How gaming made 2020 a tiny bit more tolerable: A short story

This January, as I pondered the new direction my gaming was taking, what I hadn’t factored in was 2020, what an absolute stinker it was going to be, and how gaming would make the year (ever-so-slightly) more tolerable.


Read more from our '2020, the year of...' series.

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“It’s really not that bad,” I began 2020 by telling myself, “I mean sure, it gets a bit tedious in parts; but in the other parts, it’s a lot more-… err.” That’s right, Death Stranding happened. It truly did.

Released on 8 November last year, I was among those who had pre-ordered, preloaded and taken a day off from work to play Hideo Kojima’s latest genre-bender. Within a couple of months, all the novelty of carrying a few hundred bazillion steel boxes up and down snowy hills and mountains and then falling over and losing the whole lot had worn exceedingly thin. Even the story wasn’t sparking in me the sort of joy Marie Kondo seeks in stuff she won’t throw out.

I don’t remember gaming very much in all of January. A combination of the reluctance to engage in the drudgery of hauling crates and the refusal to spend money on a new game, crippled by the guilt of having splashed out on a game — among two I’ve ever pre-ordered, along with 2012’s Mass Effect 3 — that I would probably never revisit, meant I hardly even switched on the PlayStation 4 (Pro, in case you were wondering).

It was Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Switch that occupied most of my time that month. The gentler and more relaxed vibe of independent developer Eric Barone’s (aka ConcernedApe) ludicrously addictive life simulator seemed more my jam.

“Is this the new direction my gaming is taking?” I asked myself. Playing casual life sims? The me of 2019 would’ve guffawed loudly at the present day me. Maybe I was just moving on from my regular gaming fare or maybe this was the beginning of the end of my tryst with video games.

I’m not sure, because what I hadn’t counted on was 2020, what an absolute stinker it was going to be, and how gaming would make the year (ever-so-slightly) more tolerable. What I hadn’t counted on either was that none of this would have anything to do with the impending launch of the next-generation consoles: The Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5.

***

Aside from the growing, creeping fear of this new coronavirus that was ravaging China and finding its way across Europe, January brought with it the disappointing news that the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077 (this name is going to pop up again; consider yourself duly warned) was delayed by a whole five months — pushed back from April to September.

February was soon upon us and as COVID-19 (as it had begun to be known in common parlance) began to take grip of Europe, large swathes of Asia, countless hours of airtime and endless reams of newsprint, my guilt had begun to turn into acceptance. “Oh well,” I told myself, “Cut your losses and move on from Death Stranding.” And so I did. With a pre-owned copy each of God of War and Judgment in my possession, I was set for the new decade.

One, an action-adventure game of a very high pedigree and dragging with it sack-loads of critical acclaim and the other, a somewhat open-world brawler in the vein of (and set in the same universe as) the Yakuza series of games — I could do a lot worse.

Also readVirtual fatigue, virtual joy: In 2020, the screen was a door that opened onto experiences both welcome and exhausting

February soon turned to March and COVID-19 had leapt out from the TV screen and newspaper into the living room. Locked down, some people lit diyas, some banged utensils together and I was nearing the end of Judgment. Working from home every day of the week was (and remains) fairly stifling, but by cutting out the time spent commuting and socialising, it afforded me more hours to get my game on, as it were.

Now, I found myself looking for trophies, rather than just finishing the story of a game and moving on. The extra time afforded to me saw me discover and complete the sort of side missions I would’ve missed out on in the past and never even known it.

And while I knew what day it was during working hours, when it came to the rest of the day, I just about knew what season we were in. The next few months became a blur temporally, mapped out largely by what I was playing at the time.

***

No sooner had the world begun locking down than the game publishing community swung into action by providing freebies to keep people entertained while they sheltered in place. Microsoft revived its ‘Free Play Days’ on Xbox, while the historically stingier Sony launched its ‘Play at Home’ initiative for the PlayStation 4. Elsewhere, the Epic Games Store and Ubisoft’s UPlay handed out freebies to PC gamers.

