Welp, it’s been a year. And it’s not been great. But awesome things happened this year, too. The writers of LTN want to highlight some of their favorite nerdy things about 2020 that helped them get through all their unfavorite things about 2020.
It may seem weird to say that a game about hell brought a bright spot into my life at the end of a difficult year, but it’s the truth.
Hades is a top-down action combat rogue-like (technically, a rogue-lite, whatever that means) where you guide Prince Zagreus, son of Hades, Greek god of the underworld, in a violent quest to escape to the surface. Zagreus meets lots of legendary Greek deities, mythological characters, and monsters on his way to the surface, each doling out bits of story. The gameplay is very much hack-n-slash—sort of Diablo-ish, minus most of the RPG elements. Because it’s a rogue-like, you play the game over and over again (Zagreus dies a lot) and each time the run is slightly different.
So what’s so special here? Well, in a word… everything. This is frankly one of the best-crafted video games I’ve played in the last ten years at least. The artwork is stylish, the characters and story are engaging, and the gameplay is supremely well designed. Every run features a different build of abilities, with a little bit of permanent leveling up in between each run. Even bad runs are still a lot of fun.
And here’s the kicker for us at Love Thy Nerd: this is a game about love. It’s an experience of overcoming obstacle after obstacle in the pursuit of healing a broken family. I can’t think of a more appropriate title for a year as bad as this one. We are in the middle of death, suffering, and strife on a scale that few of us in the privileged nations experience for extended periods of time. Zagreus literally fights through the land of the dead, onward and upward, never giving up, chasing hope and healing and forgiveness. I mean, this is a pagan story in many ways, but it is, for me, a Jesus story—a story of someone choosing to love in spite of the hosts of hell. Given our current context, that makes this the game of the year.
Too many people had to say goodbye to family and friends this year, so it is not lightly that I nominate this game. Spiritfarer examines the way we care for people at the end of their lives and challenges us to see past the surface to who people really are.
In Spiritfarer you play as Stella, the new ferryperson on the river Styx. Your job is to pick up spirits and care for them in their final days of the afterlife before they’re ready to move on to their final rest. You make homes for them on your ferry, feed them their favorite foods, and help them fulfill the last wishes that are keeping them from being able to move on. While I’m making it sound very twee, the game is filled with things that keep it poignant instead of sickly sweet. Some spirits still have the bad attitudes they developed in life. Some battle with manifestations of the illnesses that killed them. Some still have self-destructive mental health. These aspects take what, on the surface, is a management sim with cute animal friends and sink big FEELS hooks down into your soul. These weren’t just characters for me by the end of my time with them—they were real people.
In real life, people are who they always were when they die: a little good, a little unsavory, a little complicated, a little sad. So it was in Spiritfarer. But regardless of whether the spirit was well-liked or wished well-away, every spirit was treated with dignity on their final journey off the ferry. Their final passing was met with respect. As we grieve the losses of this year, may we extend that dignity and respect to the living around us, and be considerate of the burdens each of us carries.
Just Dance 2020 and 2021
While 2020 has been a dumpster fire for a lot of the world, I actually found a new family and got remarried this year, gaining a wife and new son. While my new bride isn’t a huge gamer, we have found much enjoyment playing Just Dance 2020 and 2021.
We actually use it as exercise as well as a fun time. It has brought many smiles to our home, especially after a longer workday. One of my favorite things about Just Dance are the songs that I would’ve never heard of without playing the game. Songs like “Animals” by Martin Garrix or “Soy Yo” by Bomba Estereo are a small sampling of the unique music found in this series.
We also paid for the Just Dance Unlimited subscription and it’s paid off tremendously. It’s given us a huge selection of the series’ back catalog and provides even more variety, whether it’s listening to something unique or dancing to a throwback song that makes us think of “simpler times.”
If you need a family fun game that isn’t too demanding on the gameplay side, Just Dance is definitely the way to go.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
To say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a life-saving game would be a gross overstatement in any other year except 2020. Having been a franchise-long fan, I had been anticipating the Nintendo Switch installment for almost a year and a half since it was announced. But I didn’t know just how important the game would become to me.
