Don’t let 2020 knock you down for good
2020 was a pretty crappy year. You might have been dealing with the global pandemic, political turmoil, economic strife, and trying to figure out how to work while also helping your kids with distance learning.
Meanwhile, 2021 is off to a disturbing start, to say the least.
To survive, you have to find some sources of hope, or at least a way to recharge when it all feels like too much.
So what do you play, among all the games offered in Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service, to feel a little hopeful in the meantime? To get excited about the new year, and get ready for the hard work it’s still going to take before things go back to any kind of “normal”? We have you covered.
Think of this as a gaming mixtape of hope and optimism, but also determination. Nothing is going to be perfect by the end of 2021, but many things have a good chance of getting a lot better. Here’s what to play to keep your spirits up and your heart ready for the next step.
Polygon Essentials is a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production — as well as the best entertainment across virtually every medium. For folks new to a platform, think of this as a starter kit. For long-term fans, consider it a list of what to play or watch next. We’ll be updating these lists often, with entries listed in reverse chronological order. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
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Outer Wilds doesn’t seem very hopeful when the game begins.
You play as an astronaut who is about to go on their first mission to space, but something unexpected happens as you begin to explore your home planet: The sun explodes, and you die. Except you start over in the same place, with all your memories intact. You soon realize that this is a recurring 22-minute loop.
It’s cosmic horror and wonder, mixed with Groundhog Day, and compressed to sitcom length. By exploring the planets of Outer Wilds, you can learn new details about why this is happening, and unravel some heavy-hitting secrets of the universe, using what you found out during each loop to try to complete the puzzle of … well … existence, kinda?
Still, this is a game about the end of the world. So why is it on this list? Without going into spoilers, Outer Wilds does a good job of puncturing the idea of getting back to “normal”; in fact, it’s concerned with the inevitability of change — sometimes unexpected, violent change — and what it means for literally everything, not just your life or efforts. Everything, in time, will be washed away. But there is peace to be found in understanding the process, and accepting it.
Regardless of whether you think of Outer Wilds as making a point on the micro or macro level, or both, it doesn’t really matter. We are smaller than we think, and much less important, and that thought can either be terrifying or freeing. By the end of Outer Wilds, I felt very free indeed.
When Microsoft Flight Simulator launched in August 2020, I was among the first to remark on its sense of scale and ambition — but also to point out its many flaws. The world that existed inside the game last summer was a weird one, with rivers that crawled up the sides of mountains and textures that cast strange, blurry images across the landscape. Not all of that is fixed now, nor do ever I expect it to be.
But the developers at Asobo Studio told me early on in the alpha period that they were planning for continuous improvement of the simulation in Microsoft Flight Simulator — which they refer to as a platform, not just a game. Their actions since launch have shown a commitment to that goal. World Updates have added detail and refinement to massive regions like Japan and the United States, with improvements to the United Kingdom on the way in early 2021. Technical upgrades, like improved topographical mapping, support for virtual reality headsets, and real-time snow prove that what they’re after is more than just a fresh coat of paint.
We live in a consumable digital world. Most AAA games feel disposable. Annualized franchises demand my undivided attention for months at a time, only to vanish and be replaced with a slightly different look — and new set of arcane challenges backed by shallow rewards.
This year, I’d rather put my time and treasure into a game that inspires me the way Microsoft Flight Simulator does, and support a team that is committed to expanding my capacity for wonder and fueling a passion for flight. —Charlie Hall
Two lovers, on the run for mysterious reasons, crash their spaceship on a strange planet. They’ll fill in their story over time, while working together to explore their new environment, learning how to survive, and gliding around a lush, colorful landscape — all while taking care of each other.
Plenty of other games will maroon you in an uncharted territory of some kind, but few decide to focus on the relationship between the heroes once they get there, instead of the rest of their adventures in space. The couple, named Yu and Kay, spend the game together. You can either take turns playing both of them yourself, or team up with another player to work together, and choose from the dialogue options to keep the characters happy with each other — joking around when things get too heavy, and being there for one another when things get hard. The science fiction setting and somewhat repetitive gaming tasks are just set dressing for the real heart of the game: the love these two adventurers have for each other, and what they’re willing to do to stay together.