Using neither an Xbox, nor a PC (for gaming), my options in terms of handouts were limited to Sony’s offerings in the form of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and Journey. While the latter, a darling of indie game aficionados the world over, kept me interested for a little while, it was the former — a compendium of remastered versions of Naughty Dog’s legendary trilogy for the previous generations of PlayStation consoles — that caught my fancy.

Whether it was the lure of a few free games now and the possibility of more later, or the acres of free time now available, video gaming and consoles were in hot demand. In fact, Statista puts the increase in sales (at the start of the pandemic, compared to the same time last year) of consoles worldwide at 155 percent, physical games at 82 percent and digital games at 52.9 percent. For me, it was a chance to catch up on some of the games, like the Uncharted series, that had passed me by.

Within days of the announcement of lockdowns across a growing number of countries came some more worrying news: The Nintendo Switch was out of stock. Everywhere. As the smug owner of a Switch, I wasn’t particularly nonplussed, but it did translate into an acute inability to reel in new recruits — the impact of which would be felt very soon. But we’ll get to that when we do.

For now, the growing global fascination with gaming was hugely encouraging and discounts began to pop up all over the place. The PlayStation and Xbox online storefronts were, in particular, a treasure trove of deals and steals, and I rubbed my hands together gleefully as I picked up Persona 5 Royal, Yakuza 5 and 6 (Song of Life) on the cheap. Not only were these games now quite affordable, but I also had the time to invest in them to do these games something resembling the sort of justice they deserved: One hundred and twenty-four, 63 and 35 hours respectively.

Three years on, my PS4 Pro was finally putting in the hard yards.

***

My wife is a focussed and thorough gamer.

Whether it was her three forays into Gotham City (Arkham City, Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight), her time getting to know the Nora, Carja, Oseram and Banuk people (Horizon Zero Dawn) or her quest to rid Novigrad, Velen and the Skellige Isles of all sorts of gnarly monsters (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), her eye never lost sight of the prize.

This saw her not only refuse to touch any other game while she was busy with a particular game, but also made her unwilling to put down a game until she had completed every single side mission available — actual side missions, not series of endless fetch quests for collectibles — or thereabouts.

Having triumphed over The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its DLCs a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, she had yet to identify her next conquest. Enter Nintendo.

The Switch had until then always been the secondary console in my home: Suited better for gaming on the move, some light Nintendo exclusives or the wealth of indie games on offer than any serious gaming. After all, the less said about the performance of AAA third-party games (like the FIFA series or WWE 2K games for instance) on this console the better. Where it truly excelled was couch multiplayer on such party games as Super Smash Bros Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, thought I and millions of others, I’m sure.

[imgcenter] How gaming made 2020 a tiny bit more tolerable: A short story[/imgcenter]

On 20 March, Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped and in the process, took the world by storm and changed some deeply-entrenched perceptions and truisms about gamers and gaming in general. The idea of what a ‘typical gamer’ was had been changed. Gamers were no longer just the masochists who play From Software’s punishing games at the hardest difficulty level while flagellating themselves with a belt dipped in hot wax and shards of glass (probably).

The rising number of cases, growing unemployment, cabin fever fuelled by being locked at home, an inability to meet people or go out and a fierce sense of paranoia about when COVID-19 was coming to get you didn’t necessarily provide the most conducive conditions for a hack ‘n’ slash, horror or gritty action game (not that people weren’t playing those games).

A large number of people (if the sales are anything to go by), it would appear, wanted a relaxing experience that took them out of the harsh and socially-distanced realities of the world. Not-so-astonishingly, given the circumstances, AC:NH came with the simplest of premises — to fish, catch insects, gather fruit, craft a whole variety of objects, buy clothes and mingle with fellow island-dwellers — and instantly laid claim to a gigantic fanbase. Rather than provide these as side quests in a game, AC:NH leaned wholeheartedly into the ‘casual gaming’ genre and made it its own.

Millions across the globe (who became the envy of millions more who were unable to get hold of a Switch) now began to feel the way I did in January with Stardew Valley. Not that my Death Stranding trauma and the trials and tribulations of COVID-19 can be compared in any way, of course.

