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Into The Spine: Best Games of 2020

Written by the folks who joined us throughout the year

At Into The Spine, we haven’t done a traditional Game Of The Year roundup. Instead, we asked everyone who contributed to the site this year to choose their favorite game of 2020. We think this approach suits Into The Spine perfectly: it takes in a range of voices, doesn’t stick to AAA releases, and focuses on what these games have left behind.


Thousand Threads

One of my hobbies has always been taking long walks (like, 5 plus hours long). Now with the weather getting dark and cold, I can’t walk as much as I’d like. So I’ve been doing some of my walking in Thousand Threads, an open-world game and favor-granting simulator whose characters remember you and what you do. Between delivering mail, running errands for people, and just wandering around the richly colored landscape, you can walk for hours—literally. It might not be the same as walking to the park or the corner deli— there’s more bears, for one— but if you’re looking for a meditative experience with a lively world and a low-stakes mystery to solve, there are worse hikes to take.

By Emily Price.

Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics

In a year when we were all stuck inside and the world often felt very small, Nintendo’s charming collection was a reminder that games span both the globe and the centuries. 2020 offered us no shortage of games to play and time during lockdown to play them, but the loving presentation of Clubhouse’s simple board, card, and tabletop games was a timely celebration of why we play: for the tactile experience, the history and tradition, and the moments spent with people we care about. Countless board game nights with friends and family were annihilated this year, but it was comforting to know that even in the bleakest moments a stranger out there somewhere was always happy to sit down together and play checkers.

By Mark Hill.

Risk of Rain 2

beetle queen mad qute
crush me mommy pls (´⊙ω⊙`)
10/10

By Violet Adele Bloch.

Persona 5 Royal

Though Persona 5 launched in 2017, simply calling Persona 5 Royal a re-release drastically undersells it. Returning to Tokyo with the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, this story is one of rebellion, seeing our group of students fighting an oppressive society via the power of Persona. Bringing us a stylish presentation, enjoyable gameplay and thrilling story, Royal managed to improve upon this even further. Adding several quality-of-life adjustments, a brand-new semester and a fantastic villain, it wasn’t content to rest on Persona 5’s laurels and actively built upon them, striving for perfection. As a result, I cannot recommend it enough as my game of the year.

By Henry Stockdale.

Spelunky 2

Fans of the original will find enough familiarity to feel comfortable at first. But quickly realize that a lot has changed shortly after getting past the first level. The difficulty is still sky high, but as you learn you start to think to yourself before you start each run, “maybe this is the one where I make it all the way,” and finding out exactly what “all the way” means is at least half the fun!

By Joe Ostrander.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

What I like the most about Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t have to do with its endearing absurdity or its top notch drama scenes, always with an unexpected twist. Don’t get me wrong: I love the chance of summoning an adult yakuza dressed like a baby whose shouting will reduce the defense and damage of my enemies. However, in a year so weird and full of emotional distress, Ichiban Kasuga’s relationships and interactions with his party made me realize how much I missed my real life friends. Like a Dragon is a game about the friends we made along the way.

By Axel Bosso.

Necrobarista

Necrobarista, the visual novel about a coffee house somewhere between the realm of the living and the afterlife, exceeded expectations for me this year. Whilst taking place in a world full of ghosts, where time is a currency that can be borrowed and paid back, and mystical experiments can take place in the basements of cozy cafes, the game is also rooted in the most relatable, human stories. It explores how we live our lives, who we let into them, and what we’re supposed to do when people leave. The characters are lovable, there are robots, and also Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is there. Most importantly though, the game ends with a pun that is so devastatingly perfect it will make you laugh and cry in equal measures.

By Abbi Ruggles.

Terracotta

Video game worlds create ideals by virtue of expression. Our thoughts come together from words and images to spring forth in words and images in expression that cannot replicate thought. So we contemplate to reconcile with incommensurability between thought and expression, like, all the time. Ideals emerge to raise boundaries that alleviate conflict arising from this dialectic movement. Yet, ideals cannot be exempt from contemplation as they express something by raising boundaries to something else. If a button press corresponding something on the screen represents an ideal, then what does it raise boundaries to?

