My Fave Stories of 2020 (In no order, except for the first one) — Colin Munch
The Last of Us Part 2 — I thought Red Dead Redemption 2 was the final statement of this video game generation, and in many ways it is, but there was room for a counterpoint. If RDR2 is a seven-season prestige TV series, The Last of Us Part 2 is a film made by an auteur: a tight and polished masterpiece that, despite that comparison, could only be a video game. Director Neil Druckmann doesn’t mess around, as this profile in GQ showcases much better than I can. TLoU2 confronts violence in a way video games have only flirted with. It is not just about violence, but about the much more insidious and destructive cycle of violence, and the people who are born into it, forced to live in it, and choose to propagate it.
Most games ignore the dichotomy of the violence committed by players with the humanity of the characters in cutscenes-Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series is celebrated for having believable human characters who are, no question, mass murderers-but Last of Us Part 2 tackles the issue head on. In playing two characters, you are both hero and villain at once, abuser and victim, child of violence and willing participant in vengeance, and the game works so hard to show you there is no such thing as a hero or a villain. You can always choose not to fight, but that will always result in your death- occasionally at the hands of the other protagonist, who you were controlling minutes ago-and that choice not to engage in combat isn’t the real issue. Ellie and Abby’s actions have led them into mortal danger, and to surrender is to die: the only real way to survive was to stay home, to let vengeance pass, and that choice is never given to the player. Never before has a videogame confronted violence as in TLoU2, to say nothing of how it interrogates its own past: in terms of narrative, this may be the greatest video game sequel of all time, possessing a thematic consistency that most film sequels can’t manage.
The Part 2 of the title is deliberate as well: it doesn’t feel like the “dark middle chapter” of a trilogy or a rehash of the first story. The Last of Us Part Two actively examines the choices made by the characters, and the player, in the first game. It doesn’t do this through audio logs and notes found in the world (well, it does, but not only that way) but by the characters themselves diving deep into their pasts. So many zombie and post-apocalyptic narratives focus on ‘survival’ as if it is an absolute right, but Part 2 forces its characters, and us, to see the pain that survival causes and question whether your own life is worth the pain you’ve caused.
On top of that, it’s easily the most progressive AAA title ever: featuring multiple POC characters, a front-and-centre queer relationship, a lead character with a non-traditional female body, and a trans character (who, it must be said, is being persecuted for his identity, but even that is handled with more nuance than expected.)
In stories told this year, it is without peer. It’s not just the best interactive story of the year, it’s the best story of the year, period.
FF7 Remake — I mostly watched my friend play FF7 on the old PS1 so many memories are more adjacent than personal, but even I was captured by the weaponized nostalgia of this game, which manages to give you all you want in a big-budget modern remake of FF7, while also questioning the artistic value of remaking art. FF7: Remake isn’t just the title of the game, it’s a mission statement
It also managed to capture the purest experience of playing a Japanese RPG: after watching the ending, I had to call a friend to explain it to me.
Ghost of Tsushima — I was hyped for this, especially after its E3 gameplay trailer, and its final release made me realize something: AAA video game marketing has progressed, but AAA video game design really hasn’t. Ghost is iterative on the open-world formula of Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild: it’s more exploratory than the former, more story-driven than the latter, but still worries too much about the player missing content, even though its navigation is mostly HUD-less (Which works most of the time but is occasionally annoying: I’m a HUD-lite kind of guy, but Ghost is a little too hands-off sometimes.)
The combat system is great, the writing is great, the world is beautiful, but after the deeply personal analysis of our relationship with violence in The Last of Us Part 2, Ghost’s interrogation of honor and duty felt artificial and hollow despite great performances from its cast The setup-a powerful rich imperialist saving his subjects by slaughtering hundreds of slathering, invading foreign soldiers-is kind of gross when you think about it. Maybe the sequel will tackle this issue with a bit more maturity.
Also, comparing your videogame to Akira Kurosawa, maybe the greatest visual storyteller of all time, is… bold.
Animal Crossing — I love tiny houses and video game clothes and Animal Crossing has those.
Doom Eternal — “Can you turn it down a bit? It’s just a lot.”
Super Mega Baseball 2 — God I miss baseball
Jedi Fallen Order — I know this came out in 2019 but I played a ton of it this year: it’s one of the best Star Wars games ever, and one of my fave Star Wars stories of the new canon. Sure it’s a little rough, and they don’t do as much with the Dark Souls inspiration as they could (everytime you die, you wake up back at the meditation point because Cal can read echoes in the Force. It’s right there, guys!) but it’s got charm to spare, the combat and exploration are a blast, and the lightsaber customization is a dream. Great performances too.
Cyberpunk 2077 — So many people saying this game “doesn’t live up to the hype” but, isn’t that their fault? Cyberpunk is a dystopian, cynical, violent nightmare of a genre and this game gets that-yes, it’s a dated cis male power fantasy, yes it’s misogynistic, yes it’s xenophobic. That’s all accurate to the genre. Blade Runner 2049 closed the book on cyberpunk for me, and even it’s attempts at feminism and progressiveness were hollow and male-centric, so what were we expecting from the guys who made The Witcher 3, where all sorceresses are mean, sexy, walking atomic bombs?
Does the game crash every time I boot it up? Yes. Does it look surprisingly rough running in 1080p on the PS5? Yes. Have I put it down a few times vowing not to play it again until they fix the bugs? Yes. Have I been drawn back to it time and time again because of the density of the city, the complexity of the storytelling, and the richness of the roleplaying is totally unique, warts and all? Absolutely.
