Many people’s memories of 2020 will reflect a horrible year. But games offered us an escape from that reality. They let us maintain social distance while still connecting remotely with our friends. And they kept us sane at a time when the pandemic and the U.S. presidential election were tearing us apart. Despite an unrelenting stream of bad news, I see hope out there. So this seemed a good time to celebrate my favorite games of 2020.
I’ve never been more thankful for the game industry than this year. With good reason, the industry is expected to grow to $174.9 billion in 2020, up 19% from 2019, according to market researcher Newzoo. And I believe we hit the apex of the console generation in 2020, with awe-inspiring titles like Sony’s The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima. It was a year we were treated to two new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, a rare occasion of a double launch that put some joy back in the world. As we contemplate the year that was, we can send a message to game companies about what we hope for in the future and what kind of gaming metaverse we want to live in.
Last year, we saw some great titles in Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Apex Legends, Control, and Death Stranding. And this year I had time to pour into games that tickled my fancy. I spent a lot of time with Total War Saga: Troy, as it fulfilled some childhood dreams I had of walking on the shores of Ilium. I enjoyed talking with friends while trying to survive the battle royale of Call of Duty: Warzone. If any game consumed more of my time than others, it was Warzone. And I relished playing Naughty Dog’s masterful but controversial The Last of Us Part II with my daughter Danielle — multiple times. I loved that game, even though I hated parts of it that destroyed what I held dear from the original game, The Last of Us, that came out in 2013. I’ll make some attempt to convince folks why these games were so good, but I won’t say they’re for everyone. This is my list, and anyone who disagrees with me is a moron. (OK, just kidding).
You’ll find some popular games on this list, as I have always focused on what I thought were important games. But I also veered off the traditional path and kept some not-so-fan-favorite titles like Cyberpunk 2077 on my list. I played some of these games so much that I didn’t have time for much else. These were the games that helped me shut out the nonsense and the anguish. And yes, I think it’s time we recognized that the games that help us lift our mental state and put us in a better place are also the ones that deserve to acknowledged among our favorite games of the year.
For the sake of comparison, here are my favorites from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011. In each story below, the links go to our full reviews or major stories about the games. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s votes for Game of the Year and best individual favorites soon.
Above: Cyberpunk 2077 has a positive vision of health care in the future.Image Credit: CD Projekt Red
Developer: CD Projekt RedPublisher: CD Projekt RedPlatforms: PlayStation 4, Stadia, Windows, Xbox One, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
I’m already in the hot seat with this choice. I could write a whole essay defending it, but this game delivered what I wanted. It’s an original intellectual property built around the world of Night City. I played it on the PC. I also hear that Stadia is a good experience. But if I played it on a PS4 or an Xbox One (where the game is a real disaster), I would not put it on my list for now. This title could easily have been my pick for the game of the year. But it comes with flaws that go beyond the bugs everyone has complained about. Those bugs ruin the immersion of being in Night City, but the bugs can be quashed. The thing that endures is the game, its story, its environment, and its gameplay. I’m trying to see past all of the bugs and the company’s own attempts to spin reviewers to look at the actual game. If CD Projekt Red invests more into this game, I believe it could have a long tail, just as happened with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which people played for years.
I was jazzed to be in the new world of Night City, a kind of metaverse of the future with technologies like Braindance (augmented reality for reconstructing scenes), guns that could shoot through walls, chips that could augment bodies, cyberhacks that could disable enemies in combat, and sex clubs where an AI-enabled human figures out your deepest desires. Keanu Reeves did an excellent job as Johnny Silverhand in a leading role, but I was ultimately disappointed at how the different threads of the plot failed to come together. Those threads have you battling a megacorporation of the future, contending with a double personality, and trying to stay alive as a chip slowly eats away at your brain. I’ve had some wonderful moments, like an inspiring motivational speech from a sex worker (“If you gotta kill, kill. If you gotta burn it all down, burn it all down.”), a harrowing escape from a heist gone wrong, a journey to find the dead inside cyberspace, and just driving through the city to see the ambient life.