Terracotta replicates this dialectic movement between thought and expression, words and images in a dualistic world of saccharine and mundane, wayward and ordinary. This alleviates and complicates contemplation about the mundane during pandemic by replication and associations. If only a button press can hold until all of this goes away.

By Zsolt David.

Signs of the Sojourner

One of my favourite things about Signs of the Sojourner is how people talked about it. In its ‘conversation as card game’ mechanic, players saw their own histories of trying to connect with old friends, or relate to cishet family members, or navigate through fatigue or autistic burnout. There’s no language in the game’s matching of triangles, squares and circles, but it communicates so many different experiences to different people. In its gameplay and its story, Signs of the Sojourner speaks to a shared desire to understand and be understood, despite how complex people may be, or how their lives might change them.

By Ruth Cassidy.

Witch Spring 4

On the surface, Witch Spring 4 is about an orphaned deity who is branded a witch and tries to conquer the entire continent of Urphea as queen. In fact, it is about an orphaned deity relearning what family and loyalty truly means. Although this game came out in December 2019, I waited until post-game content was released in April 2020 before I got the game in May 2020. It was so worth it because this game is the best game in Kiwi Walks’ Witch Spring series to date. The turn based battle system and item farming elements are more refined and the graphics look cleaner and more gorgeous. The main storyline is compelling and poignant and the post-game adds more depth to Witch Spring world building. I loved this game very much, and I will definitely be replaying in the future.

By Tonya Pennington. Image credit.

dandelions

Declaring a cultural movement in a creative field is something that can fizzle out like a wet match, or stick with communities for the rest of time. For this reason I hesitate to declare such drastic notions. Yet, when I work on my game each night I think about dandelions. 

dandelions is a game made by lotus, someone who I have been lucky to become close friends with during 2020. It’s emotional, introspective, politically engaging, and semantically ambiguous. However, most of all, it’s a work that I keep thinking about…..and talking about…..and thinking about…..and talking about……

And when I think about the people within this gamespace dandelions is in, and dandelions is in — Games like Anodyne 2, Binky, from arecibo, Maya’s Birthday Party, and the hypertrash collection……I wonder if maybe we actually are in a new cultural movement of games right now.

By Waverly.

Genshin Impact

From the gorgeous worlds, to the complex characters, to the beautifully written storylines and lore, Genshin Impact completely captured my heart this year. It’s a shame that I’m not good at it.

Seriously, this is a cry for help. I still don’t know how these damn artifacts work.

By Harriette Chan.

Tell Me Why

I think Brokeback Mountain was my first explicitly queer viewing experience. I watched Kim Possible and always thought Kim and Shego should just kiss and get it over with, but as far as no mistake about it, these-bitches-gay-good-for-them, Brokeback was it.

There’s an ice fishing scene in Tell Me Why which reminds me of Brokeback, involving a queer Tlingit man Michael, and player-character Tyler. Tyler is trans, and can be gay, straight, bi, or ace depending on your choices, but if he reciprocates Michael’s advances, this scene sings. It’s ruggedly masculine, yet inescapably queer. It embraces a very real sort of queerness, a more complex kind than games – than most media – is often prepared to tackle.

It’s a good game, bit ropey in some parts, impactful in others, but… yeah. The lake scene. That’s why it’s here.

By Stacey Henley.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

I hardly ever long for my childhood. It was a weird time full of moments of light amidst an endless sea of gray, but this year’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 brought back childhood memories I didn’t even know that I still retained. After playing it for an hour or so, I could recall my childhood gaming setup with picture-perfect clarity—the small cubby where my CRT TV glowed day in and day out, the bundle of controller cords that I’d have to step over to go change the disc out of my original Xbox, and the overall feeling that no matter how hectic my childhood got, that impossibly heavy CRT TV and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would always be there. I’d never expect a game to make me grapple with my childhood, hell, I hardly even think about it anymore. But for whatever reason, this skateboarding game brought me back to a time and place I never thought I’d want to go back to. In fact, I still don’t.

