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The 10 best games of 2020: In a pandemic year, play was a critical storytelling medium

Illustration for 2020 Top Games featuring stills from "I Am Dead," "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," and "Spiritfarer."
The Times Top Games of 2020 include “I Am Dead,” “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and “Spiritfarer.”
(Richard Hogg, Hollow Ponds, Annapurna Interactive; Nintendo; Thunder Lotus Games; Illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)
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So much of mass entertainment was delayed, derailed, postponed or flat-out canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but games kept coming.

While not everything hit its intended release date, it was play that we turned to and play that connected us.

Games, in fact, are once again the most sought-after holiday gift, thanks to new consoles from Sony and Microsoft. But when I think about what I played in 2020, it’s not the big blockbuster games — so-called AAA games in industry parlance — that stand out. No, it’s how play collided and intersected with all aspects of our life, from Zoom calls to our social media channels to drive-through experiences to simply providing new ways to look at our living spaces.

If there’s a positive to our stressful times, it’s that games more sharply focused the concept that play is not just a storytelling medium but one that, at a time we need it most, provides a deep sense of community. These concepts help inform the games that mattered to me most in 2020.

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1. ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ (Nintendo Switch)

"Animal Crossing: New Horizons" gives us a virtual space to be together.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” gives us a virtual space to be together.
(Nintendo)

No game mattered as much to 2020 as “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

Heading into the year, it was certainly a hotly anticipated title, but what was unexpected when it was released in March was how the friendly, approachable Nintendo franchise became the balm that so many of us needed, and the sense of connectivity that we were

suddenly lacking. With daily tasks and a workmanlike approach, “Animal Crossing” games have always been about routine, but the island setting of the latest allowed us to create and share outdoor paradises that transported us to a simpler, more imaginative world.

“New Horizons” became a place to hang with our friends, a virtual gathering where comfort is always the priority over competitiveness. No wonder the game was adopted and championed by art institutions such as the Getty, political campaigns and players and nonplayers alike who saw it as a safe way to creatively interact. It’s a game that wants to hug its players rather than challenge them, and that’s one of the many reasons it’s the game of 2020.

It’s no accident that “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is resonating now. Built to ward off loneliness in 2001, the franchise is made for the pandemic moment.

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2. ‘Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit’ (Nintendo Switch)

"Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit" turns your living room into a race course.
(Nintendo)

Don’t make the mistake of writing off this toy as a novelty. Also don’t err by thinking “Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit” will or should provide the depth of a “Mario Kart” experience. I think it does something even more powerful.

The lessons of this augmented reality-enhanced game, which requires a Nintendo Switch, should live well beyond our pandemic year. Rare is the game that

comes to us, that meets us where we’re at, and then asks us to look at our surroundings differently. To view a setting so familiar — our homes — from a new and curious perspective. “Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit” is a reminder that play is a medium that gives us the tools to see the mundane with a sense of wonder.

The pitch is simple: A remote control toy kart with a camera

turns our

home, when viewed through the Switch, into “Mario Kart” courses. Sure, you may drive straight into a garbage can or get a wheel stuck in rug, but the shift in viewpoint is never less than enchanting.

Nothing has yet matched the augmented reality hit “Pokémon Go.” But watch out, Pikachu! “Mario Kart Live” brings AR home. The wonders are in your living room.

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3. ‘I Am Dead’ (PC, Nintendo Switch)

"I Am Dead" is an approachable puzzle game in which we explore the afterlife.
“I Am Dead” is an approachable puzzle game in which we explore the afterlife.
(Hollow Ponds)

The pandemic, via video conferencing, has brought more people into our homes than ever before, at least for those of us not using virtual backdrops. And thus, a few weeks ago my therapist changed the course of our conversation when

she wanted to know about the various knick-knacks and artwork I had in my place — what they

mean

to me, why I keep them

and what I think they say

to prospective partners who may come over. I was nervous that the exercise would be

pointless nostalgia, but I was wrong.

“I Am Dead” is a more magical version of that inward quest. This lovely, quaint and very British game has us inhabiting an inquisitive — and expired — small-town museum curator as he seeks to learn more about the ghosts that pervade the small town he lived in and forever loved. Nothing in “I Am Dead” is sad; this is a work that simply wants us to ask questions about where, and who, we find meaning. And it has a talking dog.

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4. ‘Arcana’ (Instagram)

The puzzles in "Arcana" are hidden in the images posted by the fictional character of Jade.
The puzzles in “Arcana” are hidden in the images posted by the fictional character of Jade.
(E3W Productions / AOTW)

An Instagram game that ran for three weeks — it’s still online at arcana-game.com if you want to get a sense of it — “Arcana” was the best sort of alternate reality game, one that established boundaries, forged intimacy and let story drive the action. There were plenty of puzzles, some I failed at solving, but the project never felt “gated,” that is, it understood that we use social media to make

connections with others, and sometimes, oftentimes, those connections prove to be false.

More important, “Arcana” was the kind of project that was conceived during the pandemic and meant for the pandemic, but also transcends it. Anyone with an Instagram account could play, and they could do so at their level of involvement without feeling lost. Sure, the main character of Jade (Nerea Duhart) didn’t always make the smartest choices, but that’s par for the course this year. “Arcana” worked because it understood that we look for stories in chaos.

