expert in the cyberpunk genre, but in my limited experience with it (mostly in film) I’ve seen a lot of noir and neo-noir influence, and I think it would be fun to study this game a bit more closely and look at how the style adds to or changes the meaning of some of the visuals. For example, the use of shadow (slatted or barred, particularly) is a key marker of the style, and certain scenes in the game used shadows in a very noir-esque way. In this shot, look at the use of lighting:

Barred shadows are often used to create a sense of mystery and distrust, sometimes conveying that the person they are cast on is dangerous or should be caged. The femme fatale, another staple of the genre, is usually the one framed in these shadows, and as her name implies, she is pretty often responsible for death later in the story. In the above shot, it’s Johnny Silverhand that is shadowed by straight but imperfectly spaced light coming through window shades. At this point in the story, Johnny’s motivations are still suspect. In our first encounter, he tried to kill me, but since then we’d established a tenuous but slightly more stable partnership. Still, the shadow here makes it clear that he may be the “femme” fatale, because in the fore of the shot there is a candle which ensures that no shadow falls on the only woman in the shot, Hanako Arasaka. She, in her royal-looking red and gold and regal gaze, is on one side of Johnny, while Goro Takemura, who is visually presented as a servant here (hands clasped, just having served her tea), is on his other side. We’ve come to trust Goro, who saved our life and was our partner on the mission that led to this exact moment. Our attention is on them, but Johnny’s placement between them, distance, and position in shadows, conveys a lot of meaning and contributes to his development as a character in relation to us. After a big gunfight where Hanako is “rescued” from us, we pass out, only to wake up in a seedy motel room, where this scene then takes place:

Two of the same characters (the woman is a stand-in or vessel for Hanako) in the same positions, but note how the shadows have changed. Johnny, who is closer now, is completely lost in shadow, and Hanako, who in the previous scene refused to help us, is now the one framed in lines of shadow. With her previous refusal to believe V and Goro, her intentions are now suspect (why does she want to talk now, and why send a “doll”?), and thus we have reason to doubt and suspect her. This suspicion plays an important role in her involvement in the main story and, eventually, your choices that affect the ending of the game. So, while the moment-to-moment visuals of the game weren’t always perfect, there is a lot of cool and important visual flair and framing going on, and this is just one example of that.

Another visual thing that I appreciated was the lighting and reflections. No, I’m not talking about the mirrors that are somehow less user friendly in the future. I mean the reflections on water or wet streets (another visual feature of the noir style, but I digress). I would often catch myself stopping my bike to take a screenshot of the way a sign or building was reflecting off of the slick street. The rain itself looked like butt, but the resulting streets after a rain were nice. Or the way the reflection of this neon sign reveals the texture of the wallpaper by reflecting differently off of the shiny and matte parts of it, and how it also reflects softly off of the gun I’m holding.

I mostly liked the main story, but it was some of the side quests and subplots that really stuck with me, for better or worse. There were a couple of storylines that I felt wrapped up too hastily, like Judy and Evelyn’s, but there were some really impactful moments within those stories. It was moments like those, whether dire or celebratory, that made the overall sloppiness of the game that much more disappointing. The cool or dark or fun stories that they weave shows that CD Projekt Red has retained some of the talent that contributed to some of the stellar storytelling in The Witcher 3, so it’s sad to see it buried under the game’s other issues. I gave a spoiler warning at the beginning of the post, but I’ll throw another one out because I’m about to go into a bit of detail about one of the game’s most memorable side quests. Said quest begins innocuously enough, with you agreeing to help someone avenge his murdered wife by killing her killer. It turns out the murderer is in police protection and on his way to be crucified on air to seemingly atone for his sins. Has he really repented? Is he being manipulated by the corporations? These are questions asked of you as you shift your aid from the widower to the convicted murderer. In the end, if you make the choices I did, you end of being the one physically nailing him to a wooden cross in front of cameras. It’s a pretty grotesque scene, but it’s not played for shock in the same way it might have played out in a Grand Theft Auto game. It’s dealing in visual shock, certainly, but it is also doing what interesting science fiction or futuristic stories do and asking what becomes of certain social elements in the future. In this city, which is well established by this point in the story to be a battleground for corporate greed and opportunist greed, where everything seems packaged and sold for the masses, what becomes of something like Christianity? This quest offers a pretty grim answer: it’s still thriving, so much so that the audience for this live execution is big enough to be worth some corp a whole lot of money.

Speaking of that quest, the producer who is tasked with keeping the doomed convict on schedule is Rachel, and while she might have been a major beeyatch, she was also a major hottie, and it made me wish the romance system was bigger and more flexible. I’m glad they kept romances in the game, because I’d read rumors that they might end up being cut as they neared deadline and were making significant content cuts to make their final release window. But in early preview discussions of the game, it seemed like maybe they’d planned on allowing players to romance a number of characters. As it stands, I think no matter what the build your V is, every player only has two possible characters that they can romance. For me, it was Panam and River. I really liked Judy and would have loved to romance her, but I do like that they give characters their own sexuality and everyone isn’t just magically bisexual, like they are in other games with romance systems. Do I want the option to date everyone? Sure. But I can’t deny that it helps to define characters better if their sexuality is a part of their character and not a result of giving players a chance to bang everyone. Having said that, it would be great and more in line with the original promise of Night City if there were a number of characters to romance throughout the city. Like Rachel, who is not a good person and is probably very mean but who would probably step on my neck if I asked nicely and offered something of value to her career. So, yes, please.

I spent a lot of time with this game (even got the platinum trophy!) so I could go on, but I’ll quickly tack on a few thoughts and then wrap this up. The racing was pretty bad, but I thought it was important to have a trans character in such a prominent role (even if she was imperfect). I really liked Goro, which made his final message to you in most of the endings very sad. They really did him dirty. I liked that Keanu had such a big role, and I enjoyed the relationship between V and Johnny a lot. Overall, as I said, I did like playing the game; it was just frustratingly unfinished and sloppy. As an English teacher, it reminded me of the kind of paper I might grade where I’m like “this is an excellent draft! Now let’s make it an excellent paper.” Because, as a draft, this game does introduce some really cool ideas and systems. It just has some formatting and grammar issues that make it hard to “read.” I think Cyberpunk 2078 (or whatever it ends up being called) will be a realization of all of the ambition that went unfulfilled with this entry.