It’s been a difficult, horrible year but here are…

The Games That Helped Me Survive 2020

From blissful islands full of animals to literal battles through hell

Let’s get to know each other a bit: What was the first thing you did upon realizing that 2020 was going to skip the prosperity of the “Roaring ’20s” and jump right into the depression?

Did you tweet about it? Tell your friends and family you love them? Stock up on toilet paper? Take up knitting?

Me? I charged my controllers.

Photo: Fabian Albert/Unsplash

Okay, that isn’t completely true. My initial reaction was a common one, that being complete and overwhelming panic. While I was fortunate in many ways, I was going headfirst into a pandemic tens of miles away from my family with a contracted job — that I’d eventually lose — and my poor mental health reemerging.

It was a challenging year, and that’s without even mentioning the pain of seeing those daily figures rise and decades of injustice bubbling to the surface like never before. However, the fact of the matter is that you and I survived this turbulent year. We all have someone to thank for getting us through it all, even if that person is yourself. In my case, it’s my fiancé, friends, and family.

There was also something that made the past 12 months far more endurable, a form of media that I’ve relied upon time and time again during my 20-plus years. They may seem like a way to kill time when you’ve run out of plain flour for your banana bread or a box set to watch but to me?

These are the four games that helped me survive 2020.

Hades

Supergiant Games

If the fact this is my second piece in a few months discussing this game isn’t enough to cement my obsession with Hades then maybe my total playtime will help:

A screenshot showing a Hades savefile with 105 hours played.
A screenshot showing a Hades savefile with 105 hours played.
Feel free to add me if you ever want your butt kicked at Smash Bros by Toon Link.

Don’t worry: The irony of a game revolving around trying (and repeatedly failing) to escape from hell being a light during a very dark year is not lost on me. Neither is the irony of potentially misusing “irony.” Despite visiting locations infested with ghouls and skeletons as well as the inevitability of death, no game from 2020 put a smile on my face quite like Hades did.

A lot of that comes down to the wonderful gameplay, offering kinetic combat that is yet to grow stale even after 100-plus hours spent and over 70 escape attempts. That alone would have me falling for Hades hook, line, and sinker but much like developer Supergiant Games’ previous effort, the devil’s in the details (sorry, wrong mythology).

Hades looks out over the city of Tarturus.
Hades looks out over the city of Tarturus.
It may take a while before you escape Tartarus for the first time but before long you’ll be sprinting through it.

You’ll find that most of Hades’ highlights aren’t the tussles you’ll get into; instead, they’ll be in the cooldown periods between those very battles. Tl;dr you play as Zagreus, the son of Hades who is trying to escape his father’s home to join his family on Mount Olympus. It’s a simple concept that the writers run with to provide some hilarious interactions with characters like Poseidon as well as some genuinely jaw-dropping moments that I dare not spoil.

It’s when these two elements are combined where my Hades addiction developed. I’d start a new run; kill whatever stood in my way; chatted with my Godly relatives as I collected their powerful abilities; have some back and forth with the incredible bosses; and then ultimately perish, whether it be in pools of lava or to Theseus who I would be happy to see get punched in the face repeatedly.

Patting three headed dog Cerberus.
Patting three headed dog Cerberus.
And yes — Cerberus is the bestest boy.

Returning to the House of Hades, I’d talk with all the guests and workers who fill these halls, a personal favorite being Achilles who writes all of the notes in your journal. Then, after spending my hard-earned loot, I’d do it all over again. And again. And again. Every time getting that bit further, every time having just as much, if not more fun.

I’m sure there’s a relevant metaphor in here somewhere about persevering through whatever is thrown your way to emerge on the other side in one piece. Unfortunately, I’m far too tempted to pick up my Switch and start another run to be bothered enough to find it.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Nintendo EDP

You think that Hades playtime was impressive? You haven’t seen anything yet.

A screenshot displaying Animal Crossing: New Horizons playtime as 120 hours or more.
A screenshot displaying Animal Crossing: New Horizons playtime as 120 hours or more.
Why yes, YouTube is one of my favorite Switch games!

There are two reasons why I felt the need to bring up the long-awaited new entry in the Animal Crossing series. The first, and most obvious, is how bloody relaxing and delightful New Horizons is. Released just three days before the U.K. announced its first shutdown, an island full of charming animal villagers along with an addictive game loop and plenty of activities resulted in unprecedented Animal Crossing mania and a new comfort for millions of Switch owners.

I wasn’t immune to this craze, putting in more time over a few months than I ever did in the years I owned both Wild World and New Leaf. No matter how bleak the news that day was or how exhausted I was from work, knowing I’d get to talk to Bones about his random existential thoughts or waste a few hours chasing down the elusive stringfish was enough to get me through the day.

A group of animal villagers crowd around a dog playing a guitar.
A group of animal villagers crowd around a dog playing a guitar.
It’s both depressing and lovely that K.K Slider was amongst three artists I saw live in 2020.

The second reason why New Horizons finds itself on this list comes down to one that could come across as backhanded: You see how my playtime says “120 hours or more”? Had I kept up the momentum I had at the start of the year then it would easily be verging on 300 had it not been for a certain phenomenon creeping up on me — burnout.

