Indie Hell Zone – 2020 Awards

Heyo, it’s finally here: the 2020 game of the year article, as voted on by you, the readers! And also people on Twitter that don’t read this site too but tune in to participate, I guess.

Obvious Pick: Hades – Supergiant Games

So first, it’s important to acknowledge the game that I banned from being voted on: Hades.

I chose to ban Hades because, well, its acclaim is already apparent. It’s one of those indie games that people that don’t normally give a shit about indie games loves. It’s a game with so many accolades that this banner radiates powerful flex energy. And honestly, what does the opinion of this small site mean when bigger and louder ones have already said so much? It’s for this reason and the fact that it probably would have taken up a large amount of categories all “The Last of Us 2 Game Awards” style that I decided to make it sit things out. You know how presidents can’t run for a third term? Think of it that way, except Hades won a lot of terms from a lot of people. Well, that probably makes no sense but I hope you get my point.

Best Gameplay

For some people, gameplay is strictly what defines their experience with a game. And well, that’s not a bad thing at all even though a lot of “gameplay comes first” people give me bad vibes. So hey, let’s check out the games whose style of play stands out or is simply Good.

3rd: Ikenfell – Happy Ray Games

Ikenfell is a tactical turn-based RPG surrounding students of the titular magic school. You play as Mariette, a non-magical girl searching for her estranged sister. However, she soon finds herself blessed with the ability to use magic and she goes about trying to learn how to use it to fit alongside other magical kids.

While Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG, it’s wrapped up in things that make the experience more engaging. There is a grid movement system that your characters and the enemies move around in before taking actions, and offensive actions have areas of effects that requires positioning to actually use. This added tactical angle calls on players to position themselves around enemies to minimize risk and to fight effectively. Besides learning the attack patterns of enemies and getting used to using your characters’ patterns, there’s also an important timed hit system that you have to learn to hit harder and defend yourself – however, if you don’t care for the active time battle elements, you’re actually given the choice to turn those off, which is welcoming if you’re not good at or don’t care for them.

2nd: Spelunky 2 – Mossmouth

Mossmouth’s Spelunky – one of the most well-known roguelikes – finally made a return with its sequel last year. In the original Spelunky, you played as a plucky explorer descending strange and increasingly dangerous lands for the sake of discovery and treasure. And in Spelunky 2, you play as the daughter of the original protagonist, who’s seeking him out after he went missing on an expedition.

For the most part, Spelunky 2 is one of those sequels with the same core experience with a lot of added new stuff to keep things exciting. There are all sorts of new enemies and traps to trip you up. There’s mounts that you (and enemies) can ride to get a boost in mobility. Liquids work in a new way, allowing you to do things like bomb walls to create a waterfall of lava to drop on enemies. There’s alternate level paths to give more variety to runs. And it can all be enjoyed with online multiplayer, which the original upgraded version of the first game didn’t have.

1st: Risk of Rain 2 – Hopoo Games

However, in terms of gameplay, a different sequel stands above: Risk of Rain 2. The original was a roguelike action sidescroller where you seek out teleporters guarded by bosses on each level to head onward. You can explore around the level to find upgrades to get stronger, but the game gets harder the longer you stick around, forcing a balance between having to speedrun through the game and getting upgrades to adequately face the threats ahead.

Risk of Rain 2 has the same ideas, but it applies them ambitiously by adapting the game into a 3D space. The sequel brings everything into a 3rd-person shooter realm, acting as an evolution without compromising on the original vision of the series. And also, one more really nice change is that multiplayer worked in a way that didn’t risk exposing yourself to viruses, which really hampered the original game’s multiplayer experience.

Best Story

For me, I like a good story. In fact, I’m willing to tolerate a game that plays like garbage if it has an engaging narrative. Not all games necessarily need story, but story can act as an enticing hook for games.

3rd: Blaseball – The Game Band/Trash Planet – Big Green Creatures

So, in spite of doing a tie-breaker, there were still some ties in the polls, and to be honest, doing a “final final” round would have been ridiculous. And so, I decided to declare that hey, it’s fine if there’s a few third-place ties.

Trash Planet has a setting indicated by the name: it’s a world of complete trash. In the future, the world is ravaged by pollution and radiation and all of its roaming survivors are mutated to some extent. In this hell future, a group of mutants find themselves stuck with a task: finding and preserving an unmutated human.

