It feels fair to say that few spans of time in recent memory have called for a good distraction more desperately than the first half of 2020. Which makes it lucky that the most distracting of pop culture mediums, video gaming, has somehow managed to have a pretty banner year, despite it all. Insulated from the worst effects of the COVID-19 quarantine, gaming rolled through the first half of the year with its ambitions mostly unmasked. The result has been a six-month stretch that’s seen the medium push against its boundaries in whatever form they happened to take: technical, emotional, and sometimes even just against the legacy of its own classics. It’s not for nothing that our mid-year list of 2020’s best games contains two ostensible “remakes” that seek to shatter as much as they re-create, and sequels demanding players re-evaluate what they think they know about much-beloved journeys.
At the same time, it’s been a great year for re-discovery and re-connection, as friends have maintained much-needed bonds by dipping back into older games custom-designed to let distant companions interact. And while this list will be sticking primarily to titles released in 2020, it’s worth noting that games like Tabletop Simulator, Apex Legends, Minecraft, and more have all had a chance to shine of late, as digital connection has become paramount in the ongoing and interminable pandemic months. (Even if none of those games can necessarily compete with a certain Nintendo-designed island getaway destination.) If nothing else, 2020 has proven the importance of play to our mental and physical well-beings; whether that means traversing the isolated wasteland of post-apocalyptic Seattle, embracing virtual island life with your buddies, or just hopping online for a game of checkers or D&D, it’s the spirit of liveliness that keeps all of us from deflating in the face of a series of almost comically despair-inducing events.
And so, without further ado: The A.V. Club’s list of the best games of the first half of 2020. As usual, we’ve eschewed any sort of formal ranking, instead choosing to emphasize why each of these titles has made our pandemics just a little bit easier to bear.
Shannon Miller: I liked Animal Crossing: New Horizons because it was a kind sojourn when the world was particularly cruel. Tasked with tidying and building up an island at the behest of a capitalistic raccoon, ACNH’s real-time adventure is an exceedingly pleasant distraction from the general worldly melee to which we’ve grown accustomed over the past few months. There’s no shortage of objectives or discovery here, from attracting new residents to the monthly rotation of wildlife, which prevents the game from remaining stagnant for too long. For a player like me, who can spend hours foraging, fishing, and mulling over different ways to transform a patch of grass into a five-star open-air restaurant, my island has become its own colorful oasis where survival is the last thing on my mind. The communal aspect has also become its own saving grace, allowing me to still “visit” with friends for evenings filled with stargazing and bug-catching. ACNH uniquely quenches a thirst for idyllic living and creative design, even underneath the seemingly pervasive fog of outrageous debt, courtesy of Tom Nook.
William Hughes: I liked A Hand With Many Fingers because its eerie tone lingered with me long after its minimal play-time elapsed. In a time when our imaginations are all on the verge of running dangerously rampant, there’s something strangely soothing about Colestia’s short but sweet research simulator, which places you in the shoes of a researcher digging through CIA archives in pursuit of a real-life mystery. By nature of its reliance on real-life subject matter, Hand’s central investigation can land a bit on the dry and technical side, and the plot itself is unlikely to take players much more than an hour or so to unravel. But there’s something irresistible about the feeling of treading through the halls of a quiet library, checking shelves for reference numbers, consulting notes, and—in a touch that will likely be thrilling in direct proportion to how much X-Files you consumed as a kid—assembling your own cork board o’ conspiracy theories out of pushpins, pictures, and thread. And all the while, the silence around you builds, as every trip down into the sterile stacks reminds you that you’re poking into the affairs of an organization that doesn’t take kindly to people prying into its secrets…
Sam Barsanti: I liked Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics because it’s all of the fun of playing a board game without the pain of having to physically flip the table over when you lose. The game is exactly what it says on the box, a compilation of 51 games from around the world (plus a touch-screen piano app) that you can play on your Switch. It has obvious stuff like chess, checkers, and blackjack, plus Wii Sports-style approximations of activities like bowling and darts, unlicensed versions of games like Yahtzee and Connect Four, and cool international stuff like hanafuda and carrom. The game does a good job teaching you how to play everything—even games that are pretty straightforward—but the real joy is picking something you’ve never heard of at random and just jumping in with a friend as you try to figure out the rules before they do. Plus, in an uncharacteristically generous move from Nintendo, your friends can download a free version and play with other Switch owners, as long as one person actually owns the game (not that you should be hanging out with friends in the middle of the pandemic).
