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.

Mostly Miles (Morales) and a Little (Telling) Lies

As I wrote in my last post, before I reflect on my year in gaming, I want to get some thoughts down about two 2020 games I’ve played recently, and the second of those games is Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I am also going to sneak in some thoughts about another 2020 game (for console, anyway) that I just finished: Telling Lies – because I don’t know if I have enough thoughts to give it its own post and I kind of want to just put a bow on 2020 and move on.

Man, what a time to be a Spider-Man fan, right? As what I might call a passive fan since childhood, I’m kind of jealous of hardcore Spidey fans. I really love the latest Spider-Man movies, the 2018 Spider-Man game was amazing, and now Miles Morales just hops right up on the stack of recent awesomeness. I’ve only read a relative handful of Spider-Man comics, but I’ve dabbled in the video games going back to Maximum Carnage on the SNES (I still get clips from that soundtrack stuck in my head to this day, too). While it’s true that some of what makes this game so great is imported directly from the 2018 base game, there are things about this game that make it great in its own right. [Spoilers ahead]

I listen to a fair number of video game podcasts, and there is an element of the game that has been overlooked in the discussions about its eligibility as “game of the year material.” In almost every discussion about it, the focus seems to be on how the game is mechanically different than the original game. For some, Miles’ venom powers are enough to distinguish the game and lift it up as its own great game for award consideration. For others, it’s not quite enough, so they dismiss it as “not different enough” to be considered seriously for recognition. But the way the game presents not only Miles but the many people around him, is very different than not only the first game, but narrative games in general. Many of the mechanics used to tell his story are the same – the smooth transitions between gameplay and cinematics, phone calls with allies, podcasts, etc. – but what’s been amped up is the sense of community and the importance of representation, and those two things are, in my opinion, huge, and set it much further apart from the original game than Miles having a few new moves in combat.

From the very beginning of the game, one of the central conflicts is that Miles doesn’t quite feel welcome as a “real” Spider-Man. A local muralist leaves him out of a new mural featuring Pete’s Spidey, a shop owner named his cat Spider-Man after the “real Spider-Man,” he says with a tone of dismissiveness (after Miles just helped him recover his beloved pet, no less), there are quips from random NPCs around the world about “that other Spider-Man” or “where is the real Spider-Man,” and more. This was a powerful place to start, because that seems to be just the kind of discourse you hear about Miles as a fictional character in real life. He’s not the “real” Spider-Man. He’s just a tool for Marvel to “appeal to the SJWs.” So, if you’re aware of those kinds of conversations, it’s hard not to see this story as a metaphor for the kinds of discussions we have about marginalized people in prominent roles that were once reserved for traditional, non-marginalized (straight white dudes, if we’re being specific) characters all the time.

And the balance that this game strikes between focusing on Miles’ identity and heritage and the pretty standard super hero-y bits is so impressive. There are a ton of cultural references in this game, from the music Miles flips through to play for a holiday gathering, to the uncaptioned use of Spanish, to wall art, and much more. But it’s not the focus of the story, and I never felt like it was done strictly as a way of placating people with specific political leanings. It’s not only that it contributes to the characterization of Miles as someone who has likely felt like an outsider in one way or another for most of his life – the use of his community to highlight and reflect his culture and the culture of others made this city feel more alive. More than any other game I’ve played, particularly those set in real places, I felt like this was a real community of people. I have only been to New York City once, and just for a day, so maybe someone who’s lived there would disagree, but as an outsider I felt like this was (at the very least) someone’s real version of New York, and I actually felt a sense of longing to be included, to live there and know those people.

Granted, this sense mostly came after the ending of the game, when I played through a second time using the New Game+ feature. [Additional spoiler wanting for end-game story beats] One of the funniest things about the story, to me, was the fact that when Peter left for vacation at the beginning of the game, he explicitly tells Miles to “not tell anyone you’re Spider-Man.” Miles even refers back to this when his friend Ganke, who knows his identity, suggests Miles tell Phin, his old best friend and crush, that he is Spider-Man. By the end of the game, after just one superhero questline, everyone knows that Miles is Spider-Man. His mom, Phin, his uncle, the cute wall artist he met, the shop owner, some random city worker, and on and on. As funny as this payoff is, I was also incredibly moved by it the second time I experienced it. It reminded me of the great train scene in Spider-Man 2, where a maskless Peter almost dies stopping a train from derailing, saving everyone on board. The people in the train carry him, wounded, and gently place him on the ground before returning his mask and promising not to tell anyone. And they don’t! It’s this kind of relationship between hero and community that makes some of Spider-Man’s history and lore so great, and in Miles Morales we get to see a hero and community that is more real and representative than ever. Look, I completely understand that the world is in a rough place right now (to put it lightly), and it’s easy to be cynical and pessimistic, but the ending of this game left me feeling very warm. Miles’ story, his experience as an outsider, the love and diversity of his community… it made me feel like this was a special game, and deserving of more attention and praise than just nods towards how Miles fought differently than Peter did in the first game.

