For reasons my therapist probably knows about better than I do, I have a habit of making lists near-compulsively, especially end-of-year lists. I find it's harder to keep both the games that are important to me and the year before in my head if I don't do some sort of private retrospective, and numbered lists happen to be a pretty common one. For instance, while making the below list, I learned that the pandemic has only lasted 10 months, and not 5 years, from the fact that games that came out pre-COVID are on here. Listing things ultimately helps to put both your taste in media and your sense of time into perspective. Perhaps that's why so many publications do it.
A lot of their lists seem useless, actually, simply swirling around the same consensus list of the top ten games and assigning them arbitrary numbers, even rewarding games that had no actual quality but were simply popular (I can say this about GTA V, right? It's safe here?). The function of these lists is to canonize these games, and I took an art history class once, so I know canons are bad. Some could argue that the greater function of a list is to highlight games or albums that are obscure, that might have been missed. But this could lead you to avoid giving recognition to albums that deserve it but are popular (like how Dances/Curses topped the Quietus' 2020 list instead of Fetch the Bolt Cutter). What is a list: a place to look for recommendations, or a place to create the canon?
This game is free and it's five minutes long, but it still managed to make me feel something, probably moreso than the next game on the list. It's one of those indescribable artsy flash games that I thought died with flash, mixing a short playtime and an incomprehensible yet profound message to make you feel emotions you didn't think humans had. Play it here, the name doesn't have the greatest SEO.
9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Everyone loved this game and I loved it for much the same reasons. The game is a lot different from previous entries, and probably a lot simpler as well, but I think this is all in service of a great design goal: coziness and player customizability. Animal Crossing: New Horizons doesn't seek to give players a town to live in and friends to make, like the original game did. Rather, it tries to give them a home of their own, and the game revolves around the player making their home perfect. Not much else to say about it: this game is on every list.
8. Samsara Room
The end of the flash era led to a lot of compilations of old flash games being sold, with the graphical and performance improvements being ported to PC justifying the cost. Somehow, however, the best remake of a flash game was the one we got for free. Samsara Room deeply reimagines the original game, making it tonally much more serious, adding more and challenging puzzles, and tying it in to Rusty Lake's cinematic universe. The result is an escape room game that feels less like a prototype, and more like one that blows a lot of the remade games Rusty Lake sold as the Cube Escape Collection out of the water (though, they'd probably have the #10 slot were they eligible). In the pandemic, one of the activities I miss the most is doing escape rooms, and an easy way to take my mind off that was 2020's most solid pure escape room game.
7. NecrobaristaThis is the sole visual novel on this list: it's Australian-made, and very interested in cultural ambassadorship. It's a sci-fi novel with some twisty and convoluted worldbuilding that never loses sight of the human stakes in everything. Additionally, the graphics are great, and the game manages to have such an atmosphere that you feel its coffee shop melancholy before you read a single word. I haven't finished this one yet, as 2020 made me lazy, but it's definitely deserving of a lot of recognition.
6. Prestige Tree
Clicker games have gone insane ever since Antimatter Dimensions (2016). No longer was the thrill of making ten billion cookies and making it on the local news enough for devoted players: now you needed systems upon systems and constantly evolving gameplay. Prestige Tree is a very good example of this, with 37 prestige layers. This essentially means there are 37 different things affecting your progress through the game simultaneously, although you never really focus at more than 5 at a time and they're very simple. This concept leads to incredibly varied yet consistent gameplay that you can do a bit of whenever you need it. The game feels less like cookie clicker and more like you're performing maintanence a vast machine, chugging you forward towards where the game cuts off at the end. Additionally, idling for more than a minute or so is never necessary, meaning you could probably speedrun this game.
This year was largely about wish-fulfillment to me (gaming-wise at least: I didn't wish for much of current events, though that bit of the year when everyone hated cops as much as I do was nice.) The next 4 entries on the list are all influenced by older games, and many of them are the best implementations of those games' concepts I've ever seen, showing how good largely derivative works can be.
