The game that best captures 2020 was released in the late days of 2019. Death Stranding came out on November 8, and, though it offered refreshing glimpses of the pastoral—panoramas of rock and moss, riven with surging streams—it told of our end. Or at least of our lowest ebb. Its hero was charged with reconnecting a splintered world, which amounted to hiking between a series of isolated outposts and hooking them up to the internet, and thus to the humanity-mending power of communication borne on its fibre-optic currents. Yeah, sure. Tell that to someone who has been beached in the limbo of a Zoom call over the last twelve months.
The onset of Covid-19 has subjected us to life stranding: huddled in our outposts, mired in a wasteland of waiting, and tethered to our loved ones from afar. And it is Hideo Kojima’s game, whose prescience could not have been planned, that has spoken most sharply to the pains of this year. Other remedies were put forward, with a view to calming, rather than probing the present moment. Animal Crossing: New Horizons descended, like a warm blanket, in March, and set about soothing the international woe via the oft-neglected method of turnip accumulation. The series’ bushy-tailed appeal—the crux of which is a Crusovian blend of wilderness and cultivation—was heightened by the new game’s island setting. Stranger still, its bustling shores delivered a balmy parody of the reality from which many had made a tactical retreat: their homes lapped by the tides of self-isolation, their comforts carefully arranged.
For those who would rather rage, the same day brought Doom Eternal, anger being as good an emotion as any, I suppose, to replace the fear of being on planet Earth. Such was the attitude adopted by its protagonist, anyway, who, ranged against the twitchy mob of Hell’s forces, mantled himself in heavy metal and took aim at his problems with a selection of high-calibre weaponry. It was not a strategy without merit. No less bleak a situation blighted the streets of Raccoon City, through which Jill Valentine was harried by a merciless foe, in Resident Evil 3. The various phases of 2020—the initial bite of anxiety, the nausea of the unknown, and the reanimating touch of routine—aren’t tied to the schedule of the calendar so much as to a shifting throng of images. The early months of lockdown, for me, resound with the clattering chrome legs of demonic spiders, and the increasingly begrimed visage of Jill, as she raced free of her own private inferno.
The swell of summer had little to do with the weather, which, reports suggest, warmed reliably at the usual times. True, I do remember a fan in the living room, gusting a smoggy wind toward me. But the season was ushered in far more vividly by the broiling technicolour of Little Orpheus; the bright waters of Maneater, frothing with blue murder; and the sprinkler-swished lawns of Destroy All Humans, darkened, as they were, by a low-cruising saucer. All these moments pulsed with a lurid B-movie allure, but the sunnier weeks of 2020 were hardly light on blockbusters. Final Fantasy VII Remake, when viewed from a distance (as is traditionally the way I prefer to view the series), it looked to sport all the irritations of its forebears. A crappy title, swords the size of surfboards, and a protagonist, called Cloud, with a grenade blast of blonde hair.
And yet it yielded an unexpected silver lining. Here was a remake that held fast to the blueprint of its predecessor, while souping it up with a surfeit of visual fizz—like pouring champagne into a rusty fuel tank. Only, its reverence, rather than fencing off the pleasures within to the unfamiliar, seemed to richen the brew. If you happened not to have played the original, and thus your eyes were unclouded by familiarity, the result was like Hidetaka Miyazaki crossed with Baz Luhrmann. You sensed a fully fleshed world and a complete plot lurking, half-hidden, amid a son et lumière of dance sequences, overripe dialogue, and a narrative so busy that it practically lurched into fast forward. It was certainly bloated, and I was bored by the end, but its longueurs were in service of sifting through one of the year’s best settings: Midgar, a pair of cities—one atop the other, like a mud-dark wedding cake—whose steel slums were dusted with stories.
Indeed, in a housebound year, the biggest games were about geography, about the way in which our personal troubles have a habit of trickling into the landscape around us. Take Jin Sakai, for example, the figure at the heart of Ghost of Tsushima. Facing a Mongol invasion, he finds not just his nation but his beliefs under siege, as the sneaky tactics of his foes clash against the chivalry of his Samurai code. (Imagine Don Quixote had jumped from La Mancha to Japan, and was contemplating becoming a ninja.) When faced with a nasty new world, honour, the game seemed to suggest, was but a final fantasy to be cast aside. In a subtle flourish, Tsushima, too, must stoically endure, as its natural serenity is bruised. A forest path bowered by hanging bodies, a perfect white beach sullied by a single crumpled shape, life leaking onto the sand.
If, on the other hand, you wished to assess the damage wrought on the plague-harrowed country of The Last of Us Part II, you needn’t bother surveying its dimming vales. Instead, simply gaze at the face of its heroine, Ellie. There you will find a map of the many unnatural shocks that flesh is heir to. Were it not for the motion capture, the artistic muscle, and, of course, the money, such nuance would not be possible; and I can think of no better rebuke to the idea that play alone, not superior graphics, are what presses the medium on. Considering the game again recently, I’ve noticed that the initial flare of my enthusiasm has shaded. Its weighty air, scraped of all but the barest scraps of joy, was like concrete in the lungs, and there are few developers that can conjure a mood to match it; but it felt—in similar fashion to the greenery that grips its buildings—like the victim of renewal.
