Bartending isn’t glamorous, but it has its perks. You get to be a background character in someone else’s story, listening, watching, sometimes leaning over with a word of advice. Fertile ground for a writer, or anyone looking to slip out of their skin. Coffee Talk is the only late-night coffee shop in fantasy Seattle. It’s also an easygoing slice-of-life sim with low stakes and good vibes, the perfect substitute for the pub chatter I’ve missed all year.
For halting first date small talk, I’d heartily recommend the visual novel A Summer’s End: Hong Kong 1986 . With pulsing vaporwave backtracks and a palette of dreamy, dissolving neon, Summer’s End resurrects a city out of time – Hong Kong in the grip of the eighties. Two lost souls have a chance encounter. Then another one. You know the drill. It’s a love story of awkward pauses and small revelations, where the tactile and the emotional intersect. Pop records, a cassette player, old operas on DVD, everything takes on a hidden meaning. Watching these characters learn how to talk to each other will soften even the hardest gamer hearts.
As well as love and life, this year had some of the best discussions around death I’ve ever seen in fiction. If I ranked my games by tears-per-minute, the top prize would easily go to Spiritfarer a heartbreakingly pretty management sim for the people who wake up early after a party and cook everyone breakfast. It turns the act of caring into the gentle busywork that, in reality, it mostly is. Building a floating shantytown for your friends is the perfect 2020 daydream, but the game also provides another, subtler fantasy: of having all the time you need, of saying everything you want to say before you say goodbye. Death is an ugly business, but in Spiritfarer it brings out the best in us.
Words don’t come easy to the characters in if found… Heck, the heroine’s mam won’t even use her name. Silence burns. Your main job as a player is to rub away each page, erasing your way forward in a sort of continuous interactive metaphor, all while the weight of the unspoken threatens to tear a hole in the fabric of reality. Coming from Newcastle, it’s so bloody refreshing to see a game full of words I grew up with: craic for banter, tea for dinner. It’s sweet and it’s real, and the hopeful final note, when it comes, feels well earned.
Last but not least, we have A Short Hike , which arrived on Switch this summer and ambled straight into my heart. It follows a wee bird teenager named Claire who climbs a mountain in the hopes of getting a phone signal. In pursuit of one conversation, she has others – running jokes, rambling vignettes, reflections on art and self worth. Hawke Peake Island is a special place, somewhere people can relax and open up. Resolution isn’t really the point. It’s about having the space to think and let your thoughts out. Irresistibly good natured, with the best soundtrack on a list peppered with excellent soundtracks, A Short Hike gave me two hours of solid happiness in the year of our Lord 2020. What more could you ask?