Based on the dystopian Cyberpunk board game franchise created by Mike Pondsmith, the game is an imaginative look at our future. Yet this game isn’t No. 1 on my list — as it had a chance to be — because the gameplay at times isn’t as good as older open-world games like Grand Theft Auto V or Red Dead Redemption 2. As my colleague Jeff Grubb pointed out, we’ve seen a lot of the gameplay before. The game has balance issues that still have to be adjusted. You start out underpowered and unable to beat many of the enemies in face-to-face combat, so you turn to stealth. But if you haven’t leveled up the right elements, you still may not be able to beat enemies even when you sneak up on them with a knife. By the end of the game, you’ve become so over-powered that even the toughest enemies fall to you too easily. The constant glitches pull you out of the immersion, even with simple things like making heads-up displays disappear properly when you’re done using them. You have to forgive this game for so much.
But we have to soak in what an achievement this is, with eight solid years of production and more than a decade in conception. The game cost $330 million to make by one estimate, and it made that back in a short time. Hopefully, they’ll fix the bugs and get it running properly on the last generation. With 13 million copies sold in the first 10 days, that’s $780 million in sales (and a healthy profit) at a time when triple-A remains a high-risk business. I’m glad that it’s going to be a financial success, even with refunds, and I expect CD Projekt Red will be smart enough to do right by its fans. They could have chosen to focus on sequels, but tackling an original franchise and going after fans of Rockstar franchises was a bold bet that I hope will be rewarded, whatever the outcome on the bug situation.
Above: You can recruit drone experts to help you in Watch Dogs: Legion.Image Credit: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft TorontoPublisher: UbisoftPlatforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, Amazon Luna, Xbox Series X/S, and PS5
I know that this game didn’t get the highest ratings and that it felt like more of the same from years of Ubisoft open worlds, but I think it’s worth a closer look for fans of the series and the open-world genre. I enjoyed having glimpses of the future. And the core story, where you can play anyone in the city of London in an effort to rise up against oppression, is an admirable attempt to send a message about how all of us have the power to rise up and fight against authoritarian governments when we need to do so. Ubisoft decided the way to send that message was to create a game without a hero. Instead, you could be any one of the fictionalized DedSec (think Anonymous) revolutionaries on the streets.
Ubisoft stopped short, as usual, of directly blasting authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump. But the implication was clear that an active and informed citizenry is essential to democracy. While those are admirable intentions, if we look at what is actually in the game, it’s quite familiar to players of the first two Watch Dogs games. This time, London is reproduced in microscopic detail. I found that construction workers were ideal infiltrators for almost any mission. They could walk on construction sites without suspicion, and they could hop aboard cargo drones, recon a site, and then fly to the perfect infiltration point. The result? I only needed about a dozen characters — including three construction workers — to beat the game, rather than all nine million non-player characters.
The flip side of the no-hero approach was weak character development on the good side. I encountered some compelling villains, like the head of the Albion military contractor, but not quite enough to give the game emotional power. It’s akin to making actor Anthony Hopkins the memorable villain and then pitting an unknown extra as the hero who is supposed to take him down. My job was to save London from its death spiral and “unfuck the city” from martial law. You have to deal with betrayal and issues of who to trust as you resurrect DedSec, which gave the story more power.
The game has memorable missions, like infiltrating the Tower of London. One of the most interesting missions — which made me feel the game was presenting a vision of the future — involves tracking down a tech billionaire named Skye Larsen, who promises the “utopia” of transferring human consciousness into the cloud. She created an artificial world that was like running around inside a simulation. It’s a very creative mission, and one that gives me the creeps about what unethical entrepreneurs will do with unbridled computing power. The AR reconstruction of the events that happened between Larsen and her mother are haunting. Over time, I unlocked a lot of technical capabilities, like hacking just about any kind of drone and turning it against its owners. I wore an augmented reality cloak, which hid me from pursuers for brief moments, sometimes enough for me to flee around a corner or evade a sharpshooter.
Ubisoft built a convincing picture of London under siege, as Albion contractors were deployed on every block and signs of oppression and resistance were everywhere. Like Cyberpunk, the most interesting part of the game was exploring the city.
Above: A mythical battle becomes real on the plains of Troy.Image Credit: Creative Assembly/Sega
Developer: Creative Assembly SofiaPublisher: SegaPlatforms: Windows, MacOS
I grew up reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid multiple times. I loved the story about Helen of Troy and the face that launched a thousand ships. But I never got to play a game that put what I had visualized in my head into action. Sega’s Creative Assembly Sofia gave me the chance to rewrite Homer’s The Iliad in a fleshed-out video game world.
