GWJ Writers 2020 Games of the Year

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Felix Threepaper

The Old Faves

I'm still playing Civ 6. Regular drops of new civs, game modes, and scenarios kept me on the drip. I went in for a 3rd playthrough of Divinity Original Sin 2, an umpteenth XCOM 2 campaign, and I also jumped back into long replays of Skyrim and Fallout 4 because I am yearning for sequels to those games.

Honourable Mention: Roblox

AKA why I never get on the PC anymore and why I haven’t played Hades, XCOM Chimera Squad, Total War Saga: Troy or any other of a bunch of potential GOTY contenders. I don’t even play Roblox; my kids do. And it has had a substantial impact on our family and my gaming this year. For better or worse, it became a crutch during lockdown: a way for the kids to avoid stir craziness and play with each other. Plus, it let them catch up with their friends. I’m still ambivalent about it, but the genie is out of the bottle and it’s part of their routine now.

Anyhoo, on to the games I played for the first time this year. All but #10 were on my trusty, and increasingly loud, PS4.

10. Crusader Kings 3

The map is gorgeous and the tutorial is the best I've seen for a Paradox game, but I only played for 2 hours. So how does it make my list? Because I was completely absorbed by other peoples’ experiences of it. I devoured folks’ podcast anecdotes, loved reading the forum thread, and watched dozens of hours of Let’s Plays. This dynasty simulator is one of the best anecdote-generators I’ve ever seen. I look forward to generating my own stories, someday.

9. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

While I find the world, religion, and lore of Pillars games to be quite dour, I enjoy the moment-to-moment questing and combat. The choices on character builds are quirkier than your average fantasy RPG, and I love finding cool synergies between characters’ abilities in fights. Also, the bleakness of the ‘warring gods’ plot makes it easier to make difficult decisions—all the choices seem awful, so just pick one and keep moving. PoE 2 brought some Black Flag to proceedings: a bigger map and a ship to explore it with. I only jumped off before finishing the campaign because the CTDs and long loading screens were driving me crazy.

8. Children of Morta

I picked this up on 1 January and played with my 6-year-old son while bushfires raged across the country, sending smoke over our hometown. The pixel art is beautiful, the combat and levelling are simple but decent, and it’s got that roguelike storytelling mode of dropping morsels of story every few runs. This worked wonders to assuage the boy’s anxiety about the fires while I kept half an eye on the “Fires Near Me” app.

7. Football/Soccer: Tactics and Glory

This is a tasty tactical treat. The turn-based matches deliver some awesome moments, like a streaky goal or match-winning tackle. Sometimes, even a 0-0 draw was super satisfying, just like in real football. You get very attached to your star players as they level up and get elite abilities, but be careful about overusing them and risking fatigue or injury. I ran out of steam with Football Tactics and Glory long before my team reached the top league, but was impressed by its depth and granularity. Someone who actually understands football could get a whole lot more out of this game.

6. Maneater

Silly, chompy fun. It came at the right time of year, too, when it wasn’t crowded out by heavy competition.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

Just when you think you have Star Wars fatigue, along comes some property that keeps you on the hook. This is the spiritual successor to X-Wing and TIE Fighter that I never thought I needed. The single-player campaign is (so far) an enjoyable romp on both sides of the Force. It's set in the same post-Return of the Jedi time as The Mandalorian, plus it's totally playable with just a controller. I’m itching to jump back in and finish it.

4. Pathfinder: Kingmaker Definitive Edition

I found this when I was on the rebound from PoE 2, and maybe it hit harder because it's actually stable and loads quickly. It is a solid execution of the premise of earlier tabletop RPGs, warts and all: the world is full of evil monsters to clear, and your party measures its progress by establishing a stronghold and growing an empire. There’s also an old-school lack of hand-holding. Offering huge versatility in how you build your characters, Kingmaker lets you take a level in any class when you level up, but that means you can level yourself into a hole. Still, with a few character-build FAQs to steer me right, I enjoyed the huge campaign and its quirky town-building and empire-management layers. It was certainly a surprise hit for me.