It’s a dark, ruined world that satirizes the various problems with society, but it’s also extremely goofy. A man gives the party a history lesson on a local river that was (and probably still is) infected with cholera, but the party absolutely doesn’t care – after all, what does one other ruined place mean to them? There is an MC Ride lookalike that joins the party and is particularly eager to fight the rich people roaming the wastelands that’s still extracting wealth from the dying world. And as far as I know, it’s the first game with a hippo as a party member. If you like jokey apocalyptic RPGs like, say, Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, you might like this game.

Blaseball is something more unorthodox. It’s an online baseball simulation game that takes place in an absurd world where umpires can incinerate players and gods watch over all. The audience are spectators, but they can make offerings of virtual betting cash to the gods to vote for decrees and blessings that influence the game.

A large part of Blaseball’s narrative owes itself to its fandom, who fleshed the world into something greater than it was presented. Much like a real normal sport, fans projected an experience on the teams of the Blaseball league to grow attached to, creating fanart and narratives of their favorite teams out of the simulation’s minimalist presentation. Through its fandom and the blessings it puts onto the teams, Blaseball is effectively a game of emergent storytelling.

2nd: Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound by Ash – Heather Flowers

And so, we hit an entry that I actually personally played myself. Bound by Ash is the second season of the EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER series. Taking place in a world where technology is meat-based and the sun is gone, a gang of misfits set across a land crawling with fascist gangs to steal the sun back. Yeah, it’s a game that very much wears its leftist politics on its sleeve while being weird and cool.

It’s a bit tough to talk about Bound by Ash here because a large reason of why I enjoyed it is how it builds off its previous installment, as its various characters grapple with the traumas and consequences of its aftermath. However, I will say that an ultimate message that shines from Bound by Ash is the importance of solidarity and finding the confidence to confide in others, which is an important message for movements, if not life in general.

1st: Kentucky Route Zero – Cardboard Computer

Kentucky Route Zero was a game long in the making. Divided into separate acts that released over the years, the final act of the story released early last year. It’s one of those games that paints a picture and it’s a picture that’s unfortunately as relevant today as it was when it first started getting worked on.

An antique deliveryman named Conway is traveling to make a delivery, and to do so, he passes through the route Zero in a magic realism adventure. The adventures of Conway takes him through a weird but true to life pastiche of a dying rural America, ruined by forces beyond its people’s control – be it mundane or supernatural. While Conway is the initial protagonist, the narrative tends to shift to the perspectives to others in the increasingly growing cast, providing different perspectives of the world.

Best Art Style

Graphics really helps make a game, since a game’s first impression is what people sees of it. While a lot of people value graphical fidelity, having different styles makes games stand out and stay looking relevant as most mainstream games continue to pursue the goal of becoming Real.

3rd: Paradise Killer – Kaizen Game Works/No Straight Roads – Metronomik

Paradise Killer is a stylish open-world mystery game where you play as Lady Love Dies, a detective investigating the mass murder of the council overlooking the otherworldly island of Paradise, a place that at times looks like it came from the era of vaporwave aesthetic.

And who are the people you’re investigating? Just normal people like a crimson skeleton wearing a gucci jacket, a woman in a richly adorned Valkyrie outfit, etc. The island is just full of flamboyant weirdos with vague auras of menace around them, setting the stage for a bizarre mystery carrying a unique vibe.

For a more flashier look, we have No Straight Roads. Vinyl City is the music capital of the world governed by the titular No Straight Roads record label, which seeks to further monopolize the music industry. You play as two indie rockers trying to fight back against their efforts and bring rock back to the people.

The art of No Straight Roads carries the vibes of everywhere being a flashy concert, full of bright lights and spectacle. The game is generally bright and colorful, with the more controlled parts of Vinyl City carrying that neon cyberpunk aesthetic that’s kinda fitting for an oppressive electronic music label.

2nd: Umurangi Generation – ORIGAME DIGITAL

Umurangi Generation is a game that focuses on photography, so it’s no surprise that it opted for a strong art style. In a shitty future doomed to a crisis that the powerful is failing to respond to, what can you do other than to work and take pictures? The world is rendered in a bright colorful style that’s reminiscent of games like Jet Set Radio, contrasting the game’s apocalyptic implications with a vibrant day-to-day that you document while doing your courier job.