As the wronged lord Menelaus, I gathered my Spartans and, instead of pursuing Paris and the stolen Helen directly to Troy, I launched a total war in the Aegean region. I built my empire through alliances with the untrustworthy Achilles and the strong Agamemnon, but I took a roundabout path to the windy plains of Troy. One of the eye-openers of the game is that the war is so much wider than the plains of Troy itself. More than 270 cities across Greece and Turkey are home to scores of tribes. You have to conquer them or unite them in a confederation. A single campaign took me hundreds of turns and many hours of play to achieve, and when I finally got to Troy, I found I had starved and shelled it into an easily taken fortress in the final battle.
I love the Total War series, which allows you to zoom out on a campaign level to see the whole region and the movement of armies, and then zoom in on a particular 3D battlefield when it comes time to fight in real-time strategy combat with thousands of soldiers on the battlefield. I’ve spent time in the past — 400 hours on Total War: Attila — and the formula hasn’t gotten old for me yet. This game could have used more Brad Pitt cinematics, for sure. A few cut scenes at the beginning of each campaign motivate you, but the rest of the story is up to you.
I had to conquer many of my Greek comrades before setting off on an island-hopping campaign across the Aegean. That involved some necessary fratricide, and I accidentally assassinated Agamemnon once. But he was such a key character that I didn’t permanently eliminate him from the game. Sadly, the game lacked naval combat despite being set in the Aegean. Another thing missing is cavalry. While Homer talks a lot about chariots in The Iliad, apparently this wasn’t part of the equation in the actual Bronze Age. I would have preferred they broke with tradition and put the cavalry in, or made the chariots far more powerful. The economy for financing armies was also pretty broken, and I had to adjust my strategy to take that into account.
As with its other myth-based game, Total War: Three Kingdoms, the Creative Assembly chose not to include the gods in the game in the way that Homer did. Rather, you can see the effects of praying to the gods like Zeus and Hera, like good weather while you are crossing the sea. The mythological creatures, like the Minotaur of Crete, can also play a role in the armies. They take the form of larger-than-life humans who wear masks and have an outsized effect on the morale of the soldiers. Overall, the combat was still fun and figuring out how to outflank enemies and using the terrain against larger armies was the most interesting challenge.
Above: Fighting is hell.Image Credit: Steam
Developer: Supergiant GamesPublisher: Supergiant GamesPlatforms: Windows, MacOS, Switch
Hades is one of those Rogue-likes where you have to play over and over to get through it. Your mission is to escape from the underworld. Each time you die, you go back to the beginning as you try to escape from the dungeons of hell that your father has built. Being immortal helps, but it doesn’t stop you from dying many times over. But each time you make a run, you earn some power-ups and new ways to defeat the enemies that stand in your path. It’s a great way to force an unskilled gamer like me to focus and concentrate on getting better with each new repetitive run.
As our review editor Mike Minotti wrote, “Character and story, however, set Hades apart from its peers. Its cast of gods and ghosts are charming, funny, and just damn likable. It helps that incredible art and voice acting injects each character with overflowing personality.” I played the game on the Switch, and it was good to enjoy a game on a system that I have neglected. I also like that this game wasn’t made by a mega studio. Supergiant is a successful indie game studio that consistently makes quality games like Bastion. Bravo for them.
Above: There’s a new Spider-Man in town.Image Credit: GamesBeat
Developer: Insomniac GamesPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentPlatforms: PS4, PS5
This game was confusingly marketed at the start as a kind of expansion for Insomniac’s monumental 2018 game, Marvel’s Spider-Man, which was set in the open world of New York City. But it turned out to have a more interesting main character, Miles Morales, than Peter Parker. Morales brings diversity to the franchise as well as a fresh narrative, with his own civilian challenges and a new personality as the masked Spidey.
If I had to name a flaw, I’d say the gameplay is too much like the previous Spider-Man game, with the same setting and city. But that’s also a benefit, as it was a beautifully rendered city and a fun game. Swinging around the city on the PlayStation 5 is more fun because the graphics and colors are so much more brilliant. I love the opening scene when you walk through a simple street fair and see some wonderful holiday decorations. I also loved the load times — or lack of them — that blended the cinematics and gameplay scenes in a seamless way. I didn’t have time to go get a glass of water or head to the bathroom when a loading screen appeared. Knowing that this game is like a sequel when it comes to combat, Insomniac did a good job mixing the enemies up so that the fights were still challenging to those who played before.
