Wow, it’s December 2020! The Year of Eternal March is somehow drawing to a close, and we can only hope that things will be brighter in 2021. We’ve all no doubt found our own ways to make it through this uniquely difficult time, but as this is a gaming site, let’s talk about the games getting us through it.
So: what single game helped you make it through this disaster year? Why?
Melissa Brinks: Sorry, I don’t have a cool answer for this one: it’s Dungeons & Dragons. Not because D&D is itself a great game, but rather because I’m the DM for my group (and also a himbo cleric because the party kept dying), which is a lot of work and keeps me busy, and also because it’s the closest I’ve come since mid-March to hanging out with my friends. This is a game comprised of utter disasters, absolute disrespect to me, the humble DM, and outrageous fun, and I’m so grateful to have a group of friends who also enjoy playing fast and loose with the rules (and the excellent supplement Faerie Fire) to create goofy adventures that entertain us for hours in this bleak and cold hellscape of a year. I am notoriously bad at scheduling any time for myself to “have fun” or “relax” so having other people count on me to create a fun space has made it impossible for me to curl up in an anxious ball and avoid speaking to other humans for nine months. So: thanks for that, D&D and also all my friends for being rad and fun and wonderful.
Zainabb Hull: Mine feels like stating the obvious, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons has helped me through this year in several ways. Of course, it’s been a calming distraction from the pandemic, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing some of the people in my life getting into it. My partner got a copy of the game when it came out just so we could play together, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the slow development of a friend’s dungeon basement. It’s been a way to feel connected with my loved ones while we’re all struggling and apart in this hell year, but it’s also helped me to feel less alone when I’m having a flare-up with my chronic illness, or when insomnia is keeping me up for the fifth time this week, or my pain levels are too bad to manage anything else. My disability and the sense of isolation that comes with it pre-dates the pandemic and will outlast it as well, and my villagers offer me some friends I can check in with at any time of day or night, while I’m also able to set and achieve goals even when I’m bed-bound in real life. Plus, it’s a great way to keep a vague handle on time and the changing of seasons when your brain is bad with time and the last twelve months have mostly been spent indoors.
Naseem Jamnia: Persona 5 Royal pErSoNa 5 RoYaL PERSONA 5 ROYAL!!!! I fell totally in love with the vanilla Persona 5 when I played it in 2018, so I’d preordered Royal a while before it came out. When I finally received it in March, I was super excited but didn’t feel like I had the chance to really dive in—but then quarantine was put into effect, so I got into it. And if I thought I liked P5 before, well. P5R has had me sharing memes and fanart with my best friend for the last eight months. I played it twice back-to-back and have been gearing up to play it a third time, so… yeah.
What drew me so much to the original P5 was the YA, band-of-misfits feel of the game. As a YA author, I always love playing YA games, and “band of misfits” is my favorite ever trope (right up there with the “lovable rogue,” which this game also technically has). But Royal is even better than the original game. From a gameplay level, a lot of the difficulties have been streamlined, with a richer story with a more interesting ending. BUT! The real reason why Royal hit home for me was that in a year where so much has been out of our control, where I’ve personally felt so powerless, being a teen viewing the injustices of a corrupt society and actually being able to change it has felt incredibly validating.
Maddi Butler: Nier was one of the first games I played after stay-at-home orders went into effect and I started working from home. It might seem like an odd choice, given that Nier is set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an incurable disease, but I ultimately found it comforting despite the parallels to our world. The heart of the story is about compassion in the face of tragedy, and I loved that a lot of the game isn’t just about killing monsters but helping the community around you. It’s a weird, funny game whose narrative forced me to live with failures outside of my control, and I found it deeply meaningful and relevant this year. Also the soundtrack is absolutely incredible—”The Lost Forest,” one of my all-time favorite pieces of environmental music in a game, was my top song on Spotify this year.
Kate Lyons: Is it cheating to say D&D and Pathfinder? They’re close enough, so I’m going to even if it is. I’ve talked about the joy that my ongoing Pathfinder campaign brings me before, and like Melissa said, it’s as close as I get to hanging out with friends. Unfortunately, with in-person gaming paused, the game I GM has gone onto hiatus, but rather than take a break I went right out and started a new vampire PC game to finally make use of all those indie 5e supplements I’ve been buying over the years. We’ve only played a few sessions but I love the dumb vampires my friends have made, and it’s probably the most fun I’ve had as GM or DM. Familiarity with 5e’s rules makes it easy for all of us to immediately throw them over our shoulder whenever it’d make for a good time, which is often. This hasn’t been a year of a lot of unqualified wins, but rendering friends speechless because the cute dark elf NPC they met winked at them is definitely one of them. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to work anything from Faerie Fire—a supplement I also adore—into the game yet, but my players are only level 2. There’s time.