Besides the game’s own art style, players can of course put their own spin on it through the pictures they take. Players can take pictures of things from creative angles or different lens and can change the coloration to put a personal artsty touch on them.

1st: Hylics 2 – Mason Lindroth

And so, we have another game I looked at before: Hylics 2! The original Hylics was a visually strong game with its use of scanned in images of claymation models, creating an unusual vibrant world within RPG Maker.

However, within the confines of a new engine, the style of Hylics evolved. Everything is still clay, but it no longer has to conform to RPG Maker’s sprite and tileset limitations. The clay world is 3D, creating fully realized dioramas where more animated characters roam around. Battles feel more dynamic, with enemies performing bizarre dancing idle animations to show off style and style on your characters.

Best Soundtrack

Remember how the Game Awards just shuffles its best music category off to be pre-show material? That’s wack. Music is a very important part of a game because a good soundtrack can establish the tone of a work. While I’m admittedly not very good at writing about music, it’s still an aspect of games that I acknowledge to be significant.

3rd: Hylics 2 – Mason Lindroth and Chuck Salamone

Musician Chuck Salamone entered the fray to act as a fellow composer for Hylics 2. The first game’s soundtrack had a chaotic feel, with battles accompanied by frantic drumming that isn’t in-sync with everything else, shops playing tuba underlined by a discordant “whirring” noise, etc.

However, in the far less chaotic world of Hylics 2, the soundtrack has been replaced with chill prog rock. The bizarre chaotic beats are swapped out for a groovy guitar tune that still manages to feel weird – but it’s a different sort of weird. Under Salamone’s direction, the world of Hylics 2 feels very relaxed in spite of the fact that it clearly isn’t.

2nd: Ikenfell – aivi & surasshu

If you’re a fan of Steven Universe and its musical stylings, you’ll actually be right at home with this game, because the musical duo behind the music for the show was also behind the soundtrack for this game. With cheery chiptunes and atmospheric ethereal noise backing the world, Ikenfell feels welcoming, especially to people familiar with the past work of the composers.

1st: Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound by Ash – Josie Brechner

Primarily composed by Brechner, the soundtrack continues to carry the punk/bluegrass vibes that were present in the original game. With the more slice-of-lifey elements in this game, the game delves more into jaunty tunes that weren’t as present in the first installment. Though, the crowner has to be the sweet vocal guitar song interlude that you can choose the lyrics for which, no matter what, paints the picture of something worth fighting for.

Most Interesting

And so we have a new, vague category. So back when I explained this category, “interesting” can mean different things. A game can try having a different art style or a novel new game mechanic, but even if it doesn’t pull it off well, there’s still something about it that’s fascinating. In a sense, I suppose this is a category that looks for ambition, regardless of whether or not its end result is successful.

3rd: Trash Planet – Big Green Creatures

Trash Planet, I think, is interesting because of the development and its style. It’s a reasonably long RPG that’s made almost entirely by one person, with every bit of it that screams the developer’s personality. It’s a truly “independent” game in every sense of the word, and the fact that it’s strictly pay-what-you-want in spite of all the work that went into it is admirable.

The graphics are mainly made by the developer, entirely made in MS Paint. It’s simple, crude, and there’s not a lot of consistency. However, it’s a rough unfiltered art style that perfectly captures the setting of Trash Planet: a rough world where everyone’s doing the most they can. To me, it’s one of those games that perfectly communicates its intent through every facet.

2nd: Hylics 2 – Mason Lindroth

Hylics 2 is a fascinating game in that it’s dressed up in chill vibes, regardless of what’s going on. Battles are accompanied by a groovy tune and enemies dance to the music and pose as they strike moves against you, lending this kinda carefree air in contrast to you getting destroyed. In fact, getting destroyed is not all that bad, because you’re just sent to a nice slice of heaven where you can take a break before diving back in. Despite me finding Hylics 2 to be harder than its predecessor, it somehow feels more laid-back. It accomplishes a bizarre mix of frustrating and relaxing that’s hard to understand unless you play it for yourself.

The game also dedicates itself to lengthy interludes where the game’s style completely changes. There are a few segments where Hylics 2 becomes a run and gun platformer that surprisingly goes on for a long time, while there’s another segment where it becomes a first-person dungeon crawler. While these segments aren’t perfect, they’re still big and bold experimental additions that makes Hylics 2 feel grander than it already is.