This game is a super monkey ball clone, taking inspiration from the first two games. What this means is that while the game is never too unfair, you definitely get the sense that every hard level was designed by Satan as your personal punishment. The infinite retries, which now also replace the archaic lives system in arcade mode, let you push through these hard levels and give you the ability to conquer them. The minigames are sorely missed, but the game has 7 different modes, including split screen multiplayer and the truly excellent flip mode where two players switch control over the ball every few seconds, so it remains a great party game. Additionally, you can skip levels: I got an achievement called Journalist Japes for doing so! (This is a good thing.)
4. THPS 1 + 2
Not only is this a new Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games, but they scrubbed every bit of jank out of the old ones, so that this new one controls like a dream. The old games could be somewhat glitchy, and those glitches are gone now. Don't let the title fool you: although the levels may be based off of the first two games, this is mechanically more similar to 3 and 4, the titles with greater depth and complexity. Somehow, it even manages to improve on these games' mechanics, a remarkable feat if there ever was one. That's right: on a pure mechanical level, I feel like this game is better than one of the greatest games of all time. There are a lot of caveats with recommending this game, as with any AAA title in 2020, but a Tony Hawk game with good level design and controls (and music, and graphics, and...) is so rare these days, the devs could beat the shit out of me and it'd still make it on this list.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward....2! This game is essentially a shorter Zero Escape game, mindblowing twists included. The concept of solving puzzles across time and timelines, and of a main character constantly experiencing their own death is so fertile I'm surprised more games haven't played with it. The puzzles in Retrace manage to be headscratchers, with the exception of the fact that you have to do that one sheep-wolf-cabbage puzzle five times for no good reason. Additionally, like many of the other games on this list, it has loveable characters, but unlike those games, it made the incredible choice of making every single main character gay. One of them is even Vriska!
2. Jackbox Party Pack 7
I mentioned my pick for number 2 to Kit Riemer and she said "Oh yeah, I love Blather Round!" Nobody in my friend group has even played that game, which speaks to the sheer strength of Jackbox Party Pack 7's offerings. Every single game (I've played) plays to the strength of Jackbox as a format. Maybe none of them reinvent the wheel, but the lack of the wild experimentation present in previous Party Packs makes this the definitive one: a true realization of the vision of 5 perfect party games, packed into one. Each game (except The Devils and the Details, this pack's among us style game) is a blank canvas, which your friends can use to make some intensely funny jokes under their own brainpower. If Jackbox manages to top themselves with the Party Pack 8, I'll be very surprised.
1. UNREAL LIFE
In a lot of ways, UNREAL LIFE is as derivative as the 4 games above: the creator proudly lists their influences on their website, and you can see exactly how UNDERTALE, Yume Nikki, and Spirited Away influenced this game within an hour of first playing it. (Though some of the listed influences are more obscure: Kirby Air Ride?) Still, having played this game through to the end, I can confidently say it transcends its influences to create something entirely new. It is an incredibly charming point-and-click adventure game with great characters. It integrates some darker themes around the ending, and it's debatable whether these were well-executed, but they managed to make me feel something. All in all, it manages to be an utterly unique experience, and one I sometimes find myself longing to go back to. You should play this game (unless of course, you're triggered by suicide or trains.)
That's it for my list. If you want more lists, I'd check out Soft and Hollow's top games list (since all the games are at least somewhat obscure and there's somehow zero overlap between this list and hers) or Kit Riemer's music list. Bandcamp has also been putting out some great music lists: I've discovered a lot of stuff through there. If you want to see where the consensus lies, check out Rock Paper Shotgun: though its list is pretty boring, it has 24 games on it, meaning you'll discover something, and I love the advent calendar framing they use. Happy New Year! In 2021 Holistic Review will put out reviews that WILL kill you.