Thirteen Notable Video Games of 2020 (maybe?)

The other week I linked to a few “best of…” lists for 2020. On Twitter, Hampus also suggested another round-up source here I’ve since collated those lists along with the video games already listed on the Hugo Sheet of Doom. I’ll confess that I have taken a scattershot approach to deciding whether games are SFF or not. It isn’t always easy! Does a historical game count as alternate-history if you can reshape events (eg Crusader Kings III)? Is Call of Duty SFF because there is a zombie option? I don’t know! In the end I didn’t include Call of Duty but did include “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” because the second sounded more wacky. I didn’t delve into eligibility much in terms of when the game was released unless I already knew it wasn’t eligible (e.g. Among Us) and there are games here with eligibility questions (Hades) and also there are remakes which may be technically eligible but which don’t have new stories.

Finally, I ordered the games by how many lists they were on. Here all the games that were on at least three lists.

TitleLB Hugo SheetPolygon top 50Esquire top 11Vulture 10 BestTime 10 BestCBR 10 BestCount
Animal Crossing: New HorizonsYYYYYY6
Final Fantasy VII RemakeYYYY4
The Last of Us Part 2YYYY4
DOOM EternalYYY3
Fall GuysYYY3
Ghost of TsushimaYYY3
Ori and the Will of the WispsYYY3
Spider-Man: Miles MoralesYYY3
Star Wars: SquadronsYYY3
Yakuza: Like a DragonYYY3

I’ve played only three of those but each one is in the top four. I haven’t finished playing Spiritfarer but I’ve played enough to write a review and I really like it.

Here are those same games again but with links to reviews.

What is it like to be in a world

Yesterday I was musing at length about a Video Game Hugo. At that point, I think I was still very focused on story and narrative. Looking back at what I wrote yesterday and what I wrote back in 2015, I can see I used two examples of notable games that I have played and which definitely had significant SFF elements which I stated as not being things I think should win a Hugo. The two examples were:

  • Minecraft
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons

So in both cases I picked games with limited narrative elements.

So I thought I should re-think that. I’m not flipping my earlier view but I really want to reconsider it and see if I end up somewhere else.

Video game arguably offer an opportunity to gives a sense of what it is like to be in a setting. Ironically this is not always the case in the sub-genre of games often classed as role-playing games. Many video game RPG are often anything but. You play a game as a character but unlike table-top role-playing games, you aren’t necessarily getting to shape a character. Instead, more typically you are operating the characters actions rather than shaping their personality. There are notable exceptions and more games emphasising interpersonal aspects of games (including romance options) but that’s taking me away from the main point. Stronger narrative elements make it harder to just BE in a setting.

Setting and world building are a major part of what makes SFF a genre. Science fiction stories can adopt many plot approaches that connect with other genres (romance, adventure, mystery, horror, detective) and even borrow from other genres defined by settings (westerns, historical periods). The mutability of setting and the sense of playing “what if” with how the world/universe might be is fundamental to SFF as a genre.

Games with their own strong underlying plot aren’t inimical to this “what if” quality. Portal, to use an example I used in 2015, had a distinct story but also used a game/puzzle mechanic that took the idea of spatial wormholes and showed you what it would be like to magic up a way to use them at will. Certainly a book or a film can have characters do the same but a video game is obliged to have a consistent behaviour for how this departure from reality works and also forces the player to get to grips with what it would be like to be in a world where such a thing was possible.

Given that, I should really consider the non-narrative SFF elements of a game. Doing so would mean that games without narrative elements should be considered potentially strong contenders. I believe that gives me two criteria to consider:

  1. How good is the video game as a SFF narrative?
  2. How well does the video game give the player a sense of what is like to be in a SFF setting?

I think these two criteria work well with two touchstone examples of games I feel would have deserved a Hugo in the past: Portal and Chrono Trigger. Both had interesting narrative elements and both were strong in the second criteria that captures how game play works with aesthetics and world building.

Video Game Hugo

DisCon III have decided to use their discretionary power to include a one-off (for the time being) Best Video Game category for the 2021 Hugo Awards. Extensive coverage here

I wrote a post on the possibility way, way back in 2015 where I was thinking about ways of focusing the award on the narrative qualities and SFF elements. The Hugo Awards aren’t exclusively about stories but that’s the gravitational centre of them.

Continue reading “Video Game Hugo”

A Hugo for games?

This is an aside on to the rambling series on what purpose the Hugo Awards may have and an elevated comment from File 770.

Among the new ways that SF/F is experienced by people as a form of entertainment are video games. Calling it ‘new’ may seem absurd when video games aren’t a lot younger than the Hugo Awards themselves. Video games were children of the seventies and while there is much talk of the Millennial generation being digital natives, the aging legion of affected apathy that is Generation X grew up with video games.

The difference now is that video games have established themselves as a substantial form of entertainment with their own fandoms, conventions, cosplay and ties to other media. People relate to a science fiction game franchises like Halo in the same way they do with film franchises like Star Wars. Additionally games are an important competitor for people’s time and money, while also being an important co-promoter of genre fiction. Games inspire their own tie-in novels, animations and films and while the movie tie-in game may be a genre of disappointment, it demonstrates how multiple forms of media work together.

Having said that I don’t see much point in awarding a Hugo for a game in general. Central to a good video game is effective game play and there are multiple criteria against which a game can be judged that are best dealt with by game specific awards. Some games, for example Minecraft, are so open that it is hard to judge them for their narrative or fictional qualities. Minecraft deserves many, many awards but I don’t think it deserves a Hugo.

Other games though arguably do. Portal was a brilliantly innovative game that took some of the conventions of a first-person shooter style game and turned them into a brilliant puzzle. However the puzzles have existed in many forms (as have games, as have role-playing games) without video games. The Hugo Awards have not been used to reward the quality of puzzles.

Yet Portal (and more so Portal 2) was not just a clever set of puzzles. It had a back story (which was complex and only partly revealed). It had a plot. Characters developed over time (Glados over both games and Wheatley in Portal 2). There was dialog, cut scenes, and foreshadowing, and side plots and important SF themes around identity, surveillance, psychological experimentation and artificial intelligence. These elements are all things that we find in the novel category, the shorter fiction categories and the best dramatic presentation categories.

So what a game should be awarded a Hugo for is those same elements we would expect to see in other fictional works: effective world building, plot, characters, science fiction/fantasy themes effectively explored. Yes, the game should be well executed but the quality of game play shouldn’t be as big a consideration (it isn’t going to be a non-consideration because people will clearly nominate games they like playing if there were a game category). As with the other categories one of more of those elements may be more dominant.

So a video game category would be for the purpose of judging a game as a work of SF/F. Can that be done without playing the game? A nominated game could provide the following (assuming they wanted to):

  1.  A synopsis of the setting and story background of the game. For something like Dragon Age games that is fairly substantial. The Witcher can point at the books it is related too.
  2. A description of some of the characters that are central to the game. Sometimes the player’s character is a cypher or what the players makes of it but not always.
  3. A somewhat description of the plot(s) of the game (will contain spoilers)
  4. Video clips of the game play, key cut scenes, dialog.
  5. A description of how the player is involved with the above

Assuming that other aspects of quality have been handled by the nomination process (i.e. people wouldn’t have nominated it if it was genuinely awful to play) then people who haven’t played the game or people who don’t play the kinds of games that would get nominated.
Of course a non-player could find those things on the ‘net anyway but I think people might feel a bit fraudulent voting for a game they haven’t played. Providing something like the above would make it overt that the vote was about the aspects of the game are the SF/F qualities.