By the way, my brilliant idea of the moment is that these companies creating open-world cities (like San Francisco, Night City, New York, London, etc.) should all get together and combine them into one world — the metaverse — or trade them to each other so they can each make new games set in those cities.
Developer: id SoftwarePublisher: Bethesda SoftworksPlatforms: Windows, PS4, Stadia, Xbox One, Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
I enjoyed reviewing this game, where my story opened with: “Earth is under attack from the legions of Hell. And against all that Hell can conjure, id Software and Bethesda have sent, in the name of protecting Earth from demons, only me.”
Yes, as unskillful as I am, I was the only GamesBeat employee brave enough to tread through the jungles of social media and defend our planet, which was overrun with everything from Cacodemons to Dread Knights. The demons killed millions and conquered 60% of the planet by the time I got started. This game was one of the finest first-person shooters that I have ever played, giving me some much-needed distractions from the apocalyptic reality when the game came out, at the start of the pandemic.
Doom Eternal was like a forced march, or maybe a marathon where all you do is sprint. You have to keep moving to stay alive. If you camp in a corner or try stealth, the demons will spawn on you and kill you. To motivate you to move, the designers devilishly put very little resources on the ground for you to pick up. Rather, it is by moving and killing that you can collect what you need. If you do a Glory Kill (melee) attack on a stunned demon, you kill the demon and get health, as an example. I counted more than 25 different types of demon minions and bosses that you have to fight. And none of them are the same. You have to change weapons on your weapon wheel to fight each one. I have bad memories of the Marauder, who proved to be the most difficult mid-level boss that I’ve ever encountered.
It was also finely polished. During many hours of gameplay, the game quit on me only once. The biggest flaw is the rich lore of the game is told through the Codex, or text. I actually wished some of that was fully fleshed out in cutscenes from the past or something like that. I only wish I could start out with a BFG. For those skeptical of my shooting ability, here’s footage of my gameplay of Doom Eternal: a lucky shot, my favorite firefight, a double boss fight, a video about the beginning of the game, puzzle-solving, and parts one and two of the ending.
Developers: Treyarch and Raven SoftwarePublisher: ActivisionPlatforms: Windows, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Like Cyberpunk, this game had a very difficult birth, and it is amazing that it came out at all and ran reasonably well across all platforms. That’s a technological achievement and one that Activision’s armies of developers had to pull off in a much shorter time than usual.
After Activision’s Sledgehammer Games studio finished Call of Duty: WWII in 2017, it began to work on a new game for 2020, as Activision’s three major studios always rotated the job of making a big Call of Duty game for each year. But Sledgehammer had differences with a proposal that Raven Software was working on, at a time when Call of Duty faced fresh competition from battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Epic’s Fortnite. Sledgehammer’s leaders left, as did a chunk of the studio’s staff, and Treyarch took Sledgehammer’s place. The result was that the collective team didn’t have as much time to finish the game, and the pandemic threw the schedule off even more. It was also a difficult year because of the console transition. The upshot is that this game came in hot.
That’s why the game has flaws, in my assessment. The campaign is short. Animations such as hair are poorly done. But the core gameplay is there, with guns that feel like “real” Call of Duty weapons, albeit ones from an earlier era.
The campaign has a paranoid story, and it’s set in the paranoid times of the 1960s and 1980s. It starts out in 1981. In an intelligence meeting, the CIA is briefing the top brass on Perseus, the codename for a real Soviet spy who infiltrated Western intelligence and was never uncovered. The sleeper agent stole American atomic weapons secrets in 1943 and then resurfaced in Vietnam in 1968. In 1981, word circulates that Perseus has returned, and (fictional) CIA agent Russell Adler has to track him down. U.S. President Ronald Reagan walks into a room and orders the CIA and other agencies to take down Perseus at any cost for the sake of the free men and women of the world.
Unfortunately, the game never circles back to Reagan’s flaws as a leader, and it leaves him there for young folks to believe that he’s just a good president making a good call to protect American lives. But that’s no reason to dis the whole game.
Cold War is a direct sequel to the bone-chilling plot of the original, with a tale involving top-secret mind-control experiments and black operations, or “deniable operations” that the public is not supposed to know about. The hunt for Perseus takes Adler across the globe and behind the Iron Curtain in both Berlin and Moscow, and the team goes on missions that range from stealth, such as infiltrating the headquarters of the KGB, to full-scale battles, like in Vietnam with a helicopter assault and a firefight in a rice paddy. Like with other spy tales, you’ll encounter issues of trust and betrayal. The game ends in an interesting way, with multiple endings that you can play over again.