Haven was created from a very strange mixture of influences, and it shows why pulling ideas from a wide variety of games can be so freeing.
“I already mentioned Persona, Journey, Phantasy Star, Catherine … So let me add a weird one in the mix: the first [ToeJam] & Earl,” creative director Emeric Thoa told Push Square in a recent interview. “It’s a very interesting game as it’s for me the first roguelite game without actual combat. It’s a solo or coop game where you explore a planet, find stuff, it’s full of surprises, it’s fun, it’s got super cool funk music. I think I missed that kind of recipe and wanted to try my own.”
In the interview, Thoa went on to describe Haven as a version of Romeo and Juliet, “but instead of dying, they escaped into space,” because why not throw some Shakespeare in there?
Haven shows what can happen when you focus on how two people navigate a potentially lethal situation in a way that keeps them both safe and happy, and it models a lot of positive interactions between two loving people. It’s the sort of behavior that’s almost never shown in games, and it makes Haven an inviting game to play if you’re missing human intimacy.
Celeste, developed by TowerFall studio Matt Makes Games, is a hard, frustrating game. It’s designed to be that way, using classic platforming mechanics to set up complex levels and stages across Mount Celeste. The player will fail often, but Celeste itself is a hopeful game, one in which failures will eventually add up to success.
This lesson is told through the story, too. Celeste stars a character named Madeline who struggles with depression and anxiety. Madeline is coping with these feelings, seen literally as she takes on obstacles throughout the platforming game world. That undercurrent in Celeste, as well as its hard but not punishing gameplay, makes the game feel hopeful — like something you can get through.
“Celeste Mountain isn’t literal — it’s a metaphor for overcoming the lies your brain tells you,” Emily Heller wrote. “I didn’t need the cliché triumphant moment, I just needed to sit down with the scary parts of myself and tell them to stop being so hard on my friend Emily. Me.” —Nicole Carpenter
Spiritfarer is about death, but it’s also a game that feels comforting.
The main character, Stella, is shepherding the dead to the afterlife. But she also needs to care for them, and help them settle their last needs before they’re ready to leave. Her actions take the form of management-type gameplay: collecting and harvesting goods from a growing collection of shops and homes on the ship, and visiting different parts of the world to gather resources and other special items.
The heart of the game is found within the characters, who are often flawed and complicated. Their lives can be messy, but Stella cares for them without judgment. It’s these stories that make Spiritfarer’s sometimes repetitive gameplay feel worthwhile.
The focus here is on comfort and love. Spiritfarer has a hug button that allows Stella to physically comfort the people she’s caring for. It’s such a perfect little button; sometimes the characters don’t want a hug, and that’s OK. Other times, they do, and the animation radiates warmth.
Our world is scary, but Spiritfarer represents the hope that can often be found behind that fear, that you can find comfort even in the darkest of times. —Nicole Carpenter
Most of us won’t ever be able to save the world, but all of us can decide to better take care of ourselves and the people we share our lives with. Which is kind of the whole point of Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime.
“You and your co-pilot — who can also be an AI pet that you can command — are tasked with flying a circular spaceship lined with different terminals through asteroid belts, space stations and other tight-quarters environments on a rescue mission,” Griffin McElroy wrote in our original review. “Each terminal serves a different function: Your basic ship has turrets in all four cardinal directions, a station that lets you rotate a projectile-blocking shield around your ship, a ‘super weapon’ on a long recharge, a pilot’s chair and, most amusingly, a map terminal you have to use periodically to get your bearings.”
You are always just barely in control, and each situation requires a different combination of terminals to survive. The only way to live through this ridiculously fraught situation is to buckle down, work together, and communicate what’s needed and when. Then you have to get your timing figured out.
If you can’t make space safe, if you can’t fix the things that are trying to kill you, all you can do is learn to talk about what you’re going through, be willing to accept help, and offer assistance yourself when necessary. Those seem like simple ideas, but it can be hard to keep those priorities in the front of your mind.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a nice reminder that you may not be able to save everyone, but you can make things better for the people in your immediate circle. We’re not powerless in our lives right now, just limited in what we can do if we want to stay safe. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime takes ideas of safety and togetherness, and adds the stress and never-ending assault of novel situations and dangers. Just like 2020!
