Natalie Flores’s Game of the Year 2020 List

As Samara once said in Mass Effect 2, “I am a ruined vessel of sorrow and regret, but I am free.” With this Game of the Year list, I will be free. Y’all, I am so very tired after 2020. This was a hellish year that was made so much better by the many incredible games I could find solace in.

There will be no dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying from me. Here are the ten 2020 games I loved the most.

Honorable mentions: Call of the Sea, Tell Me Why, and Across the Grooves. Yakuza: Like A Dragon and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim would very likely be on this list if I had the time in between school and work to play them. Sadly, I am but one time-compromised student suffering under capitalism.

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10. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I actually stopped playing this less than a month after release. But there’s always a game in my yearly list that I end up including for reasons other than my love for it. This year that game is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I think it’s a great entry in the series — one that gave me some precious memories in the relatively short span of time I played it — but not the best. I also don’t think that matters in the face of its immeasurable cultural impact. The memes that have made me smile, the hilarious videos that have made me laugh, the unparalleled creativity of its community — I have spent this entire year gaining happiness from this game long after I decided to not play it. Covering it in news and features has been a source of joy even on the days when writing feels like pulling teeth. It’s helped so many people cope with an extremely difficult year in a plethora of ways. Like much of the world, I have been thankful to have it.

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9. Necrobarista

Like I mentioned in my review of Necrobarista, I have a phobic fear of death. It takes having really good, witty writing for a game about death to make me not have an existential crisis. It’s not because Necrobarista lacks the depth to talk about death in profound ways; it’s that it’s as effortlessly funny as it is touching. The writing is graceful in its balance of dark matter and humor without ever sacrificing an empathetic heart. It’s short, sweet, and sad — just like life. It also, obviously much like life, has an often beautiful soundtrack. In a year full of tragedy, I gravitated to games like Necrobarista. I needed sad stories with hopeful cores shine through because of all the pain it takes to reach them.

8. Haven

Haven is one of my favorite games I reviewed this year. It’s a beautiful meditative experience with incredible dialogue and characterization. It’s endearing in practically every way, aided by its angle of love and nonviolence. Containing what is perhaps the best-written romance in video games, the relationship between its two protagonists is a gift to watch unfold. It’s a wonderful game to play on your own, with a friend, or with a significant other. I firmly believe you can tell a great story with minimal plot and two well-written characters far more easily than with an interesting plot and a one-dimensional cast. Haven knows its strengths and plays to them extremely well, resulting in one of my favorite video game experiences this year.

7. Phasmophobia

I love Phasmophobia so much that, at one point, I called it one of my favorite multiplayer games ever. And that holds true! It’s still very much in Early Access and came as a total surprise, but I’ve played it consistently ever since its “release.” I’d almost apologize for all the yelling I’ve subjected my poor parents to, but it’s hard to feel bad when I’ve had so much fun. It’s a terrifying game with some brilliant design choices that make every map a playground. Instead of thinking too hard about the scary things in real life, Phasmophobia has given me an outlet for screams as much as laughs that make every day a little more joyful. As the game I’ve played to connect with my friends the most, it has a special place in my heart and certainly in my list of top ten games.

final fantasy xiv 5.3

6. Final Fantasy XIV Patch 5.3

Anyone who’s played and finished patch 5.3 of Final Fantasy XIV knows this isn’t a cop-out answer or cheating. Reflections In Crystal, otherwise known as the ending to the incomparable Shadowbringers expansion, is arguably the best Final Fantasy has ever been. Shadowbringers was exquisite enough without it. Yet this story patch cemented the MMO’s exciting future. At the end of the base expansion, I wondered how this game could outdo itself. Reflections In Crystal was the response, and it was also a reassurance: even when it seems like FFXIV has attained the greatest heights it is capable of, it will seek to outdo itself. And, especially if it is under the writing direction of Natsuko Ishikawa, it will very likely succeed in accomplishing this goal.

Patch 5.3 is a poetic, graceful end to a story in which it is difficult to imagine a light amidst the darkness. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the darkness amidst the light, for Shadowbringers is a story that dedicates itself to subversion above most things. It’s a heart-wrenching tale heralded by the spectrum of greys that stands between its villains — who are some of the most complicated I’ve encountered — and its inspiring heroes. Every moment in Patch 5.3 (save for one I mention in my impressions piece) is hard to describe as anything less than perfect, culminating in several of the most emotional hours I’ve experienced while playing video games. While its most grand events are full of spectacle and soul, its more intimate moments — like Seto expressing his love for Ardbert, or Elidibus clutching the crystals of friends long gone — manage to be equally unforgettable for me.

5. Spiritfarer

I did a lot of crying with Spiritfarer. While it was always over something sad, as you would expect from a game centered on death, I felt a sense of healing by the end of each cry. It’s a celebration of life wrapped in an acceptance of death — a comforting meditation contained in a story revolving around one of the most uncomfortable truths of the universe. Spiritfarer doesn’t shy away from portraying the ugliness and deeply real pain that comes with loss and mourning. Some of the stories of its characters are downright devastating, and I always recommend that people make sure they’re in an okay enough headspace to face that before playing.

But it’s also gentle and so very kind. All its systems revolve around expressing care and love. In a year like this one, filled with so much tragedy that has even struck home, I was grateful to have the chance to say goodbye to these spirits. I grew to love some enough that I put off our farewells for as long as I could. But you can’t fight this game. Not for long. Just as you can’t fight the ways of the universe. More than ever, I needed a game as kind as Spiritfarer.

