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.

Of X-Wings and Zombie Things

With new consoles and big games on the horizon, I’m feeling an urge to write about the games I’m playing before I end up with a big, multi-game post again. I want to chronicle my PS5 launch experience, and so many big games like Cyberpunk 2077, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are claiming space in my brain, so I want to share my thoughts on the two games I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently: Star Wars: Squadrons and Days Gone.

Star Wars: Squadrons

Although I missed out on the X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game(s), I have mostly enjoyed the space combat components of many of the Star Wars games I’ve played. It’s not exactly “space,” but one of my fondest Star Wars video game memories is playing the Hoth level of Shadows of the Empire over and over and over again, and I played the hell out of the Rogue Squadron games. So I was all in when the trailer dropped earlier this summer, and I couldn’t believe the game was going to be out so soon after the announcement. And at $40? It seemed too good to be true! “Wait,” I thought. “It really does seem too good to be true.” And thus began the doubt. Was it going to be too short? Too niche? Too technical and inaccessible? I was nervous.

Well, as a wise little alien once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That alien was Yoda and, as usual, he was wrong. My fears were not only unfounded, they certainly did not lead to suffering. I really love Squadrons and am still playing it when I have time. The gameplay is not nearly as dense and technical as I thought it might be. It’s not as loose and arcade-y as most of the other Star Wars flight experiences, sure, but I actually prefer this type of flying. I think I’ve complained about this before, but I dislike flight games where you control a point out in front of your craft. As much as I loved the Rogue Squadron games, they controlled like that. When you tilt your controller in these games, the “nose” of your craft points in that direction. It feels unrealistic and unsatisfying to me. I much prefer games where you are controlling a point in the center of the craft. This allows for more realistic turns and you can do an actual barrel roll, as opposed to what would essentially be a corkscrew.

So, for me, that was the biggest win for this game: it feels good to play. Do I have to flip switches and monitor gauges? Yes, but there aren’t that many and it was very easy to pick up. It feels so cool to divert power to engines to increase the speed of my X-Wing toward a Star Destroyer, switch to weapons systems to launch a volley of blasts toward a shielding subsystem, then immediately cut to shields to make an escape. Well, try to make an escape. I’m often so determined to do as much damage as I can that I end up being destroyed before I can get safely away, heh. I was also a little nervous about the first-person perspective, as I usually prefer seeing the ship I’m flying, but I ended up really liking that, too. Again, my fears were unfounded. While I would like some kind of replay feature, where you see your ship and all the cool stuff you did from a third person perspective (like in the Ace Combat series), I found myself enjoying the cockpit view very much. Another one of my favorite experiences in the game is lining up a perfect shot on an enemy, unloading, and then bursting through the fiery remnants. I doubt it would be so thrilling in third person.

Squadrons isn’t quite as pretty as Star Wars Battlefront II, and it certainly doesn’t offer as much variety in terms of locales and ships, but there were still plenty of times I found myself in awe, scraping the hull of a cruiser with my TIE Fighter or rounding an asteroid to see a shattered Star Destroyer with beams of the nearest star cutting through my cockpit window. I’ve completed the story and played a handful of fleet battles, but I haven’t had as much time as I’d like with this game. With the new consoles, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coming soon, I don’t know when I’ll even have time to return to it. But I really liked it and I can’t wait to get back to it at some point.

Days Gone

One of the reasons I haven’t had as much time to play Squadrons is because I started Days Gone earlier this month, and I have been trying to knock it out before November hits. It’s a much bigger game than I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It had a lot of negative press when it came out, but as we know by this point, often the negative (or positive) hype around a game has little to do with any given person’s enjoyment of said game. Gaming culture can be toxic, and tainting a game’s reception because of some predisposed perception of it (or its developers), without having played it, is just one example of that toxicity. It’s certainly not a perfect game, and seemingly could have used a bit more polish, but overall I am having a lot of fun with it.