3. Ghost of Tsushima

This game taught me to embrace parrying. Usually when I see stealth on the menu, I will order double helpings and crouch-walk my way across the map. In this case, because I was a samurai with an uncle lecturing me about honour, I eschewed stealth whenever I could, opting instead to ride up to a camp, challenge every mofo in there, and fight them all. It was glorious, to the point where I ignored nearly half of the available skills and got grumpy at the mandatory stealth missions. The scenery was also stunning, and I enjoyed the moments of zen, like having a bath, playing my flute, or composing a haiku.

2. Wasteland 3

Where Pathfinder is stubbornly set in its old-school CRPG ways, this old-school CRPG series shows off some new tricks. Interesting choices confront you at every turn, with consequences that come back to bite you when you least expect it. I really had to pause and contemplate a number of choices. One conflict even resolved itself while I was trying to do the usual CRPG thing of playing two factions against each other and putting off choosing who to support while I did other stuff—but Wasteland 3 wasn’t having it. It also found a better balance of kookiness and satire than Wasteland 2 did, and is certainly more polished. Add a memorable soundtrack and an improved combat system where the healer/leader gets more work to do, and you’ve got yourself a really good RPG.

1. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

I only bought one of the Ubisoft open-world games that came out this year and Eivor strong feeling I made the right choice.

I’m 60 hours in, and I’m having as much fun with this as I did with Odyssey, which was a blast. I am in love with the geography of this game—I know it’s not totally historically accurate, but it’s a good enough jumping-off point to get me thinking about how the Dark Ages involved trying to rebuild society while living among the physical relics of a greater one. Maybe that’s where we get our fantasy tropes about lost elven kingdoms. As an open-world environment, I find these ‘historical-ish’ settings so much more enticing than modern-day cities. My fascination with the geography makes me want to explore and find those mysteries and wealth hoards. The main pledge missions are strong enough that they’re a welcome return when I start to tire of the more whimsical mini-quests.

I’m also enjoying the combat—being a Viking means I’m not worried about 100% stealthing everything; I just do it for a while until I can go loud and break out my flail and hammer, or spear and Dane axe, or whatever other crazy weapon combo I can come up with. I’m also enjoying not having to level up my gear, or replace it, as often as I had to in Odyssey. Every subsystem is providing me with some level of enjoyment, and the best part is that when I start to tire of it, I can stop and do something else. This is the game that’s keeping me from going back and finishing all the other games on my list.


staygold

10. Tom Clancy's Division 2: Warlords of New York

Returning to New York with my dad, standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty nearly 11 years after we visited in real life was one of my favourite moments in gaming this year. That alone could have earned this spot on my list, but I also devoured another 200 hours across PC and PS4. This is the first "season pass" I've ever completed, and it was worth it. I'm just a little bummed the incentive to keep playing quickly fell into "grind missions for a 1% drop rate for a raid-worthy gun." My time is more valuable than that.

9. Maneater

Sharks. Leveling. Armoured sharks. A critique on consumerism and pollution. Electro-sharks. Campy enemies. Stealth sharks. Apocalyptic-style Florida—wait, maybe Maneater is real life?

It's a goofy-fun game that doesn't take itself too seriously but also makes the time for some serious critiques on human interactions with wildlife. And you play as a shark, which will either sell you on the game or it won't.

8. Ghostrunner

Your only real weapon is a cybernetic katana, but the level of complexity hidden behind that blade is surprising. It's a hyper-fast slice-em-up where one bullet will kill you. If you hated the marauders in DOOM Eternal, don't buy this game. It's brutally difficult, but I have never enjoyed punishment quite this much. I died over 1,000 times in 14 hours, and I think if I pushed harder to finish more of the game, it would rank higher on my list. It's atmospheric, stylish, and well worth the price of admission.