4. Hades

Hades is only this low because I haven’t finished it. I might not finish it anytime soon, either. After dozens of hours, I finally got my first clear only a few days before writing this. I have at least a solid 100 hours of dialogue and character building left seen. And I’ve spent this game largely doing the thing I most hate in any video game: dying repeatedly. It’s a game filled with so much I normally hate. It makes me die often. It’s hard. It’s relentless in showing me how bad I am at video games. It is a roguelike. It is unpredictable, which is terrifying to a person who needs to have control as much as I do. It is battle after battle, with nuggets of (impeccable) writing in between. It makes me play as a dude.

Yet there are few things I want to do more than keep playing. It is sublime at every moment, turn, and slash. There is so much I love. The way it’s made me care about gameplay in ways few games have ever been able to. How it’s been more successful in reframing failure for me than my parents or therapist. How maddeningly attractive its cast is, which frustrates my Very Bisexual Self, as much as it makes me giddy. How unbelievably marvelous its character designs, voice acting, music, and environments are. Its refreshingly racially inclusive — and, let’s be real, only accurate by extension — take on Greek mythology. And it makes me play as a dude named Zagreus, yes, but he is just so beautiful and lovely.

I don’t need to finish it to know this: Hades is a rare, perfect game. It is the kind of work that leaves you in awe at the creativity and brilliance of human beings. As someone who played and enjoyed Transistor many years ago, it brings me so much happiness to see Supergiant Games soar to new heights with a genuine masterpiece like this one.

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3. Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not have worked — especially not as incredibly well as it did. Considering Final Fantasy VII is one of the most revered games of all time, it didn’t have much going in its favor. Not really. Nostalgia is as powerful as it is dangerous. This was a reimagining with the weight of decades of expectations on its shoulders. It could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways. But it has emerged as not just a faithful retelling of a story that is incredibly precious to many, but also a true remake.

I don’t believe I can overstate the significance Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is redefining what constitutes the very concept of a remake, unsatisfied with complacency to make a quick cash grab. More than most games, it is a remake in the most literal sense of the word. It is remaking the canon of a game that is widely considered to be nearly flawless, or at least untouchable, while instilling excitement and wonder. It’s a privilege few video game stories have been impactful enough to possess. It’s easy to feel like the people leading development on this franchise are aware of this privilege, too. There’s a palpable sense of care in the thoughtfulness of the story additions in this game, and in the many directions the narrative could go. There is an equal sense of awareness of what has made Final Fantasy VII so special without getting stuck in the past.

Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t reliving a legacy; it’s forging a new one. It’s pushing everyone — its characters, creators, and fans — involved into an uncertain but thrilling future.

2. Paradise Killer

I think about this game at least once a day. It’s not just because of its incredible soundtrack, either (though that’s often the case). Paradise Killer is eccentric, initially off-putting, and disorienting with its boldness. When that weirdness becomes charming — which doesn’t take long — it is a riveting experience. It stands out and surprises in ways few things manage to still do.

It’s hard to pinpoint Paradise Killer’s influences by the time you finish it. Sure, it’s a murder mystery where you talk to people to collect clues you’ll use to expose the truth, but that’s not a unique concept to any single game. Nor is its extremely stylish aesthetic filled with loud saturation and vibrant hues. Or its colorful cast of characters that consists entirely of characters who can only be described as larger than life. Kaizen Game Works’ debut title is impressively not only its own game but also its own intricately developed world. Where some franchises take several installments to establish such captivating lore, Paradise Killer takes 20 hours, at most, to become one of the most bizarre yet seductive universes you’ll find.

But, real talk: that soundtrack is probably tied with NieR: Automata’s as my favorite video game soundtrack of all time.

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1. The Last of Us Part II

If you told me a year ago that the sequel to The Last of Us would become one of my favorite games ever, I would’ve written you off as nonsensical. I didn’t like — and still don’t like — the first game. Why would I have any strong feelings for the second? Especially positive ones? But, against all odds, that’s exactly what I felt. I spent a lot of 2020 writing and talking about this game and why I love it so much. The Last of Us II, much like its central characters, is undeniably and, at times deeply, flawed. And I’m a sucker for flawed but ambitious stories that take risks like this one.

It’s a story that is understandably too grim for some. Yet it has a vital place among the games that helped me process this year. I don’t think we’re great people. Neither do I think that’s me being cynical. I’ve seen it in the ways people treated my mother when she was a supermarket cashier and their emotional punching bag during the COVID-19 outbreak, something I’m fortunate enough to have saved her from once I started earning enough money. I’ve seen it in the utter lack of regard the individuals in power have for us, especially those of us who are poor. In the absence of empathy on social media, in the streets, inside buildings from the maskless.

But there is an equally undeniable light. There are good people fighting for justice despite the potential danger. There are people full of love — kind people who try to make every day under this awful time a little less arduous for the ones they can reach. The Last of Us Part II rings so powerfully to me because it sees both the darkness and the light. It ultimately says we can, and will, experience pain we will never recover from: pain that twists us in ugly ways. It validates that hurt, yet asserts we don’t need to give up empathy in order to acknowledge our own pain and that of others.

In a particularly traumatic year, it’s a game about how trauma shapes us, irrevocably defines us and our experiences, but is neither the beginning nor the end of us. Our beginnings and ends are found in love and hope — in the bonds we make with the people who will eventually leave us and whom we will someday leave behind.