As Ellie tracked her quarry from state to state, it was tough to shake the suspicion that the driving theme of the story—that of violence begetting violence, and of slipping free of the cycle—may have told us more about the tiring consequence of making a great a video game: success begets sequels. Half the runtime is devoted to a cold new character, Abby, to whom we are challenged to warm. This may have been more effective, not to say a little easier, if time actually ran, as opposed to shuffled, skipped, and looped back into the past. The game’s scrambled chronology made some characters feel like sketches—no sooner were they killed than introduced. And I longed for the lean simplicity of the first game. Nothing that floods across the older Ellie’s face—nicked, and speckled with dirt—moves us as much as the look she gave at its close, as faith flickered into doubt.
It was a common feeling, this year. As the first stretch of lockdown lifted, our spirits followed. Armed with masks, bottles of sanitising gel, and a refusal to jostle, some made a cautious return to the pub. By the time the second lockdown loomed, it posed far less grim a challenge. The greater, more elusive clamp on our days has been the idea of the “new normal”: an awful phrase, describing the conditions under which the surreal becomes, through a series of repeated rituals, a part of the dull fabric of daily life—and bores us all to tiers.
Lofted above that numbing pattern is a scattering of games that would outshine the surrounding titles of most any year. February delivered us Dreams, a suite of creative tools aimed at converting our love of play into the sweat-powered compulsion of development. It failed, alas, to turn me into a budding creator, but succeeded in tuning my attention to the small motions—the grey sweep of cloud or stone, the crash and purl of a river—with which our digital escape is ensured. Dreams also provided us with something rarer still: hope. How heartening that this year could, in spite of its myriad curses, turn out to be a murky sleep from which a new group of game makers will emerge.
Of equal potency in the mood-raising stakes is Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a woodland fairy tale which tops my list of the year’s most beautiful games. It came out in March and emitted a glow that has, all these months later, refused to fade; in fact, as the gloom of 2020 has gathered ever more densely, it has grown only brighter. The score, composed by Gareth Coker, is one of those marvels of string and brass that is somehow able—at breakfast or in bed—to thicken my throat with a lump of raw feeling. The game’s luminous visuals belie a death-haunted adventure, and the roots of its power, as with any good fairy tale, are in the writhing darkness that feeds the wonders above.
As temperatures dropped, and winter scraped at the windows, millions decided to heat their living rooms with the roasting fan vents of a new console. Disappointment set in, when they discovered that both of the big new machines, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, appeared incapable of blowing a warm breath. The pair resembled starships from very different reaches of space: one blunt and black, recalling those creaky frigates in Alien, the other laughably futuristic, all throbbing warp cores and bright-white bows. I was delighted to find a stowaway harboured within the hull of the PS5. Astro’s Playroom, which was pre-installed on the hard drive, was a platformer so lovingly molded and pure of intent that it pierced that hallowed sanctum occupied almost solely by Nintendo. When it comes to hardware, most games give the impression of merely hitching a ride, but Astro’s Playroom was defined by the DualSense controller, and obsessed with Sony’s history. It was strewn with collectible lumps of old plastic (memory cards, Discs, peripherals) and sought to console us, as it were, with reminders of the old normal.
Further relief was available by way of Yakuza: Like a Dragon. No game that entails the retrieval of a homeless man’s pet crawfish can be entirely without merit; nor, you might think, could it lay claim to real gravitas. But you would be wrong. The drama is shot through with bracing bitterness and sugared with good humour. And, as the year rolled to its end, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s RPG (which was available in Japan in January, before the pandemic had us so utterly seized) reassured us with the ordinary sight of bodies—alleyways crammed with pullulating crowds, and not a trace of grief in the air. Would that the same could be said of the atmosphere, far from festive, that swirled in the wake of the year’s biggest game.
In December, CD Projekt Red gave us Cyberpunk 2077 in time for Christmas. Sort of. Its launch was tarnished by crashes, glitches, and a gluey framerate. In an essay published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1933 (which, historians have noted, is also when Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced), Paul Valéry made the case that, “In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed… but abandoned.” Sadly, CD Projekt pushed the metaphor beyond the thoughtful bounds of the figurative, and left many, especially those with last-gen consoles, anxiously seeking a refund. However, whereas Valéry, principally a poet, had to wait for the uncertainty of a second edition before he could consider patching his own work, game developers have the envious ability to chase their ailing creations with a soothing course of extra software—which is precisely what CD Projekt is doing.
Whether or not this counts as soldering the door, installing a high-tech security system, and steel-plating the barn after the horse has bolted is for every player to decide. Personally, I’ve been unable to wrench myself from its seediness and possibility, ever since its release. My nights of late have been spent among the crackling spectres of its advertisements, drifting through its steel canyons, and, yes, being booted to the dashboard in dismay. My love of its thrills will doubtless leak into next year, when, fingers crossed, the game may make a full recovery. Looking ahead, we can only hope for the same. Who knows? Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will tell the tale of 2021, a year that arrived like a post-launch patch. And here’s to 2020—its crashes, its glitches, its game-ending bug—which we never truly completed, but abandoned. Happy New Year.