Oh no, it’s another one of those articles that starts with “it’s been a big year for video games” – but really, it has! A new Half-Life game came out! The Last Of Us got a sequel! New next-generation consoles…
But with all the mass-marketed AAA capital dominating the industry’s frontal lobe, it’s been hard to pull focus and shine a light on the smaller games that came out this year that really demand your attention.
But now that some of the pressure has lifted, there’s a golden opportunity for them to shine. The best part is that many of these precious hidden gems are now cheap as chips in the Steam Winter Sale – so there’s no better time than the present to give them a look!
Masking the decaying truth of urban dioramas with gorgeous pixelated plantlife is a pretty cathartic way to spend the end of 2020, one of the worst calendar years on record. Cloud Gardens stuns by gamifying the unintentional beauty of apocalypse. This is a melancholy puzzler where you sit and create art by nurturing greenery in a fog-filled void, crows and raindrops accenting your inputs. It’s a mindful game that forces you to be patient to see the impact of nature, one where the beam of a once-dead motor’s halogen headlights can make your heart soar.
You’ll mound Monstera onto a morose-looking shopping trolley and feel a sense of clarity for doing so. It’s a god game for the easy-going, and a weirdly wonderful way to wind down. Cloud Gardens is about how nature always finds a way to propagate and thrive, even in ruin. It’s hope, captured in a beautiful bottle (and it’s only a fiver on Steam).
GhostRunner is a piece of Cyberpunk 2077 fanfiction where the melee combat is actually good. This game will scratch the sleek sword combat itch for you and then some – it feels absolutely fantastic to play in motion, even if it apes a lot of its visual style.
This is a game that understands pacing – you get just enough time to make the most of its mechanics, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at around eight hours tops. I switched off the dialogue and listened to podcasts while thoroughly enjoying its addicting genius.
Imagine being able to dash around an enemy in bullet time, before hacking a platform, wall-running, leaping and landing with grace, leaving a devastating killing blow in your wake. GhostRunner lets you live such an action-packed dream hundreds of times across its short but sweet campaign.
Raft: The Second Chapter
I started playing Raft at 9PM the other night and I didn’t stop until the early morning. I think I’m a bit obsessed? There aren’t many examples from the nuclear survival game boom of the 2010s that are still worth playing in 2020, but Raft proved to me very quickly that it is one of them.
Outrageously addicting thanks to its moreish gameplay loop, I like Raft’s starting premise the most. You’re on a wooden foundation in the middle of an ocean. Here’s a plastic hook – there’s loads of rubbish floating in the water there. Good luck!
From that absurd intro, you’ll start crafting items with the scrap. Eventually you’ll spend time purifying water, fending off gulls from your crops and paddling your starving stomach towards a new island that might just be a mirage. Building the eponymous Raft is magnificent fun with friends, made better by the addition of a linear narrative to complement the dynamic survival systems. There’s plenty of awesome environmental storytelling on offer here that I won’t dare spoil. Just dig into it, enjoy the satisfying feeling of progression and watch out for the sharks!
Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1
Any game where you can purchase the eyeball of a space lion is at least worth a look, I reckon. This off-piste gem from weird game master Cosmo D is a brain-busting experience where you must assemble increasingly ridiculous pizza pies for the inhabitants of a jazzpunk city. It’s a point-and-click explorer, the kind of game that might have arrived if you gave the developers of Myst a few tabs of acid in 1992.
The trip-hop hum of the high street is worth the price of entry alone, but it’s just so easy to get lost in this digital space, which feels utterly between worlds. Character voice lines are replaced by the strained strings of a violin, and you quickly coax out an unsettling mystery in its apartment complexes. The photo-taking mechanic is cool too, which lets you overexpose the environment to create a surreal collage of chaos. If you’ve missed going to art galleries this year, why not visit a virtual one?
A game that feels more cool and current than all of 2020’s AAA output, Umurangi Generation is concerned with the rebellion found in taking pictures. Each level drops you in a space littered with the cultural artefacts of an imagined future that has a lot to say about the present. From there, you earn money to get better camera parts by exploring and snapping pictures of specific bounty targets, kind of like a checklist of tricks in a skateboarding game.
What’s fascinating is that you start to feel like you are creating this game’s atmosphere and your relationship with it through the way that you frame your photos in each level. The bounty tags are written to make you think about the implications of your composition. Even so, the subjects that pique your interest always feel like they’re factoring into the game’s wider narrative, one that is inherently unique for each player. It uses photography to make you think about your agency in the world, and how you can communicate ideas that often feel intangible in your mind.
Without any exposition or overwrought narrative tropes, Umurangi also crafts a cyberpunk dystopia with startling ease, making an impassioned plea against neoliberalism and climate apathy in the process. It clearly comes from a place of passion and honesty, and I really admired the spats of hope and humour to be found within its glorious subtext. Don’t miss it.