7. XCOM: Chimera Squad

This may get me in trouble with those who enjoyed the crunchy, tense grind of Enemy Unknown, but I think Chimera Squad is the best XCOM game. The characters were fun, with enough mechanical depth to create interesting synergies, and I really enjoyed the early-evening drama quality—decent complexity without overly punishing minor mistakes. Plus, adjusting the turn-order timeline was like playing multi-dimensional chess. For the on-sale price of a venti caramel macchiato, you can't go wrong.

6. The Room VR: A Dark Matter

Dark. Moody. Full of intrigue and story. In a year when people could visit my house normally, I imagine The Room VR would have racked up nearly 50 hours of play just showcasing the magic of VR. This game doesn't get bogged down in the videogame nature of VR, but instead takes full advantage of the immersion to create a one-of-a-kind experience. The puzzles are fun, and they maximize the medium in ways even escape rooms can't accomplish. I really hope there's a sequel in the works!

5. Ghost of Tsushima

Best enjoyed like a fine glass of whiskey—lights low, movements slow, breathing deeply, gazing at the sights—Tsushima is as much a beautiful art piece as it is a love letter to Japan. The setting is faithfully and lovingly recreated, as is the unique approach to an otherwise tired and over-saturated genre. This will be an instant-buy if it ever lands on PC.

4. Super Mega Baseball 3

As a kid, I dreamed of snagging a tip-toe catch of a football or zipping along crisp, freshly flooded ice. I loved sports, but I was also born with an extra, little vertebrae in my spine that doctors warned could dislodge with any contact to the head or neck. So, I had to love sports from a safe distance, watching every sport imaginable on TV and even embarking on a multi-decade mission with my dad to see an NFL game in every team's home stadium (we're on a pandemic-enforced hiatus right now). Oh, and of course, sports games.

Enter SMB3. I never played the earlier entries, and I honestly wondered why I would play this when MLB The Show exists. But just as a burger grilled on your own barbecue tastes a little better, SMB3 has a little something extra that captures exactly what I always wanted from all those years I missed out on playing sports. From clever franchise names, to stand-ins for real-world legends, to the enjoyment of building a roster and putting together the lineup, there is so much to love here! But I'll introduce just one: Filet Jones.

Jones is David Ortiz—bravado, moxie, swagger, and home runs. I mean, look at these stats: 31 walks and 16 home runs in only 23 games! His "RBI Man" trait boosts both his contact and his power whenever a runner is on second or third base. And he delivers!

It's hard to find a better sports game. SMB3 is almost perfect. If you like sports at all, if you've ever watched baseball, if you've ever loved character creation, buy Super Mega Baseball 3! Now, I'd just love to see the devs take on American Football with the same level of charm and verve.

3. Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Stealth does not matter. Diplomacy does not matter. This is pure Viking roleplay—gruff, tough, drink first and swing second, and only ask questions when prompted by an NPC.

I'm a sucker for everything Assassin's Creed, but I will take a moment to recognize the allegations of sexual misconduct by the creative lead for this game. I completely support the decision of those who are not willing to spend money on this game.

The highs in Valhalla may not be as high as those in Origins, but the lows are not as mind-numbing as in Odyssey. The decision to narrow the RPG-loot down to upgradable base level weapons and armour is one I welcome gladly. It means I'm spending less time comparing +2 fire damage and burn time with +10 physical damage, and more time realizing how much better Female Eivor is than Male Eivor! And I say that as someone who first spent 30 hours as the man.

Eivor is no Kassandra, but where the main character fails, the individual region stories shine. The writing on these stories is some of the best and most interesting in video games, period. There’s a depth and complexity that has led to several jaw dropping and gasp inducing moments. The stellar storytelling has been my driving force (well, that and my kleptomaniac tendencies).

I’m nowhere near finishing the game, but it’s been a delightful and rewarding game to pluck away at a couple hours a week. I’ll be playing and finishing well into 2021.

2. Doom Eternal

Some people seemed to want more of 2016 Doom, but I think what DOOM Eternal actually brings is -more- Doom. In the way Doom 2016 reimagined the 1993 version while preserving the spirit of the original, Eternal answers the question: "What can Doom take from the most popular modern games?"

