It's that time of year again, when we all come together to watch Geoff Keighley (or, I don't know, Alf) announce the best games of 2020. The initial round of nominees arrived yesterday, and they've already spurred plenty of discussion on social media.
The nominees consist of the usual grab bag of console exclusives and big-budget releases, with Hades being the token indie conclusion. Final Fantasy 7 Remake figures to be the fan-favorite; The Last of Us Part 2 the most controversial, and Ghost of Tsushima the dark horse (I really hope it's not Ghost of Tsushima). Also, Doom Eternal is on this list for some reason? I still haven't figured that one out.
As one of the publications helping to judge this process, USgamer had a hand in picking the Game of the Year slate, and will also be voting on the finalists. It'll be a group effort, so my personal preferences may well be overridden, but I still have some pretty strong thoughts on this year's slate. So for the hell of it, here's my kneejerk ranking of the 2020 nominees.
I haven't stopped thinking about Hades since I finally reached the credit on my 32nd second run a couple months ago. It's remarkable how much this game speaks to me, a person who doesn't even really care about Greek myth. Now I love the Olympus pantheon; ask me about Artemis or Dionysus sometime, I totally have opinions.
It's a game that seems straightforward in the early going—navigate a series of randomly-generated chambers to escape hell—but as it slowly yields its secrets, its emotional depth becomes apparent. Its most compelling character may well be the eponymous Hades, who barely hides his bitterness toward his siblings behind gruff rebukes and a stubborn adherence to the rules. His underworld is a drab, unbending bureaucracy from which Zagreus constantly tries to escape, only to be dragged back again and again.
I've run through Tartarus, Asphodel, and Elysium dozens of times now, and I've yet to tire of it. Its emotional core is a big reason why. Yakuza: Like a Dragon may yet overtake it, but for now, Hades remains my personal Game of the Year.
2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing fans love to grumble about how New Horizons repurposes old content from New Leaf. Nintendo fans complain about its (admittedly clunky) online implementation. Most of these complaints miss the point—Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the defining game of the pandemic year that is 2020. Landing right at the beginning of the initial lockdown, it captured the imaginations of not just the gaming community, but the world at large. Everyone played Animal Crossing. Brie Larson played Animal Crossing. Fricking AOC played Animal Crossing.
Animal Crossing's success was rooted not just in its wholesome appeal, but the appeal of the Switch itself. It was a game in which you could while away hours of quarantine time tending to your island while Netflix murmured in the background. It was a game where you could hop on Zoom and coordinate turnip sales. For all the limitations of its online play, Animal Crossing: New Horizons turned out to be the perfect social game.
When all is said and done, I will have put at least 500 hours into building up my island, which is an utterly absurd amount of time to spend on a game that isn't... I don't know... World of WarCraft. I play less often now, but I still pop in from time to time, marveling at the world I built from scratch. When I was on the verge of a panic attack during Election Night, I picked up Animal Crossing. In that world I so meticulously built for myself, I was able to find a little bit of solace in Isabelle yammering on about her favorite reality show.
We've still got a month to go before 2020 finally, mercifully comes to an end, and a bit longer than that before, god willing, our lunatic of a president finally vacates the White House. I'm glad to have Hamtown to get me through it all, because like everyone else, I suspect I'm going to need it.
3. The Last of Us Part 2
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I prefer The Last of Us Part 2 to its predecessor. It's darker, more ambitious, and more structurally sophisticated work, and it's willing to risk a lot with its portrayal of its most beloved characters. That it's so reviled in certain circles is maybe a credit to Naughty Dog, who were willing to push back against the pressure to just be another Avengers: Endgame—a sequel that exists solely to be a crowdpleaser.
It's because of this that The Last of Us Part 2 continues to spur so much debate among fans, critics, and developers, even as it garners nods at events like The Game Awards. I expect its legacy will ultimately be a divisive one, and that it will be remembered much less fondly than its predecessor, but I still like it. As I've already said, The Last of Us Part 2 is an appropriate bookend to the first game, thoroughly exploring the fallout of Joel's actions. To disregard it is to do a disservice to the original.
4. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
If The Last of Us Part 2 has only gotten less popular as time has pass, Final Fantasy 7 Remake's trajectory has been the opposite. Months later, everyone still loves the adventures of Cloud, Barrett, Aerith, Tifa, and the endlessly thirsty Jessie Raspberry. Even the wild and unexpected ending wasn't enough to deter its fans (many even loved it).
I was ultimately a little more down on Final Fantasy 7 Remake—I didn't like the pacing, and I struggled with the ending—but I came around to it a bit more after release, ultimately calling it the "only 3.5 game that I'm willing to put on my Game of the Year list." I don't think it's the best game to be released in 2020 by a long shot—like I said, that honor goes to Hades—but I don't begrudge it being on the list of nominees. Even all these months later, I'm still amazed that Square Enix released maybe the most anticipated and potentially divisive game ever... and people didn't hate it. They even loved it. That alone might be worth a Game of the Year nod.
5. Ghost of Tsushima
Speaking of games that have risen in esteem as time has gone on, there's Ghost of Tsushima. Originally considered to be firmly in the shadow of The Last of Us Part 2, its reputation has grown to the point that it's routinely praised as one of the best new Sony IPs of the generation. Is it the free Legends expansion? The fact that it runs at a cool 60fps on PlayStation 5? I have no idea.
I do think it's gorgeous, and that carries a lot of weight with people. On more than one occasion I would stop just to ogle its gorgeous vistas as Jin, resplendent in his samurai armor, quietly stroked his horse. I don't remember its story very well; its action is stiff, and its stealth is clunky in the extreme, but I do remember its swirl of color. And hey, it's a visual medium.
Would I have nominated what is ultimately a very conventional open-world action game for Game of the Year? No. Do I understand why people love it so much? Not really. But I'll give it this much: if there's any game that epitomizes where the medium stands at the close of the generation, it's this one.
6. Doom Eternal
Finally, we have Doom Eternal, a game that really shouldn't be on this list. As the sequel to perhaps the greatest shooter of the generation, Doom Eternal is messy, unfocused, and well, just not as good. There many more games that could have been honored in this spot: Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Half-Life: Alyx, Kentucky Route Zero. Heck, I'd even throw in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 just because it's such an incredible technical achievement.
As always, The Game Awards nominations reveal the flaws in contemporary games criticism. The choices, heavily influenced by mainstream media outlets, are too conventional, too console-focused, too biased toward big-budget releases. For every well-deserved 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim nomination, there's an utterly baffling choice like Doom Eternal. It's the kind of show that will nominate FIFA 21 for best sports game (why!?) simply because critics have heard of it.
Some will argue that The Game Awards are just a vehicle for new game announcements and trailers, and they're right. But for better or worse, they are the biggest, most visible awards shows that we have. We need to work harder to make it the showcase gaming deserves it.
In the meantime, the least we can do is give Hades the Game of the Year win that it deserves.