I’ve spent the last few months doing almost exactly what I was doing 20 years ago: suspended in deep space, riding undulating rainbow roads in Mario Kart. Now, I play on my Switch. Then, on my Nintendo 64. Maybe you were new to video games in 2020, each day of social distancing nudging you closer to an alternate reality. (You wouldn’t be alone; the industry saw record spending and profits this year.) Or maybe you’ve been playing since you developed the motor skills to grip a controller. In any case, what matters is that video games provided a much-needed outlet in a bizarre time.
Here are the games that 20 of my New York Times colleagues played the most this year, and why.
Age of Empires
Kellen Browning, technology reporter
When the pandemic forced me back home during my final semester of college, I found one great way to pass the time: Age of Empires, a real-time strategy game first released in 1997, where players race their ancient civilizations through different eras of history, building vibrant economies and discovering advanced militaries as they try to conquer their opponents.
A decade ago, as a kid, only one person in my friend group owned the game — stored on a golden CD-ROM. To our delight, a revamped version called Age of Empires: Definitive Edition was released on the game service Steam in 2018. But we never had the time to play until this year. Now, even though we have since graduated and started our respective careers, we play several times a week, chatting all the while on Discord.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades
Emily Wilson, intelligence collections manager
Blades is not Skyrim, but it scratches the Skyrim itch. It’s a game that suits the pandemic attention span: a quick reprieve between meetings, a distraction while the governor announces new restrictions, a balm in weeklong election-news cycles.
I first played Blades, released in 2019, on iOS in March — while job hunting, with suddenly higher stakes — before joining the rush to buy a Nintendo Switch. As summer came, I found myself with a new job, a dog and less time for Skyrim’s fully immersive world. Blades, also available on Switch, bridges that gap. Players have a scorched town to repair and weaving quest lines, and they can engage in lighter forms of blacksmithing and alchemy. Familiar villains abound. Seasonal updates and events keep time moving, even when the rest of the world seems to stand still.
Kyle Buchanan, culture columnist, The Projectionist
When you die in Hades — and you’ll die a lot — a banner appears, stating, “There is no escape.” It is, to be sure, a real 2020 vibe.
But every time the hero, Zagreus, is zipped back to his starting point in the underworld and must once again fight his way out to reach Mount Olympus, the game offers you another opportunity to chat with some of the witty Greek gods, or even to woo one. When the wise warrior Achilles counseled Zagreus on his budding relationship with a hunky deity of death, it thrilled me even more than all the monster-slaying. At least one of us could know romance this year!
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Crystal Arroyo, senior staff editor, News Technology
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on March 20, just in time to become my lifeline in the pandemic. In the game, you’re a human villager who lives on an island with anthropomorphic animals. While in reality I was stuck in my New York City apartment, I was also “out” — fishing, catching bugs, finding dinosaur bones and relaxing by the sea. My island is very much a representation of me: a mix of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and a variety of other horror films.
I used the game to reconnect with old friends and throw virtual parties and treasure hunts — talking to them more than I had in months or even years. Their islands even stoked a competitive streak in me. Many of my friends have moved on, but I still play every day because it’s become the home that makes me feel like I’m not stuck at home.
Tracy Ma, visual editor, Styles desk
Since its release in September, I look forward nightly to a little Genshin Impact — as a treat. It’s a free-to-play role-playing game about beating baddies in order to level up, and leveling up in order to beat badder baddies.
Opposite to leveling up in real life, which is a yearslong process consisting mostly of unanswered emails and writing self-evaluations, leveling up in Genshin is direct and exhilarating. Even the slightest exertion opens up a stream of neurotransmitters in the form of virtual loot boxes, or “gachas.”
It might be a copycat version of one of my favorite games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, shoved into a pachinko machine, but in a year when the best thing to have happened to you is “not much,” its surefire repetitions have been a welcome pacifier.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Jamie Stockwell, deputy editor, National desk
In a year in which we’ve reached for old comforts, I turned to Link, the hero of Legend of Zelda and among my best friends since 1986. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — 2017’s immersive open-world breakout hit for the Nintendo Switch — Link wakes from a 100-year slumber to find the Kingdom of Hyrule war-torn and ruled by savage beasts. Like in other Zelda adventures, Link is the key to restoring peace.
While this game can be beaten in a few hours, the more time you spend exploring Hyrule, the more secrets it reveals. Since early summer, I’ve spent more than 230 hours there. Hyrule is a world where good triumphs over evil, where in the end, all is calm, and in 2020, it’s a world I have needed.