Alenka Figa: Both Melissa and Kate have talked about D&D/Pathfinder, and I play both D&D 5e and Pathfinder with Kate so I won’t go into huge detail, but that’s without a doubt the number one thing that got me through this year. Having the opportunity to tell stories, have fun and spend (online) time with a crew of friends is just everything, and I love it so much that I decided to start a half-sleeve tattoo around it! So, yeah, kind of a big deal in my life.
Elvie Mae Parian: Also want to hop in and add even more support for the Animal Crossing bandwagon, something I think really illustrated a uniting time for a lot of us over games during the earlier, even worse months of our new reality.
Jameson Hampton: I found Hades to be really healing for me this year. Besides just being an excellent game, it also really spoke to me while I was going through some shit during the second part of 2020. I do support staff work for protests locally and that means that I’ve been busier than I expected—pretty much consistently since June—and a lot of my days have been really heavy, or dangerous, or often both. While the important protest and direct action work that people have been doing this year is certainly not a game, on days when it felt like a struggle to get out there again and put myself on the line again, I found myself inspired by Zagreus’s relentless persistence. There was never any question in his mind if he was going to give up or give it another run. He always got up and tried again. I drew a lot of strength from that this year.
Okay, one more: what other game helped you make it through this disaster year? Why?
Zainabb: Honestly, most of my gaming this year has been Animal Crossing, mostly due to disability-related practicalities. But, similarly to Melissa’s D&D games, I’ve been really excited about starting a campaign of Gloomhaven (the tabletop version) with friends. Although the game book is the worst I have ever seen make it to print, let alone a fifth edition, we have eventually figured out its mistakes, omissions, and contradictions to establish the core game mechanics and I’m looking forward to our next session. It’s been a way to spend safe in-person time with two of my most important people, and to feel like we’re working towards something—we even get to put stickers on the game board when we finish a scenario! It helps me remember that I do have a social life, even if one that looks very different to the one I had a couple years ago.
Naseem: Ooh, I love Gloomhaven! I’ve only played it a couple of times with friends in Chicago (and we obviously have not been traveling in order to see them), but I bet that’s been so much fun!!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, even more than ACNH (which I played quite a bit when it came out!), picking up Fire Emblem: Three Houses again was what I needed, when I finally put P5R down long enough. (I… love JRPGs, if you couldn’t tell.) I fell back in love with all the characters so quickly, and experiencing a new route (even if Dimitri is way less interesting than Edelgard, sorry not sorry) with a divergent version of events was a great way to pass all the hours I spent alone. I also played the DLC this year, which was extremely difficult (but I can now say I beat it on Hard) and very satisfying. Playing FE3H took me through the beginning of the semester, so really, JRPGs have helped pass the time so much for me this year.
Maddi: I genuinely didn’t think I was going to get into Animal Crossing because I knew that I would eventually get bored and stop maintaining my island. The thought of disappointing the tiny, adorable animals who live there was a source of stress because it felt inevitable and unforgivable. However, I did, in fact, get very into Animal Crossing. The highlight was probably turning the top floor of my house into a hot pot restaurant and throwing a surprise birthday party for a friend.
Melissa: I spent the months of September, October, and November drowning my sorrows in Blaseball. I haven’t participated in a fandom—beyond the most basic level of “enjoying a thing”—in what feels like 10,000 years, so getting heavily invested in the Houston Spies, watching my Son (Scotch) hit singles, and helping develop a bunch of procedurally generated players into characters I would now lay down my life to protect has been the perfect distraction from chaos. It might have been too good of a distraction—since the game went on Siesta, I’ve been notably more productive.