Now saying that I got burnout may seem like a critique of the game itself and while New Horizons definitely could have been improved in some regard to delay it, neither Nintendo nor I could have foreseen the game coming out amidst a pandemic. It wasn’t made knowing that players would be stuck in their homes, playing it for up to 10 hours a day as opposed to the expected hour-or-so-long daily visits.

A penguin drinks a can of juice on a lawn chair.
A penguin drinks a can of juice on a lawn chair.
Bones and Eugene were meant to come by so we could recreate the King of the Hill intro — fucking no shows.

When I ran into this roadblock, I felt properly disheartened, borderline guilty in a way I haven’t over a video game since the good old Nintendogs days. However, I look back on this incident fondly. 2020 was a year where burnout was rampant, affecting virtually everyone over a variety of things.

New Horizons served as a reminder of this. It taught me that it was okay to be running on empty and disinterested — even to the point where I no longer wanted to play it. It didn’t mean I wasted the week’s worth of real time I put into it. That dopamine rush I got every time a new villager popped up, or I tracked down a rare bug? That was all very real.

Even if it takes me until March 2021 to muster up the energy to return, Bones, Aurora, Punchy, and all the other wonderful villagers will welcome me back with open arms.

Though hopefully, this time Bones won’t stalk me from outside my house.

Bones, a dog, telling me “I even stood outside your house for a whole day! Except for when I had to go to the bathroom…”
Bones, a dog, telling me “I even stood outside your house for a whole day! Except for when I had to go to the bathroom…”
I thought there was a funky smell coming from my flamingo statue…

The Binding of Isaac

Nicalis

2020 saw all of us starting new hobbies and pastimes to distract us from *gestures at everything*. Some of them may have been short-lived, others still going on to this day. The one I picked up was the latter and helped me to complete my twentysomething-year-old white man to-do list after making a podcast and buying an instrument that I’m yet to learn — I started streaming on Twitch.

I played a fair amount of titles when I was getting started — jumping between Resident Evil, Hollow Knight, and Fall Guys to name but a few— though as luck would have it, none of these fancy new games would become as much of a staple as 2014’s Binding of Isaac.

Isaac faces up against a monstorous boss.
Isaac faces up against a monstorous boss.
Binding of Isaac wears its Newgrounds origins with pride.

Much like Hades, Binding of Isaac revolves around escape. Unlike Hades though, this game is far more cynical — instead of escaping from your jaded but loving father, you instead head down level after level to flee from your mother who plans on sacrificing you to God himself. Granted this isn’t a game that I play for the story but the tone and many unlockable endings give it some purpose.

“Why out of everything you could play did you choose this” is a question you may have for me. After all, it’s hardly a pleasant-sounding romp, and I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a certain air of unease to it all. That’s without even mentioning how endlessly frustrating it can be with a list of challenges that can feel borderline impossible at times.

That’s why I kept coming back to it.

Isaac avoids streams of poo.
Isaac avoids streams of poo.
Isaac can get overwhelming at times — this is probably a 4/10 on the intensity scale.

Look, Hades, while challenging, offers some relief within the form of great dialogue and engaging story; Animal Crossing is just sheer bliss all jammed into a tiny cartridge. Isaac? It’s unrelenting and often unforgiving, yet it’s precisely the kind of game I needed in 2020.

While I’ve had a kick up the ass in many ways this year, this was one that I volunteered for and never felt like I wasn’t learning something from it. When it feels like you’re on autopilot and unable to make a difference when it comes to the more significant issues in the world, there’s something quite empowering about games like Isaac that balance the fine line between humiliating and cathartic, giving you the tools to conquer these challenges with patience being your best asset.

With a new expansion on the way, my 200+ hours spent on Hades and Animal Crossing is going to be towered over by Isaac like it’s consumed a handful of “one makes you larger” pills.

Among Us

Innersloth

Last but by no means least is the game that, despite its premise of deceiving and lying, brought me closer to my friends during a year where I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them face to face.

We all remember the first few months of shutdown: I’m sure by now that hearing “pub quiz” will bring on a headache for a lot of you reading this. While I’ll always hold a fondness for humiliating others/myself in these scenarios, I can only imagine how many hangovers could have been avoided had Among Us been as big at the start of 2020 as it is now.

A red space person going sh.
A red space person going sh.
The screen you see before you silently rejoice and get crewmate or silently scream and get impostor.

Among Us was just at the right place at the right time — well, seeing as it came out in 2018, maybe it was at the right place two years early. While I can imagine a group of people playing this in the same room, there’s something quite magical about how Among Us works in a post-Zoom world: Analyzing every little bit of your friends’ behavior from their cadence to how their character moved results in arguments and interrogations that you’ll find yourself giggling about weeks after they happened.

Every game on here has their wee reason for cheering me up: Hades and its incredibly rich blend of story and gameplay; Animal Crossing and its lovable cast of furry (and not so furry) friends; and Binding of Isaac and its ability to kick me to the ground but have me picking myself up, ready and raring to go.

For a game set light-years away from us in the dark trenches of space, in a year where it was easy to feel disconnected, Among Us made those miles that separated me and my friends feel minuscule.

Thank you for reading all the way through! If you want to hear more of my thoughts, you can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube.

Multi-media journalist over analysing and oversharing via the power of Medium. Find me over on YouTube @ liamthemusicreviewer.

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