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.
While Genshin Impact is available across multiple platforms, including PC and consoles, the fact that such a beautiful, smooth game can come to life on mobile and offer such an all-encompassing experience is nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps the only thing that really should be surprising about its success is that people aren’t tired of listening to companion character Paimon just yet—she can be a little grating.
Have you heard? Not understanding how or why Innersloth’s online multiplayer game Among Us reached the heights it did in 2020 is basically sus. No one could have predicted how this unassuming game would catapult to such heights of popularity, especially since it initially released two years ago in 2018.
The setup is simple: Four to 10 players gather in a spaceship. A handful of players are selected to be the “impostors” for each round in this suspenseful game of Werewolf. Across three maps, regular players, called “Crewmates” (they resemble pudgy astronauts with few discernible features), are asked to complete a series of tasks around the ship. Impostors must complete tasks concurrently with “real” players, though their job is to sabotage Crewmate progress and even kill them. The idea is to figure out which of the team is actually an impostor before a successful sabotage is completed or all of the Crewmates have been eliminated.
It’s devilishly simple to understand, but as in any game with a social element, massively difficult to conquer, given that every new game is different, with human players approaching it in different ways. The game enjoyed a small following in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2020 that streamers like Sodapoppin, Pokimane, xQc, Shroud, Ninja, and PewDiePie eventually jumped on board to stream their exploits with the game.
This kicked off a seemingly never-ending chain of additional high-profile streamers joining the party, everyone looking to find out the “sus” (suspicious) players and get to the bottom of the situation. Its popularity reached a fever pitch when US representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar even took to Twitch to stream alongside popular personalities like Pokimane, in a bid to get voters to participate in the 2020 presidential election.
The game’s explosion of popularity speaks to the power of streamers and influencers. Amazingly, it’s ending 2020 with the honor of having roughly half a billion players in-game in November alone. According to Nielsen’s SuperData, it became “by far the most popular game ever in terms of monthly players,” smashing competition like Pokémon Go or the indomitable Candy Crush Saga.
In comparison, games like the triple-A Cyberpunk 2077 sold 13 million copies, but Among Us had already attracted 500 million players. Massive price difference between games aside, there’s something magnetic about Among Us that draws people in and doesn’t let them go. It’s on its way to becoming a veritable cultural phenomenon, the likes of which we reserve for games like Fortnite or 2020 pandemic darling Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And there’s nothing sus about that.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Who could have predicted how heated playing as massive jelly bean creatures would make us? Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout was another eyebrow-raising surprise this year that seemingly came out of nowhere to pit dozens of players against each other in a sort of adorable battle royale.
Up to 60 players take the field across a number of candy-colored contraptions, not unlike the kind you’d see on game shows like Takeshi’s Castle or Wipeout. There are no weapons, no power-ups, and no “deaths,” only elimination. That means every bean for themself as they’re unleashed on each minigame, beans struggling to get through the bottleneck of each area, squeezing past one another to be crowned the winner by reaching the end zone first.
It may seem a bit too simple, though. How is becoming a jelly-bean person and running toward a finish line even remotely difficult? It isn’t meant to be, of course, at least not on purpose. But controlling these colorful beans becomes such when you factor in physics and gravity. Other beans push you over. Others grab you when you’re least expecting it. And given that each stage requires absolute precision to get past moving platforms and avoid swinging balls or falling into pits of slime, other players running into you on accident or on purpose just won’t do.
Though the game can be extremely frustrating, it’s found a massive audience across (you guessed it) Twitch, and among eager players looking for a lighthearted battle royale with no violence or killing involved. As such, developer Mediatonic enjoyed astronomical success when Fall Guys crossed 7 million units sold on Steam in August 2020. After the game went up for free as part of a PlayStation Plus promotion, it went on to become the most downloaded PS Plus game of all time, a feat worth celebrating.
Though the fervor over Fall Guys has waned a bit, it’s still pulling in views, players, and plenty of new content. Who could have guessed that such an unassuming party game, with little more by way of objectives than “reach the finish line,” would become so popular that it would enjoy a variety of crossovers with other properties and streamers, like Ninja or Half-Life? The game is still in its relative infancy, having just welcomed a series of wintry updates. It looks like there’s only one way to go from here, and that’s in whatever direction a shiny crown can be found.
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