New Yorker's Best Video Games of 2020


Dec 8, 2020
In the Before Times, on transatlantic flights, I would often assume the role of a deadly virus that threatened the human race. The key to success in the game Plague Inc., from 2012, is to mutate in ways that both hasten the virus’s spread and impede a vaccine’s development. It was perversely enjoyable to pass an hour, forehead smushed against a window, swiping toward extinction. But 2020 spiked that small pleasure. Much like transatlantic travel itself, role-playing a pandemic can appear, at the moment, to be rather unseemly.

Not so for video games at large, however. The medium is ideally suited to coronavirus lockdown, when the boundaries of the physical world contract and the imagination strains for freedom. Games offer a chance for the housebound to visit distant lands, for the unemployed to experience the satisfaction of a completed task, for the lonely to interact with others. If you’re a skeptic, this might’ve been the year you picked up a controller.

Not everyone was convinced, of course. In quarantine, many parents saw the quasi-divine power that games hold over their children—even as those games provided surrogate playgrounds, places where friendships could be nourished. Some veterans, too, might have been thrust into an uneasy relationship with the form. Personally speaking, video games, with their synthetic rewards and twinkly distractions, didn’t quite manage to assuage my weariness with the world this year. Perhaps that’s because they so often present us with a world in crisis, one which we alone can fix, usually through violent means. The capacity to order chaos is comforting, arguably the medium’s greatest appeal, and yet I increasingly find these particular kinds of stories hollow. The idea that the great issues of our time can be solved by weapons, for example, seems to me not just a weakness of games but, increasingly, a failure of the human imagination, with consequences on a global-industrial scale.

Still, away from the corporate mainstream, artists continued to offer alternatives: games that were bold and nourishing, and that made a tough year just a tiny bit brighter. Here, in no particular order, are some of the best.

In no particular order:
- Hades
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- The Last of Us Part II
- Through the Darkest of Times
- Cloudpunk
- Disc Room
- Clubhouse Games
- I Am Dead
- Crusader Kings 3
- If Found...
- A Monster’s Expedition
- Astro’s Playroom

Honorable mentions:
- Cloud Gardens
- Fuser
- Microsoft Flight Simulator
- Murder by Numbers
- Noita
- Paradise Killer
- Spelunky 2
- Spiritfarer
- Streets of Rage 4
- There Is No Game