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.

Quarantine Catch-up

It has been a time, hasn’t it? This quarantine business seems to make for a great time to catch up on blogging and *gasp* maybe even start posting more regularly again. Up to this point, however, I have had to transition the course I’m teaching to online, play Animal Crossing: New Horizons and… well… I guess mainly just those two things. So I aim to follow through and use the coming weeks to produce more blogging content. I’m still mostly doing it to track thoughts about games I play, but I also just like doing it. Plus, I passed my dissertation prospectus defense recently and I might start using this as a place to work out some ideas (my dissertation is on Japanese video games as cultural products). I mean, I kind of do that when I write about the Japanese games I play anyway, but maybe I’ll post more explicitly analytical stuff.

As for this entry, it’s your run-of-the-mill catch-up blog. I’ve played more than what is listed here, but I am skipping my ongoing multiplayer adventures with Stardew Valley and Red Dead Redemption 2, and games that I have yet to play much of, like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. And though I have spent 115 hours in New Horizons since its release just twelve days ago, I am still entrenched in it so I will post a more thorough, standalone blog about it later. I feel I absolutely have to write this post now, because I picked up my copy of Persona 5 Royal yesterday, Resident Evil 3 comes out tomorrow, and Final Fantasy VII Remake lands in a week. I can’t imagine not wanting to dedicate a post to each of those, so let’s quickly cover some ground before I start down that path.

Yakuza 0

It seems a shame to quickly cover Yakuza 0, though, because I spent so long with it and loved it so much. I had originally planned on dedicating a chapter of my dissertation to both the Yakuza and Persona series, but to appease my committee, who thought my scope was a little too ambitious, I yanked Yakuza and am just going with Persona, since I have already played most of those games. Still, in the last year I’ve collected every mainline Yakuza game in preparation of studying them, so I decided to play them anyway. I chose them for study because they are set in modern Japan and have a reputation for being “very Japanese.”

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And “very Japanese” they are. Japanese games that are exported to the West have a history of downplaying or outright erasing cultural markers to make them more palatable for a global market, but recently that has changed. Yakuza 0 (and the rest of the games in the series, I presume) proves that, highlighting numerous staples of Japanese culture: karaoke, sushi, takoyaki, the yakuza itself, video games, English loanwords, fishing, and much, much more. So it makes for a valuable text in terms of games that reflect Japanese culture, but that’s not why I loved it. I probably don’t have the time or space to dedicate to everything I liked about it, in fact, because there is so. Much. To do. There are minigames for singing karaoke, hitting balls at the batting cages, bowling, racing cars, crane games, actual Sega arcade games, card games, dice games, dating, and more. Just when I felt hooked in the story, which is superbly written and impressively voice acted, I’d find myself trying a new minigame and spending hours on it.

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My favorite was managing the Sunshine Club as Majima. It seemed a little overwhelming at first, and I never would have expected to spend so much time on it, but I could not stop myself. I liked recruiting and training new ladies, managing customers in real time, facing each bizarre club owner, and the drama that unfolded at every step. There are also many simple moments I loved in the game. Like when you go to a telephone club to talk to and possibly meet a girl, and Kiryu, a stoic and seemingly Very Serious Dude, yanks the telephone receiver dramatically to answer before bringing it to his ear with an excited flourish and saying “moshi moshi.” Or the ways either character excitedly interjects and sings along when someone else is doing karaoke. Or Majima’s masterful manipulation of a rowdy customer in his introductory cutscene. There are lots of little things to love about this game. There are problems, too, like the use of queer/trans people as the butt of jokes, but that’s par for the course with many Japanese games, unfortunately, and it could have been worse, to be fair. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this game enraptured me.

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Luigi’s Mansion 3

I remember playing the original Luigi’s Mansion at a pre-release party for the GameCube and being so impressed with the graphics and physics on display. The newest entry in the series isn’t exactly breaking any ground in the graphics department, but there is enough style in the environments and creativity in how you use your ghost vacuum that it still stands out, in a way. It is a very cute game and not very challenging, so it made for a nice, relaxing experience. After that initial preview session of the first game, I never ended up buying it, so this was my first Luigi’s Mansion game and I can definitely see the appeal. As a fan of spooky stuff, even if it’s on the cute or silly side, I will probably go back and check out the last two games as well, at some point.

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Call of Duty Modern Warfare

I have always liked the single player Call of Duty campaigns. I mean, there are annoyances, like how the sound mixing always seems to be intentionally bad to simulate the noise and confusion of the battlefield, but overall the campaigns I’ve played have always been very slick and highly produced, making for a fun and exciting experience. That was the case with this remake of the first Modern Warfare, in spades. I confess to not remembering the first game’s plot all that well, but so much of this version seemed fresh and new. The controls were as tight as ever, but one of the things that really stood out was the gameplay variety from mission to mission. The developers have been mixing different mechanics in missions for a long time, but it felt more fluid and natural than ever in this game. Switching from ground combat to drone strikes, or support sniping to trap setting was quick and easy, which made so many of the missions feel varied and fast paced but not needlessly stressful. In previous games, there would be like two or three missions where I’d think “I want to play that again right now,” but in this game I felt that way after most missions. The game deals with some pretty bleak aspects of war, and although there is some fair criticism about gamifying warfare, I also think games like this can be effective rhetorical vehicles for provocative topics that are rarely experienced with much immersion. It can also be used to gloss over or misrepresent actions and events, of course, as this game does, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stellar gameplay and level design.