I just moved back to Seattle in March of this year, and that was right when the COVID-19 pandemic really started to take off, and the Emerald City was the very first “Ground Zero” of the outbreak. Lockdowns ensued, and life for the remainder of the year would never be the same. I couldn’t imagine going so long without any kind of interaction, meeting up with friends, skipping birthday gatherings, and more.
Luckily, New Horizons provided that social connection that I needed. The friendly animals became more than just animated friends to me, and the ability to play with other real-life friends online—and create and participate in life events within the game—became my own lifeline. I met up with others on their islands for their birthdays, my own villagers threw me a surprise party of my own, and they were there for me with a kind word and a smile when I needed it. The game provided me with a sense of calm while the world was in such a terrified state with an unknown future.
I still play Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost daily. As with any game, things become routine and you can run out of stuff to do. But in the year 2020, it was the perfect game at the perfect time and for that reason, this entry in a long-running series I already loved will remain extra special in my heart.
Persona 5 Royal
I did not think that it was possible to improve on a masterpiece until Persona 5 Royal came out this year. Having played the original release at launch, I was eager to check out the changes that Royal would bring to the table. We have a few new characters, some new additions to the story including a new school semester we did not previously get to play through, and a new Palace—the manifestation of distortion within a person’s heart—to explore. What really impressed me was the way that the game tweaked combat and freed up time in the evenings to spend on friendships and skills.
While it was nice to play a polished version of a game that I already adored, it was the simple way that it made me happy that made it one of the best things of 2020. I felt like I was revisiting old friends and had the same giddiness that I felt in 2017 when Persona 5 came out. Interestingly, I was stuck at home when that released as well, except that time was due to a broken ankle rather than a pandemic. There is a special kind of joy in something that can make a crummy time fun.
I am a sucker for redemption and team-up stories, and Tom Taylor’s post-apocalyptic superhero series delivers on all fronts. A spin-off to his hit 2019 series DCeased, Taylor has created an original take on the ‘zombie apocalypse’ genre set in the DC Comics universe. While the original series followed the more popular and well-known characters and heroes, DCeased: Unkillables focuses on a ragtag group of villains and vigilantes as they try to survive and protect a group of orphans against a never-ending horde of zombies. Zombie comic book characters are always fun, but what makes this comic one of the best of 2020 are the truly wonderful character moments.
There is just something so fun and uplifting about seeing the villainous Cheetah letting a little girl scratch her behind the ear calling her “Good kitty,” watching Commissioner Gordon stand side by side with Deathstroke to mow down a bunch of zombies, or witnessing Batgirl and Bane work together to train these orphans so that they may be able to defend themselves if the worst should happen.
In these moments, characters put aside their differences to protect what’s more important than themselves. Even in the darkest of times, times like 2020, people can still work together and bring about goodness. Everyone, no matter who you are, has the power to help others, especially during tough times.
There can be much to be debated about the current state of Star Wars, but Marvel has been doing an amazing job with their Darth Vader series. Whether it was Kieran Gillen’s initial run or Charles Soule’s prequel run, they have all been great editions to the lore of the great Sith Lord. But the current Darth Vader series by Greg Pak that started this year has been something special.
Set after The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader is reeling from Luke’s rejection of his offer of ruling the galaxy as father and son. Furious that his son has been hidden from him and turned against him, Vader sets out on a mission to find who is responsible, but what he finds is much more than he bargained for. Vader, quite literally, comes face to face with his past when he seemingly finds his wife, Padmé alive. What ensues is an internal struggle between wanting to leave his past behind him and actively seeking out his past in the form of Luke.
The questions Vader faces are the same all of us face when confronted with the difficult decisions we’ve made in our past. Do we fight to forget hard memories or accept them? Do we forgive or resent those from our past? These are challenging questions for anyone to have and seeing one of sci-fi’s greatest villains figure it out in his own grandiose fashion is an amazing and wild ride!
