When the world at large looks back at 2020, how much will video games figure into our memories? Frankly, humanity has a pretty massive bullet list of crazy, important, and scary moments that will likely outweigh the importance of, say, knocking out your dailies in an MMO.
But at Ars, we know that you’ve still been keenly interested in gaming articles this year—whether because you had questions about sold-out consoles and graphics cards, because you happened to be home near your gaming machines more often, or because your social life began revolving less around the local pub and more around a Discord channel. In an increasingly stressed out and homebound year, video games provided equal parts refuge and escape.
Thankfully, development studios quickly figured out the work-from-home thing well enough to finish and launch some incredible video games. (Well, some more than others.) Hence, we’ve again polled the Ars gaming braintrust to rank the games that provided the most comfort in a year where comfort was in seriously short supply.
(As the creators of this unscientific but heavily researched poll, we look forward to your thoughts and responses in the comments section—so long as you’re kind about it. Remember, 2020’s been rough. Be nice.)
20. Astro’s Playroom
Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan (Asobi Team); PlayStation 5
Games that come packaged with a new console on launch day carry a heavy burden. They have to represent the promise and potential of the new hardware to an eager audience without slipping into the dry and dull obscurity of a mere tech demo. Astro’s Playroom walks this tightrope perfectly, highlighting by example the best of what the PlayStation 5 can do while serving as a light yet surprisingly deep platform game in its own right.
As we noted in our first impressions back in October, Astro’s Playroom serves as the perfect showcase for the PS5’s new DualSense controller. The game mixes subtle, positional vibrations, perfectly synced audio feedback from the controller’s speaker, and well-tuned resistance in triggers to extend a game’s sensory experience past the screen in a new and unique way. The game’s use of ray-traced reflections and high-definition rendering, while more subtle, also highlight the PS5’s cutting-edge CPU, GPU, and SSD.
More than that, though, Astro’s Playroom serves as an interactive museum of 25 years of PlayStation history littered with collectible trinkets and Easter eggs that evoke memories of the best hardware and software under the PlayStation umbrella. Combine that with the tongue-in-cheek exploration of the PlayStation 5’s innards, and you get a corporate love letter that rivals Super Smash Bros. for its sheer fanboy glee.
This quick pack-in game only takes a few hours to beat, though hidden secrets and speedrun optimizations can easily add more hours of fun. Still, this endearing little adventure through the innards of the PlayStation 5 will probably stick with Sony fans for as long as they enjoy their new console purchase.
19. The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog; PlayStation 4
If you read Ars Technica’s review of this game, you might be surprised to see it on this year-end list. And yes, back in June I took TLOU2 to task for a plot that devolves into borderline nonsensical character motivations, muddying a valiant attempt to tell a cohesive story about a cycle of trauma driven by endless revenge. Compared to the tight, driven, emotional plot of the first game, Part II felt like a step back into a more self-indulgent, less affecting storytelling form.
But those structural flaws can’t take away from the intense, memorable moments to be found within the sweep of Naughty Dog’s latest grand epic: plucking notes on a guitar in a quiet, abandoned building; exploring the ruins of a long-decaying museum as a joyful birthday present; gawking at the marvel of a sports stadium converted to military housing for thousands; stealing a moment of romance while hiding from a raging storm; riding a horse through the flaming wreckage of a doomed village.
These moments and more stick out, months later, shining amid the tangled and messy plot as some of gaming’s most well-constructed setpieces. And while those pieces don’t come together into a satisfying narrative whole like its predecessor did, their construction still merits recognition and observation by anyone interested in the modern era of video game storytelling.
18. The Longing
The Longing gets a lot from a little. This little-hyped game from German developer Studio Seufz is part point-and-click adventure, part idle game, part Animal Crossing-esque home furnishing simulator, and part existential Tamagotchi.
You play as a frail, soot-covered character simply known as A Shade. Deep below the surface, in a massive network of underground caves, you’re borne from the hand of a giant earthy king. He tells you he must slumber to regain his strength and to wake him in 400 days, at which point he promises to end all fear and longing in the world.
Then, a persistent timer at the top of the screen starts ticking down—in real time. 400 actual days. The rest is on you. Will you follow orders, bound by a sense of duty? Will you seek an escape, unsure of what the consequences may be? Will you risk exploring for secrets? How exactly will the king fulfill his promise? Whatever you do, the timer is always ticking toward an ending. That might sound familiar, especially as we all wait for the last few ticks before a vaccine ends Our Pandemic Year™.
You can speed up the in-game countdown, mercifully, by reading books, sketching artwork, and furnishing your in-cave home. The timer continues even when the game is closed, and multiple endings don’t require anywhere close to the full 400 days. (My playthrough took about 25 hours.)
Still, this is a game about patience and isolation. You are alone in the caves—there are no enemies to confront, no dense gameplay systems to nestle into. You can’t starve to death or anything like that. You just sit, explore, or kill time. You can bookmark specific spots in the caves for the Shade to remember, but he walks painfully slow, and returning home means walking all the way back.
This is a titanic subversion of popular video game design, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But in the process of playing, The Longing forces you to live in the experience of waiting, wondering, being alone with your thoughts, the unanswerable, and what it means to be content. All of this captures the state of being in 2020 tremendously well, but more than that, The Longing creates a fundamentally human conflict. One way or another, we all have lords we must serve. Right?