Obviously, 2020 was terrible. It was terrible for a lot of us, for a lot of different reasons. Some of us experienced loss of loved ones and companions. Others were isolated from those very same, forced to stay away from the people we care most deeply about because of the fear we'd hurt them, or worse, by bringing this plague into their space. Jobs were lost, precious time was squandered.

It was a clusterfuck, is what I'm saying.

In this time, I didn't exactly do a ton of triple-A new-release fresh hotness gaming. I couldn't. There's a certain level of executive function, of focus and enthusiasm, that's required to do a deep dive into a brand new game and give it the time it deserves...Or hell, just the time it demands to get you to the ending.

For the most part, I simply did not have that brainpower this last year. I managed to do some reviews, sure, but only just. And only because it's part of my job. Actually sitting down and playing something with dedication? That just didn't happen. Hell, one of my most eagerly received surprises of the entire year, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, ended up being a game I barely put a few hours into since it came out. Not because it's not good, but because I wasn't in the mental space to actually stop and play a game and enjoy it.

Of course, the flip side of all of this is that the brain cannot just stay in panic-mode forever. You're physically designed not to. Your brain just normalizes after a certain point, stops treating the awful situations as novel so the stress compounds will slow down a little. So maybe it was the normalization, maybe it was just good days and bad, but I did manage to make myself play some things.

This isn't really a Game Of The Year 2020 list, not least because neither of the games I want to talk about came out in 2020.

But it's...It's kind of a self analysis through the medium of the web article. Which I am aware is one of the deep cliches of the entire artifice, but work with me, alright? I've got two games I want to talk about, that were important for me figuring myself out for two different reasons.

Let's start on the positive. Expect open spoilers for both games.


God of War (PS4), the soft-reboot-but-still-a-sequel to the previous GoW titles, was my first time actually doing the whole Kratos...Thing. When the PS2 games were a big deal, I was all in on Devil May Cry and that branch of stylish-action, and so the brutal series just kind of slipped me by. Then, by the time III hit, I was in that "well it would be such a commitment to start..." mentality, and I kind of figured I was gonna let that one go.

Quite honestly, I didn't really intend to get the PS4 game originally, either. I heard good things, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't sure it was exactly what I wanted or needed in my life. So it flittered around the edges of my vision and my focus, until it started getting those deep-discount deals...And that's how it ended up under the tree on Christmas 2019.

It promptly went right on the shelf, to await a time when I had enough time to devote to a Big Game, and especially a storied game where I couldn't slam on a podcast and chew through a couple backlogs at once.

Then the pandemic hit.

Then in July I had my own loss.

And I just, I fucking needed something to focus on. Anything at all.

I literally forced myself to grab that case out of a stack of games I was hemming and hawing on, made myself just shove it into the god damned PS4 and play something instead of wasting another night trying to pick between options.

So I met Kratos.

And the first thing I did, was I prepared a funeral pyre for one he'd lost.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you I cried like a baby, or that it was all the relief I needed, or anything that would be hyperbolic clickbait. But I did find myself compelled. And I wanted to see where this would go. It didn't hurt that, out of all of the Dad Games we've gotten in the last few years as developers' children hit adolescence, this one perhaps felt the most relatable.

Thus did I dive in. I spent hours after hours focused on this, working through the messy and repressed emotions of Kratos and his son Atreus. I've been both, really. The small child running on fear of disappointing or angering a father figure, and the grown man just trying not to boil over with all of my own struggles. (Admittedly, mine are rather less violent than Kratos's.)

And, of course, I have to acknowledge the core gameplay being really fucking good, right? The brutal, beautiful satisfaction of driving that axe into something. That perfect thunk as it returns to your hand. But that gameplay loop, in turn, feeds into the story, into the emotions. When I was forced to retrieve Kratos's iconic chain-blades, they felt... wrong. Not just their wild, chaotic patterns when translated into the over-the-shoulder gameplay style, but what they represented.