Tasting History with Max Miller
There are two things that I love just as much as video games: history and cooking. I stumbled upon Tasting History while perusing some recipes on YouTube one late night, and was intrigued. He has been all over the map with medieval Arabian candy, American Civil War bread pudding, Spartan black broth, dumplings from China, and farts from Shakespearean England. (You read that correctly.) For months, I have eagerly awaited each Tuesday for the weekly upload, dying to know what recipe and time period he is diving into.
Max Miller is neither chef nor historian, simply someone who has an interest in these things, much like myself. But unlike myself, he decided to try his hand at a YoutTube channel. And his timing could not be any more perfect, with his first video releasing only weeks before the year got crazy. He has already garnered nearly half a million subscribers, and has earned sponsorships from not only cookware companies but Pokemon as well! Oh yes, keep an eye out for the always-changing plush on the coffee cart to the left behind him because it matches the recipe’s theme, and is usually a Pokemon!
Between Max’s cheerful personality, the way he dives into the history surrounding each video’s topic, and the types of recipes that he makes, I instantly fell in love. His videos are clean, educational, and have some cheesy jokes that make me laugh out loud. I think that Tasting History is the type of video content that Jesus loves, and I would easily recommend this channel to anyone from history buffs, to foodies, to parents looking for something different to watch with their kids. I sincerely adore Tasting History and I hope that you all take the time to check out a couple of videos, maybe it will add a little fun to your Tuesdays, too!
Ghost Town Living
2020 has pushed the boundaries of loneliness for many people, but only one man I know of decided to spend this year living alone in a California ghost town. Brent Underwood purchased the old mining town of Cerro Gordo a couple of years ago with the intent to renovate it and run a vacation destination. During the COVID-19 epidemic he chose to move in full-time, and lucky for us, with the help of a drone and a selfie stick, he’s filming his exploits and uploading them to his YouTube Channel: Ghost Town Living.
YouTube subscribers get weekly updates on Brent’s time in Cerro Gordo as he gets lost in snowstorms, terrifies anyone with a sense of caution by climbing to the depths of abandoned mines, becomes an amateur archaeologist in search of historic bottles, learns to operate heavy machinery, befriends a litter of kittens, and incessantly treasure hunts for hundred-year-old Levi’s jeans. Each new episode is filled with possibility, and things don’t always go as planned. Tragedy strikes, but Brent has an indomitable spirit that allows him to both mourn for what was, and to rewrite his story by anticipating what can be. His humorous and self-deprecating style of filmmaking grows more polished with each new upload, and is filled with sweeping views of the mountains and sunsets that surround him.
As you may imagine, Brent’s journey is as much about self-discovery as it is about discovering history. Brent reminds us that adventure awaits. He pushes us to look around one more corner, under one more rock, and to question our own limits.
Incredibly, Ghost Town Living has used isolation to create community. When Brent opens Cerro Gordo to visitors next year, he’s likely to be swarmed by 700,000 of his closest friends. I know for sure my family is planning a visit to this piece of history that has worked its way into our hearts.
Narrative Telephone from Critical Role
“Don’t forget to love each other.” “Is it Thursday yet?” If you are a Critter (part of the Dungeons and Dragons live show Critical Role fandom) like me, you know the feeling these phrases give when signing off of a new episode of Critical Role. Being a Critter is being part of a family and every week is an experience, waiting for a new episode, participating in the chat and fan art, watching the Talks Machina wrap-up show. So when 2020 got doinked by COVID-19, my beloved escape from reality took a break like everything else in life. The cast and crew needed to safely socially distance and hunker down like everyone else. But I missed them. SO much.
So life continued. I helped my daughter home school with Zoom classes. I figured out how to run a church over YouTube. And so on. But then Critical Role announced a new program on their Twitch channel: Narrative Telephone.