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Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

As much as I loved Ace Combat 04 way back in PS2 times, I bought and never played more than a couple of missions of its sequel, The Unsung War. I don’t remember why. It has many of the traits that made its predecessor so good, most notably its controls, so I can’t fathom why I didn’t dive in with every expectation that it would be great. My preorder of Ace Combat 7 came with a digital copy of this game for PS4, slightly more polished, and I finally decided to give it a shot. And, to the surprise of few (meaning, uh, me, I guess), I loved it. Granted, the graphics are rough, even with polish. The ground in particular is a blurred mess at the best of times. But the controls, story, and character interactions were about the same that I fell in love with in 04. The addition of a strong female character, Kei, was cool enough, but she is voiced by Karen Strassman, who also voiced Aigis in Persona 3, which made it even cooler. I loved her work with Aigis, so it was nice to have her as a wingmate on every flight.

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Creed: Rise to Glory

Maybe I’m breaking my own rule by writing about Creed, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I always feel compelled to write about VR games because my experiences with them are usually unique to the platform. Such was the case with Creed. The way the game is set up, after the initial story introduction you go through a training session that consists of several microgames (swinging your arms to run on a treadmill, punching a ball and dodging when it springs back, hitting precise points on a punching bag, etc.), then you go on to a fight if you score high enough in training. I completed three training sessions and three fights. While there is certainly something missing in games that simulate fighting (impact, for one), this was a pretty visceral experience. My brain wasn’t tricked into thinking it was real, but I did find myself ducking, weaving, and punching with more ferocity when I felt like I might be in trouble or at risk of getting knocked out. By the third fight I was, to be honest, pretty tired. Sweat was beading on my forehead. But I felt so good about winning the first two fights that I really wanted to try my luck on the third fighter, who actually looked really tough. And he was. I found myself blocking a lot more, only going for combos when it felt somewhat safe, and I still managed to almost get knocked down a few times. I knocked him down once but he was still coming at me with fierceness. I started to feel like I was going to lose. The sweat was more than beads now. I was getting demolished and I began feeling desperate. I finally caught him in a combo and he staggered. I reacted instinctively and quickly stepped toward him to unleash as many hard and fast punches as I could. There was no coffee table in between us in the ring, but there certainly was a coffee table in my living room, and despite it being a good two feet away when I started playing, I stepped into it – hard – when I pounced on my opponent. I won the fight, knocking him out, but I had a small gash and a large bruise in reality to show for it, not to mention sore arm and back muscles the next day.

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Focus on You

This VR experience was not quite as visceral. I hadn’t read much about Focus on You, but it was described as a dating simulator in VR, and I mistook it for being Japanese in origin so I thought it might be important to look at as an example of the popularity of dating games in Japan. The developers are Korean, though, so it was not a game I could use for my dissertation. Still, I won’t deny that I am a fan of dating games (although I haven’t quite gotten into the longer, more text-heavy dating “novel” games), so I tried it just for fun. It’s not a bad game, I don’t think, but it’s a very minimal experience. You court a single girl, in only a few encounters, and none of it was particularly compelling. I would love to see them continue working on the idea, and maybe eventually they or someone else could release more fully-featured dating sims, but overall it was pretty disappointing.

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Assassin’s Creed III Remastered

Speaking of disappointing – ooh, diss – I was confounded by how sloppy and buggy the remaster of Assassin’s Creed III was. After playing and loving my first AC game, Black Flag, I went back and played AC, AC II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and, later, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. My affection for all of those games ranges from “really liked” to “loved,” so I’ve always had the remaining games on my to-play list, even though III and Unity both have reputations for being quite buggy and broken. Well, I thought, surely they must have ironed out the wrinkles and straightened the kinks in a high profile remaster. Nope. Very early in the game I encountered a bug where the scene transition music kept playing, drowning out all other music and sounds. I didn’t realize what was happening at first. I just thought they’d chosen very somber, ambient music for exploration. Then I entered a cutscene and I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying over the droning horns. When I looked it up on the internet, I found threads confirming that it was a bug… threads dating back to the release of the original game. This was a known bug that not only went unfixed in the original release, it went unfixed in the damned remaster. And that wasn’t the only one; it was just the first I ran into.

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Having said that, some of what I love about the AC games was present, though it was hard to go back to what now feels like rather clunky combat mechanics after playing the newer entries, and the enemies seemed abnormally dull. There is some interesting storytelling with American Indians, though, and I would love to someday do some research and write a paper about the various depictions of Native people in video games. I can’t say I didn’t have some fun with this game, but overall it’s very clearly my least favorite in the series.

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I don’t want to end on a down note, so I will briefly say that I am so excited for the very small window of gaming that we exist in at the moment. The world is in turmoil, yes, but Animal Crossing New Horizons, Persona 5 Royal, Resident Evil 3, and Final Fantasy VII Remake are among my very most anticipated games of the last few years, and they’re all coming out within three weeks of each other. New Horizons, P5R, and FF7 are sure to be massive, massive games, too, and if I play RE3 as many times as I did RE2, I have a very full, very exciting, and very nerdy couple of months ahead of me. Insert smiling nerd emoji here.