There used to be a pretty huge wall between PC games and consoles. They were almost like two independent sides of the same industry, with the biggest console games almost never making it to computers, and the best computer games only coming to console after a few years, usually in a diminished state. The rising ubiquity of home computers and the convenience of digital distribution channels like Steam helped break those walls down in the ‘00s, and now playing a game on PC or on console is just a matter of preference. 2020 saw a couple of legitimate old-school PC game PC games—like a certain flight simulator, and the massive strategy game Crusader Kings III—but most of the games on this list are also available on other platforms, from consoles to mobile devices. PC gaming might not be the unique parallel universe that it once was, but it’s still home to tons of great games. Here are Paste’s picks for the 20 best PC games of 2020.
Uncredited blurbs written by Garrett Martin.
20. The Pedestrian
For something called The Pedestrian, studio Skookum Arts’s debut title is a novel little game. It imagines the regulatory signs of our daily lives, those we see at work, in a warehouse or on a busy city street, as a live 2D plane. Starring the little stick figure seen on the door of every public restroom, it presents a secret world where standardized symbols and pictograms come alive and interact to create a series of platforming puzzles. It’s exactly the sort of game you might conjure if you were very bored at work one day, staring at a wall, letting your imagination run away with you. This puzzle game delivers exactly what I desire from games in its genre: a brain busting experience that challenges the limits of my creative problem solving skills without exhausting them.—Holly Green
19. Streets of Rage 4
This loving tribute to Sega’s early ‘90s beat-’em-up doesn’t just channel an overlooked classic. It’s one of two recent games, alongside March’s smarter Treachery in Beatdown City, that revive a genre that was once a cornerstone of the whole medium. The primal thrill and eternal allure of pulverizing waves of bozos with your fists, feet and special moves might have ebbed since their quarter-swallowing heyday in the early ‘90s, but Streets of Rage 4 shows that, when done with love and attention, this kind of violence can be as invigorating as ever.
What drives the magical tension in Valorant is that one bullet is all it can take to result in your death. While there is currently one agent, Sage, whose ultimate ability is to resurrect one player, once you die, that’s it. There’s no chance of being brought back like in Apex Legends or dealing with the pressure of returning in a few seconds to make a coordinated push with unwilling teammates like in Overwatch. The pacing of Valorant injects suspense into every moment, and makes sure not a single second feels wasted. It’s also refreshing. While matches can take a good while since you need to wait until a team reaches 13 points, they usually don’t last long enough to feel like a drag. Once you overcome Valorant’s learning curve, it’s thrilling in a way I’ve desperately needed these days. Thanks to this pandemic and being stuck under quarantine, I don’t have the motivation to do much of anything. I wake up, stare at my screen and browse the internet without aim, try to do some exercises, and feel sleepy by 9 p.m. When I play Valorant, I feel something more. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and just plain fun.—Natalie Flores
17. Skater XL
Skater XL is not so much a return to form for skateboarding games as it is a distillation of what made them great in the first place. Yes, it borrows its core control scheme (with a few minor changes) from the Skate series, but it adds an extra layer of challenge to it. The physics are more grounded, and it’s cool that the game minutely recreates some of the most famous skate spots in America—from the Radio Korea plaza to the Staples Center and the West L.A. Courthouse. The fact that Skater XL is grounded in reality is not what makes it truly special. What makes it so compelling is that you can customize your skater with real skate shoes, pants, boards, and more. Okay, that is not what makes it so great, but it is cool nonetheless. What makes it one of the best games of July is how it just distills the pure joys of skateboarding into a deceptively simple experience. No real objectives or stories or challenges are in the game—just various levels, your skater, and their board. It is all one needs because skateboarding is boundless. Use your imagination, try to skate new spots, craft compelling lines, and then get lost in the simple-yet-fun in-game video editor.—Cole Henry
There will always be a market for Metroid homages, no matter how uninspired so many of them can feel. Carrion is one of the few recent examples of the genre to actually stake its own unique territory. It’s not just that you’re in charge of what would conventionally be the main enemy in a game like this, and tasked to slaughter your way through the science experiment that imprisoned you, Ape Out-style. Carrion rethought the genre’s entire approach to motion. Instead of the predictable pattern of unlocking double jumps and grappling hooks, your amorphous blob of a creature glides throughout its brutalist prison with startling grace. It’s not elegant to look at, unless you like dripping viscera and globules of raw meat, but to play it is to recall the delicate arcs of Geometry Wars. You’re basically tracing your way through this game, and the contrast between grace and grisliness never grows old.