Here is the premise: one cast member would tell a silly story as one of the characters from the Critical Role universe. The next cast member would watch it once and then attempt to tell the same story from memory. The next would get the (probably messed-up) version of the story, watch it once, and try their best to pass it on, like the game of Telephone some of us played as kids. The end result was always wacky, nothing like the original story and we got to watch them all then react to each others’ failures.
I loved the resilience of these creators in continuing to bring relevant content to their franchise. I mean, weren’t we all struggling to figure out how to make our lives work over stupid teleconferencing? Not only was it content in my favorite fantasy world with my favorite actors but it felt SO near to home. They were struggling with my same struggle but still bringing joy and silliness. It was clever and fun and exactly the poultice my heart needed as I figured out how to 2020. Eventually, Critical Role came back, but I am incredibly grateful for the cast reaching out to us in a language that we knew to speak to the very real struggle. I really felt like we were all in it together. Don’t forget to love each other!
The Only Good Indians
It feels weird to say that I found hope in a horror story during 2020 (or any time, for that matter) but I did. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones follows four Native American childhood hunting buddies, who are now grown and being hunted down themselves, one by one. Jones filled me with such a heavy sense of dread that by the time the grisly scenes of attack arrived (and they are grisly), it was almost a relief. Despite all that, he does conclude the book with hope. (Mild spoilers to follow.)
Two kids manage to escape what had hunted down their parents. Jones contrasts the image they make on horseback to that of the sculpture titled “End of the Trail” by James Earle Fraser. The kids are the future of this Blackfeet reservation and they’re fighting tooth and nail, blood clot and basketball, to get to keep that future. They are not the broken and martyred victims that the collective American imagination pictures Native Americans to be. They are cutting their own trail, despite what happened to—and because of—the generations before them. That’s an image of hope I’m keeping in my heart as we move into a new, and hopefully better, year.
Earlier this year, I read a book that I initially didn’t like. I was pretty sure it was an incitement to violence, so I felt okay ignoring it and going about my White privileged life. Riot Baby is not a feel-good book about White people helping downtrodden people of color. It’s about Black people born with superpowers, powers that manifest out of the collective anger and grief of their communities.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi tells the story of two siblings living most of their lives in a near-future America. Ella, the older sister, rejects trying to live in the role America wants to put her in and makes her own way. Kev, the younger brother, tries to find his way out from within the system but keeps getting shut down. Thinking about their contrast now breaks my heart.
In a year when justice raised her voice from millions of masked faces, and would not be silenced, I picked Riot Baby back up and realized I was wrong to think this book wasn’t for me. I live in Onyebuchi’s near-future already; I had just been turning a blind eye to avoid acknowledging my complicity in it.
It can be agreed that 2020 has been a challenging year for many of us, but if there was at least one good thing that made an impact on me this year, it was discovering Infinity Train on HBO Max. I decided to give it a chance after seeing promos for it in the last year and had heard nothing but great things about it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Infinity Train was an incredibly mature series, exploring universal themes of psychological and social issues that are universal to everyone, no matter a person’s background. The fact that the show is an anthology series and explores the viewpoints of multiple characters and their own journey is reason enough to invest in the show, as each of the main characters reacts differently to the different challenges they come across. No one is presented as either wholly good or evil, and each of the characters act in the way they do for a reason.
Despite that it is an animated and fantastical series, Infinity Train can be quite grounded and realistic in both appearance and presentation. The risks and challenges are relatable and you can feel that the stakes are high in each progressing episode. I found my jaw dropping at certain points in each respective season as there were twists and revelations revealed that I never expected to see in a family show. It can be both quite dark while also optimistic by the notion of human growth and potential. I believe this series is great for viewing for anyone especially after such a dark year as 2020 was, and I hope that there will be more seasons produced in the future to enjoy.
