Photo: Christian Petersen / Kotaku (Getty Images)
God, this year sucked. Video games were supposed to be a reprieve from that, and in many ways they were. But in other ways they were just as messy, ill-fated, and broken as the year itself.
Some of 2020’s big video game disappointments were minor setbacks or run-of-the-mill annoyances—the type of thing that might loom larger in any other year that wasn’t so stacked with fuck-ups and, in the worst cases, outright harassment, abuse and exploitation. There the term “disappointment” almost feels like an understatement, except inso far as it accurately categorizes the slowburn realization that long-festering horrors recently exposed won’t be addressed as quickly and uncompromisingly as they should be.
2020 was the year that gaming went more mainstream than ever as folks heeding social distancing and stay-at-home orders cozied up to new releases in a way they maybe wouldn’t have otherwise, but that didn’t stop it from also being full of disappointments big and small, trivial and grave.
2020 was supposed to be the year Halo Infinite finally came out. Instead the first new Halo in five years slipped to 2021, and Microsoft’s only first-party exclusive for next-gen consoles along with it. Delays are better than rushing a game to release, and thus forcing developers to crunch in the process (though sometimes they can lead to more crunch), but the drag around Halo Infinite goes beyond release dates. The game was shown in-depth at Microsoft’s July showcase, and immediately panned by fans for its seemingly lackluster graphics and last-gen feel. The Craig meme was born, and 343 Industries quickly announced it would take the negative feedback into consideration. Then in October the game lost another one of its directors. Earlier this month, the studio announced it wouldn’t be out until “holiday 2021” at the earliest. At least by then anyone who wants to get a next-gen Xbox will probably be able to find stock.
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The rising death toll, economic devastation and daily complications arising from the ongoing covid-19 pandemic made 2020 a weird year to try to launch new hardware, but companies marshalled on and did it anyway. The excitement of a new shiny box to play games on had the potential to be a joyful diversion for some, but 2020 had other plans. PS5 pre-orders were a chaotic gauntlet to navigate, and those for the Xbox Series X/S, despite the timing being clearly communicated in advance, didn’t go much better. Months later, the consoles are still sold out just about everywhere, with prospective buyers forced to combat bots, scalpers, and archaic ordering systems to try to secure one. Next-gen consoles can run some games in 4K at 60fps with minimal load times, but there’s still no way to simply give a company money in exchange for getting one of them shipped to you when it becomes available. Maybe someday. Until then have fun being glued to Wario64’s Twitter account and playing checkout roulette with Best Buy and Walmart.
Announced back in 2012, then announced again in 2013, and set to come out earlier this year before being delayed three times, Cyberpunk 2077 is, as Kotaku editor-at-large Riley MacLeod put it in his initial 30 hour impressions, a mixed bag full of highs, lows, and lots of stuff in-between. But “Cyberpunk 2077” has also become shorthand for much more than just a blockbuster sci-fi RPG from the makers of The Witcher 3. It’s a game which requires the most demanding PC builds to run well, and even then can still be extremely buggy. It’s a game whose console versions were so bad CD Projekt Red hid them from press outlets prior to release. It’s the game that was such a mess Sony removed it from the PlayStation Store and offered refunds, with Microsoft and even brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy and GameStop soon doing the same. Clips of Cyberpunk 2077 glitches have gone so viral even The New York Times reported on the game’s troubled launch, calling the rollout, “one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games.” This is all before even taking into account CDPR’s broken promises on not making its employees crunch to ship the game and its edgelord marketing campaign which occasionally traded in outright transphobia, neither of which can be undone by future patches that fix the underlying game.
The Switch continues to dominate, especially in a grueling year where people were stuck at home. Many found an immense amount of comfort and joy in Nintendo’s chill neighborhood sim Animal Crossing: New Horizons. But there hasn’t been anything chill about the company’s continued stance toward some of its most ardent fans. It remains extremely strict when it comes to fan games inspired by its own, shutting down projects ranging from the Ocarina of Time-based Missing Link spin-off to the very NSFW project eight-years in the making called Peach’s Untold Tales. Even more surprising was Nintendo shutting down an entire Super Smash Bros. tournament over its use of a mod called “Slippi” to make Smash Bros. Melee viable to play competitively online. The company then followed that up by cancelling a Splatoon 2 tournament livestream after teams entered with names like #FreeMelee.
Long-time Nintendo watchers have gotten used to this sort of thing, but the company seemed to really outdo itself in 2020. Earlier this year, Nintendo’s legal department went after the sale of custom Joy-Con controllers called Etikons in honor of the late Youtuber Desmond “Etika” Amofah. Proceeds from the sales went to the JED Foundation for emotional health and suicide prevention. Nintendo brought the project to a halt with a cease and desist order, according to creator Cptn_Alex, because the Joy-Con contained the words “JoyCon Boyz” printed on it, a phrase made popular in one of Etika’s viral videos.
Stephen Totilo: The Last of Us Part 2 was never meant to be a comfortable experience. Its focus on ultraviolence was an effort to explore ideas about anger or revenge. Maybe. To some, it’s just too ghoulish. Good or bad, if that was all the discourse around The Last Of Us Part 2 this year, it wouldn’t be mentioned in this list.
Instead, the PlayStation exclusive rightly came under scrutiny for a culture of game development crunch that leaves people underpaid, burned out, or worse, with few empowered to make any of this better. And then there were the attacks on the game’s creators for the audacity of presenting a diverse cast, and the weaponizing of that talk about crunch by bad actors—certain angry gamers—to justify their disdain for the game’s supposed politics. When did it get this bad? A long time ago, in general, but for this game, probably after a stunning pre-release leak of pivotal scenes that that crowd used to complain about the game’s content.
And add an overly restrictive review embargo that let Last Of Us Part 2 reviewers only talk about a small portion of the game a week before launch. That further contorted the discussion about what the game was and wasn’t. There’s plenty to like or dislike about what’s in the game, but the drama around it was mostly just an ugly exhibition of some of the worst trends in gaming culture.
Ash Parrish: Ubisoft has had a bad year. A Twitter thread touched off a seemingly endless wave of people coming forward to detail their harassment and abuse at the hands of Ubisoft employees. Allegations range from inappropriate comments to assault, all while employees expressed frustration that HR and leadership knew about everything and did nothing to stop it. CEO Yves Guillemot apologized to “everyone who was hurt” and promised to take action against bad actors. As a result, several people have been fired or resigned including chief creative officer Serge Hascoët. An internal survey conducted company-wide found that 25% of respondents witnessed or experienced misconduct first hand, while one in five reported not feeling “fully respected or safe in the work environment.” Oof.
But wait there’s more! There was that time they left out all the female assassins in an Assassin’s Creed promotion (after becoming famous for the women are too hard to animate gaffe.) Oh, and there was also that time they had to apologize for using Black Lives Matter symbols to represent an in-game terrorist group in their Tom Clancy mobile game—during a time in which Black Lives Matter was agitating for social justice and the right not to be murdered by police. That was nice.