From upside down PlayStation 5s to the global dominance of “Genshin Impact” and the biffed launch of “Cyberpunk 2077,” the year in video games has been as topsy-turvy as the year in, well, every other regard. But for all of the industry’s unpredictability, games kept delivering the goods no matter how grim things got out there; “Hades” would’ve been great even if didn’t feel so close to home, and the “Demon’s Souls” remake would’ve sold us on the promise of the next generation even if the bleak world of Boletaria didn’t unexpectedly turn into an oasis, but even the darkest games gave players a cathartic degree of control at a time when a sense of helplessness became a pandemic unto itself.
By the time Sony and Microsoft released their new consoles in November, even thin launch day lineups, unaffordable prices, and severe product shortages couldn’t entirely stem the optimism they offered for the future, or their implicit promise that there’s going to be a future at all.
Here are IndieWire’s picks for the 11 best games of 2020.
11. “Final Fantasy VII Remake”
In a year full of blockbuster remakes, some much safer than others, the boldest reinvention of all was reserved for one of the most sacred video games ever made. Seemingly in gestation since the day after “Final Fantasy VII” first came out for the PlayStation in 1997, “Final Fantasy VII Remake” was never meant to be a simple reskin of Square’s industry-changing RPG, and director Nomura Tetsuya couldn’t have been clearer about that as the game became a reality. And yet, iconic art has a funny way of being rather inflexible in our minds, and the game’s stunning pre-release screenshots of Cloud Strife and his Avalanche pals fighting their way through the pizza-shaped slums of Midgar felt so true to the way that we’ve always imagined their world might “actually” look that it was hard to imagine how different this remake could be.
It’s not just the battle system that changed. Zooming in the first section of the original game with a hyper-focused new attention that reflects the difference between a wide shot and an extreme close-up, “Final Fantasy VII Remake” puts one of the most iconic RPGs ever made under a microscope in order to deepen its story while also challenging its Holy place in our collective memory. Some of this revisionism is for the better (the Honey Bee Inn business comes to mind), some is for the worse (the side mission system is a half-hearted mess), but all of it forces players to reckon with the Mythril grip of their own nostalgia as they battled through a story about re-writing the fates. By the time you reach the beguiling finale, the episodic approach to one of gaming’s most epic adventures finally begins to explain itself, even if that only makes the wait for the next installment all the more unbearable. —DE
10. “Ghost of Tsushima”
Though its open-world gameplay doesn’t break any barriers, Sucker Punch’s “Ghost of Tsushima” remains one of the best additions to the genre in recent memory. Players take control of a samurai tasked with defending a gorgeously-rendered Japan during the first Mongol invasion in the 1200s, and they do so with an impressive amount of weaponry at their disposal (kunai, bombs, and a wide variety of sword styles are just the tip of the iceberg) and the freedom to use them as they see fit throughout the game’s satisfying story and peculiar side missions (for every beachside duel you can expect to pet at least 10 foxes).
What the game lacks in novelty it makes up in grandeur and the tactile joy of playing it, as switching stances mid-fight and parrying mace-wielding baddies is still a pleasure after 40 hours of carving through the countryside; raiding bandit camps and the like has long gotten old in a genre that seems to be running low on fresh ideas, but it hardly matters when you don’t want to put down the controller. “Ghost of Tsushima” also stands out from the pack for its fantastic and much-debated Kurosawa mode, which changes the visuals to black-and-white, adds a film scratch overlay, and modifies the sound to emulate the jidaigeki of the 1950s films. Whatever its faults, the game is as close as anyone has gotten to making an interactive samurai movie. —TH
9. “Tell Me Why”
Released over the course of three episodes this past fall, “Tell Me Why” is a narrative adventure in the vein of the now-defunct Telltale Games’ classics “A Wolf Among Us” and “The Walking Dead” series, as well as developer Dontnod Entertainment’s previous “Life is Strange” franchise. And while the series suffers from some of the same pitfalls as it’s evolutionary predecessors — namely that one’s choices don’t always affect the general arc of the story in the grandest ways — Dontnod should be commended for creating a narrative engrossing enough to overcome that deficiency.