But if you’re careful with the things that can hurt you, listen to those you’re close to, and do your best to help when you can? Things can, and sometimes do, get better.
Eastshade is the story of traveling to the island your in-game mother always wanted you to see, and painting. Those are the stakes of the game, and very little is explained after the initial rocky landing on the beautiful island. It’s up to you to explore, talk to folks, paint the beautiful things you see, and learn more about this place and the humanoid animals who live there.
“Instead of fighting your way through Eastshade, your character is armed only with a paintbrush and canvas,” Clayton Ashley wrote in 2019. “Your ultimate goal is merely to make some pretty landscape paintings and enjoy a respite from fantasy big city life.”
Which is what makes this game so hopeful. Combat isn’t inherently good or bad, but it tends to be overused in video games, so getting to play a game in which the only goal is to refill your “inspiration” meter by visiting new places and lining up the best shot to paint feels like a validation that there is more to life than a job, school, and obligations. If you don’t feed your soul, it’s going to wither.
“This means you can explore at your own pace, free from the fear that a giant spider or gang of dark elves will ruin your excursion to paint a mountain peak,” Ashley continued. “No quest is ever solved by simply killing someone or skinning 10 wild boars. Instead, you’ll be investigating the island’s ecology, solving a mystery, or just finding the next spot to set up your easel.”
Eastshade has a message that’s even more important in 2021: Seeing new things, meeting new people, and creating new things is an important part of who we are, both individually and as a species. We haven’t been able to do a lot of that for quite some time, but we’ll get back there, and when we do, it’s important that we take the time to find the places that cause our souls to sing … or at least to paint.
Among Us was originally released in 2018, but it took the events of 2020 to make it a phenomenon. You can play with up to 10 players, running around each level trying to finish tasks while an imposter (or several) tries to kill everyone else without being found out. It’s basically a goofy take on The Thing, but weaponized as a social game with multiple levels of strategy. How the imposter tries to get away with it, and talk their way out of it when emergency meetings are called, is half the fun.
There’s something amazing about the idea that there are so many games out there, so many titles across so many platforms, that the near-perfect game for every situation seems to already exist … somewhere. In this case, it was found and rescued from relative obscurity, and there’s even a free-to-play iOS and Android version that can connect with PC players if you want to get a crew together.
The thought of all those hidden gems, just waiting to be given a second chance, is comforting in a time when so many people are finding it hard to continue to be creative, or have hope at all. Among Us helped show us that relief may come from unexpected places, and the game has been keeping players occupied, and laughing, ever since it took off in the summer of 2020.
I felt the weight of becoming the first human Spectre. As Commander Shepard during the early hours of the Mass Effect trilogy. I had been handed almost unlimited authority to do whatever it would take to fulfill my mission, and I wanted to show the galaxy that we could be trusted with that power. I wanted to be a force for good, helping those I could along the way, as a way to show that humans as a whole were ready to take their place among the other sentient beings of the stars.
So that’s how I played. If someone needed help, I would try to help. The trilogy would often put players into situations with no clear right or wrong decision, which was part of the fun. Being a good person is a complicated task, it turns out. You could, of course, choose to be an asshole, but that’s not how I like to play, and it’s not what got the game on this list. The chance to be a force for good in a fictional galaxy this large and interesting is a chance that’s hard to turn down when we’re often so fixated on our worries and problems in real life; playing a game in which you know you’re helping can be a calming experience.
That sense of community, of having something to prove about the very suitability of humanity to wield authority and power, is something I rarely feel is replicated in our actual lives. Modern living seems designed to strike at our sense of community and shared responsibility, but Mass Effect offered me a chance to practice those skills again, to show that people can be good, and trustworthy, and true. We can look out for the galaxy, and each other, if given the chance. I’m not sure that outcome is something I actually believe, but maybe the point is to keep trying, even in the face of repeated failure.
It may be time to play Mass Effect again.