What redeems all of it are the excellent 12v12 combined arms multiplayer maps such as Armada, Cartel, and Crossroads, which I have been obsessively playing. There’s nothing like shooting at someone who is coming in off a zipline at high speed on the Armada map. Or sneaking up on someone through the bushes in Cartel. Or knocking out one soldier after another with a tank in Crossroads. I have yet to spend much time with Zombies, but it’s another reason to buy a game like Cold War. It’s not the best Call of Duty game I have played, nor is it the best game this year, as you’ll see below. But I’m grateful to have it during the pandemic, especially given its tough gestation.
Developer: Sucker Punch ProductionsPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentPlatforms: PlayStation 4
Ghost of Tsushima is a samurai action-adventure game from Seattle’s Sucker Punch Studios, the developer that made other PlayStation exclusives like the Sly Cooper and Infamous series. I find the easiest way to describe it is that it’s like stepping into an Akira Kurosawa samurai film (like the Seven Samurai or Ran). It is set on Japan’s island of Tsushima, during the Mongol invasion of 1274. You play as Jin Sakai, a samurai lord who eventually becomes known as the Ghost, a man who struggles with the samurai concept of honor and the need to fight a ninja-like guerrilla war against a superior invading force.
The Mongols quickly subjugate the island, but Jin survives the initial battle and becomes part of a resistance force. The swordfighting is a lot more forgiving than Sekiro or the Dark Souls games. But you have to master how to fight each type of enemy, including brutes, sword-fighters, armored shield-bearers, and lance/spear fighters. You have to dodge or block and then strike back. This becomes easier over time as you level up your character and gain new skills and powerful attacks.
The game suffered in coming out just after The Last of Us Part II, which had flawless facial animation. By comparison, the faces in Ghost of Tsushima were a bit wooden, failing to cross the uncanny valley. But the game was underrated. Its variety of gameplay made it more than a “map game” akin to Assassin’s Creed titles. The characters were fleshed out, and side quests could take you on as many as 10 missions with some of the characters, ranging from fighting Buddhist monks to legendary archers to betrayed female clan leaders like Masako.
As an open world, the game has some problems as a “map game” where you just try to get tasks done. But it’s a wonderful world, with beautiful graphics like the blowing wind that makes grasses and flowers sway.
It is amazing to remember that an American game studio was able to capture the culture of Japan in such a believable way — that was also highly respected by Japanese game critics. As a Japanese American, I’m not one of them. But I also admired Sucker Punch for creating what I would consider the most beautiful open world that I can remember in a game.
As yet as much as I loved being guided by the Divine Wind around the island to my goals, I loved fast travel even more. If I had a complaint, by the end of the game I became way too powerful, and so it was easy for me to beat the final boss. But I suspect that came from falling in love with all of the side quests and pursuing those to the end. And while the missions are fulfilling, it’s also good to chase a fox or take a bath in an onsen now and then.
Developers: Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Raven SoftwarePublisher: ActivisionPlatforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Call of Duty: Warzone came out as a battle royale mode for Modern Warfare in March, and it transformed the whole 17-year-old Call of Duty franchise. Warzone turned the game into a year-round battle royale experience, helping the franchise reach more people than ever — 80 million people and counting — through its free-to-play model during a very tough year for doing business. While it is an extension of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019, Warzone was a brand new experience, and it only takes place on a single map.
I enjoyed talking with friends on microphones — something I almost never do in regular Call of Duty multiplayer — while the lobby for Warzone was loading. You have to wait for the game to assemble 150 players to compete in a fight to the finish. You can play solo, or join teams of three or four squadmates. But only one team comes out as the winner as a shrinking circle forces everyone together on the battleground. I only managed two victories, but I’ve had many close games and am generally in the top 20% of all Warzone players. I feel like I earned my stripes, and I’m about to go heavily back into it during the holidays (or maybe Cold War multiplayer).
I played 467 matches, landing in the top 11% of players. I got 608 kills, but died 1,284 times. I got in the top 10 about 72 times. Full told, I dedicated more than five days of my life this year to Warzone, and that was time well spent, even though I eventually had to move on to play other games like Cold War. When you add up all of the hours, this was my game of choice for the lockdown, and I’m so glad it came out during this horrible time to offer a distraction for so many people.