The excellent dialogue, thanks to both suburb writing and voice acting help “Tell Me Why” stand out. Much has been made of the game’s tackling of transgender issues, as co-lead Tyler Ronan is the first transgender playable character from any major studio (and is additionally voiced by August Aiden Black, a trans man whose appropriate casting is a move that still seems like a struggle for Hollywood to make), with some critics arguing that the game deals with transphobia and bigotry with fairly rose-tinted glasses. An alternate way to look at it is to see “Tell Me Why” not only as a milestone for inclusivity, but additionally a snapshot of the world that can exist. —LG
8. “Demon’s Souls”
For gamers who’ve already died so many times in the decrepit world of Boletaria that their grandchildren will come out of the womb cursing those giant manta rays that fly around the Shrine of Storms and hit you with bolts of glass lightning whenever you turn your back, the experience of playing the shot-for-shot PlayStation 5 remake of “Demon’s Souls” is nothing less than a splendid, relentlessly sadomasochistic bout of déjà vu that lasts for more than 40 hours at a time. Welcome to a walking, slashing, falling tour through a once-faded memory palace that’s been renovated to look so beautiful you might forget it was always intended to be your tomb.
A far cry from the “Final Fantasy VII Remake” — Bluepoint Games didn’t even bother to even fix that sixth archstone, let alone perform open-heart surgery to investigate what made the source material tick — this “Demon’s Souls” sews the bones of a pixelated classic into a baby-smooth layer of fresh skin for an experience that’s foreign and familiar in equal measure. That disorienting imbalance between newness and nostalgia is a natural fit for a franchise that was always intended to be a throwback of sorts, and the end result is a brutal testament to why video game remakes tend not to feel like shameless cash-ins: This isn’t just a next-gen version of an 11-year-old classic, it’s the game that “Demon’s Souls” always wanted to be. —DE
7. “Spider-Man: Miles Morales”
On paper, “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” seems pretty straightforward: It’s the next-gen follow-up to Insomniac Games’ wildly successful “Spider-Man,” a 2018 PlayStation 4 exclusive that dropped everyone’s favorite webslinger into an open-world Manhattan and allowed him to zip around the New York skyline in a friendly, gravity-defying riff on “Grand Theft Auto.” But a strange identity crisis sets in almost as soon as players swing back into action, and that cognitive dissonance only grows stronger as you careen through the game’s electric 10-hour-plus campaign. The more that Miles — Brooklyn to the bone — starts to feel at home in his adopted Harlem neighborhood, the more obvious it becomes that his standalone new adventure isn’t just a cut-and-dry sequel with a different super teen subbing in for Peter Parker. Anyone can wear the mask, but that doesn’t change who they are underneath.
For our new Spider-Man, that’s kind of the problem. Rushed through development in order to be ready in time for the release of the PlayStation 5, “Miles Morales” might be much smaller than its predecessor, but it’s also smoother, tighter, and lot more focused — specifically on Miles’ impostor syndrome. As if his own self-doubt weren’t bad enough, he also has to deal with bad guys who treat him like a cos-playing nuisance, and NPCs grumble that grumble out loud about how they miss the other guy. One especially devastating encounter with a certain super-villain even ends with the declaration that “This Spider-Man is broken.” Ouch. But as that sinister enemy learns the hard way several times over, this Spider-Man isn’t broken, he just works differently.
This is a game about Miles learning how to be a hero on his own terms (echoes of “Into the Spider-Verse” abound), and the intimate story it weaves hinges on local politics and gentrification in a way that allows Insomniac to make the bite-sized scale of this Spidey adventure into a feature, not a bug. —DE
6. “Nioh 2”
“Nioh 2” offers almost nothing that we haven’t seen before, and often. Soulsborne games are a dime a dozen, as are sword-slashing adventures through yōkai -infested feudal Japan, and — for that matter — Soulsborne games that double as sword-slashing adventures through yōkai -infested feudal Japan (the first “Nioh” had its charms, but “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is of course the first game that comes to mind). And yet Team Ninja’s ultra-addictive sequel stands out because of how immaculately well-calibrated it is from hilt to tip.
A steep challenge that never seems unfair, a deep combat system that rewards expertise but never proves overwhelming, and wild-eyed monsters so determined to kill you that farming them never gets boring even after more than 150 hours all contribute to a sublime hardcore experience that splits the difference between the strategy of “Demon’s Souls” and the freneticism of something like “Devil May Cry.” Ignore the story, keep an eye out for those cute little Kodamas, and embrace the sheer bliss that comes from steam-rolling a path to the end of each level. —DE
5. “Ori and the Will of the Wisps”
Whether you classify it as a jump n’ run platformer, a Metroidvania action-adventure, or an over-emotional side-scroller, “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” is likely the most gorgeous game currently available to play on the Xbox Series X (it can run at 120fps at a resolution of 4K). In broad strokes, the game follows Ori — a white guardian spirit who seems to be made of pure light and most closely resembles Stitch of “Lilo & Stitch” fame — on his quest to find Ku, an owl Ori has helped raise since its infancy. What follows is a story filled with legitimate moments of joy quickly swallowed up by equal moments of sorrow, far more than this gameplay style typically allows. It’s slightly jarring here and there, but completely engrossing from start to finish.
