This year offered ample opportunities for people to immerse themselves in games, and for many of us, they became much-needed forms of escapism during repeated lockdowns. And there was plenty to choose from, as independent studios and major companies alike released game after game to eager audiences. We saw blockbuster titles such as the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077 and the Last of Us 2, as well two new consoles in the form of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox series X|S.
CR also delved into the creative side of the gaming world, asking how its influence was being felt across the creative industry, what it takes to design a hit mobile game, and questioning whether gaming advertising had gone soft, after disappointing ad campaigns from both Microsoft and Sony.
Here, we take a look back over the last 12 months to pick out ten of our favourite games, big and small, which embody everything from meticulous clay craft to storytelling worthy of the big screen.
South of the Circle
Set in the snowy wilderness of Antarctica, during the late 50s, South of the Circle follows the journey of main character Peter as he fights for survival. It’s designed by State of Play, and based on the work of co-founder Luke Whittaker’s grandad – who was a keen screenprinter. As a result, the graphics feel like a living, handcrafted artwork, and are purposefully designed as a counterpoint to the glossy photo-real imagery of other games. “I’ve always been of the opinion that the least design is the best, and that you want just enough to say it – because it focuses people on what’s important,” Whittaker told CR in an interview about the game.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Escapism was essential this year, particularly in the height of lockdown when many of us were banned from doing anything other than one walk a day. Virtual worlds suddenly became more compelling than ever before, which explains, at least in part, the runaway success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In the game, players must build and develop a village, populated by a cast of cute animal characters, and packed with opportunities to customise. More than 22 million copies of the game had sold as of August, and it became a surprisingly creative place for brands to express themselves as well – with Marc Jacobs and Valentino both releasing clothes in the game, and Getty building an Animal Crossing art generator, so players could create canvases for their digital island homes. It points the way not only for how brands can work with games, but also to a slower, less high pressure type of play that has appealed to many.
Amidst this year’s many blockbuster releases, independent studios continued to create smaller, yet no less worthy, titles. Queen Rules is a number puzzle game, described by one user as “sort of like Sudoku – on shrooms”. The gameplay itself isn’t groundbreaking, but its sculpted clay graphics are beautifully made by artist Larissa Honsek. Her cast of royal characters, and fantasy backdrops of rolling waves and fabulous palaces, are hugely charming. “The game market is over-flooded with the same aesthetics and gameplay (everybody copies everybody) and we really wanted to go for something different,” Stefanie Palomino, founder of Red Lab – the studio that made the game – told CR.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Described by its creator as “a multiplayer game for people who don’t like multiplayer games”, Fall Guys created a legion of fans, all of whom became hooked on the game’s madcap obstacle courses and jelly bean-like characters. Players are challenged to survive through a series of levels – inspired by game shows such as Takeshi’s Castle – in a battle royale game that’s equal parts addictive and infuriating. CR explored the design story behind Fall Guys in an interview with lead designer Joe Walsh.
The Last of Us Part II
This much-anticipated sequel to The Last of Us arrived to glowing reviews this year, praised for its sophisticated storytelling and representation of LGBT characters – although some have raised questions over its handling of trans character Lev. It’s set four years after the original title, and follows Ellie as she journeys through a post-apocalyptic version of Seattle, haunted by The Infected – zombies created by a mutant fungus outbreak. There’s violence aplenty, and many have commented on the game’s incredibly dark narrative, however it’s also been praised for its writing. In a BBC review, Jordan Middler said writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross had “crafted a story that’s gripping and emotionally exhausting”.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
In Ori and the Will of the Wisps, gamers are immersed in a dreamlike world of dense forests and mountain peaks, waiting to be explored. They play as titular character Ori – a glowing bunny spirit who runs and leaps through the game’s beautifully crafted levels. There’s a huge amount of detail and care taken with the graphics, which feel like Studio Ghibli backdrops sprung to life. The character design is also impeccable, and it all elevates what could have been just another platform game into a rich, narrative experience.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
While a flight sim game might not sound like the most exciting release of the year, 2020’s Microsoft Flight Simulator – the 11th game in the ongoing series – is a hugely impressive achievement. It’s as close to a digital recreation of the world as we’re likely to get, thanks to satellite imagery from Microsoft Bing – which has been used to recreate life-like versions of 37,000 airports, 2 million cities, and 1.5 billion buildings. There’s also real-time weather. Understandably, it’s not a game for everyone, but in a year when many of us didn’t go much further than to the local park and back, there’s definitely some magic in it. And even people that didn’t play it enjoyed a laugh back in August, when it transpired a minor typo had created 212-story monolith in the middle of digital Melbourne.
Paper Mario: The Origami King
Nintendo’s Paper Mario series has been much-loved since its debut in 2000, when it introduced a two-dimensional version of the character. The games have become known for their wry sense of humour, their extended set of Mario world characters, and graphics that mix 2D and 3D to create clever puzzles for players to solve. The Origami King once again delivers the laughs, with a clever script and smartly-designed set of paper worlds to explore. It’s Nintendo at its best, unafraid to have fun with long-established characters, but also push at the boundaries of battle gameplay conventions.
In Spiritfarer, players assume the role of the replacement for Charon – the ferryman who carries souls over the river Styx and into the world of the dead. That might sound bleak, but the game’s cheerful illustration-style graphics and its unusual mix of gameplay is anything but. Main character Stella must sail the ocean in search of spirits, bringing them to their final rest and upgrading her ship along the way. It’s another game that feels a bit like a Ghibli film come to life, packed with animal characters and worlds to explore. IGN described it as like “sliding into a warm bubble bath”.
Streets of Rage 4
The original Streets of Rage game, released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1991, is something of a cult success. Its side-scrolling action, story of three young ex-police officers taking on a shadowy crime syndicate, and its still-classic soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro, have kept it in popular culture for the last 30 years. The announcement of a 2020 sequel to the beat-em-up game had some fans worried, but its comic book style graphics and no-nonsense gameplay made for a surefire winner. It’s not, admittedly, anything hugely different from what’s gone before, but it’s slick, well put together, and a lot of fun.