Emily: I wrote about this back in March, but Celeste has really gotten me through one of the hardest years of my life. Adjusting to new medication, quarantining in isolation from my support network, being newly unemployed for the first time and launching into freelance work, weathering the absolutely moronic and truly undemocratic presidential election, and constantly fearing that my friends and family might be exposed to the deadly pandemic has made 2020 simultaneously the wildest and most boring year of my life. Celeste has given me a way to turn my anxiety brain off and turn my precision platformer brain on, because concentrating on helping Madeline through her issues is so much easier than sifting through my own. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Alenka: I am very literally on the record about how the only video or computer games I really like to play are visual novels that involve almost no mechanics/leveling/etc., but I do love watching other people play such games! My partner bought a bunch of Final Fantasy games in a bundle and we played I think VII–X together (a.k.a. she played while I lounged on the couch and heckled her). I had a bunch of friends who were super into these games as a teen, so finally seeing them played was like solving a lifelong mystery! It was really fun and they are often just… so, so silly. As an “essential worker” in a very stressful time, I needed that silliness and opportunity to heckle. My favorite game was VIII, partly because it provides perhaps the most opportunities to make fun of the characters while still often being a sweet, found family story. Selphie yelling things like “BOOM! CRASH! BANG!” while piloting the guns on a ship as Irvine cheered her on in his cowboy getup gave me so much joy.
Elvie: I would also like to add on that I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to explore even more tabletop games beyond D&D and take part in communities I haven’t before thanks to new and old friends. Spiritfarer, however, I have to say, is my top game of 2020 and one that really enraptured me even though my time with it is way brief in comparison to my many hours in Animal Crossing. It was a game that I felt really immersed and involved in while playing and the only one from this year that I have completed in full thus far.
Jameson: Yes, I too have been playing tabletop games outside of D&D! A group of my friends who used to all live near me in Buffalo, but have since scattered around the country, started playing a Mouseguard campaign online back in the spring. Mouseguard is a really charming story-based system, and it was nice to have a little haven of wholesomeness, and even nicer to have a way to catch up with people I care about, regardless of where we’re living these days. (Plus, roleplaying with friends who are new to roleplaying is always a really fun experience! They didn’t think they would be good at it, but they were all so good at it!!)
Are there any games you played that you would like to recommend?
Naseem: I talk about this a little more later, but Butterfly Soup is a pay-what-you-want indie game that I absolutely adore and cannot recommend enough if visual novels are your thing. Sadly, I think I only played AAA games otherwise, but have I told you enough about my personal lord and savior Persona 5 Royal???
Zainabb: I don’t need to recommend this to anyone but I only played it for the first time this year and it was Really Good so definitely Undertale if, like me, you’re massively behind on games and haven’t got round to it yet. I would also recommend Bluebeard’s Bride to anyone who likes horror, but just be sure to set clear boundaries and use safety mechanisms with your pals as the game deals with themes of trauma and oppression.
Maddi: I added this question with an ulterior motive, which is that I played many games I would recommend this year. I know Hades is (rightfully) the hot rogue-lite of the moment, but I would also like to plug Going Under, a satirical rogue-lite where you beat the crap out of terrible bosses lurking in the basement of your coworking space. I also really loved If Found, which is very short, atmospheric, and beautifully animated with an incredible soundtrack and story about finding family and connections with others. If you like mysteries, Paradise Killer is tons of fun—it’s a vaporwave open-world murder mystery wrapped in a visual novel that takes ideas of god and capitalism and runs with them. I would also recommend Nier, but you might as well wait for the upcoming remaster instead of hunting down a PS3 version.
Naseem: Coming back to add: even though I did not play it this year, I just want to second Zainabb’s Undertale recommendation, and also point to the first chapter of Deltarune, which I found just as charming.
Melissa: Spiritfarer! I’m taking my time with this one as it’s long, has a lot of mechanics that scratch the “creating systems and executing them” itch, and I discovered recently that rushing through it resulted in me missing some of the story. I pick away at it little by little, its heartfelt writing and complex characters—they’re not all likeable!—mixed with its themes of care and letting go serving as a soothing, but not unrealistic, balm in this terrible year.
Emily: I was also going to say Spiritfarer! I really loved it, and it once again scratched that itch of mine where I want to help others navigate their issues instead of focusing on my own. I love games where I can tangibly improve NPCs’ lives and help them through their troubles.
I’ve also been playing a LOT of Hades, which I just adore. It’s so gay, and Zagreus is so truly kind and thoughtful, and sometimes you get to punch many boys a lot with some extremely powerful boxing gloves. It is so lovely to deepen your bonds with characters like Sisyphus and Thanatos, and I was genuinely so touched that even though Zagreus has to fight Tisiphone so often, he tries (and succeeds) to help her say his name, instead of just “Murderer” over and over again. He was so patient with her… while also beating the crap out of her repeatedly. Anyway yeah I love this game.