Survivor: Winners at War
When I tell people that I absolutely love CBS’s hit reality competition, Survivor, I am often met with “Ew, why?” I think people often lump the show in with some other reality shows that came out around the same time that are pretty vapid—The Bachelor, The Kardashians, etc., but Survivor is not a guilty pleasure show for me. I have watched all 40 seasons and have never regretted doing so. I believe it to be the greatest game on television. That game part is key. Some seasons have tried to highlight various novelties—like the first few seasons that doubled down borrowing from the cultures surrounding shooting locations or the awful season 13 that divided tribes by race. However, as Survivor has evolved over the last two decades, the focus has shifted more and more to the game aspects. It really is a tremendously difficult, complex, and strategic game. Winning a season of Survivor requires tremendous focus, attention to detail, relational intelligence, and physical and mental endurance. And the winners of Survivor include literally every type of person from all backgrounds, races, and economic status. In fact the winners are often the people you’d least expect at first glance. In other words, it is a show about how remarkable human beings can be.
It is worth noting that very few people win the game without lying and/or turning on their alliances. However, it is also important to note that these aspects are written into the very tagline of the game: “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” In other words, it’s like playing a game of Mafia, Among Us, or Go Fish–a bit of deceit and cunning is what literally everyone in the game signed up for. My wife and I love discussing who is playing the best game as each episode comes out and more and more people are voted off the island. We love being surprised as unlikely candidates make huge strategic moves that change the outcome of the game and even chart the course for future players. Right when COVID-19 hit, Survivor launched its 40th Season, which, for the first time, featured a cast of 20 winners of previous seasons. If you have never seen the show, it really was one of the best seasons to date and a tremendous example of how difficult, strategic, and intense the game can be.
When I first saw the trailer for Cobra Kai, I assumed it was a joke. When friends started recommending the show to me after season 2 released, I assumed they were joking as well. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Karate Kid movies when they first came out, but I figured there was a reason Ralph Macchio never really had much of a career in show business after those films came out. My assumption was that my friends were watching Cobra Kai for the same reason one might rewatch Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal films–they are probably good for a laugh. After plowing through both seasons of Cobra Kai, I confirmed my fears about Ralph Macchio, had lots of good laughs, but also discovered a really compelling story about redemption, the value of self-confidence, loving your enemies, and striving to see the good in those who frustrate us the most.
In Cobra Kai, no one is a one-dimensional bad guy. We get the backstories and the “why” behind characters that we previously viewed as total jerks and we see them struggling with who they are and who they want to be. And the “good guys” aren’t always the guys you end up wanting to root for once you know them better. People are complex. And sometimes you can maybe be “too right” and become a Pharisee. Or at the very least, stop identifying with people who are struggling. It’s like that internet saying that floats around has been brought to life in a show: “everyone is struggling with things you know nothing about, so just be kind.” Cobra Kai reminds us that even our least favorite people are worthy of love simply because of their humanity and because there is depth to their story that we won’t see unless we look beyond the surface.
The Umbrella Academy
I watched The Umbrella Academy not long after doing some major research on trauma’s impact on the body and brain. The first season matched with what I learned amazingly well: kids with trauma and attachment issues grew up to be adults with poor decision-making abilities and problems connecting with each other, to the point that one character’s broken childhood erupted with such force that it destroyed the world.
But if season one was about trauma and its effects, season two was about forgiveness and healing. After a time travel incident forced the Hargreeves family apart for days, weeks, or even years, they were reunited happier and healthier than ever before. They were each still profoundly broken, of course, but their time apart taught them to appreciate everyone’s strengths and love each other in their weaknesses. In a year where involuntary separation and international trauma has shaken everyone’s life, we need that message of healing and hope.
If you grew up in church circles, you’ve probably had your fill of bad Christian media: Cheesy, moralizing television, video games in which Mary-with-donkey substituted for Mario, and Jesus movies that made Jesus seem like an unapproachable, silent type. Even as a Christian, my first reaction to Christian media is usually to be wary, which is why this spring I was surprised to be completely swept up in a television show about the life of Jesus. The Chosen is a gorgeous retelling of Jesus’s life that focuses on Jesus as the Gospels say he is: approachable, friendly, engaging, funny, kind, wise, and the kind of guy you’d really love to share a bottle of wine and a few hours (or a lifetime) with.
