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Why Gaming In 2020 Has Been Dominated By Smart, Stylish Indies

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Why Gaming In 2020 Has Been Dominated By Smart, Stylish Indies

The belated arrival of Cyberpunk 2077, so very late in the year, feels like the peak of a sudden flurry of AAA activity, predominantly centred around the launch of the PlayStation 5 and Xboxes Series X and S. Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the Demon's Souls remake, Spider-Man: Miles Morales: they've bided their time in 2020, until they had the hardware to really shine. And no, they're not all next-gen exclusives, obviously; but there's no doubting that the AAA landscape of the past 12 months was pretty empty, before November and December.

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Which isn't to say there weren't notable AAA releases in 2020. Ghost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II scratched the PlayStation 4's exclusive itch, both DOOM Eternal and Resident Evil 3 had their fans, and this year's Call of Duty, Black Ops Cold War, has inevitably been another smash-hit.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the game we all needed, earlier this year / Credit: Nintendo
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the game we all needed, earlier this year / Credit: Nintendo

But, to me at least, I don't feel that a lot that came out of the gaming world's biggest studios really had anything new to say. I had fun, don't get me wrong. I shot some zombies and I smashed some Shinra goons. I rode a horse across 13th century Japan and I watched my character and her surrogate dad have a lovely day out at a crumbling museum. And none of it left a lasting impression. (Unless we're counting Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but given how out of control my weeds are right now, maybe it's best we don't. Or those rope physics. Those were great, too.)

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The opposite, however, is true of several games to have come out of the indie sector in 2020. The fact that many AAA studios have chosen to hold their new games back for 'next-gen', even if they're not immediately releasing 'next-gen' versions, has enabled a series of super-stylish, really inventive and smart indie games to take centre stage this year. Honestly, I think 2020 has been the best year for indies that I can remember. My own game of the year list sure contains more of them than it has done, in years gone by.

Paradise Killer is a highly original, quite unprecedented experience / Credit: Fellow Traveller
Paradise Killer is a highly original, quite unprecedented experience / Credit: Fellow Traveller

And top of that list is a game that's so innovative, so boldly different from anything else, and so supremely confident of itself that I am still reeling from it receiving not a single nomination at the 2020 Game Awards. Paradise Killer (our 9/10 review) is an indie game apart; a game that appears to follow very little precedent, and uses its influences - the surreal works of Goichi Suda, extravagant anime, and Miss Marple (?) - to shape an intoxicating murder-mystery adventure set within a fantastical, wholly unreal open world. It lets you play however you want to, no hand-holding offered, and still manages to hold itself together so that any player on any path ultimately follows a coherent, compelling plot. It's a marvel. (Its Epoch-written music absolutely rules, too, and was way up there in my Spotify Wrap round-up.)

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As for Hades, I don't know what more I need to tell you about Supergiant's incredible, addictive, absolutely beautiful escape-the-underworld roguelike. It was the second game to receive a 10/10 review at GAMINGbible (after Persona 5 Royal), and everyone on the team who's spent time with it has basically fallen in love with it. Okay, by "it" I mean any one - or several of - the game's characters, as let's be honest: this is a thirsty, thirsty game, isn't it. It's also a blisteringly brilliant action game, too, full of precision combos where simply button-mashing will only ever get you killed. Thankfully, death is expertly woven into the gameplay flow and the terrific narrative of Hades, so when you, as Zagreus, do get sent back to daddy, you never feel like you've lost.

Streets of Rage 4 was so much more than a tribute to the older games / Credit: Dotemu
Streets of Rage 4 was so much more than a tribute to the older games / Credit: Dotemu

And these two standouts are but the tip of the indie iceberg for the past 12 months. We've given out impressive scores, beneath praise-rich reviews, to many more indie games in 2020. Streets of Rage 4 (our review) surprised everyone by being so much more than a throwback to SEGA's 16-bit days. It stirs in some incredible, quick-thinking gameplay possibilities, expanded by multiplayer options, alongside lashings of love and respect (and easter eggs) for what came before it. After Sonic Mania, it's another example of a famous SEGA franchise being reborn in the hands of indie devs, and it runs Hades real close for action game of the year. (And do I really need to say that the music slaps?)