Alenka: Like many of us, I bought that giant anti-racism itch.io bundle and have played a very small number of the games that came with it. The game I mostly bought the bundle for was Speed Dating for Ghosts, and I loved it. It’s super weird, super fun and very low key—everything I want out of a game! Some of the dating routes are more hardcore horror than others, so you can get some content warnings and go down the sweet ones or the silly one and avoid those if you need to. The art is super fun, especially when it does go hardcore horror, and I enjoyed pretty much all the characters—except the football player guy who rubbed me the wrong way and thus is the only one I didn’t date. So good.
What games are you hoping to play next year?
Zainabb: Well, I recently bought a bunch of Sherlock Holmes games so I’ll be attempting to solve some mysteries in the first few months of the year, while it’s still wintry and cold. I’m unlikely to have a console until the PS5 gets a price cut, which might not happen for another 18 to 24 months, so I’m hoping to use this time to finally get to some indie classics in my Steam library, like Oxenfree and Abzu.
I’m also hoping to spend more time with solo tabletop games; I recently bought The Portal at Hill House which is a creepy journaling game that seems entirely my jam, and I’d like to harness the creative writing energy from Alone Among the Stars more seriously next year. With so much of my time spent alone, it seems increasingly important to feel connected to my imagination and find positive ways to ground myself when feeling isolated. Solo tabletop games can provide a healthy way to pass time and escape reality, and I’ve found them relatively portable and accessible, at least when compared to my PC gaming library—I can play in bed or on the sofa, use digital tools like Roll20 to calculate dice rolls or card pulls if needed (please note that I have absolutely bought fancy dice sets and card packs, but digital versions are helpful if space or movement is limited), and write by hand, type, or dictate depending on my capacity that day.
Finally, I would love to find a DM and set up a non-D&D tabletop group for regular sessions. It feels difficult to return to Dungeons & Dragons following everything that happened with Orion Black this year, and I’m generally keen to try out other systems and ideally play with other queer people of colour in an attempt to reduce exposure to the ignorance and microaggressions that I tend to experience around white players. In particular, I want to try out Monsterhearts 2 and Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants (you fight for the anti-vampire revolution where the vampires represent capitalism! Give it to me.)
Naseem: Basically, anything I’ve already bought, I’d like to finally play. I actually just picked up Hades on the recommendation of absolutely everyone, so that’s the game I plan to play next, after I finish Persona 4 Golden. I also bought a bundle on itch.io supporting Black queer organizations, so I want to go through that—there are games by Robert Yang, Christine Love, and Pillow Fight alongside lesser-known-to-me creators like Lunaris Games and Animefanka. I’m excited to finally dive in.
Kate: I don’t know which of my friends I have to blackmail into GMing an ongoing game of Thirsty Sword Lesbians for me to play in, but as soon as the final PDF from their Kickstarter comes in, that’s what I’m doing. Otherwise, I swear I’m going to finish Red Dead Redemption 2 (I’m on the epilogue, okay?) and start Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Melissa: If we hit next December and I still haven’t played Butterfly Soup, I give Naseem full permission to shout at me. I would also like to finally give Monsterhearts 2 a try!
Emily: Oh my lord I am so excited to play Hollow Knight: Silksong. I am very much hoping it comes out in 2021, although there is currently no release date scheduled. Please, please let it come out in 2021.
Alenka: Naseem mentioned Gloomhaven above, and I have actually played a chunk of it but we kind of fell apart (hi, pandemic) and have been on pause for months! I do want to get back to it because we were having a pretty good time, and I think my partner funded the Frosthaven Kickstarter so phew… there is a lot ahead of us. I also hope to finally getting around to playing Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star because I’m sure it is both weird and incredible.
Elvie: I am hoping to sit down and finally explore a lot of tabletop titles I have put on the back burner after having constantly putting them off (and having no one to play them with!). There’s also so many titles in general made by independent creators I want to support more but it’s just… a lot! The giant itch.io anti-racism bundle comes to mind.
Do you set gaming resolutions? Do you have any for the upcoming year?