I still don’t feel like I’m doing the game’s sense of community justice, but let me move on to some more specific things I liked. First, and I mentioned it earlier, is the wall art. It’s a small thing, but some of the wall art in this game is beautiful, and I found myself pulling some web-slinging U-turns to get screenshots of some of it. I’ve noticed similarly solid street art in other recent games, like Cyberpunk, so I feel like someone who knows way more about street art than I do should write a paper on it. Who are the artists behind them? How did they approach making wall art for virtual walls? That kind of stuff. That aside, I’ll let the images speak for themselves. I love that the Black Cat piece from the first game is still in the same place, only faded and weathered (last pic).

Another thing I appreciated about the game was the stunning graphics. The graphics for the first game were good, so some of that attention to detail and excellent lighting carries over here, but I imagine some of the crispness of specific things was made even clearer by the PS5’s hardware. The reflections, shadows, and abundance of different textures kept catching my eye. There were several times where I’d be crawling under the shadow of a vent or a gate and I’d pause to marvel at how far shadows in video games have come. I remember seeing screenshots of an early Splinter Cell game on the Xbox and being so blown away by the fact that thin lines were finally casting “real” shadows in games. Years later, in this game, I am once again impressed, this time with how sharp the shadows are, and the variety of light and shadow sources they are in any given scene.

The reflections, too, really showed off how capable Insomniac’s engine is. Unless there is some new technique that I’m not aware of, the way that most developers render reflections in games is by literally scripting a second set of visual resources that mimic the original image. So when Miles looks in a mirror in the game, the engine is having to render a second Miles that is just programmed to do exactly what the player does. It’s a gimmick that goes back to as early as Metal Gear Solid 2 (I think?), but in most cases the player character is in a small, enclosed space, where there isn’t much in the environment that would have to be “reflected” (double rendered), like a bathroom. When you consider how much memory a machine would need to use to render a detailed player character and its surroundings twice, it’s understandable why mirroring wasn’t so widespread. There is even a bathroom mirror for Miles to look in at his apartment, but there were also much larger areas where there were reflective surfaces big and small, and every time I popped into one of these spaces I would ooh and ahh as I snapped some screenshots.

Also, look at some of the textures in this game. Again, I know they were present in the previous game, too, but they look so clear and varied here. Seeing Miles in a Spider suit that has several different and unique textures standing next to Prowler, whose suit has several different textures unto itself, for example, was really cool. You can make out tiny variations in types of thread, rubber, plastics, patches, and more.

There is also a lot of stuff carried over from the first game that I still love. The Arkham-style combat is still great, I love the sprawling recreation of New York and zipping around to find collectables, and give me all of the suits. It’s been widely covered by now, but having a tiny fur-ball of fury strapped to your back is adorable and so fun. When I would perch on a building and linger for too long, he would pop out and bat at the back of my head, he took some lethal swipes at the bad guys I was taking down, and he would occasionally just stretch his little arms out to the sky. My heart.

So, yeah, I loved this game. I loved it after my first playthrough, but taking my time to enjoy and explore the world, get invested in the community that Miles lives in, and really exist in that world made it above and beyond a mere half-sequel, as many podcasters seem to consider it. I can’t wait for the next game, even if it’s probably at least a few years away.

Because I played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Cyberpunk 2077, and Miles Morales back to back, I kind of wanted a short, easy palate cleanser before getting back to The Last of Us Part II or some other big, deep game, so I hopped into Telling Lies, a desktop simulator visual narrative game. I don’t know if that’s the official genre, but it seems appropriate. I have come to realize that I have a weirdly strong affinity for desktop sims, and I don’t know if it has something to do with voyeurism or nostalgia, but as soon as I realized that the interface was going to be a computer desktop and I would be access videos of people via search terms and a database, I was in.

Beyond the interface and some interesting story beats, though, I was left a little wanting. This is an interesting and innovative way to tell a story, but the ‘game’ part of it seemed a bit unrealized. Let me explain. When you begin, the game gives you a very brief tutorial of how to search the database and then sets you free about your business. What is your business, though? The game doesn’t specify, but I quickly felt like I must be tasked with sleuthing out some story. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but by following the proverbial breadcrumbs I began to see tantalizing snippets of what might be some nefarious plot. Even then, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Is it the story of this one character’s death? Or this apparent terrorist plot? Or this love triangle? Or something I haven’t uncovered yet? So I kept fumbling, not certain I was on the right track because I wasn’t even sure there was a track. There is a file on the virtual computer that says I will upload my “report” by morning, but as the fictional hours ticked by I became increasingly concerned with whether or I would unravel whatever mystery I was supposed to solve before the time ran out.

In the end, I don’t think there is any detective work to be done. I was bookmarking specific parts of videos, sure I would have to connect videos together in my report to show guilt or motive or something, but I didn’t. You just watch the videos, submit “the report” which is just a list of whatever videos you watched, and that’s it. The developer’s previous game, Her Story, was more successful as an interactive story because there wasn’t nearly as much framing to mislead players into thinking there was some ultimate objective other than watching the videos. And how cool would it have been if the game had delivered on that? I would have loved to have made different folders for different characters or plot points, then organized and woven them together at the end to reveal one character as a murderer or another as an accomplice or whatever. That promise is left by the wayside, though, so other than experiencing an interesting story in an unconventional way, sprinkled with an occasional bit of solid acting performance, I was mostly underwhelmed by this game. I want them to keep making games like this, though, not just because they expand what the medium is capable of, but because when the gameplay and framework works, it has potential to be very cool and powerful.