Just like the genre itself, just like the company that made it, Cyberpunk 2077 is flawed, messy, vibrant, cool, gross, problematic, dated, ultra-modern, and, most of all, complex. I can’t stop thinking about it.
The Sims 4 — This game is easy to alt-tab out of, making it a great game to play while you’re supposed to be working at home, which may make it the actual game of 2020
Star Trek Online — I have been playing this game for… seven years? Can that be right? I’ve also spent a few hundred bucks on this “free” game because I gotta have my starships just right. Still the best Star Trek game ever, and probably always will be, targeted as it is to guys exactly like me, who care more about TNG and DS9 than Discovery and the JJ Abrams movies.
Blood: Death Wish — I was more of a Duke 3D kid-Blood and Shadow Warrior were too hard for me-but this is a great mod and works beautifully with the GOG version.
Avengers — People really praised the single-player story which I thought was…fine-it’s really cool they gave Kamala Khan her own game-but the combat system is the best part of this thing. All the Avengers feel really distinct and actually require different play styles, not just learning new combos, that fit how they work in the movies: Iron Man is best for zipping around in the air blasting turrets, Captain America and Hulk are best in the middle of a fight, Thor gives heavy support to the melee fighters, Kamala heals and knocks guys around, and Black Widow zips around with a grappling hook landing blows on unsuspecting targets. They added the Kate Bishop incarnation of Hawkeye last week and she fills another gap: a true ranged character who can still hold her own in a fight.
Flight Simulator — My computer can barely run this thing, but for a while my morning routine was to fly over Toronto using real-time weather conditions with a cup of coffee. In July, Carly and I went to a cottage and when we got home I flew there and landed in the lake right where we had stayed. A magical, transportive experience that I can’t wait to experience properly when I get a new PC.
Star Wars Squadrons — Not quite the X-Wing/TIE Fighter rebirth I was hoping for (the story isn’t very good) but a step in the right direction: a fun multiplayer experience that offers a deeper, sim-ier alternative to Battlefront 2’s arcade bones, and a big win for a Canadian studio.
Astro’s Playroom — A pack-in game that reminds me of the demo program that came with my force feedback joystick in the 90s, Astro is secretly the best Sony platformer ever. The only PS5 game that really feels next-gen right now. That GPU song .
AC Valhalla — Wow have I played a lot of this one. They’ve finally nailed the Witcher-style RPG they’ve been aiming for since Origins. The best thing about Valhalla is it’s structure, which builds on the “every island has a story” idea of Odyssey, but does more with less. Don’t sleep on this because it’s “just another Ubisoft game.”
Spider-man: Miles Morales — You know, I didn’t love this as much as I was expecting. Great story, great bones, but I may have ruined the experience for myself by trying to play through the original again before booting it up. Looks and runs great though, a glimpse into what the PS5 is capable of, and the additions to the combat system are awesome.
Four Seasons Total Landscaping — I’m pretty happy I don’t work in satire anymore, but god what a gift this whole debacle was. New York Magazine did a great end-of-year piece trying to make sense of it all.
Possessor — Brandon Cronenberg finally steps out of his father’s shadow with this gnarly, mind-bending sci-fi horror about a corporate assassin who possesses the bodies of people close to her target to make their murders look like random crimes instead of corporate hits.
I love me some psychological horror and sci-fi and this adds some incredibly realistic violence-and some pretty un-Hollywood nudity if you watch the “uncut version.”
Due to the nature of the story, Andrea Riseborough isn’t in this as much as I’d hoped, but she’s amazing as always.
His House — This immigrant horror story was a nice surprise on Netflix this year. There’s something to be said for applying a fresh skin to an effective horror skeleton.
i’m thinking of ending things — Say what you will about Netflix, but I can’t imagine anyone else giving Charlie Kaufman this much money to make the Charlie Kaufmanest movie since his last one. Not as confusing as you’ve heard and way, way more than the trailers lead on. Definitely check it out if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful-and surprisingly theatrical.
How To with John Wilson — This show is uhhhhhhh…. it’s great
Uncut Gems — 2 hours of bottled stress. If you want to know what it’s like to have a heart attack, watch this.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire — I’ll never see the colour green the same way
Parasite — I mean, yeah. Bong-Joon Ho finally goes mainstream by making a more accessible version of the same movie he’s been making all along. That’s not a dig-all Bong’s movies are great, and it’s really, really cool this was as successful as it was, especially because it signals Bong’s willingness to play the Hollywood game, which should lead to some wild shit if they trust him they way they have with Del Toro and Villeneuve.
The Invisible Man — After watching this, I realized how often horror directors uses negative space to fuck with you into seeing something that isn’t there, but Leigh Whannell’s genius is that, maybe this time, there is something there.
Succession Season 1 — My post- Game of Thrones moratorium on “stories about rich assholes fucking everyone over” ended when I became the last man on Earth to watch this. Yes, it’s very good.
Bacurau — What if a pair of indie Brazilian filmmakers (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles) made a riff on a John Carpenter action/sci-fi flick? Bacurau is making big waves in film circles (I just saw it was nominated for the goddamned Palme d’Or!) and I bet we’ll see a Disney pic from these directors in a few years.
Originally published at http://www.colinmunch.com on December 31, 2020.