Randall Colburn: I liked Final Fantasy VII Remake because it kills god. If IP is god in modern pop culture, the existential question facing today’s creators is what it means to “remake” a property that doesn’t need one. The shrewdly named Final Fantasy VII Remake, a 40-hour reimagining of the 1997 original’s first disc, directly confronts that notion by delivering a game less interested in enticing a new generation, than in challenging the one that made it a JRPG standard-bearer. Because, though Remake’s arc is familiar enough to feign reverence, the game retools nearly everything else—the combat, the characters, the sprawl—while teasing a twist that threatens to topple the iconography that’s allowed the game to persevere as it has. It’s a bold move that allows Square Enix to have its gysahl greens and eat them, too, positing Remake as both reviver and disruptor. What’s perhaps most exciting about Remake, however, is the mode of anticipation it’s prompted for the second installment—we wait not just for the next turn in the story, and the arrival of some fan-favorite characters, but rather to see what a godless world looks like. Now please excuse us as we go replay Crisis Core.
WH: I liked Hardspace: Shipbreaker because it’s good, honest space-work. Released just a few weeks ago via Steam’s Early Access program, Blackbird Interactive’s spaceship-destruction sim has already taken up place of pride in the problem-solving parts of my brain, filling them with alluring questions. Stuff like: How do I chop this wall apart with my laser saw without igniting the fuel tank behind it? Can I pull this 3-ton piece of armor off with my nifty little tether tool without taking the whole (very valuable) rest of the ship with it? Am I about to asphyxiate in the cold, lethal vacuum of space? (Trick question: You’re always only minutes away from asphyxiating in Hardscape: Shipbreaker.) Light on hand-holding, heavy on moments that make you ask yourself, “Well, how the fuck am I going to get that out of there?” it’s a game where the hostility always feels like it’s coming from the world, not the developer. (Also, it’s impossible to overplay how immensely satisfying it is to finally watch some giant cargo ship you’ve been bashing your brain against for an hour finally finish getting sucked into the processor’s all-consuming maw.)
A.A. Dowd: I liked The Last Of Us Part II because it’s as obsessed with the ending of The Last Of Us as I am. “Let sleeping (Naughty) dogs lie,” I thought when it was announced that there would be a sequel to The Last Of Us, which ended on a note of such profoundly troubling ambivalence that it’s latched onto my brain like a fungal infection. To continue this story, I reasoned, would betray it. Why mess with a perfect ending? But The Last Of Us Part II justifies its existence, and not just because its Molotov cocktail of thrilling action and engaging story rivals the original’s. What really makes Part II more than a dubiously necessary franchise extension is the degree to which Neil Druckmann and his team explicitly grapple with where they left their characters in part one. The entire game is built on the fallout of its predecessor’s ending, the plot driven by the consequences of one broken man’s actions; you could even make the case that everything Ellie does over the course of 25 to 30 hours of gameplay is an attempt to make sense of what Joel did for her out of some mixture of love and undigested grief. And as the game kept returning—literally and symbolically, through nightmares and flashbacks—to that long walk down a long hospital hallway, I realized that its creators were as haunted by the ending of The Last Of Us as I am. Part II is like the ghost of that game, reckoning always with its unfinished business, as I should have known it would. Oh me, of little faith.
WH: I liked Murder By Numbers because it was basically made for me. Seriously, a riff on Phoenix Wright-style detective games where you gather clues by doing Picross puzzles? It’s bait in a trap for which I’m pretty much the perfect prey. But despite already having me at “do number puzzles, solve crimes,” Murder By Numbers goes even further by managing to be immensely charming, well-written, and—wonder of wonders—actually pretty damn funny when it tries to tell a joke. In a perfect world, the mystery-solving aspects of the game’s cases might be a little more fleshed-out, sure. But it feels petty to complain when Mediatonic appears to have made its game precisely to my nerdy specifications.
Samantha Nelson: I liked Persona 5 because it was exactly the game I needed during the COVID-19 lockdown. The massive RPG released on March 31, after I had barely left my house for more than two weeks, and it perfectly captured my feeling that I was living through a bizarrely mundane apocalyptic event. Like the other entries in the Persona series, you play as a high school student trying to save lives while also following a fairly normal routine including school, work, and hanging out with friends. I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to set foot in a restaurant or see my friends in person again, but the game provided me with a vicarious thrill as I hung out with my classmates slurping ramen. Then I could dive into a spectacularly twisted dungeon and mete out justice to villains, which felt extremely empowering as I struggled with being seemingly powerless to make real people care about doing the right thing.
