The 4 games that kept me sane in 2020

2020 is a year most of us would rather forget. One of the few silver linings was that we had many new games to pass the time with while quarantined in our homes.

From a business perspective, it was a historic year for the industry as more people than ever turned to games for entertainment. And I imagine a good chunk of those sales was because people wanted to find better ways of connecting with each other — after all, you can only stare at someone on Zoom for so long before getting tired.

That social aspect has certainly been a huge factor in my gaming habits, so I’m doing something a bit different from a traditional game of the year list. The four titles below are the ones that helped me cope with what has been a scary and traumatic time. I relied on them to talk to friends, to deal with the loss of family members, and as a means to escape from our crushing reality.

I hope you’ve been able to find some games that have helped you get through this terrible year as well.

Call of Duty: Warzone

The free-to-play battle royale came out just days before California enacted a statewide lockdown, and it became the perfect game for staying in touch with my scattered social circle. Collectively, we must’ve spent more than 1000 hours that spring fighting through the sprawling city of Verdansk, trying to learn which spots were the best for looting and which guns we should customize for loadout drops.

Even if the world wasn’t on fire, Warzone still would’ve been popular. There’s so much tension and drama that can happen in any given match, and few games from 2020 can match the thrill of taking out an entire team in one swoop or reviving all your squadmates after surviving a Most Wanted contract. But being stuck in an isolated bubble turned Warzone from a fun luxury into a daily staple.

I used it to check in with my cousins and friends during the week, and in-between our battles, we’d talk about how our cities were responding to the pandemic, how everyone was holding up, and any other issues that may have been bothering us. Warzone ended up being our go-to option for virtual hangouts.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake snuck out just before pandemic-related work problems caused a wave of delays throughout the industry, and I was grateful to have a big role-playing game I could get lost in. I was already familiar with the city of Midgar after playing the original over 20 years ago, so diving back into a modernized version of that experience was extremely comforting.

Unlike the world outside my apartment, which continued to struggle with an unknown enemy, I knew what the stakes were in Remake. Shinra and Sephiroth must be stopped, and it was up to me to help Cloud and his friends accomplish those goals.

I blitzed through the story in a few weeks, utterly absorbed by how sharp and pretty everything looked. It was the first Final Fantasy game I finished in a long time. When it was over, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that there was nothing left to see until Remake Part II (or whatever Square Enix ends up calling the sequel).

Jackbox Party Packs

Prior to 2020, I’d played the Jackbox Party Packs a handful of times during holidays and family parties, and it was usually with people sitting on the couch or at least in the same room. But this year, I’ve lost count of both the number of times I played those games and the number of different friend groups I played them with.

Originally designed for in-person gatherings, Jackbox’s silly competitive games work remarkably well for remote play, too — especially when you use it in conjunction with Discord, Zoom, or other video chatting software. Games like Trivia Murder Party 2, Quiplash 2, and Fibbage 3 were constant favorites and brought much-needed laughter throughout the year.

Like Warzone, my friends use the Jackbox Party Packs as a social space because it’s easy to chat during games or to pause and take breaks as needed. That versatility means you can host Jackbox game nights for all sorts of reasons, whether you just want to hang out on the weekend or to celebrate a birthday. With so many Party Packs (there’s seven in all) and games to choose from, I still haven’t grown tired of playing them yet.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

My island is tame by Animal Crossing standards. The museum and shops are all in a central location, and I added a few custom textures to give my town an Old West vibe. But if you head to the northeast corner of the island and climb up the man-made ramps, you’ll find something that no other player has: a memorial for my grandmother.

In real life, my grandma is buried on another island, about 2500 miles away from me in Oahu. I was running around the hedge maze in Animal Crossing: New Horizon’s May Day event when I first heard the news. On some level, my family knew it was coming; my grandma had been in a semi-comatose state for weeks after suffering from a stroke (something my cousins and I would talk about in Warzone). Mentally, I thought I was prepared for this moment … but it still came as a shock.

I remember feeling lost. I put my controller down, sat back on the couch, and cried as the game’s soothing soundtrack played through the TV. When I felt a little better a few days later, I took on a new project in Animal Crossing — I just needed something, anything to distract me. I couldn’t fly to Hawaii and attend the funeral, so I started creating a small space for my grandma in the game. I found a good spot on a cliff that overlooks the sea.

After adding some waterfalls below it to enhance the scenery, I made a small cemetery using stone-based textures and fencing. I planted flowers next to the spot where I wanted to put the grave. Since I didn’t have the crafting recipe for a Western-style stone (the game’s version of a tombstone), I used the Japanese-inspired Stone tablet as a substitute.

Luckily, that didn’t last long. A stranger I met through Twitter (she’d come to my island to sell turnips) kindly offered to make me a Western-style stone a few weeks later, and that’s what I still use to this day.

Thanks to a site called AC Patterns, I also imported a photo of my grandma into the game. This tool isn’t meant to replicate realistic photos, so the pixelated outcome is less than ideal. But I was surprised how well it captured some of her features, like her poofy white hair and the deep wrinkles on her cheeks. I placed the photo next to the grave so that I could say hi to her whenever I stop by to visit and water the flowers.

At 102-years-old, my grandma lived a long and beautiful life, and it pains me that I can’t pay my respects in her actual resting place. I don’t know when it’ll be safe to fly again, so for now, my Animal Crossing memorial will have to do.