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.

Phasmophobia and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ghosts

It’s spooooooky season! I hope you heard that in a sufficiently spooky voice in your head. I’d say you can imagine my voice but you probably don’t know what I sound like, unless you know me (hi, Amy!). Just trust me: I sound very spooky. Okay, no, I don’t, but you don’t have to know that. What was I talking about again? Oh, right, it’s spooky season and I’ve been celebrating with horror movies and video games all month long. In addition to finishing Days Gone, I’ve been playing Castlevania from the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and, more to the point of this post, a little Steam early access game called Phasmophobia.

Phasmophobia is a 1-4 player co-op game where you and your team investigate an empty house to figure out what kind of ghost has been causing a ruckus. Yes, I said a ruckus. A ghostly ruckus. There are different kinds of ghosts, like poltergeists, demons, spirits, and yurei, and each has different strengths, weaknesses, and clues that they leave behind. You have several tools that “real” ghost hunters use, like EMF readers, thermometers, UV flashlights, and more, and you use these tools to detect the traces unique to each ghost. You might catch a spooky handprint on a window with the UV flashlight, freezing temperatures with the thermometer, or some demonic scrawls in a spirit book you left on the floor of the room you suspect is the specter’s “spot.” Once you collect three clues, you can narrow down which ghost you’re dealing with and get the fuck out of there.

And you will want to get the fuck out of there, because while the ghost may be harmless when you first arrive, after you and your team poke around too much, calling the ghost’s name or setting up gear, it gets angry. It might simply try and spook you by knocking something off a shelf, making the lights flicker, or lightly tapping a key on the family piano. Eventually, however, it will enter a “hunting phase,” where your flashlights will begin to flip out, all external doors will slam and lock, and the ghost will search high and low for a victim. You communicate with team members via walkie talkie, so if a team member dies you might not even know it unless they don’t respond to your calls or you come across their dead, sometimes twisted corpse. I have been playing with my friends Tab and Ron, and here is an example of Tab’s corpse:

What’s that? Are they looking under the car for some keys they dropped? No. They are dead, folded in half by a ghost. I have played a lot of horror games in my time (*strokes long, white beard, indicative of great age and eternal wisdom*), but I have honestly never been so scared playing a game. Okay, maybe that one time, but I was a child. I am a full grown man now (in body, anyway). I served in the military for six years, trained briefly with Marines on a deployment to the Middle East, and live on my own in a very old and creepy house – and yet, when I am alone in a dark room, holding a small glowing radio that’s hissing static, and I whisper “where are you?” only to hear the radio immediately chirp “behind,” followed by a loud hiss whooshing by my ears, I get chills and almost projectile vomit from fear. Okay, the second part was an exaggeration, but this is legitimately the first game to give me chills. Mr. X? Psh. Pyramid Head? *yawn* Betty Brown, formerly of the Ridgeview Road House? *shudder*

At the time of this writing, I have played this game for 61 hours, and while we’ve certainly gotten better at the game and are less scared, we are still very often scared out of our wits. We strut in bravely, thermometers and flashlights in hand, and as soon as we hear a low gurgle accompanied by heavy footsteps, we run as fast as our slow, janky legs will carry us. The game is janky and unfinished, but it’s still a blast to play with friends. And more than almost any other game, I really do feel like friends are necessary for this. Can you play by yourself? Yes. I tried just such a thing, early on, before I knew the stench of my own solitary fear (I’m not even kidding, my sweat seriously stinks when I play this game. My gym sweat? Not bad! Phasmophobia sweat? Like a skunk that shit the bed. Ladies, I am available *kissie emoji*).

It takes a long time to make money at first in this game, so after a play session with Tab, I decided I would try a solo run. I gave myself an actual pep talk before I went in. “It’s just a game. You won’t lose anything if you die. You’re not risking anything. You don’t even believe in ghosts! Just do it. It’s. Just. A. Game.” So I stupidly went in this dark, empty house, all by my dumbass self, and after about two minutes I was in a darkened laundry room. It was cold so I knew the ghost was there. I needed to set up some equipment before I left. I would just make this one trip, I told myself. It’ll be quick. I found a shelf to place a remote video camera and began positioning it when the door to the room slammed and I heard a very loud “HHAAAHHH” move right through me. My heart leapt through my fucking chest, I almost choked, and I straight up closed Steam. Nope.