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Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (our review) was the multiplayer smash of the stay-at-home summer, and while its crown has slipped a little with the (re)emergence of Among Us, it's still an absolute blast to jump into. I Am Dead (our review), another brilliant game from the Annapurna Interactive stable, used innovative, object-slicing puzzling to tell a heartwarming and ever-so-slightly sad tale about coming to terms to death through appreciating the memories you leave behind. And Hardspace: Shipbreaker (our early access impressions) shifted blue-collar breakdown work into orbit and beyond, proving an absorbing experience with flashes of measured, systematic flair that our writer compared to a Taylor Swift costume change. As you do.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a fascinating game of stripping huge spaceships apart / Credit: Focus Home Interactive
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a fascinating game of stripping huge spaceships apart / Credit: Focus Home Interactive

I could go on. So, I will. The fantasy Seattle-set Coffee Talk (our coverage) is one of the best interactive novels we've ever played, and has a soundtrack straight out of that music to study to YouTube mix you love so much. The Pathless - another Annapurna offering - combined the contemplative open-world emptiness of Shadow of the Colossus with lightning-fast traversal, and as our 9/10 review makes clear, we really loved it. The DJ-focused Fuser is the best music game for years (our 9/10 review), and an incredible comeback for Harmonix, the original makers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Röki is a captivatingly dark fairy tale (our coverage) that pulls at the heartstrings while tickling the grey matter with some logical, but still sorta out there, puzzles; and layers over another of the year's best gaming soundtracks as it does so.

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And still I'm only skimming the surface of how good indie's been in 2020, as there are several amazing games the team here has loved which we haven't actually written about, because we (sadly) know what gets clicks, and what doesn't, and have to manage our time accordingly.

Haven is that unlikeliest of gaming genres, an action-adventure *romance* / Credit: The Game Bakers
Haven is that unlikeliest of gaming genres, an action-adventure *romance* / Credit: The Game Bakers

Games like Carto, for example, a really clever map-based game where what you change on paper becomes the actual environment. Games like the finally-finished Kentucky Route Zero, a mesmerizing mystery of a thing that shakes up narrative gaming conventions. Games like Phasmophobia, the spook 'em up multiplayer experience that's only growing in popularity. Games like Filament, a pleasingly perplexing (okay, really tough) puzzler set on a somewhat broken and very nearly abandoned spaceship. Games like If Found..., a tender yet testing visual novel about a young woman returning to a home (in Ireland, in the 1990s) that she no longer fully recognises, and that doesn't fully want to recognise her.

And games like the one I'm playing right now, Haven. The new title from Furi's makers, French studio The Game Bakers, is a striking love story of a couple on the run in an alien world. I'll hopefully find the time to say at least something small on it, before the year is over.

When The Past Was Around is out on December 16th for consoles, via Coffee Talk publisher Toge Productions, and looks like a point-and-click great in waiting (its Steam reviews, where it released in September, are Overwhelmingly Positive). Also yet to release at the time of writing is Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. It's the new one from London-based ustwo, the makers of Monument Valley, and its island setting looks absolutely gorgeous. We're hoping this is one to chill to, like New Horizons was earlier in the year.

Here, though, is where I'll go on no longer. There's more - so, so much more - to celebrate from indie studios in 2020. In Other Waters. Bugsnax. Hotshot Racing. The Last Campfire. Wide Ocean Big Jacket. Carrion. Deliver Us the Moon. But I know the relative ROI for pieces like this; I know how few people actually read about indies, when we write about them. And to be honest, that's fine. If you've made it this far, thanks, and please check some of these recommended titles out if you haven't already. Gaming's better, the more you play, and the more varied that play is. And indies? Thanks for everything in 2020, and see you in 2021.

Featured Image Credit: Annapurna Interactive, Supergiant Games, Devolver Digital

Topics: Opinion, Best of 2020, Indie Games

Mike Diver
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