1st: Blaseball – The Game Band

Folks: are you ready for some more Blaseball?

Blaseball is fascinating through the culture that sprouted around it. Like sure, games like Hades are bound to have lots of fanart, roleplayers, etc, but that’s standard fandom stuff. Blaseball however was something much different. People treated it as an actual sport, with plenty of people on my Twitter timeline talking about games as if they were livetweeting normal baseball matches. I’ve seen the ominous phrase, “We are from Chicago” repeated like a normal team motto to say over and over. People fleshed out the characters that are merely just auto-generated names and created things to root for.

Blaseball is mainly a text-driven experience, but the outer fandom gave a face to its world. It is a unique piece of media that projected a sports culture in a period where a lot of sports culture ground to a sluggish pace.

Best Overall

And so, we arrive at the end. These games didn’t necessarily have to have won past categories. Maybe they stand out because they did one thing particularly well or because while it didn’t excel in one category, it did well enough in all to create a cohesive whole to enjoy.

3rd: Signs of the Sojourner – Echodog Games

Signs of the Soujourner is a combination of narrative and deck-building games, where you play as a kid in a cat hoodie traveling around for goods to sell from their deceased mother’s shop. To do so, they aim to travel to far-off foreign places to get the best stuff to sell.

They come to chat with a lot of people on their travels, which is where the deck-building aspect comes in. The cards you collect and use represents communication, and you have to build chains of cards like a game of dominos to successfully communicate with people. Different decks can lead to different outcomes, and as you slowly gain the ability to communicate with people more farther and insulated with new cards, you lose old cards that makes communicating with people more familiar to you harder. It’s an interesting meld of story and game mechanics that’s worth checking out.

2nd: Ikenfell – Happy Ray Games

Ikenfell is a good RPG in a year full of frankly good RPGs. Really, anyone that says that turn-based RPGs are dead are out of it.

Ikenfell is a game about love made with a lot of love. In acquiring magic, Mariette finds herself a part of the world she always wished to be a part of and tries to settle into a friend group she can call her own. She soon comes to grow bonds with other students as she searches for her missing estranged sister, all while trying to find her place in the world. There are engaging battles to be had on the way, but for the sake of people that just want to experience the story, there are options that alleviates the need to seriously engage with them. Wrapped up in friendly soundtrack stylings and a colorful pixel art world, Ikenfell is a welcoming time.

And also, hey, if you’re disillusioned about a certain series about another magic school, this diverse game in a different magic school is something to consider.

1st: Kentucky Route Zero – Cardboard Computer

America is a failure of a country, and its claim as the greatest country in the world simply means that it’s the strongest in military might. As much as people will romanticize the Obama years, this game did start development in those years, reflecting a dying America grasping to a dream that will likely never come true. And in 2020, the full game finally finished, just before a disastrous pandemic mismanaged by an even more malicious administration made everything worse.

The thing is, Kentucky Route Zero isn’t just a reflection of a dying America, but a reflection of its people that still try to truck on in spite of it all. Conway’s road trip to make a simple delivery can come off as secondary to the rich world of people across Kentucky trying to live their lives. Sometimes mundane, sometimes surreal, the stories of the game’s NPCs helps molds the game’s identity to create a strong whole. The narrative’s shifts between the different characters and the artsy experimental presentation of the story at times further feeds into a broader view of the world that makes it feel alive.

While there’s hardly any gameplay, Kentucky Route Zero is one of those games where narrative stands above all else and carries it as a beloved game.

…And that’s it for games of 2020, at least according to votes! Now, I will admit that the process was flawed, especially considering that the tie breaker poll got more engagement than the first write-in voting round. But again, you have to remember that this is just one site. There are plenty of other sites paying homage to their favorite games of the year, be it the writers’ own opinions or the thoughts of their audiences.

And this is not to say that games that weren’t voted on or games that failed to get into this article are bad, either. There’s plenty of games out there to enjoy and support, and not everybody has the time or focus to engage with everything they want. Hell, as I’ve clearly shown, I’ve only played two of the things that are on this list. The stuff in this post and everything I’ve written about up till now are just a small pond in a really big ocean, so there’s probably a lot of gems out there that no one has noticed.

But anyway, thank you all for another year. Will 2021 be better? Probably not, but there will always be people making games in spite of it all, so we may as well play and appreciate them.

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