Considering the nightmare that was 2020, I don’t think I’ve seen a more collectively cathartic New Year’s celebration than 2021’s. Granted, what separates one year from another is largely arbitrary, and many of 2020’s problems have continued into 2021. But with COVID-19 vaccines trickling out, we can at least begin to vaguely imagine an end to the pandemic that made life in 2020 such a locked-down disaster.
Hopefully, we’ll get past the mass death as soon as possible, but we’re going to feel the impact of this pandemic in all parts of life for years to come. Video games exist as part of this larger world. This young, new console generation has already been shaped by the current crisis, in some ways we may never see. So as you prepare to wait longer than expected for a highly anticipated title, appreciate the great games that you can play right now.
March Never Ends
Predicting the pandemic’s lingering effects will take some unpacking, but its immediate impact on the gaming industry couldn’t be more obvious. One minute, we were looking forward to early 2020 bangers like Doom Eternal and Final Fantasy VII Remake. The next minute, we were wondering if the world would even exist for long enough to play those games. Ring Fit Adventure went from an intriguing exercise gimmick for Nintendo Switch owners to a full-blown home exercise craze for remote workers unable to leave their homes and hit the gym.
I don’t want to downplay how many people had their lives wrecked by the virus when it first emerged in late 2019, but here in New York City, March 2020 was the real turning point. That was the last time I was in the office. Two games released that month best exemplify what gaming would look like in an ongoing, plagued landscape.
On one hand, you had Half-Life: Alyx. Virtual reality remains a niche field. However, if any game could penetrate the mainstream it would be the long-awaited return of Valve’s seminal shooter franchise, Valve’s first proper single-player game in who knows how long. After all, it was Half-Life 2 that elevated Steam from middling software to a digital storefront juggernaut. But who actually played this game? Half-Life: Alyx’s post-launch discussion was muted despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, and it’s easy to see why. With your paycheck potentially in jeopardy, it becomes very hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on PC parts and VR headsets just to hang out with Gordon Freeman one more time. Remember, not everyone has that privilege.
On the other hand, you had Animal Crossing: New Horizons. No one expected this game to be a failure. It was the next major game for the massively popular Nintendo Switch. Still, it was the pandemic that arguably pushed this game to an absolutely absurd level of success. Releasing just as we all realized we would be stuck inside for a while, nothing sounded more appealing than hanging out and living life on a virtual island full of homes to decorate and animals to talk to. The game hasn’t even been out for a full year and has already sold 31 million copies, with at least one of those copies owned by President Biden staffers.
Eventually, things settled into about as “normal” space as they could. In-person events, from industry conferences to esports tournaments, were cancelled. Still, between the many remote live streams and game trailers, you could almost pretend we were back on track throughout the summer.
In retrospect though, the additional troubling signs were already there. Slowing down and transitioning to a work from home set up didn’t exactly cause problems, but it exacerbated existing ones. Cyberpunk 2077’s development issues run deeper than one bad year, but who knows how many more technical issues might have been ironed out before launch without also dealing with COVID. New consoles always sell out and leave gamers scrambling to find more, but it’s a miracle the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S even managed to launch in 2020 considering the constrained supply chain. New Nvidia GPUs are still impossible to find.
These are just the games and products that managed to come out. The real proof of the pandemic’s impact will be the games that get delayed because teams couldn’t meet deadlines in this environment. The official delays have already begun. Halo Infinite, Hogwarts Legacy, and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum all slipped from their original dates. Persona 5 Strikers is releasing in North America a year after releasing in Japan, due in part to COVID delaying localization work.
More interesting, though, are the internal delays we’ll likely never officially hear about. Nintendo spent 2020 announcing games that were basically finished and releasing them a few weeks later. With this method, it avoided announcing public delays and rearranging the schedule if something went wrong. To me, that says the company has games it hasn’t announced yet because they’ve been delayed. I’m not holding my breath for Bayonetta 3, Metroid Prime 4, or the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild any time soon. Meanwhile, Sony has announced an exciting slate of first-party titles to build momentum for PlayStation 5, including new God of War, Horizon, and Ratchet and Clank games. Their lack of solid release windows suggests that Sony also doesn’t feel confident committing to dates that may change for reasons beyond corporate control.
Play in the Moment
So what do you do while waiting for new video games? Play old video games! I’m not just talking about retro games, although you can play those, too. Turrican Flashback, a compilation of classic games, finally lets me enjoy Factor 5’s blistering, yet thoughtful, 2D shooter series. But I’m also talking about the recently released games that fill up your backlog after every Steam holiday sale. We gave you this same advice at the start of the pandemic; we told you to take advantage of this chance to play what you already own. With lockdowns still in effect, now is the perfect chance to look back and dive into games you haven’t started.
I’m playing all sorts of tiny games I never would’ve considered. ScourgeBringer‘s nimble mix of jumping, shooting, dashing, and slashing makes the brutal roguelike almost inviting. Override 2: Super Mech League’s colossal combat has me even more excited for Godzilla vs. Kong. Cyber Shadow’s loving homage to Ninja Gaiden action makes me understand why the Shovel Knight developers were so interested in publishing it. Olija’s evocative, worldly, and elegantly pixelated seafaring aesthetic elevates a solid side-scrolling adventure. In Gods Will Fall, each of your eight “lives” is a different party member with unique weapons and stats, adding variety to each death in this difficult, top-down, action-RPG. Disjunction offers challenging and cerebral cyberpunk strategy in an unassuming old-school form.
Looking Forward, Looking Back
Video games are too big to ever truly stop. Unlike the theater industry, the games industry’s products are primarily enjoyed at home, so there’s still incentive to develop games even in the midst of a global plague. With new consoles on the market, publishers are especially eager to guarantee that you make good use of them. 2021 still has plenty of exciting games. Hitman 3 is a recent favorite. Monster Hunter Rise looks impressive. Every Black History Month I can’t help by flash back to the absurdly racist Resident Evil 5, but that doesn’t stop me from looking forward to Resident Evil 8’s tall vampire lady.
Even though there are new games coming down the pipe, don’t be surprised when they take longer than expected to arrive. Developers should take the time to prioritize their health first, and so should you. Today’s games are already waiting for you, and tomorrow’s games will be here soon enough.