Game of the Year 2020

Shea Hates Everything Game of the Year 2020

Best Setting

This is always a complicated category to describe because it isn’t simply “Best Open World.” Open worlds certainly qualify — and often have an advantage — but these are the games that best establish a sense of place as you play them. That might be done through exploration or how you interact with the world, but it could also be a combination of visual and audio execution, or even worlds with phenomenal backstory. Everything should add up to a fully realized game world. “Best Setting” is just an easier title to understand.

Honorable Mentions

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
My distaste for this massive game is no fault of the world building. The structure of Valhalla makes everything feel a little samey, but I’m a sucker for Viking things and the mishmash of European cultures is fascinating.

DOOM Eternal
While much of the game takes place in environments that feel familiar from the first game, there are also totally new realms like Exultia that expand the scale and keep things fresh.

Star Wars Squadrons
See previous category. The universe of Star Wars is amazing, and it was smart to set this game immediately following Return of the Jedi. The setting feels familiar yet fresh, and space has rarely looked better. 

5. The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II - Best Setting 2020

Leading the “worlds I’d never want to visit” category, The Last of Us Part II somehow feels even more depressing than the first game – despite the focus on actual settlements being developed across the U.S. Those are really the standouts in my memory, with wide open areas to explore that are filled with people and small details. The optional area at the beginning of Seattle was a highlight, too, with great environmental storytelling.

Naughty Dog also goes deep on developing the societal changes in Part II, which still ties to the overall setting. The Seraphites stole the show for me. Without leaning too heavily into the story or character categories, learning how these people have adapted to this apocalypse was fascinating. I think the WLF would have made more of an impact had we spent more time at their base.

4. Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer - Best Setting 2020

Most of what I love about Spiritfarer has to do with its characters and story and music, but the world of the game is no slouch. There’s a sense of calm that permeates everything you do, despite the somber tone during much of the game. Most everyone is delighted to speak to you and to accept your help, which makes exploring and engaging with the world a joy.

The little mysteries are also fun to uncover, like how to reach a hidden NPC or access a new area. But the most important setting in the game is your ship, and it rules. It’s so customizable and there’s such a variety of things to do that you never get bored sailing the seas. I could fish off the back of the boat for hours.

3. Astro’s Playroom

Astro's Playroom - Best Setting 2020

Astro’s Playroom is a complete delight to explore. The different zones are filled to the brim with easter eggs and PlayStation references and collectibles and jokes and joy. I could have played another dozen levels and not gotten bored.

There was a significant period of time over the past two decades where most AAA games were varying levels of brown. Thankfully we’ve moved past that in a lot of ways, but it’s still incredibly refreshing to play a game with as much color as Astro’s Playroom. It reminds me a little of Katamari Damacy or LittleBigPlanet in that respect. Everything is so cute!

2. Ghost of Tsushima

Ghost of Tsushima - Best Setting 2020

I did everything there was to do in Ghost of Tsushima on my way to the platinum trophy. In a weird way, that was kind of a disservice to the world of Tsushima because it made me get a little tired of riding my horse around, using the guiding wind, and double checking all the nooks and crannies of the island for hidden secrets. In particular, by the time I got to the third area of the game, I didn’t really want to do anything except finish the story. But I did it anyway because I wasn’t ready for things to end.

This isn’t intended as an indictment of the setting, but more as a compliment on how I wanted to explore for most of the game because the exploration systems were crafted with immersion in mind. There’s so much to do, and the rewards for doing them feel meaningful. I lauded Control, last year’s winner of this category, as being one of the best realized universes in any game I’ve ever played. Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t quite hit that high mark, but it does pass Control in beauty, visual variety, and splendor.

1. Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 - Best Setting 2020

A game that does come right up against the best of Control is Cyberpunk 2077. While it’s easy to hold the poor technical performance against the game when it comes to the visuals alone, it’s harder to do when the world it creates is so deep, unique, and totally my vibe. Night City absolutely nails the cool yet aloof attitude that I want from this genre. I almost never fast traveled because it was fun to ride my motorcycle around to see all of the cool posters, people, and cars. Details like the flavor text and huge variety of clothing options create a sense of place that topped everything else in 2020.

It’s weird to compare Cyberpunk 2077 to Ghost of Tsushima, as I don’t think Night City is as well-realized as Tsushima because Night City lacks some of the interactivity promised in the early trailers. But Cyberpunk is also creating something totally new, which is impressive in its own right. Between Ghost of Tsushima and Cyberpunk 2077, it really came down to the difference between a setting that immersed me with its systems and visuals (Tsushima) compared to one that immersed me with its world-building and style (Cyberpunk). There’s no wrong answer, but I loved Night City just a tiny bit more.

Continue on the next page for 2020’s best video game music!

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