A combination of ammo scarcity, more varied and complex enemies, and a greater focus on the environment as both obstacle and boon focused the player on the pure rip-and-tear of Hell. If you stop moving, you die. Pure and simple.

At the end of March, I found it an almost meditative experience—each level a flow-state puzzle of rhythm fused with guts, gore, and glory. I found immense satisfaction from practice leading to mastery, feeling my skill progression with every reset. This is a world where you are supposed to fail, you are supposed to die, and where repetition is the key to improvement.

The much-loathed marauder is the pinnacle gatekeeper, the design ethos incarnate. It is designed to break you, and I reviled it for ripping hundreds of lives from me. I screamed and yelled and pounded my desk in frustration. In a game focused on speed and rhythm, the marauder forces you to slow down. Breathe. Wait. Strike. Repeat. Then, finally bask in the glow of victory over that [expletive] [expletive] [expletive]!

In a year all about losing control, this was one game that gave me a feeling of complete control.

1. Deep Rock Galactic

Deep Rock Galactic came into my life when I was at my loneliest, when multiplayer communities were my only remaining bastion of human contact. It's only a mild exaggeration to say that this game saved my sanity this year. And the incredible synergy between multiple disparate systems makes this game shine like a glowing chunk of gold (or maybe an ERR://23¤Y%/ cube).

The character designs are distinct yet synergistic nearly to perfection. Each class has 25 levels of progression, 30+ abilities to unlock, and a unique upgrade tree for each of their weapons and abilities. The dwarves' tools meld with the environment to either make or break entire missions. A well-placed zipline can traverse an entire chasm while new paths can be drilled on the fly as needed. The number of times I've been part of a 3-dwarf team only to be missing the key class we need for a particular obstacle speaks to the balance and fun interplay of the characters.

But I think it's the environments that truly shine. Simply put, this is the best example of procedurally generated environments I have ever seen in a game. Sure, there are some repeating structures and themes: bridges over stalagmites, winding tunnels in similar patterns, but it never feels samey. So many times, I had to remind myself that these were not hand-crafted worlds, and after 1000+ missions, I've never seen a repeat. It's that good. And the endless destructibility just enhances everything. If the tunnels don't line up exactly, the players have the tools to deal with that.

This is a game that will stay in my multiplayer rotation for years to come. I can’t think of a better way to end than with a good: “4 KARL” and “ROCK. AND. STONE.”


TheHarpoMarxist

10. Paradise Killer

Paradise Killer is the most innovative game of 2020, no contest. Its sum is more than its parts, even though we're talking about parts that are already wild and fantastic in their own right. It's a detective story by way of Myst-like gameplay, set in an aggressively surreal world brimming with incredible characters—and all of it wrapped in a design that feels like one part GeoCities, one part late 80's/early 90's gauche, and ninety-million parts some sort of hallucination you might have while sleep-deprived and on something amazing.

Like any good Agatha Christie story, you (as the detective) gather evidence for the first portion of the game, interviewing people, discovering clues, and exploring a unique open world. Then you present your findings in a fantastic, climactic scene. Reveals pile on top of reveals. It's as exhilarating as any boss fight I have ever seen. But Facts and Truth do not always align. And Paradise Killer is very happy to let you sit in ambiguity. As you try to find justice and untangle the dizzying, overlapping layers of the mystery, you're forced to make—and live with—some tough choices.

The only reason this game doesn't sit higher on my list is because my experience playing it was primarily by watching my partner play. I missed some key chunks of the first act, but was absolutely enthralled by the endgame (it is a fantastic co-op game, BTW, since so much of the game is interpreting evidence and testimony from POIs). I enjoyed my own dip into the game, despite having spoilers galore from watching my partner crack it. If there's anything on my list that I would say is a universal must-play for everyone, regardless of their taste, it is this game. Paradise Killer is paving the way for some exciting possibilities about what games can do without relying on violence as a primary verb.