2020 has been a year and for whatever reason this game helped me find solace in the past while never giving into the close-minded nature of nostalgia, and while Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is a love letter to what once was, it is still a product of the here and now. It reflects the everchanging nature of skate culture while also showing where the skateboarding of now came from. My childhood room is long gone, the memories from that time in my life have been more or less sealed away, and that is okay. Recollecting on the past is okay, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 helped me show me that while our pasts can shape us, they don’t have to define who we are right now.

By Cole Henry.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim routinely surprised me. The game’s story is delivered in a way that maximises the impact of its many dramatic twists, inviting you to explore a web of memories and dreams belonging to 13 unique characters, who each get many moments to shine. Although not everything in it hits as gracefully as it could, the narrative and mechanics work together with remarkable levels of consistency to deliver a truly memorable story that could only be told using an interactive medium.

By Adam Arter.

Paradise Killer

Outer Wilds proved that you don’t need to make a game about solving a mystery linear merely by giving you several loosely connected mysteries to solve in whatever order you want. Paradise Killer takes it a step further by giving you a set of mysteries that are all tightly interconnected and interdependent on one another and puts them in a true open world as you unravel the impossibly tangled conspiracies in whatever way you see fit. Put that together with daring anticapitalist world building and you have one of the most irreverent, interesting detective games this side of Disco Elysium.

By Jeremy Signor.

Final Fantasy VII: Remake

Few games have had the levels of hype and anticipation that Final Fantasy 7: Remake had leading up to its release. Despite the astronomical expectations placed upon it by myself and fellow Final Fantasy fans, Remake delivers on its promise of breathing new life into one of the most important role playing games ever created. There aren’t many gaming moments for me this year that top hearing, “Aerith’s Theme” or “Opening Bombing Mission,” again. Remake succeeds at honoring the legacy of the original while challenging its fans to rethink the canon we’ve grown to love where it counts. Final Fantasy 7: Remake is a game of the year because it manifests that feeling of reuniting with an old friend once again. What matters most is still there, but the best part of any reunion is sharing with one another the new perspectives we’ve gained while apart.

By Phillip Russell.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket

The concept of a camping trip at the beach feels so at odds with how most of 2020 played out, but if you’re as emotionally burnt out as most people right now, it’s probably the exact type of getaway you need. Enter Wide Ocean Big Jacket, a poignant slice-of-life narrative game that will whisk you away to such a setting and let you forget the year that was for a carefree hour or two. Moving, funny, and memorable, this gentle indie adventure will tug at your heartstrings and replenish your soul.

By Renate Plehwe.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Different from other titles in 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons stood out for its capacity to give a very good experience of a regular life. For the first time, I was glad I had bills to pay, a room to organize and parties to go, since they are all part of a simple and normal life. Oh, but the bees. I hated the bees.

By Paulo Kawanishi.

tomorrow won’t come for those without

Futility and meaning are in constant flux, and in a post-modern world, it’s hard to tell which will actually bring us happiness. In a time where nostalgia is exploited ad nauseam, tomorrow won’t come for those without rallies against reflection in an extreme way. By the end, we’re presented with two philosophies — one of silence, and one of noise — and the conflict between the two never really seems to be resolved. It’s like a fleeting thought verging on a breakthrough that passes before it gets too transformative. More than that, though, it’s an unsettling tragedy and filled to the brim with haunting ambient music, curious lore, and insightful musings on the line between religion and trauma.

By Austin Jones.