The Chosen is not meant to be a word-for-word retelling of Jesus’s life. Executive Producer, Dallas Jenkins, takes liberties to imagine scenes in which Jesus befriends a group of children, or pictures how Matthew’s life as a very particular tax collector may have looked. We see the behind-the-scenes panic of the wedding party in Cana when they run out of wine. We see who Mary Magdalene may have been before she met Jesus, and we get to know Andrew and Simon Peter as brothers and co-conspirators. The story becomes more real and the characters become people we relate to, laugh at, and cheer for.
Even though I’ve read the gospels time and again, I found myself waiting for the next installment with the same anticipation I had when I was watching Lost. But Jesus? Somehow Johnathan Roumie’s portrayal of him is so genuine that even my 3-year-old sat up mid-episode to proclaim, “That’s *my* Jesus! I love him! I want him to come to our island!” (She’s confused about landmasses, but she loves Jesus.) During a season in which in-person church services weren’t happening for us, watching The Chosen felt like meeting with Jesus. It caused me to take a fresh look at Scripture, and to imagine a world in which a stranger on a beach could say, “Follow me” and I would echo the disciples and respond, “Anywhere.”
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
The dungeon crawl behemoth of a game, Gloomhaven (2017), quickly rose to the top of the rankings at BoardGameGeek. However, a steep learning curve made the twenty-two-pound box (and $100+ price) a tough sell for many. Enter Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, a prequel to the events of the original game. It also serves as a tutorial for the full Gloomhaven adventure at less than half the price and half the heft. The included How to Play Guide walks you through the first five of the twenty-five included scenarios as you seek to learn why city residents have been disappearing. Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower said it’s “One of the best tutorial[s]…that I’ve ever seen in my life – it’s phenomenal!” Your mercenary team, the eponymous “Jaws of the Lion”, has undertaken the mission of the missing residents! You must learn to work together and find the synergy between your individual abilities if you hope to accomplish your task.
Jaws of the Lion has been an electrifying hit in my game group. We love the card-based combat system and the scenario booklet containing all of the maps. Jaws has provided many of the most exhilarating moments in this crazy year. Failed missions have been our most disheartening, which goes to show the immersive nature of the experience. We root for one another and mourn for one another. We rush to save our comrades when they need aid. We stand together against a great evil that leads our team further and deeper into a haunting mystery. Essentially, by taking on the roles of plastic miniature characters, the members of my weekly game group have found new appreciation and empathy for each other.
Do you love a good story? Enjoy a creative fantasy setting? Dislike the heavy luck aspects of most dungeon crawls? Or just like a good challenge? Find what you are looking for in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
The Rise of Online Boardgaming
“This year I’m going to play 200 games, go to my first big convention, and help plan for the next great in-person LTN Con.” Those were my thoughts in January 2020, and I was on my way to accomplishing those goals but the world ended. Okay, maybe we just went on lockdown, but it felt like the world ended. So, like many of us, I mourned a goal that I lost. I was sad, frustrated, and just straight mad. But then something amazing happened. I remembered that being connected and playing boards were more than having to be there physically. I tried to change my attitude and dove into online board gaming, usually through Table Top Simulator (TTS) or through video chat.
Once I decided to dive into that medium, my world actually expanded. I was able to be part of a weekly game group with friends from South Carolina. I started playing regularly with friends I made through LTN from California. I even reconnected with a group of college roommates and we played Magic through video chat. Board games even remotely gave me an amazing opportunity to connect with people outside of my own community. While I missed being with people physically at my table, I loved the chance to connect with people that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the lockdown and being forced to think outside the box.
At first, I only enjoyed the convenience of online gaming, but then I got COVID-19 and online board gaming became a necessity. My community showed up in a huge way to help me pass the time in isolation by helping distract me from what I was missing.
2020 brought a lot of challenges, but online board gaming was a bright spot.