AAD: I liked Resident Evil 3 because I was itchy (itchy) for more Resident Evil 2. Unlike the other zombie game I beat and enjoyed this year, Resident Evil 3 does not meaningfully progress or interrogate the story told by its predecessor. Not that story has ever been that vital to the Resident Evil experience, regardless of all the mythology and melodrama each installment throws at the player. It’s really just a pretext to send your bite-able, insufficiently armed ass down a series of narrow alleys and hallways, death and the undead lurking around every corner—and in that regard, RE3 successfully extends the nerve-wracking fun of RE2. True to the spirit of the sequel it’s remaking, Resident Evil 3 plays a bit like a glorified DLC campaign—an impression strengthened by your return to that timelessly treacherous police station. But I loved the Resident Evil 2 remake, and having beaten it twice over, I was more than eager for another dose, even if the returns were a little diminished. There’s actually something modestly charming, in a formulaic horror-sequel kind of way, about the regurgitation of pleasures. It’s very different from what makes The Last Of Us Part II so satisfying. Here, I got more of the same, shrewdly delivered around the time that my appetite for Evil returned.
Alexander Chatziioannou: I liked Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 for its story of everyday humanity enduring amid crumbling late-capitalist dystopias that, for all its strangeness, feels not entirely untethered from our own real-life predicaments. Like Disco Elysium and Kentucky Route Zero, Cosmo D’s surreal adventure, full of infectious jazzy tunes and chattering apartment buildings, follows a flawed, unexceptional protagonist navigating a world of decaying infrastructure and economic precarity. Such is the slice of inner-city Americana at the intersection of Yam and July, home to the pizza parlor run by former legendary saxophonist Caetano Grosso and, incidentally, our mission objective: the precious instrument locked in a vault downstairs.
But gaining access to that fabled prize means earning the musician’s trust as an all-purpose kitchen assistant/delivery person, while inevitably getting embroiled in the troubles of his loyal customers: malnourished academics on lockdown and gifted security guards letting their artistic talents rot for the sake of a stable salary. Who benefits from our heist remains uncertain at this brief installment’s end, but Cosmo D’s sympathies clearly lie both with outcasts and cogs in the corporate machine, their lives impoverished by a decadent system they should be working together to dismantle.
SB: I liked Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore because it’s as bright and uplifting as it is ridiculous and goofy. A Switch rerelease of a Wii U game that nobody played, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a mashup of the Persona and Fire Emblem games, but without some of the more elaborate elements of either series (no relationship mechanics, no tactical strategy stuff). Also it’s set in the world of Japanese pop idols, with demonic entities converging on modern Tokyo to drain people of their… passion for performing? It’s a little complicated, but what matters is that you and your party are aspiring actors and singers, so the battles—which are mostly traditional turn-based JRPG style—are all presented as if they’re elaborate choreographed musical performances. Characters will even sometimes break into song during an attack, which is awesome, and the idea of these people loving what they do and supporting each other through their art is so important that there’s at least one story moment where your party takes a break from trying to save Tokyo so they can make sure they get in the audience for a big concert. It’s dumb and silly and I love it.
Joey Clift: I liked Zoom: Video Conferencing because it’s so efficient that it actually gives me back hours every day (which I use to play more Zoom). Though Zoom is light on features, gameplay, or any end goal, it’s so intuitive that it’s replaced all work meetings, parties, and it’s shrank my commute to just a few steps walk from my bed to my desk. The only game I can compare Zoom to is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Both are used for light socializing and there aren’t a ton of “game” elements. The only difference is that instead of trying to clean up your island to impress your friends, you’re cleaning up your apartment so no one on video chat judges you for living in your own filth. Also, Zoom’s connectivity with games like Quiplash makes it a great peripheral. Zoom isn’t fun or addicting and it wasn’t released this year, but it’s become that essential game you have to play in 2020 or you’ll be left out of the cultural conversation (literally, because how else would you talk to people?). Zoom deserves a perfect ten review score. I just hope that after quarantine ends I never have to play it again.