9. Wildermyth

Though still in early access, Wildermyth is already a gem. Procedural content is nothing new, but procedural narrative is ambitious. It's hard to randomly generate characters that make sense in a narrative framework, yet some clever systemic choices have allowed algorithm and die-roll elements to just work, without any heavy, specific tailoring.

In its current state, this is a platform with a couple of fun campaigns and a robust enough strategic layer. It's already one of the most stylish and interesting RPGs I've ever played. But with more content and some tools for player-created campaigns, the potential is limitless.

8. Griftlands

Griftlands takes place in a fun and messy, sci-fi universe filled with evocative characters—almost like the developers decided to start at the Mos Eisley cantina and then let their imagination run rampant from there. It's one of many deck-building CCGs to follow in the wake of Slay the Spire, but it's the one that won me over.

In particular, the social system is brimming with ideas, and the way it turns the messy tactics and emotions of negotiation into game mechanics still makes me smile. Everything from being passive-aggressive, to utilizing rhetorical bait, to the way it represents lines of argument—it all functions -exactly- as it should.

This is the type of game where I can feel the energy and excitement of the design team bubbling throughout. It's infectious. It makes me want to design games.

7. Othercide

Othercide takes an innovative approach to turn-based combat with a focus toward manipulating initiative to move units up and down the timeline. Do you take a measured turn or burst a unit now and risk it not acting until much later? Do you rush to take out an enemy unit, or do you mitigate its effectiveness to buy you a more efficient turn later? To prevail, you need to be several moves ahead of the AI. It's basically goth chess, though if you play it enough while indulging in various intoxicants, you will start to see it on the ceiling.

While it can get frustrating at times (the UI wasn't always clean or obvious), it remains an astonishing accomplishment from a new, independent studio. For me, it pushes the same buttons as XCOM, but pushes them in its own unique way.

6. Crusader Kings III

You can eat the Pope.

5. World of Horror

The narrative of World of Horror isn't a mold the plot is poured into, but is rather a scarf to drape around innovative approaches to classic tropes. For a game with a staggering list of influences and jam-packed with systems, tones, and nostalgic pastiche, it leaves a lot of blank space for the player's imagination.

The story arc is built around a single individual investigating the unknowable, supernatural forces that threaten to ruin the world, and in 2020, there was something empowering and nourishing about that—a catharsis in a feeling of agency against certain doom, in recognizing that understanding what's happening actually matters.

4. Wasteland 3

I love camp.

With Communist robots, giant Regan statues, and a plot plucked straight from King Lear, Wasteland 3 is some of the best camp in gaming—thanks, in no small part, to it's self-awareness. Most post-apocalyptic settings lean heavily into grimdark tones, blind to their inherent campiness. I think Shawn Andrich said it best on the podcast: Wasteland 3 is an amusement park ride. It knows it's ridiculous, it accepts and revels in that fact, and it still manages to find moments of poignancy and clarity.

On top of that, it features some of the most compelling mechanics in the series. Combat is fun and fast, but also crunchy enough to scratch my tactics itch. Character customization and strategic options are a delight. But the star might just be the soundtrack, transforming turn-based combat sequences into dynamic set-pieces.

3. Demon's Souls

In 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a shot by shot remake of Psycho. It was a critical and commercial failure. Everyone was vexed. Why go through the laborious process of remaking a movie if you aren't going to change anything or add your own spin to it? The general consensus was that the whole exercise was ridiculous. The Demon's Souls remake had this outcome as a potential floor.

But games are a different medium. Van Sant's Psycho was meant as an artistic exercise for himself and his collaborators, but the Demon's Souls remake is absolutely aimed toward the audience. By showing off what the PS5 can do while being a faithful recreation of an older game, it has one foot in the bleeding edge and one in nostalgia. It is a mesmerizing triumph. The beauty is just stunning, but I was especially surprised by how timeless the mechanics feel. Like many, I went into this having never played the original. I expected Dark Souls, but weirder, less evolved. I was not expecting it to be its own thing and every bit the masterpiece as the titles that came after.