Persona 5 Royal
Brian X. Chen, technology columnist, Tech Fix
When I went on “vacation” recently, I dove into Persona 5 Royal, the Japanese role-playing game that is notorious for its length. For 130 hours, I took a break from endless house chores to role play as a high schooler who, with the help of friends and a talking cat, infiltrates the minds of bad guys to change their hearts.
Set in Tokyo, the game is a love letter to some of the best works of pop culture from West to East, including blockbusters like “Inception” and “The Matrix” and manga like “Sailor Moon” and “Death Note.” Above all, the game celebrates the power of our relationships with the people (and pets) we love. What else could we need this lonely year?
Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight
J.D. Biersdorfer, production editor, Book Review
When I’ve needed a break from the present this year, I travel to the past with Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight to fly a Spitfire for the Royal Air Force and take out any Luftwaffe planes I see in the virtual sky. It’s a really cathartic to fire away and level up.
In the game, released in 2018, you can collect and fly different planes, and fight for other countries. I have the $5 iPad “full” version, which uses the tablet’s accelerometer for physical steering. I think of it as my “blasting Nazis” app and a welcome diversion — and also a reminder of a time when there was a sense of national unity around overcoming great odds in the good vs. evil conflict.
The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series
Lance Booth, photo editor
The theme of The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series seems to be that every choice you make is wrong. The plot, based in the same universe as the popular comic and television show, follows a young girl named Clementine (and a diverse set of other characters) through the apocalypse. The episodic game is closer to an interactive narrative, where you pick dialogue in a limited time and make lasting choices that affect the story.
The writing leads to decisions and conflicts that seem to mimic real life in 2020: a radio broadcast in the game states that the affliction was spreading unchecked, that the death toll was skyrocketing and that avoiding contact with exposed individuals was vital. During an actual pandemic, this story line hit differently. I couldn’t help but reflect.
Call of Duty: Warzone
Jason M. Bailey, senior staff editor, National desk
The annual Call of Duty games are known for frenetic multiplayer action, and the rapid pace — spawn, kill, kill, die, spawn, die, spawn — is addictive, but ultimately mindless. That’s what made the March release of Call of Duty: Warzone, a free, stand-alone battle royale, so refreshing. Warzone includes the guns, grenades and vehicles one would expect, but it also has a secret weapon: a narrative arc. Firefights are followed by long periods of restocking your arsenal and resituating your squad. In quieter moments, you can hear doors creak.
Leslie Pedro, software engineer
Since the lockdown started, I have been drawn back to open-world survival games, spending the most time playing Rust. It’s pretty punishing and not for everyone. You start off naked and alone with a rock and a torch for tools. From there, you have to keep foraging, gathering resources and protecting what you have amassed from other players. I like to play solo, which leaves me vulnerable to larger teams who break into my mazelike bases and try to steal my loot despite my traps and turrets. I don’t really care if I lose what I have gathered. I just enjoy building, defending and exploring.
Gregory Schmidt, senior staff editor, Business desk
When I first tried playing Fallout 4, I found the post-apocalyptic wasteland formerly known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts too vast, the settlement-building too tedious and the side missions too grind-y. But in the pandemic, I learned to love the grind.
It turns out that the wasteland had dozens of rickety towers and underground lairs with hidden loot waiting to be discovered. I spent hours on the treasure hunts, fighting beasts, avoiding traps and grabbing every item I could carry. In between dungeon crawls, I formed settlements, darting around to meet their endless needs for food, water, shelter and security. The pandemic gave me time to explore this dangerous and exciting world. Seven months later, I’m still grinding.
Hannah Masuga, senior manager, Data Platforms
Early in stay-at-home orders, I convinced a group chat of friends with different levels of gaming backgrounds to play Stardew Valley. I hadn’t gamed much since high school, but knew enough to teach newbies how to join a private multiplayer game and install a mod — lifting the limit on cabins so all eight of us could play together.
Everything was sublimely mundane: simple tasks, pleasant ambient music and unhurried group chatter. We ended up with a farm that was mostly chaotic patches of crops and dirt. It was purposeless and all problems could be fixed by agreeing to fall asleep.