Doom Eternal

It had been months since the last time I played Doom Eternal back in March. It was a relentles through and through, leaving me feeling as exhausted as powerful by the end. Going back to it for the first of the DLCs, I was rusty. First person shooters haven’t been my main focus this year, really, and I was out of practice. But a couple hours in during the span of a few days, and it clicked for me again. I remembered why it stood out for me amongst so many brilliant games this year, and among the array of throwback shooters that don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Doom Eternal breaks many traditions, in particular the ones it has been setting for over 25 years, to become something new. An almighty being that is here to stay, shaking the concept of what a first person shooter can be in terms of mobility, speed, and violence.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello.

World of Horror

World of Horror may just be one of the best indie games of the year. This astounding project shares a glance at what a baby between Junji Ito, H.P. Lovecraft and classic PC adventure RPGs would be like. The artstyle along with the vintage UI makes a perfect device to tell the spine-chilling stories that crawl your PC in a creepypasta sort of way. I’ve spent hours losing myself in this world just to discover each and every possible outcome in this digital nightmare. World of Horror is an eerie adventure that every horror fan should know.

By Frank Reyes.

If Found…

There’s a lot of reason’s why If Found… could make it on my list of best game of 2020. How space and setting feel less like a concrete detail and more of a suggestive amalgamation of emotions from our protagonist. The way it blends kitchen-sink queer drama with some really intriguing new-wave-like sci-fi. But, from a mechanical standpoint, If Found… really does feel like the first steps towards an evolution of the western visual novel that feels organic while being unembarrassed about its genre’s tropes. Come for the eraser mechanics, stay for the ‘zine but glossier and with buttons’ aesthetics and storytelling.

By Tess Everman.

Hades

I’ve been following Supergiant Games ever since Bastion, a game that showcased how important narrative can be in video games in a way I hadn’t seen before. I rewatched Transistor’s reveal trailer time and time again, trying to decipher Red’s story with only vague hints here and there, lost in the charm of the song, of Darren Korb’s instruments and of Ashley Barrett’s vocals. Pyre was unexpected in many ways, and didn’t click for me until after I had hit the credits. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and it led me to revisit it with fresh eyes.

These games have always been about cycles. We begin at the start of the end and try to make the most of our time in these decaying worlds, helping to rebuild not only societies, but hope. When I found out Hades was going to be a roguelite upon an existing universe instead of a brand new concept, I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the almost two years long period in Early Access. But I kept coming back to it time and time again, relieved that the narrative focus that is emblem for the studio was still present, now fragmented, and subtle, but never lesser than before.

After all those years finding comfort in Hades and getting to know the characters more and more with each new update, the 1.0 release appeared almost out of nowhere. I went expecting for closure, to see a cutscene that would take me back to the rather linear experiences from Supergiant that I had grown accustomed to. But I was met with one of the most cathartic and heartbreaking moments I’ve ever experienced in games.

A friend and I played it all the way through a total of 10 times, in addition of the dozens we had before, only to see the end. Even though they beat me to it, we plunged through it in days, sharing dialogue snippets and screenshots without spoiling too much to each other, trying to figure out what the outcome to Zagreus’ story would be. And the cycle began anew each time, regardless of progress, of effort, of tears and blood from the son of Hades who desesperately searched for his mother.

Hades is a testament to the ethos of the studio’s legacy to date. The ideas that were already present through New Game+ in past games are now a living presence. The choice of genre couldn’t have been more perfect to finally finish that vision in the making, and revitalizes it while sharing an important message to all of us. That time is not infinite, and we don’t get to start anew from our mistakes. But we can make the most out of what we have, as long as we hold dear the ones we care about, and keep on trying.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello.

Umurangi Generation

It is a world that lives beyond you, but that you cannot consume every inch of. You can only take snapshots, glimmers, memories. It resists platitudes, resists completeness. Games want our whole lives until they have something “new” to sell us. Umurangi knows that this is folly. So it asks us to look, feel, document, and linger. Nothing lasts, things die, but the world never does. Echoes and seeds remain.

By Grace.

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