15. Wasteland 3
Wasteland 3 puts you in the shoes of an external force with the unique capability to see through internal affairs, and gives players a glimpse at what a stranglehold on power can result in. Every choice you make, from dialogue options to money management, gives the feeling that you really are in a wasteland, just trying to get by. It’s a harrowing vision of a world that could come to pass, and a poignant commentary on the one we’re just trying to make it through today.—Nicolas Perez
14. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
From the very first moments of 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest, the developers at the Vienna-based Moon Studios have been manipulating our emotions. They do it about as well as anybody else in videogames ever had, and there’s something commendable about that. They convince us to immediately invest in their characters emotionally, which is hard to do, especially when no real words are being spoken. And one they have us on their hook, they’re excited to devastate us with unexpected deaths and heroic sacrifices. It can be a bit cloying—a little predictable, a little shameless—but it still has the desired impact, which means Moon Studios knows what it’s doing. And since Will of the Wisps, like Blind Forest before it, is a precisely calibrated machine of a platformer, with the the kind of Metroid-style backtracking elements that makes it almost impossible to put the controller down, there’s more than enough follow-through on that emotional wallop.
13. In Other Waters
Games are even more stuck in the past than usual right now. Over the last few weeks I’ve spent time with remakes of Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 3, hung out daily in the fifth (or sixth?) Animal Crossing game, and even dug through an entire miniconsole full of TurboGrafx and PC Engine deep cuts. Whenever I needed a break from the old and familiar, from the earthy bonds of our boundless nostalgia, I turned to In Other Waters, a deeply strange, entirely alien game well worth exploring. Its clean, minimal display belies a complex structure of interlacing gizmos and gadgets that replicate the operating system of a high-tech diving suit being used to explore the oceans of another planet. The colors are soft and warm, synths hum lightly in the background, and the main thing we have to do is read about this foreign world, its unusual wildlife, and the relationship that develops between the scientist within the suit and the artificial intelligence helping her carry out her tasks. In Other Waters is a true anomaly in 2020; it has the spirit of an old point-and-click adventure game dressed up in a slick, futuristic, sci-fi display, and is extremely patient with its players and respectful of their intelligence.
12. Going Under
The breadth of its options makes each run an exciting, different time, and makes Going Under a highly replayable roguelike that you shouldn’t miss. When you’re away from the keyboard for a second your character throws her weapon away, sits down, and starts scrolling on her phone. If I was bored in a dungeon, I would do the same thing! Little moments like that are found throughout the game, and showcase that Going Under is plugged in and timely. A lot of the early game is goofs and fighting, but as you progress deeper through the dungeons it becomes an inspiring story about fighting back, unionization, and solidarity. These days it’s way too easy to get down in the dumps, doom scroll, and instantly complain about anything online; this game distracted me from that. It made me laugh, transporting my mind into a world where evil sentient emojis run a corrupt dating app, skeletons are motivational speakers, and goblins drink coffee from a pot. It gave me hope, and made me more optimistic at the prospect of real change, which can only happen when people respect each other, work together and rip it out of clutches of a CEO after slaying them with a giant sword.—Funké Joseph
11. Treachery in Beatdown City
Treachery in Beatdown City is no mere brawler. It looks a lot like old school beat ‘em ups. But it has a strategic depth that fans of old school dense-as-fuck JRPGs will recognize and love. It gives what could have been a rote beat ‘em up a unique sense of tempo, a rhythm that feels good, feels like a real fight. Hectic intensity breaking off into deep breaths before resuming, split-second planning before explosive finishes. But the thing about Treachery in Beatdown City that really matters to me? Who gets access to using violence. Most games give you a stock white guy (the “progressive” ones give you a white woman, redheaded, sometimes with white girl dreadlocks). And it’s always in service to some form of cultural hegemony or a version of “Western” imperialism. Violence in games is great, when you are a member of the status quo going ripshit on anything that threatens the status quo. Really the only deserving violence you can usually do in games is on Nazis—and they’re always fangless paper doll versions of actual Nazis. Wolfenstein: The New Colossus didn’t even let me merc a bunch of dopey Klansmen. Beatdown City says “You see that racist? You can wreck his shit.” It’s a catharsis for everyone who has to deal with this shit daily. A place to unapologetically throw hands at all the people who need to catch them. It’s a power fantasy for everyone left out of the normal videogame power fantasy.—Dia Lacina
10. Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III is the strategy game for people who think Civilization is just a little too impersonal. Yeah, you can conquer the known Medieval world, or try to stick to diplomacy and cooperation, but you don’t play as some distant deity overseeing millennia of development. You’re a very specific individual whose goal is to build a thriving kingdom to leave to your heirs—who you then play as when their predecessor passes away. And so on, and so on, for generations. The fractious relationships between power-hungry members of your dynastic clan will regularly have unforeseen consequences for your empire, making Crusader Kings III as unpredictable and chaotic as life itself.