Brian Hoerst, senior staff editor, News Technology
Rocket League has been with us for five years but somehow the rocket-powered car-soccer gameplay feels as fresh as the day it arrived. And in a year that begged for joy, Rocket League took on a higher purpose as a meeting ground for normalcy with my friends and family. The unthinkable aerial goals and risky backward passes were still happening onscreen, but the conversations faded from gameplay or strategy to my brother’s college aspirations or a best friend’s new puppy stories. It made those moments a balance of escapism and real-world happiness, far away from test results or lockdown rules. Plus, Rocket League’s evolving toolbox of flashy cosmetics provided a splash of color to an otherwise drab year.
Jump Rope Challenge
Stephen Totilo, contributing writer
It’s easy to argue that Hades, an excellent game about repeatedly trying to escape hell, is the definitive game of 2020. It certainly is the one I most enjoyed. But consider the only-in-2020 oddity that was Jump Rope Challenge. The simple, free exercise game was released by Nintendo in mid-June — made by Nintendo developers who were stuck working at home. The game runs on the Nintendo Switch and emulates the physicality of jumping rope by letting players detach the system’s two controllers and then hold them while jumping, counting each skip of an imaginary rope. That’s all it does, but that’s enough to make another day at home a little less frustrating.
Mel Cone, software engineer
For those who have struggled with their mental health, Celeste is a platform game with a story that will resonate. The game follows Madeline on her quest to climb a mountain, but this isn’t a normal mountain. Anyone who climbs it is forced to face their inner demons, literally. Madeline suffers from panic attacks and depression, and as she climbs, she learns to accept these issues instead of pushing them away. Minor spoiler — Celeste’s descriptions of anxiety and depression are among the best I’ve ever heard: “I’m at the bottom of the ocean. I can’t see anything in any direction. It’s claustrophobic, yet I feel exposed.”
MJ Franklin, staff editor, Book Review
Hollow Knight, the grim, insect-themed 2017 platform game, was the perfect match for my 2020 mood. You play as a lone knight armed with a “nail” who falls into Hallownest, a once-vibrant kingdom that now lies in ruin. The game is gloomy — at one point, you explore an area called “The Abyss,” and doesn’t that sound like a metaphor for this year?
And yet, even with its dark tones, Hollow Knight is downright fun. The gameplay is equal parts stylish, challenging and rewarding. Also, its world and lore are expansive and immersive. I spent hours lost, sometimes literally, in the caverns of Hallownest. Then, just when I thought I was nearing the end of the game, the already huge world of Hollow Knight opened up even more. Now I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong.
The Sims 4
Ashley Riccardi, senior software engineer, Games
The Sims offers a way to “live” different lives virtually — one without masks or travel restrictions. There are no story modes to follow and no monsters to conquer (unless you get the right expansion pack). It is simply what you make of it.
Some days, I want the challenge of juggling multiple ambitious Sims’ careers (most recently an aspiring politician and a civil engineer), and other times, I want to waste the day away, tanning on a beach and sailing by the beautiful island of Sulani.
The Sims will meet you where you are, wherever that is. I’ll let you guess how I played.
The Last of Us Part II
Renan Borelli, editor, Newsroom Development
Amid its post-apocalyptic setting and hordes of zombies, The Last of Us, released in 2013, manages to create profound, human moments that help make it a modern classic. Its sequel, The Last of Us Part II, is polarizing — not because the game is bad, but because of its narrative choices. It takes beloved characters from the first game and turns them into unhinged villains and coldblooded murderers; you watch helplessly as they betray one another and make mistake after mistake.
There’s no happy ending. The game ends with the protagonists broken and emotionally exhausted, which mirrored how I felt after finishing it. And yet, I played through this bleak, very long game twice. Call me a masochist. It’s that good.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
Mike Isaac, technology correspondent
Over the past two weeks, I’ve logged more than 100 hours playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. I still couldn’t tell you whether or not I like the game — partly because Valhalla comes riddled with annoying glitches. It’s an industrywide issue: studios pushing out splashy and expensive titles with a litany of imperfections. The gaming audience becomes the de facto beta-testing group.
Another reason is what feels like the rote repetition required of open-world games like Valhalla. They’re designed to present a vast landscape to explore, but more often we find ourselves stuck carrying out similar tasks, over and over.
The game isn’t a total snooze-fest. The viking theme is a welcome backdrop, and exploring as a female character in a Nordic, male-dominated digital universe is fun. Still, I’ve fallen into the completionist trap — needing to collect every tattoo design, open every chest, find every weapon. It’s the kind of box-checking mentality that designers build to keep players returning.
Get back to me in another hundred hours when I’ve conquered the game. Perhaps by then I’ll be able to tell you if I liked it.
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