Zainabb: I want to make 2021 the year I finally adapt my existing PC gaming setup to accommodate my disability. On a basic level, this means making it possible to sit at my desktop computer for a couple of hours without inducing pain, but I’d love to be able to play PC games from my sofa as well, for the days when sitting up isn’t really an option. My friend told me this involves HDMI cables with a switch of some kind and it sounds simple enough but I’m probably just going to enlist their help and invest in a wireless controller.
Other than that, I just want to go easy on myself when I need to abandon a game, either for accessibility reasons or because I’m just not enjoying it any more. I recently started playing A Short Hike, and it’s delightful, but it’s also not the right game for me at the moment. I hope I can come back to it at a later date, but currently I need a less open-ended game so that I don’t get overwhelmed with choice and so I can feel like I’m making continuous progress on goals and objectives. I’m feeling guilty about wanting to postpone it and worried that I’ll just forget everything about how to play it. I know from past experience, however, that I always enjoy games better if I’m returning to them when I actually feel a pull to play them. Next year, I want to be able to play whatever feels right for today and feel okay with a trail of half-played games behind me.
Naseem: I don’t usually, but one for me this upcoming year is definitely to play more indie games. I played Butterfly Soup this year (you can hear my thoughts on it if you subscribe to our Patreon!), and I absolutely fell in love with it. In two hours, I felt more seen than I’d ever felt playing a game before. Besides the likelihood of queerer and browner stories and representations, I also in general want to make a more concerted effort to support non-AAA games/studios. With so much crap in the gaming industry, I think indies have the potential to be places for real change.
Maddi: One of my ongoing resolutions is to work on my backlog, and I did a surprisingly good job of that this year. Next year, I’d like to play more PC games now that I have a laptop that can handle it, and, like Zainabb and Naseem, play more indie games.
Kate: I just want to play more games with friends, either tabletop or video games. Single-player games are a lot of fun, but almost all of my best gaming memories happened with other people. Multiplayer games are something I had stopped playing even before COVID kept us all in our homes, but 2021 feels as good a time as any to try and hop back onto that horse.
Melissa: I played so few games this year. I’m working on setting aside more time for things that are not variations on work, so my only real resolution is: play more games.
Emily: I also want to get back to doing more tabletop games. I’ve been very occasionally playing board games online with friends using things like Board Game Arena and Tabletopia, but most of my tabletop RPGs have fallen by the wayside. I’m still playing in my years-long Monsterhearts 2 campaign, but even that has been harder to schedule as people have more things going on and less energy to stay on camera all evening for sessions. I’m hoping to play in (and perhaps even run) more deliberate one-shots online, so that we can get our bursts of roleplay energy out in one go and not feel the weight of yet more ongoing online commitments.
Alenka: I typically don’t set resolutions of any kind, but I want to explore more of the stuff in the giant itch.io anti-racism bundle! There’s so much there! I am excited to keep exploring the stories of all my Pathfinder and D&D characters. My Pathfinder vigilante recently jumped in front of a horrifying disintegrate spell to save their lover, and seeing where their relationship goes is a constant joy in my life.
Elvie: I am finally getting around to upgrading and building a new PC, so who knows what untapped power I will harness when it comes to my future in gaming.
Jameson: I actually started writing my first tabletop system in early 2020, but once things in the world got so crazy, I didn’t finish it. And I have a new D&D module in the works too! So here’s to getting some great writing done in 2021!
If you had to sum up 2020 with one single game title, what would it be?
Zainabb: Life is Strange 🙃🙃🙃
Melissa: This isn’t actually my experience because I am blessed to live with my husband, but: Alone in the Dark.
Emily: DOOM Eternal feels appropriate.
Alenka: Maybe any horror game title? I’ve played Mansions of Madness but my year certainly didn’t involve any mansions. Maybe it’s a play on words—when you shelter in place, sometimes your home feels like a mansion, but sometimes it feels like the opposite.
Elvie: Death Stranding is alarmingly more poignant this year than in 2019 when it came out… but I have to say, the allegory in which a delivery service is being used to build connections is an interesting optimistic opposite to another Kojima Productions joint, P.T.: who hasn’t felt like they were stuck inside and unable to escape some endless, hellhole loop?
Jameson: Did y’all know there was a game called Punch a Nazi? Just saying. [Note: You cant actually play this game anymore, unfortunately, as Super Deluxe doesn’t exist anymore, but you can still watch other people play it.]
Madison Butler writes about advertising by day and about video games the rest of the time. She can usually be found crying about Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata on Twitter @madisonrbutler.