The gentle and relaxed vibe of AC:NH coupled with the soothing background score, the bevy of eminently likable non-playable characters, the idyllic island setting, the lack of missions and total absence of violence or death made this the perfect game for the pandemic. What’s more, you could have your friends join in the fun and either visit their islands or invite them to visit yours. Unfortunately, as a combination of Nintendo having no official presence in India and me not knowing anyone in the world who both had a Switch and wanted to play AC:HN, the game was played exclusively in single-player mode at my home.

And at last count, my wife — the action-adventure game veteran, who somehow took a massive shine to the Animal Crossing world — has racked up over 660 hours on the damn thing and shows no signs of slowing down.

***

Not being able to see your friends (or enemies, sure) for real didn’t mean you couldn’t mock them and gloat at their misery. Multiplayer gaming was always a strong component of video gaming and during the pandemic, it wasn’t just AC:NH making waves.

The likes of PUBG, Fortnite and other similarly repetitive shooters have always had their mega fanbases and continued to have them. However, there were two games that stole the show when it came to multiplayer gaming in 2020.

The first wasn’t even a 2020 release. Or released on consoles (except on the Nintendo Switch, where it released a week or so ago), for that matter. Innersloth’s Among Us — a multiplayer social deduction game that released back in 2018 on PC, Android and iOS — mounted an unheard-of resurgence in the second half of this year. That isn’t to say it was a dud back in the year of its release; it was alright at best.

[imgcenter]among-us[/imgcenter]

A couple or more months into being locked down, gamers (and many who until this point didn’t really play video games) apparently sought out something with a bit more bite than just wandering around on a beach and searching for enough Manila clams to craft the next big household item. With its minimal system requirements and endless replay value, Among Us stepped in to fulfil that need.

Once again, the premise was simplicity itself. A space craft full of strangers (although not strictly ‘strangers’) trying to survive while one, two or three imposters set out to sabotage the ship and send it hurtling to its doom. Among Us didn’t (and still doesn’t, judging by its popularity) need great graphics, a story or anything beyond a set of rooms with a few tasks to keep non-imposters busy and the natural human qualities of paranoia and suspicion.

The spawning of hundreds of YouTube channels featuring Among Us playthroughs is testament to just how powerful a second wind can be.

The other multiplayer success of 2020 was Mediatonic’s Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. This Takeshi’s Castle meets Wipeout with a dash of Gladiators (or American Gladiators, if you prefer) thrown in for good measure, was marred by some connectivity issues at launch. Also, the fact that you couldn’t play offline against bots was irksome to some, myself included.

But once it found its feet and upgraded its servers, the game was unstoppable. If AC:NH was about shifting things down a gear or two and enjoying one’s solitude, and Among Us was about slowly beginning to trust people again, Fall Guys was about returning to the hustle and bustle of the world: Shoving past crowds, stepping over one another, survival of the fittest and all those lovely aspects of our rat race we’d missed so much while locked down.

[imgcenter]fall-guy[/imgcenter]

It wasn’t just the indies getting in on the multiplayer fun, mind you. Motive Studios’ Star Wars: Squadron (read review here) was fun for a while, providing some high-quality New Republic versus Empire team-based action across a sadly limited number of maps. The year’s usual football games — FIFA 21 (read review here) and PES 2021 (read review here) — were a muted affair, what with both EA and Konami respectively putting their muscle behind creating next year’s next-gen editions of their franchises.

Where things got ugly was with Marvel’s Avengers (read review here) and its poorly-concealed effort to hide an almighty cash-grab exercise behind a short (but entertaining enough) story and some shiny collectibles.

Meanwhile in India, a veritable multiplayer beast was stirring.

***

In a novel (I’ve explored the possibility of using a variety of different adjectives here, but let’s stick with this one) response to China’s brazen hostility, aggression and expansionism, the Government of India took to banning a whole host of Chinese apps.

‘The suddenness. The sheer suddenness of the move, the unexpected nature of the move, the unpredictability of the move’ left Indian TikTok enthusiasts and PUBG Mobile aficionados distraught. Even though the move only affected those who played the mobile version of the battle royale game, this represented a significant chunk of the game’s audience.