“Ori and the Will of the Wisps” is the kind of game that stands on the shoulders of the giants that have come before, and playing it makes it hard not to think of some of the titles that got us here: Not just “Metroid” and “Castlevania” but also “Rayman,” and also the game with which it shares the most DNA: “Super Meat Boy.” But at no point does “Ori” feel like it’s coasting on the classics, or derivative of them without bringing its own special ingredients to the table. —LG
4. “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2”
“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2” is the culmination of 21 of years of THPS, simultaneously serving as a reboot/remake of the first two games in the series and the first real visual step forward in roughly a decade. For returning players, it might be difficult to dissociate the two, as the haze of nostalgia for the original games can at times obscure just how beautiful this game is (one need only look at side-by-side comparisons to shake them out of this stupor). New players, on the other hand, will be welcomed into what is almost inarguably the most perfect skateboarding game to date. Everything Activision has learned since 1999 has been poured into this game, and as such, reverts, spine transfers, wall plants, and manuals are available on the original “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” courses for the first time.
At its core, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2” is the gaming approximation of Rust Cohle’s “time is a flat circle” metaphor: How else can one explain gleefully zooming around an abandoned warehouse as the eponymous 52-year-old skateboarder, utilizing 2020 graphics, yet soundtracked by turn-of-the-century pop punk and third wave ska revival hits like Millencolin’s “No Cigar” or Goldfinger’s “Superman?” That’s a trick no other game is able to pull off. —LG
3. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”
With its cheery and laidback nature, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was guaranteed to find a large audience during the nightmare that was 2020. Crucially, the Switch hit would’ve stood out in any other year as well: The latest addition to Nintendo’s beloved life sim series is the franchise’s most polished and feature-rich installment yet, and has continued to receive content updates in the months since launch.
The core gameplay is invitingly simple — catch a fish, talk to a neighbor — but rewarding enough that players will always feel like they’ve accomplished something positive. “New Horizons” isn’t the kind of game that promotes binge-playing, but it’s one of the few titles that can surprise and delight players on a daily basis, even after months of play. As we flip the calendar to 2021, it still feels as if there are plenty of new horizons to come. —TH
Possibly the most addictive thing on this planet that won’t kill you, Supergiant’s indie smash “Hades” couldn’t have been a more perfect complement to the nightmare of a year we just had, but nobody reading this need to be told why a time loop story about someone trapped in Hell with their entire family might encapsulate the experience of living through 2020. The genius of “Hades” — in addition to the brilliance of its mix-and-match combat mechanics and the Atlus-worthy extent of its warm sense of humor — lies in what the game does with that premise, and how its narrative embraces the iterative nature of the rogue-like genre instead of treating it like an excuse not to have one.
How do you create real stakes in a dungeon-crawler with infinite lives, no game over screen, and only a false pretense of victory that fades away long before players reach “the end”? You show people that hope is possible, even when escape is not, and that some games are worth playing even if they can’t be beaten. Defeating Hades over and over again (the God, not the game) is so rewarding because every trip back down the River Styx gives you another chance to deepen Zagreus’ relationships with the other denizens of Hades (the place, not the God), and to make eternal damnation a little nicer for everyone. The world’s on fire, and there’s only so much art can do to make sense of the flames. But “Hades” resonates because it recognizes that even Hell can feel like home if you never stop fighting to make it better. —DE
1. “The Last of Us Part II”
Earning comparisons to “The Last Jedi” for the hype that preceded its release, the toxicity that continues to surround it on all sides, and the fearlessness with which it dares to deepen a beloved franchise instead of just echoing what people already loved about it, “The Last of Us Part II” is a bold and profoundly moving blockbuster sequel that sweeps you along with the audacity of a landslide.
Picking up where the original game left off and shuddering with the repercussions of its unforgettably ambiguous finale, the second (and final?) chapter of Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic adventure exploded an intimate portrait of survival into a full-blown opera about the balance of justice, the cycle of violence, and the radical empathy required to satisfy them both. In a ghastly year that broke us apart and wallowed in the worst of what people can be, “The Last of Us Part II” charted the long and messy path back towards a place where we can live with ourselves, if not with each other. —DE