This is also the first game I've streamed without playing in advance, so it became a vehicle through which to examine my own playing habits, where the pressure of an audience intersects and clashes with my typical instincts. It has also been a joy to both feel the full effect of the community-driven notes mechanic and to have forum members hanging out while I perish at a healthy clip.

In terms of moment-to-moment joy and wonder, nothing this year compares to the Demon's Souls remake.

2. Hades

There is no escaping it—Hades lives up to the hype. The writing, the sound, the acting, the art design, the gameplay—all of it is crackerjack, with every aspect iterated through Early Access and integrated into a beautiful final package.

But the true genius lies in how the mechanics reinforce the narrative themes. Employing diegetic, rogue-like mechanics to tell an emotionally complex story about escaping toxic family dynamics is nothing short of breath-taking in its simple ingenuity. The story will resonate with me for years to come, in part because of the themes, in part because of the interplay between mechanics and narrative.

I rarely replay games, but after seeing the credits, I kept coming back. I've long completed the story, but I still -still- feel the urge to do one more run. And for a genre I'm usually luke-warm toward, that alone should speak volumes.

1. Blaseball

I have participated in the cultural event known as Blaseball.

Some games I put more time into, and some I enjoyed more, but no game was as important, uplifting, and necessary in the midst of this traumatic year as Blaseball. When sports seemed like a careless and dangerous idea, it offered a safe alternative. But for me, there was something more that drew me in. There was none of the pro-corporate, pro-imperialism that had driven me away from baseball years ago. It was pure enjoyment, and I started to find emotional connections to these fictional players. Dr. Felix Garbage became my favorite pitcher; Dominic Marijuana, my favorite hitter.

Then, the game transformed.

As other fans started creating backstories for each player, Game Band rolled with it. What started as a sports-substitute quickly became a collaborative writing project between the audience and the creators. When I think about everything that has sprung up around Blaseball—radical inclusivity, absurdist brilliance, openly egalitarian politics pushing against the divisiveness of the moment—I tear up. Where The Last of Us: Part Two tries very hard to make players feel something by piling on the gloom and doom, Blaseball sees the gloom and doom of reality and cuts through it with pure joy.


Antichulius

I leaned heavily on the Switch this year. Dedicated PC gaming time was limited, replaced instead by short-burst sessions and the necessity to suspend at a moment's notice. The Switch excelled for me when facing the ever-changing circumstances of 2020.

10. Pokémon Sword

I like pokémon, but it's my kids who really love 'em. I burned out after grinding for the first 5 badges, but my kids keep trying to pull me back for more Dynamaxing. The Galar region is gorgeous, filled with enjoyable design and theme, and I did enjoy the new Wild areas.

Maybe I played it wrong, though. It was my first foray into the mainline Pokémon series, and I over-leveled a single roster rather than regularly rotating through a variety of characters. Catching became more challenging as I'd end up defeating my opponent outright more often than not.

I hope my kids and I can finish it together one day, even if only because I decide to pass the controller and watch from the sidelines.

9. Civilization VI

In my pantheon of games, Civilization looms large. But I held off on Civ 6 until the expansions and DLC filled out some missing mechanics, until the inevitable price drop, until the itch for more Civ struck once more.

It was the promise of cross platform saves that wooed me. Multiple purchases and several campaigns saw me bouncing between platforms, but my iPad won out in the end—at least when I can't play on my PC. But with mouse support now on iPadOS, who knows.

8. Mario Kart 8

For the first time, my entire family raced together. Thanks to the thoughtful auto-play settings, my 3-year-old finally joined in. More often, he let the wheel rest in his lap and watched the race like a movie, but with an occasional reminder to use a power-up, he started to get the idea.

And there's truly nothing as sweet as a toddler's squeal of delight the first time they see their red shell hit daddy's kart.

7. Cat Quest

Cute, simple, and a pleasure to play. The campaign was short enough to finish within a few sessions, and never so complicated that I lost track of where to go next, even when I couldn’t get back to it right away. Cat Quest was almost the perfect game for 2020 (Notice how I avoided the cat-pun, there?).