But they needn’t have worried. Bengaluru’s nCore Games, “India’s leading mobile games publisher” by its own admission, was coming to save the day. As per its website, nCore “primarily [develops] multi-player games with immersive storylines that have a strong connect with Indian ethos.” It also claims to “bring to India and publish games from top global studios for the Indian market.”

And so in the wake of PUBG Mobile’s departure from India came the announcement that “with mentorship from” actor Akshay Kumar, nCore was announcing its game Fearless And United: Guards (FAU:G). At the time of writing, the game is rated 4.4 stars on the Google Store and includes such reviews (accompanying a five-star rating) as “It’s truly intresting and a honourable moment for India to play this. The most beautiful point which I found that by playing this game we can indirectly helping and motivate our soldiers [sic]” or “Honestly, this is a big step towards a self-dependent India. I am pretty sure this game will rock.

Also, not only has the game not been released yet, but its developers have not even put out any actual in-game footage.

But it wasn’t all cringeworthy acronyms and shadiness when it came to gaming news from India in 2020, with Pune-based Nodding Heads Games’ debut title Raji: An Ancient Hero (read review here) making its mark globally. The action-adventure with 3D platforming elements had endured a pretty rough journey from inception to execution and being nominated in the category of ‘Best Debut Game’ at the Game Awards 2020 was the almost-perfect culmination of the Raji story.

Soon after, came more news from Maharashtra. French video game giant Ubisoft’s Pune and Mumbai studios had been busily working on rebooting 17-year-old Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The ground-up remake is set to be the first AAA game made in India when it releases in March next year. Exciting times indeed.

***

Speaking of which, 2020 was also the year that saw two other major trends that may or may not have been connected to the general consensus the world over. The first was a hankering for days gone by, simpler times when pandemics and sheltering in place were the stuff of history and science fiction. The second was a yearning — nay, a craving — to get back to the great big world. It had got so bad that even people who would normally baulk at the idea of venturing outside Mumbai’s Island City limits began talking about going to Uttarakhand’s hills or driving to Goa or what have you.

That hankering for days gone by was reflected in the sheer volume of remasters and remakes of old (and not-so-old) games that flooded the market this year. Starting things off (somewhat expectedly given my unhealthy obsession with the series something you can read about right here) was Yakuza 5 Remastered, the missing piece in my puzzle of Yakuza games.

Then came the deluge comprising, most notably, such remakes/remasters as the Mafia: Trilogy — that included the middling second and third parts and the absolutely rip-roaring Mafia: Definitive Edition (read review here), Final Fantasy VII Remake, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 and Destroy All Humans! on current-gen consoles. Meanwhile, a remaster of Marvel’s Spider-Man and a remake of Demon’s Souls popped up on the PlayStation 5.

And while reminiscing about the past often leaves you with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling deep inside, it can on occasion have a very adverse effect. The same is true of remakes/remasters and the abysmal Warcraft III: Reforged and XIII fall squarely in the latter category. Think back to when the lockdown was lifted and you ventured out of your home for the first time in weeks, waved at the owner of your local kiraana store and caught a whiff of the aroma of freshly-baked bread as you arrived at your nearby bakery.

Recall also the man on a bicycle, who pulled down his mask as he approached you and oblivious to everything around, let rip a stream of unadulterated bright red paan juice in your general direction. Having put yourself through the woefully stripped-down and ill-conceived Warcraft III: Reforged or the just plain shoddy XIII would be the equivalent of that paan juice landing on your trousers… that just so happened to be white in colour.

The second trend, that yearning for a return to the great big world, could be seen in the sheer number of competent to excellent open-world titles that saw the light of day in 2020. Without even having to include the stunning Mafia: Definitive Edition with its gorgeous depiction of the fictional city of Lost Heaven (technically, it’s not a new game), there were enough games sporting worlds in which to well and truly lose yourself.

[imgcenter]ghost of tsusima[/imgcenter]

Sucker Punch’s ode to all things Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune that was Ghost of Tsushima told the story of a Mongol invasion of the Japanese island of Tsushima. A jaw-droppingly beautiful world brought to life the story of samurai Jin Sakai in the most vivid colours and textures. Insomniac marked a triumphant return to New York with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (read review here), which although short, was a visual delight to zip, swing and zoom through.

Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds showed up on the Nintendo Switch and it soon looked like maybe there could be an open world out there for everyone. An escape from the mundane drudgery of working from home, participating in conference calls while hustling around the kitchen for those last few blasted seeds of cumin. “Add that to the shopping list,” you’d tell yourself softly and moments later utter much more loudly, “Yes, I agree. We can get that done by EOD.” E-O-bloody-D. If there’s one abbreviation I never want to hear again, it’s that one.

But, I digress.

Just when you found yourself grumbling about the lack of open-world games depicting 9th Century Western Europe, mid-21st Century London or one featuring an irreverent take on Greek mythology, came Ubisoft’s massive triple whammy. Watch Dogs Legion (read review here), Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (read review here) and Immortals Fenyx Rising (read review here) launched within the space of 37 days.

For all of you wondering if there’s any justice in the universe when a game you’re really looking forward to gets delayed a couple months, read that again: Thirty-seven days. Three games.

A lot has been said and written about Ubisoft, its practices, the repetitive nature of some of its game mechanics or that people are just plain bored of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. On the evidence of the three games above (after a few patches in the case of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla), however, it’s clear that there are very few developers out there capable of creating such immersive worlds quite so prolifically and Ubisoft sits proudly atop that list.

[imgcenter]assins-creed[/imgcenter]

***

The more astute among you will have noted that the section about open-world games above excluded one major contender. Fear not, because said contender’s been saved for this section, the one that looks at how it wasn’t all milk and honey in gaming this year.

A by-product of being locked down and being unable to find avenues to ride oneself of one’s frustration was the growing tendency to vent one’s spleen on the internet. This claim isn’t based on any scientific data, but it sure felt that way looking at the sheer nastiness of a percentage of the gaming community on social media in 2020.

There used to be a time when Game of Thrones and Arsenal Football Club were believed (mostly by me, but whatever) to have the most toxic fanbases on the planet. This year was the gaming community’s turn to stake its claim to that extremely dubious distinction.

[imgcenter]last-of-us[/imgcenter]

Whether it was the vicious abuse hurled at the developers of The Last of Us Part II for deigning to kill off a fan favourite character and then making players step into the shoes of a character they hated, the vitriol that came pouring out when Sony botched its PlayStation 5 pre-orders and subsequent launch, the ever-growing list of streamers 'cancelled' by outraging gamers or the death threats issued at developers of what was meant to be the big story of 2020 and the game alluded to at the start of this section — Cyberpunk 2077, the community really covered itself in glory (!)

I'd mentioned above that it was delayed till September. As the release date neared, word trickled in and was later confirmed that the game had been delayed again, till November. And soon, another delay was announced. The game finally released on 10 December in fairly dubious condition.

Going into the ethics and dimensions of holding developers to account, tempering expectations, reining in impulses of entitlement and so on will take far too long, so let’s put it this way: While certainly not in the most desirable way, the year has definitely provided a fresh framework for how we perceive of games.

Whether we judge them on what they are, what was promised or their potential.

Whether our likes and dislikes particularly on highly subjective matters need to be a stick with which to beat developers, publishers and fellow gamers over the head with.

Whether there is a system of checks and balances that can be put in place by publishers to prevent half-baked products from arriving on the market.

Whether gamers would like people to turn up at their day jobs and hurl abuse at them for missing a deadline or making a few clerical or planning errors.

Whether developers must operate with far greater transparency in terms of the state of a game they are putting on the market.

Whether we’ve all adequately learned our lessons from John Romero and the Daikatana fiasco.

As for Cyberpunk 2077 itself, I’ve played a few hours of it and while my experience has by no means been the worst, it’s not been ideal. Still, I’ll reserve comment till I’ve played it fully in a playable state. For now, this is why we are not running a review of Cyberpunk 2077 just yet.

And in the spirit of the abruptness typified by 2020, this is where we cut to the credits. Or in this case, a handful of tags and a bunch of irrelevant links that ‘you may also like’. As for me, I believe I'm going to re-evaluate whether or not it's worth ringing in the new year by giving Death Stranding another chance.


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