You may be intimidated by it at first, but if you tell your squadmates it’s your first game they will likely be very helpful. I was delighted to learn that when you collect your cash in Warzone and then spend it to buy a loadout, you can get access to your Modern Warfare multiplayer loadout. That was a brilliant reward for people who spent a lot of time investing in multiplayer leveling up their weapons. The Gulag was a novel design to enable players who had been killed a chance to come back into the fight if they won a duel in the prison. Players can also buy you back, giving you a reason to stay and root for your team, even after you die.
Developer: Naughty DogPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentPlatforms: PS4
This game has gotten a lot of abuse for the wrong reasons. It got hate because it treats young women and trans people as main characters or stars, normalizing them. It also kills off a beloved character. And it repeats a lot of gameplay from a different perspective. But assessing this game and explaining why it’s so good takes time, so bear with me.
It always shreds me when people dismiss this game as zombie apocalypse fare. The Last of Us came out in 2013 on the PlayStation 3. It was a smash hit for developer Naughty Dog. I played the game and was deeply touched by the story of the teenage girl Ellie and gruff smuggler Joel — two survivors of the zombie apocalypse who spend their days just trying to survive. The graphic violence of the original was horrific, but more often than not it was perpetrated by Joel in the name of protecting Ellie, and later on it was Ellie protecting Joel. Fighting the zombies took skill and stealth, and too often the human enemies were worse. But Ellie and Joel taught each other to care about someone else.
This game became my favorite of all time because it had what I call a bookend story, where the beginning of the game resonated at the ending and you had to think about the beginning of your journey just as it came full circle to the close. It was haunting, like experiencing a ghost story where the ghost returns to you in the end. The Last of Us was an intimate game when it came to characters, story, and combat. Each duel with a zombie or a human enemy was a life-or-death struggle. You barely had enough bullets to get through a section of the game. You learned to feel like what it would be to exist as a survivor.
Some 20 years after losing everything that was important to him, Joel was a shell of a human with very little humanity left in him, co-creator Neil Druckmann told me. He might as well be a zombie. In his time with Ellie, she pulls that remaining humanity out. The 14-year-old girl becomes the hero, Druckmann said, by bringing the older man back to life. And then, at the end of the first game, Joel faced the moral dilemma of choosing whether to sacrifice someone he came to love as a surrogate daughter in the name of stopping the plague. It became a question of how far a father is willing to go to save his kid.
Above: Stephen Chang was the voice actor for Jessie in The Last of Us Part II. The game has a diverse cast.Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony
“At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at,” Druckmann said. “But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally, it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity. When he has that final lie with Ellie, he’s willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line in order to save her.”
When I finished the first game, I thought about a quote from Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, about a real-life German man who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The line, originally from the Talmud, says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” That quote came to mind as I finished the game. Joel saved a life, and he said the world be damned.
A parent’s choice
For the choice he made, many people might consider Joel to be a monster. But as a parent, I can understand the dilemma he faced. I played this first game with my eldest daughter, and it was good to show her the character of Ellie at a time — even though it wasn’t all that long ago — when we didn’t see so many female protagonists who were normal people (not superheroes or highly sexualized women) and could handle their own. Back in 2013, and certainly before that, it could be a commercial risk to launch a game with a female protagonist. That is no longer true.
Ellie was a role model for my kids, and my second daughter avidly played through all of The Last of Us as well, as I watched and advised. I think a father and a daughter playing this game together could understand the bond between Ellie and Joel, even if the characters didn’t see it themselves.
At Naughty Dog, they were surprised at the game’s popularity and taken aback at the criticism that the game had strong female characters. The enemies of diversity in games would later develop a lexicon for this, saying the developers were “woke.”
Above: The climax of revenge in The Last of Us Part II.Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony
To me, it was a perfect story, and I was a bit disturbed that Naughty Dog would even try to create a sequel. I was outraged as anyone else that, early in the game, Naughty Dog pulled the trigger and (spoiler alert) brought one part of the story to a tragic end. But Part II won me over.
Naughty Dog committed itself to this unpopular direction. Despite my initial misgivings, I’m glad they went down this road, because it made me question my sense of right and wrong. My brother was murdered via gun violence a long time ago, and I once decided that I would never play the villain in a video game. The artistry of video games changed, however, with games like Grand Theft Auto IV. And I was forced to change with it. But that feeling came back to me as I played The Last of Us Part II. The difficult theme of this game is revenge. When someone takes away something you love, how far will you go to seek revenge? Will you lose yourself in the process, as happens in this story?