6. Ape Out

A visual concert starring a rampaging, murderous primate? Check. Dynamic, responsive drum-solo soundtrack? Check. Perpetually installed just in case I want to jump right back in? Absolutely.

5. Luigi’s Mansion 3

The co-op is the entire reason this made my list. I’m new to the franchise and it was fun enough for a while, but the repetitive fights and occasional backtracking started to wear thin. Alone, I would have bailed and called it good, but with a 7-year-old partner, everything old was new again, and even chasing a ghost cat through previous floors was exciting.

I beamed inside as I watched my daughter move from hiding during fights, to taking on ghosts solo, to competently doing her part to solve timed puzzles during the final boss. We started the game together; we rolled the credits together. It was a joy of a journey simply because we took it together.

4. Fitness Boxing 2

I’m not a boxer. I’ve never had any interest in boxing. I couldn’t tell a hook from a haymaker from a heavyweight. And yet, every day I’m shadow boxing, Guitar Hero-style but with my fists.

I’ve tried gaming my fitness many times before. I’ve halfway finished Couch-to-5K twice, I own a once-launched copy of Ring Fit Adventure, and I’ve installed countless exercise apps (Zombies, Run, anyone?). But Fitness Boxing 2 is the first time I connected at the right time with the right fitness game. The barriers to play are low—just pop off the joycons and tap the icon. In the month since release, I have yet to miss a day.

Some days, I’ll just stretch and earn my daily stamp; other days, I’ll bob and weave, jab and straight for 30 minutes. Even on one day I had already mentally labeled as a “throwaway day,” I hopped on just to get my stamp and before I knew it, I was throwing 1-2 combinations to a horn-n-synth rendition of YMCA for 10 minutes. That’s a win enough for me.

3. Hades

After more than 100 runs, after more than 41,000 enemies defeated, after reuniting couples forced apart by fate, after befriending a floating gorgon head, after completing all but a few prophecies and buying up nearly all the new furniture and decor, after even the narrator finally gave up on concocting new death-scenarios—after all of that, I was finally able to put Hades down long enough to play something else.

I’m not one to 100% a game, but Hades has a good chance of drawing me back in to do just that. It’s a masterpiece in blending story, gameplay, and a reward loop that sits as high up as the Civ One More Turn syndrome.

2. Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing gave meaning to my days when the pandemic and shutdowns stole away all sense of time and accomplishment. It gave me the short-term goals I needed to feel like my days amounted to more than Zoom meetings and Teams messages.

I loved collecting outfits, terraforming my island, playing the stalk market, and even the weeks I spent just trying to get my rocks to collect together into a nice garden. I loved visiting other islands and the breakneck pace of the Animal Crossing forum thread. But once I’d filled my storage, finished my community rec area, paid all my debts, and meditated to fountain sounds in my rock garden, it was enough.

I don’t think my story here is unique. I think for many of us, Animal Crossing was the friend and the task list we needed to get through a difficult, awkward, and frustrating transition. I will always look back on it fondly for that, but I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever return to my island for more than an occasional visit, maybe some weeding, and a quick hi to a few old friends.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

As much as Animal Crossing carried me through the early days of the closures, Breath of the Wild was my pandemic game. Its sparse, yet populated world felt like a perfect echo of our world’s isolation. Its characters became touchstones of connection and friendship. I even grew to like seeing Beedle at every stable as I warped around the continent.

But it was the moments of memory, the glimpses of Zelda and the Champions that anchored me to the world. It was those bonds—long ago forged, yet as precious now as ever—that entwined within my heart. I’d never felt so grateful for extra DLC quests, endless Koraks, and even the meticulously planned Lynel fights—they all gave me reasons to stay a little longer in a world I cherished.

Defeating Calamity Ganon was deeply bittersweet. I teared up more than once, knowing I was leaving, knowing I was leaving Hyrule a better place. One day, I will brave the Master Mode, and I’ll probably tear up again the moment I step out of the Shrine of Resurrection. Because it’ll feel like coming home again—finally.

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