Remember DJ Hero? Cool, now forget all about it. Harmonix’s new DJ game captures the feeling of a real DJ set better than Activision’s short-lived series ever did, and you won’t need a big chunk of plastic that you’ll never use again to play it. Fuser does for DJing what Rock Band did for rocking, with a deep selection of real songs from the past six decades to chop up and recombine however you see fit. It’s a fun game, sure, but it’s also an amazing tool for musical creativity, turning every player into their own personal mash-up machine. You should play it, is what I’m saying.
8. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a technological marvel, with a variety of innovations that make its virtual world as faithful to our real one as possible, and I have no idea how any of it works. Forget the technology, though. The most important thing about Microsoft Flight Simulator is that it’s become an unlikely emotional support system. It connects us to something we can’t currently touch or feel, something we’ve been sorely missing, which is a sense of normalcy. Yeah, it’s an illusion. Yeah, it’s disappointing to take those headphones off and look up from the monitor and realize I’m back in the same house I haven’t left in half a year. But when I’m in that digital cockpit all that stuff fades away, and it takes my stress and depression along with it, at least for a little while. And that’s worth something.
7. Spelunky 2
With most videogame sequels you expect the three “-ers”: bigger, badder and better. At least that’s what the standard marketing boilerplate drones on about at every E3 press conference. Spelunky 2 can scratch off that “bigger” tag, at least—it has more worlds than the first game, although its branching structure makes sure that you don’t see them all during a single playthrough. There are multiple tweaks throughout that marks this as its own unique game, and yet despite those changes the ultimate experience perfectly recaptures how it feels to play Spelunky. It’s less a sequel than a continuation, or some parallel dimension’s version of what Spelunky has always been.
The genius of Spelunky 2 is that it somehow adds new possibilities to a game that already had endless possibilities. That’s legitimately impressive. And that’s why I’m sure I’ll be playing this for as long as I’ve played the original, both games coexisting blissfully together as one of the absolute best parent-child pairs in gaming.
6. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remasters the first two games in the iconic series, updating all the levels from the original games and featuring both the original skaters and new ones. If you’ve been hoping a skating game could recapture the look and feel of those old classics, well, here you go. When I picked up the controller it was like no time had passed. I haven’t played the warehouse level from the very first game in literally decades, and yet it all came back to me immediately once I put thumb to stick.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 isn’t mere nostalgia. It’s a revival. It exhumes a true classic but roots it deeply in the modern world and not in some idealized version of its past. It doesn’t try to hide or ignore the changes of the last 20 years. And that’s one reason it’s one of the best games of 2020.
5. The Pathless
Games should have secrets. They should feel like worlds that exist outside of the game and your presence in it, like something you’ve surreptitiously trespassed upon, and that, at best, are ambivalent towards your existence. The Pathless creates that feeling as well as Breath of the Wild, Demon’s Souls, or any of Team Ico’s games. This mythic adventure is set in a land on the cusp of apocalypse, in a battle between a benevolent god and a self-proclaimed godslayer, and trusts you and your eagle companion to sift through the ashes of its civilization to find a way to save it. There’s no violence outside of boss battles, and no threat of death to worry about. It’s built on movement and exploration, with your character slicing through the countryside as quickly as possible, or gliding through the air as your eagle carries you, while searching through decaying temples and fortresses for the tools you need to beat back Armageddon. If there’s anything to criticize about The Pathless, it’s that it’s maybe a little too linear—a little too similar to an Ubisoft game, moving from tower to tower to unlock the next step in the story. That doesn’t lessen its impact, though, or its beauty. This is one of the best games of the year.
4. Umurangi Generation
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.
3. Kentucky Route Zero Act V
Kentucky Route Zero’s final act finally came out early this year, and capped this brilliant game off perfectly, with the same combination of mystery and mundanity that has always been its hallmark. Kentucky Route Zero is one of the slipperiest, most subtle games ever when it wants to be, and thuddingly, powerfully upfront when it needed to be, turning the classic point-and-click adventure framework into an existential Southern Gothic allegory about work, art, life, and everything else. Despite the seven years between Acts I and V, Cardboard Computer somehow never lost the thread along the way, with all its digressions and discursive plot points contributing to its magical realist explorations of life. If you haven’t played it before, it’s the perfect time to jump in, now that it’s finally finished.
2. If Found
If Found isn’t a happy story. It’s an honest one. There’s a good chance you will cry, perhaps more than once, but there are also moments of joy, love and triumph. Despite the artistry of its presentation, and despite a recurring sci-fi metaphor that adds a bit of depth to the story but never quite fully connects, this is a low-key, modest, human affair. Its observations about family and relationships are touching, grounded and real, avoiding melodrama or outsized pronouncements about human nature. Much of it is universal, sure, but the focus remains on its lead character Kasio and how her merely being who she is can disrupt her relationships with her family and the world around her. It’s a character study of a specific person in a specific time and place, but whose pains and struggle ring true throughout the ages.
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above other roguelikes—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.