The finished games that we play come to us from teams of dozens, often hundreds and even thousands of developers from across the world, working together in tandem at the marriage of creative arts, technology, and corporate management. There is no other medium quite like video games, and so it stands to reason that the people who make video games are also quite unlike the creative professionals in any other form of media. But even among the uniquely talented folks who comprise game developers, there are some who stand out as particularly great. These are the best ones from this year that we can think of. Let’s get started.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
It was a long time coming, but Dreams finally hit this year, and goodness is it a staggering achievement in democratizing game development. Media Molecule must be given mad props for just how much they have managed to make complex game development paradigms and concept so easily accessible to just about anyone who chooses to engage with Dreams – while also offering extensive support for PSVR, PS Move, and the DualShock 4’s Sixaxis features. That they achieved all this while being a really small team a fraction of the size of most AAA studios only makes their achievements that much more impressive.
Not too long ago, Valve would have been an annual fixture on these lists. These last few years, they’ve slid off thanks to a dearth of big releases. That changed this year with Half Life Alyx, which was a new paradigm for VR games and first person shooters alike, with one feeding the other. Predictably enough, the game is a pioneer and a trailblazer, and that Valve was able to write the rulebook for what interaction with VR games should look like on their first real attempt should be lauded. You have to hand it to them, they still have that talent and skill that made them so beloved in the first place. Hopefully the wait for their next big game won’t be quite as long.
Nintendo had a quiet year this year, with little in the way of big releases – but they still managed to have the single biggest game release of the year in Animal Crossing New Horizons. New Horizons was the right game at the right place at the right time, but even removing the COVID-19 induced quarantine and lockdowns from the equation, it’s impressive just how instantly accessible and addictive Animal Crossing really was in its new incarnation. That this game was able to cross demographic boundaries and get literally everyone playing is a credit to just how well Nintendo EPD understands the language of the construction of video games, and how, when they flex their creative muscle, they are able to make something that the entire world is forced to sit and take notice of.
Sucker Punch has always made fan favorite games, but, much like several other studios in Sony’s first party portfolio, they really managed to hit it big with their PS4 release – in their case, Ghost of Tsushima, which launched this year. Enough has been said about just how great Ghost of Tsushima really is (very great), but the fact that Sucker Punch was able to put out such an inherently addictive big open world title, without any reports of the kind of crunch that seems to pervade most other big AAA open world productions, is to their credit. The success of Ghost of Tsushima is immense, and I can only hope that Sucker Punch staffs up and gets a bigger budget for their next game – I can’t wait to see where they go.
Square Enix had one of their best year in, well, years. Final Fantasy 7 Remake was obviously their crowning achievement this year, which finally seemed to put the franchise back on track after a few years of increasingly misguided installments, but Square also had some other stuff out this year. Trials of Mana is a sleeper hit, a great classic style RPG that all fans of the genre owe it to themselves to check out, while Kingdom Hearts gave us an incredibly fun rhythm game in Melody of Memory. Square are still a far cry from being the industry leading prestige developers they once were, long ago and back in their heyday – but at least we can now say they have definitively started their long road to recovery.
When you have a game that sets the world on fire and is considered by many to be the best work of the entire medium, and one that elevated it in the process too, many would be totally fine with a pretty safe sequel that’s literally more of the same – why rock the boat, right? People are clearly going to be perfectly happy with just that. So it is to Naughty Dog’s credit that they went the direction that they did with the follow up to their most beloved game of all time. The Last of Us Part 2 is bold, daring, and ambitious, and it is a game that dares to alienate the multitude of fans of the original game. In the process, it ends up delivering a story that, even if flawed, is significantly more ambitious than anything that most other games manage. And this is to say nothing of just how incredibly well The Last of Us Part 2 plays – arguably the best playing game by a Sony first party studio yet. 2020 proved to be another feather in Naughty Dog’s already very feathery cap.
While Supergiant had already won acclaim with their previous outings, it was Hades where they finally realized their vision. With Hades, they took on a genre long considered to be incompatible with meaningful storytelling – roguelikes – and then proceeded to tell a meaningful and fantastic story with it anyway. That Hades plays as incredibly well as it does (even those who don’t like roguelikes are likely to fall in love with it) and as immaculately well designed as it is only makes it that much better. And then you consider that, unlike most other developers on this list, Supergiant is basically 20 folks, and that they made this game without any crunch or the backing of a big publisher – and holy crap, these guys really deserve all the plaudits they have been getting. I don’t know how they will top Hades, but you know what, I have no doubt that they ultimately will.
Moon Studios are a gem. Ori and the Blind Forest was already one of the best Metroidvanias ever made (a tall order when the two games that gave the genre its name are also, in fact, considered to be among the greatest games ever made), but Will of the Wisps takes it so much further that Blind Forest feels almost quaint in comparison. It’s bigger and better in literally every regard, while retaining all the strengths of the first game too. That they managed to get a game this ambitious working on hardware ranging from the uberconsole Xbox Series X all the way down to the humble Nintendo Switch only speaks to their talent even more. Will of the Wisps is one of the best games of the year – and its developers are naturally to be lauded for their work on it too.
That Bluepoint is a bunch of talented folks has never been in question. They did great with the HD ports of Sony’s first party games to the PS3, they did incredibly well with the downport of Respawn’s Titanfall to the Xbox 360, and then they really came into their own with the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus on PS4. Demon’s Souls on PS5 continues their ascent – this is one of the best looking games ever made, it’s polished to a ridiculous degree (more than even any game FromSoft themselves have put out), and it plays every bit as great as the original game did – if not better, owing to it lacking most of the jank. Demon’s Souls shows us just how talented Bluepoint is – and I can only hope we get to see them work on an original game next.
Abzu was pretty good, but The Pathless is incredible. Giant Squid has put out an open world title that puts most other open world games (almost all of which are made by giant teams with AAA budgets) to shame. It’s a game that embellishes the spirit and magic of discovery and adventure, a game that truly leaves exploration to the player. It is an open world game that truly feels like it was made in a post-Breath of the Wild world, and it manages to truly stand out even considering how beloved its apparent inspiration is. It’s a bold, daring reinvention of open world games – and I hope its success means we can see more similarly ambitious, but even larger and grander, games from them going forward.
It’s incredible that a team of just 80 people put out a game as expansive, as ambitious, and as accomplished as Ori and the Will of the Wisps. It’s incredible that they managed to put out a game like that in a state of high polish (albeit not at first, given the framerate issues at launch) on so many different hardware configurations. It’s truly impressive – Ori and the Will of the Wisps would be impressive no matter what, but it feels even more so considering the context surrounding it. Moon Studios’ talent is no longer in question, and we can’t wait to see how they top themselves with their next game, now already in development with Private Division.