No better storytellers
I believe that nobody tells better stories than Naughty Dog. This story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards in a timeline. You’ll see the characters get put into an excruciating situation, and then you’ll have to wait, as the story moves back in time to a flashback that will explain how you got into that situation. Flashbacks are an interesting tool for a storyteller because they give you a way to learn something about a character who is dead in its present but still alive in your memory.
Story aside, the graphics are amazing on the PlayStation 4, and CD Projekt Red would be wise to consider how Naughty Dog chose to focus on getting its game to run so well on a single console as its platform. Just the fog of Seattle and snow of Wyoming are so beautiful to look at in this game. Part II also had huge graphics improvements that affected gameplay. You could fight faster and more fluidly, with lots of vertical combat. It was still intense and grueling, but you also had to face off against more difficult enemies like the accursed Rat King boss. You can swing on ropes, climb vertical structures to avoid trouble, navigate boats, ride horses, break glass, and crawl through grass.
Some parts were annoying, such as fighting repetitive battles and opening too many empty drawers in search of resources. You don’t see that in movies. But the game had so many pluses. The story also delves into the mental cost of violence, and the anguish of post-traumatic stress. There’s a moment where a character murders someone in a monstrous way. Can she possibly be a good person? We truly see things from the other perspective, and in doing this, Naughty Dog destroys the concept of an enemy. The game tests our patience and our understanding of people — their basic goodness or badness — and how they change under circumstances of emotional duress. Naughty Dog uses a very violent video game to make a point about violence and how it creates an unending cycle.
Naughty Dog employed good writers again with Part II, and it had the same bookend ending, conveyed this time through the imagery of a guitar and music. That memory of the guitar and the music reminds a character that forgiveness matters, and it causes the character to pull back from the final edge. And with that, we see a chance for some kind of redemption.
Above: The punishment for playing on a PSP in The Last of Us Part II.Image Credit: Naughty Dog/Sony
While that story may be familiar to us, no one has told it in this way, with the proper representation. For anybody out there with daughters, where else do you point them where they can be badass female characters who are both fleshed out with empathy and able to do anything that men can do? The game treats them simply as people — they can be good or bad, in leading or minor roles. The main characters are lesbians or atypically strong women. During one moment, a trans character is fully embraced while expressing anguish about the murder of his people. A one-time enemy says in reply, “You’re my people.” It’s a short moment, but so beautiful because we realize at that moment that the trans person has been embraced as a member of a family for the very first time. That was a small example of powerful writing. The game was also designed to be accessible to just about any players, despite its high difficulty.
It was so eerie to play the game about a post-pandemic zombie apocalypse during a pandemic, with sirens for emergency vehicles going off in the background in real life. But I was so much happier in the sadness of the world of The Last of Us Part II, and I was so disappointed to snap out of it after each play session and emerge in today’s reality. I played this one together with my middle daughter, who was too young to play such a serious game when the first one debuted. My kid created the painting of Ellie at the top of this story, and she played through the game a second time on the expert level.
As you delve into the development story of this game, you’ll come across allegations of crunch, or heavy overtime, at the Naughty Dog staff. Depending on how you feel about that, you may come to resent the company or the development leaders. You are entitled to feel what you want about that. But I do think you should play it and not dismiss the creative work because of how it was created. The same allegations have been made about Cyberpunk 2077’s development. And while they shouldn’t be ignored, I believe we should judge the art by what it is.
I am very mixed about the story of the game. For someone who fell in love with the characters of The Last of Us, the sequel is a heart-wrenching tale. You might see split reactions among fans like we saw with the ending of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The new characters who come into the story have a symmetry to them. Some are mirror images of each other, and it shows you the different directions that you can take with hatred. I hated parts of the story, but they all made sense in the end. By setting up this world and allowing the events of Part I to unfold as they did, Naughty Dog was bound to tell us the sad story of Part II as a logical conclusion.
It is right up there with awesome titles like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 that make narrative storytelling the highest form of video game art.
My honorable mentions include:
Tell Me Why
Through the Darkest of Times
Empire of Sin
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Star Wars: Squadrons
George Orwell’s Animal Farm
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