It’s been a year of surprises for us all. Not only did we kick off the spring with the coronavirus pandemic, but we’ve seen a series of anomalies throughout 2020 that have shocked and amazed. The realm of video games wasn’t left untouched by the strangeness that permeated this year, though many of the surprises the industry brought have been much more exciting and positive than those meant to shake us to our core.
From unsuspecting titles becoming veritable mobile phenomena to anime-centric free-to-play games taking the world by storm, our world was nearly turned on its head over the past 12 months. Now that the year is drawing to a close, let’s rewind to look at the biggest surprises, upsets, and unexpected moments in the video game world.
Here are some of the standout titles that took us by surprise in 2020.
Who hasn’t fantasized at one point that they were communicating with ghosts when exploring a dark, empty house? Phasmophobia, an unassuming indie title from Kinetic Games, is all about getting to the bottom of a series of hauntings, whether from mischievous poltergeists or vengeful spirits. While rough around the edges in many ways, this shockingly good (and terrifying!) multiplayer ghost hunt shot up to become one of the biggest and most watched games on Steam in 2020.
It’s all about tracking down spirits and bringing them under control for a parade of paid clients, whether you go in solo or with a series of friends. But it isn’t all about dropping in, uninvited, guns blazing, to someone’s home and knocking out a ghost that’s out of control. You need a plan, as well as a series of ghost-hunting tools to help you communicate with spirits and contain or control them.
And it isn’t enough to wave around an EMF meter and call it a day. Phasmophobia is far too clever for that. The key to victory is completing a variety of tasks, like speaking into a spirit box to ask it questions (and listening for an eerie response) or setting out a notebook to let the spirit communicate with you the old-fashioned way. You never know quite what’s going to happen when you accept a contract. But with friends around, you’re practically guaranteed to have a spine-tingling time.
In a way, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Phasmophobia quickly piqued the interest of the gaming community at large, attracting massive streamers and snagging multiple honors during the Game Awards 2020, given its advanced ghost AI and everything it’s capable of. But for an industry where it’s normal to see games with otherwise massive budgets blow up, seeing Kinetic Games’ modest horror game receive so much appreciation was both surreal and heartwarming.
A gorgeous, lifelike world with verdant greenery and lush landscapes? Check. The freedom to go anywhere and do as you please? Double check. An anime-styled protagonist tasked with finding their missing twin after being separated during their travels to distant worlds? Triple check.
Developer miHoYo’s Genshin Impact had everything it needed to become a massive hit, and potential players were initially drawn to its anime aesthetic and gorgeous animation. But it looked quite familiar—almost exactly, some would say, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, down to cooking, combat, and exploration.
While Genshin Impact does share multiple similarities with Nintendo’s massively popular Zelda sequel, it diminishes its own influence to write it off as a “copycat” game with little to offer. In reality, it’s a wide world teeming with new areas and content to discover, satisfying combat, challenging puzzles, and a grind that can keep anyone coming back for more.
There’s a reason that it ended up grossing over $393 million on mobile devices, where it debuted, in just two months, which made it the second-largest mobile game in history. Not bad for an “anime game,” a derogatory phrase many tossed at Genshin Impact in a bid to undermine its success. Though it’s free-to-play, it isn’t mired in the same trappings as other games in the genre, and it truly is free in that, if you put in enough world, not only can you reach a satisfying endgame, but you can collect all of the characters available to explore the fantasy world of Tevyat.