Part of my enjoyment might be coming from my love of zombie games in general, and this game has elements of Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, and I’d argue there’s even a little Resident Evil influence in there. All of that zombie goodness takes place in an open world where you help to build up outposts, earn money to improve your motorcycle (mount), and go out on exploratory missions and tasks. This is My Type of Game™. I didn’t really think I’d be too into the idea of a motorcycle as a mode of transportation, but once I was able to start modding and customizing my bike, I was in. Throw in a custom Horizon Zero Dawn paint job and I was soon dreaming of how to quickly gain experience to unlock even better mods. I like games that have horses but to be honest, I rarely use them. I typically prefer to explore on foot. Throw in the fact that a loud motorcycle would attract the terrifying zombie hordes and I fully expected to leave my bike behind 90% of the time. Nope. I am almost never without my bike.

“Dude, where’s my bike?”

Speaking of the hordes, they aren’t quite as massive as I was expecting, but they are about as terrifying. Given the damage that just a few infected can do if they get to you, I knew I would never survive a close encounter with a few dozen or more of the rabid sonsabitches. So I steered very clear whenever I caught a glimpse of one. And then I found my first cave in the game, and if you’ve ever played a video game you know that caves are Where It’s At. There had to be something good in there. So I crouched low and started sneaking in, casting my flashlight about, watching for spookies. I got pretty deep before turning a corner and swinging my light toward a huddled mass of heaving infected, hunched and breathing heavy. They whipped their collective heads toward me and it was like that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest where Jack Sparrow is running from the big group of cannibals. I busted ass out of the cave and hopped on my bike quicker than you can say I am Legend: The Video Game. Later, when I was slightly more proficient in combat, I found a NERO camp under a railroad bridge. NERO camps are exciting because once you power them up and get inside, an injector that permanently increases a stat awaits. So I hopped off my bike and got to work on finding gas for the generator when I spotted a horde… above me, in a car of the train stopped on the bridge. I backed away slowly, but then I noticed there were explosive barrels, crates, and gas cans placed at seemingly strategic places around the camp. Could I take out a horde this early? I could just time my shots and take out a few chunks, then clean up the rest… yes, I thought, and decided to go for it. I positioned myself in the road below, shot a few of them to get their attention, and as they spilled out of the car, dozens of arms and legs clamoring over each other, I lined up a shot with a gas truck. I pulled the trigger. *Click*. *Ting*. Nothing. I hit it but it didn’t explode. Uh. Uhhh. They’re moving so fast, they’re going to get *click* I shot again. *BOOM* Huge explosion. But I was already jumping on my bike. I was two seconds too late with the second shot. The truck took out a handful, but the rest were already on me. I managed to get away but not without a few swipes to my bike.

I did take a horde out, eventually. I found one on the edge of a swamp and it seemed smaller than the others. I decided to see if I could thin its numbers with explosives, then run away and come back with more. I parked my bike facing away, then threw two Molotovs and two pipe bombs before the horde could react. It was perfect. Each pipe bomb took out 4-5, and the Molotovs looked like they got 2-4 each. I zoomed a short distance away on my bike as they chased me, but they quickly gave up and started ambling back to their original spot. I returned and did the same thing, and when I rode away this time I made sure to guide the stragglers a little farther than the core. When the core turned back I took out the stragglers with silenced guns, then went back to the very small remaining core and was able to just melee them. I don’t imagine I’ll get that lucky with the rest of them, but I felt pretty accomplished with the 45+ ears I’d collected.

It’s these types of events that really win me over in open world games. The outpost building, bike modding, and side quests mentioned earlier are key, too, but when there is enough freedom and flexibility in a world to allow for unique approaches to solving problems, I am 100% there for it. I love that if me and ten of my friends played this game (lol I don’t have ten friends – hi, Amy!), we would all probably have very different stories about taking down our first horde. I’m not finished with the story yet, but I think I’m pretty far. The story has been pretty decent, but even if they completely botch the landing, I can safely say that I enjoyed my time with the game and am looking forward to finishing every side quest, collectible, and mission. And then it will be… Days Done. Get it? Instead of Gone? Done? Okay, I’m out.