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5. ‘The Last of Us Part II’ (PlayStation 4/5)

"The Last of Us Part II" is exploration into trauma.
“The Last of Us Part II” is exploration into trauma.
(Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

There were times I wanted to stop playing “The Last of Us Part II.” The game is relentless in its presentation of violence and cynicism, as the PlayStation 4 work — one of the final games of the just-wrapped PS4 console generation — shows mostly contempt for all of us and our ability to destroy the world. So yes, it’s dark.

But I also felt compelled to see it to its end. When all was said and done, the game from Naughty Dog put the emphasis on human flaws, even if it illustrated them by showing us emotionally difficult extremities. I won’t say it isn’t challenging to play through, but I also consider it a triumph in environmental storytelling, especially for those who want to spend the time to understand what its main characters are thinking.

Put another way: It took me 30 hours to finish, and when it was done, despite all the bloodshed and zombie-like enemies, I felt as if I had just completed a character study.

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6. ‘Blaseball’ (online)

The text-based "Blaseball" allows the game to exist largely in the imaginations of its players.
(Game Band)

If I told you that even as a lifelong baseball fan I didn’t understand everything about “Blaseball,” you would likely question why it’s on my year-end list of 2020’s most meaningful games. But that’s also the very reason it’s here.

“Blaseball” is vague. “Blaseball,” a free web-based game (blaseball.com), uses the language of baseball game box scores — in fact, that’s pretty much all it uses — and asks us, the viewers, to do the rest. We can influence

the world by voting on often-absurd choices, which are sometimes very supernatural in nature, but “Blaseball” is an ongoing experiment in community involvement.

Yet not in the standard video game way, where systems and controls will overwhelm. “Blaseball” lives in our web browsers, asking us only to pretend and communicate. For those who play, it can exist in the background, running autonomously while we dream up backstories. For newcomers, welcome. Don’t be overwhelmed. Here there are no written — or unwritten — rules that aren’t meant to be broken.

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7. ‘Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ (Xbox consoles, Nintendo Switch)

"Ori and the Will of the Wisps" is among the games receiving a boost for the Xbox Series X.
(Moon Studios / Xbox Game Studios)

Confession: Sometimes I boot up “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” and don’t even play it. I just turn it on and treat it as if it’s a living painting. The game really is that beautiful, its mystical, twilight forests full of warm light, tranquil colors and odd creatures. Some of them are foreboding, causing Ori to flash brightly in pain when encountering them. Each time you hear that little yelp, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of sadness.

This affecting game can fool us into believing it’s an interactive animated film. Ori, a shimmering creature with wave-like fur and wide, probing eyes, is lost in a world that packs as much wonder as it does danger. And there’s plenty of the latter, as “Will of the Wisps” is an awful mighty challenge. But as we move backward, forward, up and down amid its world, we’re likely to be as amazed as we are stumped.

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8. ‘If found ...’ (PC, Mac, iOS, Nintendo Switch)

"If Found ..." from Annapurna Interactive explores how we handle personal relationships.
Annapurna Interactive this year released the critically acclaimed “If Found ...,” a game that explores how we handle personal relationships.
(Dreamfeel / Annapurna Interactive)

One of the deepest connections I forged this year was with someone who doesn’t even exist. Kasio lives only in “If Found ...,” a lovely vignette of a game that, if you play on a mobile devices or a Nintendo Switch, invites us to touch the screen. Doing so doesn’t really forge an attachment, of course, but it provides the illusion of doing so as our fingers move left and right as a virtual eraser while we advance through Kasio’s relationships and diary.

We’re connected to Kasio for only a short time in her life, but “If Found ...” wants to show us her most personal thoughts, as well as her fears, her insecurities and her regrets. When we swipe the screen, we erase memories. Or we think we do. “If Found ...” is a game about moving on, telling its story by providing a brief glimpse into the mind of another. Thus, the more we absorb and help Kasio forget her past, the more we’re invested in what her future can be.

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9. ‘The Under Presents: Tempest’ (Oculus Quest/Rift)

"The Under Presents: Tempest" was a work of immersive theater built inside an experimental virtual reality game
“The Under Presents: Tempest” was a work of immersive theater built inside the experimental virtual reality game “The Under Presents.”
(Tender Claws)

One of the most exciting projects in VR is “The Under Presents,” and in our pandemic year the local studio behind the experimental project took on “The Tempest.” No, it wasn’t a full interpretation of the Shakespeare classic, but how long can you really spend in a VR headset? Instead, for a limited run, the Silver Lake/Atwater Village-based Tender Claws gave us a timely show that was tucked inside “The Under Presents.” Here, we met a live actor who was struggling to manage the responsibilities of an acting gig amid the pandemic.

Throughout, we could snap our fingers in the hopes of casting spells, use grand gestures to reenact scenes from “The Tempest” or simply flail around like goofballs. All of the above resulted in feeling like we were somewhere else.

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10. “Spiritfarer” (PC, Xbox consoles, PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch)

Spiritfarer is a cozy management game about dying.
(Thunder Lotus Games)

In a way “Spiritfarer” is a complement to “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

“Spiritfarer” infuses the calm of the latter with more direct gamelike tasks. We build a boat, hunt for resources and try to appease our shipmates. Only here, those sailing with us are likely people we met, at least when they were alive, and we have to get to the bottom of what is making them restless when they’re dead.

This has been a difficult year for a lot of us. and I loved “Spiritfarer” as it reminded me that everyone we meet is probably going through something. It also emphasized how if we truly want to get to know someone else, we have to actually care for them.

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