Let me talk you through a few pictures. First up is a ghost that killed me, stalking Ron. When you’re killed, you return as a spectral form, though you can’t do all the fun stuff that the evil ghost can. You can basically just follow your friends around and ask eerily “why didn’t you save me?” even though they can’t hear you. In this game, I died and watched Ron stand outside the front door, trying to call in and get the ghost to respond. He made the mistake of stepping just a smidge over the threshold, though, and the ghost seized its chance, shutting the door behind him and immediately entering its hunting phase. Ron couldn’t see the ghost but he could hear its heavy boots and gross, ghosty throat gurgles behind him. I, however, could see the whole thing. The ghost, an old man, jaw broken and half hanging from his face, wielded a machete and chased Ron to another room, where Ron was actually lucky to escape.

I don’t have a lot of great screenshots of ghosts because when they do appear as visible in the game, there is a good chance you are either about to die or you just shit your proverbial pants and the last thing on your mind is reaching over and hitting fn>F12. We were determined to get a picture of the ghost once, though, so we hatched a plan. Closets, we deduced, are safe spaces. If you hide in a closet the ghosts don’t seem to kill you, no matter how angry they get. So, in one house, Tab hid in one closet while Ron monitored the ghost’s location from the team van. I opened a different closet near Tab’s so that I could run in and hide once I snapped a pic of the ghost, then I waited in the hallway, camera in hand, as Tab spoke to the ghost to anger it. We were both nervous and jumpy. Finally we saw lights flash and I heard the telltale ghost sounds, but I didn’t see the ghost so I freaked out and ran for the closet. Immediately I knew my mistake. I saw it before I even stepped in. The ghost was in the closet. In leaving the door ajar, I apparently left it wide open for ghostly tenants to hop in and scare the ever-loving shit out of me. As you can see from the picture in the top right, I did get the photo, though.

This next picture was taken tonight. Ron and I were playing, and we narrowed the ghost’s room down to either a bedroom or the adjoining bathroom. We had set up some equipment but we didn’t have much in the way of evidence. We gingerly wandered back into the room to look for stray fingerprints or a polite “DIE DIE DIE” written in the spirit book. We entered and as soon as I spun around the lights went out and we heard ol’ groany. Our characters’ hearts began thumping loudly (as they do when a ghost is very close), and without thinking I snapped a picture, hoping to catch a glimpse of something before my head was twisted around the wrong way. We hauled ass and made it out alive, but check out the shot I caught:

One of our favorite things to do now is play “roulette.” We need a catchier name for it. Ghost roulette? Spectral roulette? Roulettemeoutofhererightnow? We’ll figure it out. Anyway, this is a game I suggested a few days ago and we’ve played it twice so far. The first time we played, we located the ghost before starting, but it’s not necessary and we didn’t do it the second time. Basically, we only bring in photo cameras and maybe a flashlight to toss on the floor so we know when the ghost is hunting. We pick a room, each stand in a different corner, then take turns saying things to the ghost. Last person standing wins. Even though it’s more predictable than a normal round, it’s still very scary. I have also suggested we play a version where we take turns running through the house (in the front door and out the back), calling the ghost’s name the entire time. If the back door locks and you can somehow escape the ghost, you get to try again. I also think it would be fun to each stand in a separate room when we play roulette and only say something once every full minute. That way, if one of us died it would be at least three full minutes before the others realized it (because the dead person wouldn’t say their line), and three minutes is more than enough time for a ghost to start a second hunt.

Okay, I think I’ve babbled on enough about this game, but it was a very fun and unexpected surprise, and the absolute perfect game for the Halloween season. I’m sure our interest will drop off eventually, but I’m already looking forward to our next session, and I can’t wait to check the game out once it gets out of early access and the developers have implemented all of the features they’re planning. Until then, I’ll just be here, in the dark, speaking in a hoarse whisper into my glowing hiss box: “Where are you?” “Are you a girl?” “Can I help?” “Are you single?”

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