I didn't exactly bring them out on a whim, for much of the game.

Then there's that ending. So much of the ending is powerful story stuff...But the single best moment for me? It's easily the spot where Kratos takes off the wraps over his arms, lets the scars of those old chains show, because he's no longer ashamed of them. He's no longer ashamed of himself. I'm not exactly at that stage of my own journey yet, but there is a powerful catharsis in it.

God of War was there when I needed it most. I will always be grateful for that.


Then there's the flip side to this.

I mentioned earlier that I spent a lot of time playing games that I could listen to a podcast while I played. This follows certain trends. Games where I don't have to do a ton of extended reading or listening. Action or strategy, things where I can focus on physicality. Retro gaming is fantastic for this, or retro-styled indies.

But sometimes you end up going down a different route.

And that's how I started my journey on Slay the Spire.

This was...A deeply unpleasant journey.

It's not the game's fault, I don't think. Certainly the actual core loop is solid enough, and from a perspective stepping outside of my own head, it seems entirely of high quality design. But something about it...I don't know if it was the timing, if it was something broken in me, or what.

But just, something.

Have you ever had that feeling of dread? That sense of something just being wrong around the corner? You might parse it as if you're being followed, or watched, or just that there's an 'other shoe' about to drop. It's the feeling when the pets start freaking out five minutes before a natural disaster.

Something in Slay the Spire made that feeling creep up on me, almost every waking second I had the damn game on. And yet I couldn't look away.

I don't mean that in a good way. I don't mean that I was enthralled, that it spoke to me. I mean that some part of my fucking lizard-hindbrain, my instinctive response to danger, told me I had to best this thing so I could sleep at night without worrying about it creeping into my cave and gutting me.

I started to associate those fucking bird-men with the strength boost spell with anxiety. Or that baseball asshole with the powerful shields, with a kind of grinding dread. Different enemies would get other emotional reactions from me, all of them low-key but negative. And all of it made worse, by the struggle to learn how to pilot the three readily unlockable characters. To figure out the pattern that would let me survive and do enough damage fast enough that I could keep pushing.

So I kept doing in.

Again, and again, and a-fucking-gain. I'd have runs where I got practically to the baseline 'endboss'. Runs where I didn't even get through the first boss, because none of the cards I needed for my engine to come online would show up.

I developed a love-hate relationship with the entire principle of drafting and of roguelike gameplay. There was probably some level of emotional self-harm going on in me just throwing myself at this thing.

But I kept going. I watched videos. I tried to learn the loops. Figure out how the trick to getting the Ironclad to work was strength boosts.

I don't even remember what deck I used to win. I think it was strength and, maybe some level of bleeding? Or defense?

I'm not going back to look it up.

I got to one of the final bosses. I pushed through with everything I had. I managed to, finally, beat the fucker.

I got the regular ending, the one that's setting up for you to push on for the True Ending.

I immediately returned to the main menu, quit the game, and fucking uninstalled it. My deathmarch had gone on long enough, and as far as I was concerned, I was free.

None of this is the game's fault. But something in it, just hit every last little button inside me to drag out some of the worst emotions I've got.


And those two, I guess, show the entirety of my 2020 experiences. I got some catharsis, I got some positive emotions and forward steps, but I also went through some of the worst times of my entire life. Is there a lesson to be learned from this?

Not much of one. Be more aware of my emotional state, maybe. Don't self-flagellate with a videogame that's already making me feel bad, I guess. But those aren't really lessons. You're not supposed to need to learn those.

As I sit writing this, it's January 4th, 2021. New Years is behind us. My own birthday has come and gone already. Last year, I got to go out with friends, get ice cream, and I saw a movie the next day. It wasn't the last movie I saw in theaters, but it was close.

This year, I sat at home, rewatched the first episode of The Mandalorian, and cooked up a frozen burger. And for the rest of the internet, the day got dominated by some asshole with a can of beans. So, in summary?

Fuck 2020.