Tis the season for "Best of" lists and year-end awards, and when Apple recently announced the App Store’s Best of 2020 winners, Canadian developer RAC7 Games’ Sneaky Sasquatch was named the Apple Arcade Game of the Year. The annual list celebrated 15 of the year’s best apps and games, chosen for their creativity, quality and innovation, but also their cultural impact. In other words, yes, Zoom was one of them. So was Disney+.
Other apps that earned top honours included Shine, a Black-owned self-care app which launched a section of resources specifically dedicated to Black mental health and wellbeing (in a year where that was more important than ever), and Wakeout!, an app that encourages brief movement breaks throughout the day (for those of us whose couch now doubles as a home office). Then there was Pokémon GO!, which was forced to evolve like an App Store Charizard in order to adapt to our new socially-distanced world.
“It’s a game that you’re playing outside with other people, it’s supposed to promote socializing,” explained Matthew Slemon, senior product manager at Niantic, saying that the challenge became “how you take a game like that and adapt for a world where you can’t really do that anymore.” That meant focusing more on the game’s core principles of encouraging exercise and real-world exploration, and less on encouraging the sort of crowds you saw hunting Pikachus by the Islands ferry terminal during the game’s heyday.
Mostly though, in 2020, people seemed to gravitate towards games that acted as an escape from the year’s seemingly endless stresses, like the Vancouver-developed Sneaky Sasquatch. In the game, available via Apple Arcade, users play as a mischievous Bigfoot roaming a landscape inspired by Squamish in the 1990s, right down to driving BC’s Highway 99 to go skiing at Whistler. “It’s basically an early '90s Pacific Northwest childhood simulator,” laughed RAC7 Games co-founder Jesse Ringrose.
The game’s popularity “really started to hit a peak right around the pandemic,” Ringrose told Complex Canada, which he attributed to its ability to allow players to live vicariously through the titular squatch while self-quarantining. “You can’t really have a normal life, but we’ve built this normal life that the Sasquatch can live. So there’s a lot of escapism with that.”
RAC7 then coupled that bright, cartoon escapism with low-key, low-stress gameplay. “It’s just this very cozy environment. There’s no explicit objectives that you have to do. You can go and cause mischief or explore, or just do whatever you want to do,” he explained. “It was the right game at the right time, I think.”
Sneaky Sasquatch became so popular, it ended the year as Apple Arcade’s No. 1 game in the U.S. (Back home in Canada, it landed at No. 5.) In fact, the entire top three most popular games in the US were all made in Canada, with Hot Lava (made by Vancouver’s Klei Entertainment) coming in at No. 2 and Skate City (developed by Toronto’s Snowman) taking third. In other words, music isn’t the only place where Canadians topped the charts in 2020.
Post-quarantine, 2020 became a year where those weekly Screen Time reports started to read like a challenge daring us to set a new personal best, and that meant people who might not normally play games on their devices began picking them up. “Where games may have been perceived as niche before, I think in the quarantine so many people are now playing more games that it’s a major step forward for games in general,” offered Jeff Jew, executive producer of 2020’s iPad Game of the Year, Legends of Runeterra.
“We’ve gotten a lot of messages saying that [Sneaky Sasquatch] has been very important this year to just keep their family sane,” said Ringrose, echoing those sentiments. “People were basically saying I am so glad that this game exists for this year, because otherwise I don’t know how we would have managed.”
Which is why, nine months (and counting) into our new socially-distanced normal, getting together—and gaming together—online, is one 2020 trend that Jew thinks will continue post-pandemic and beyond. “Having social gatherings in an online space, for some people it was part of their daily life. For most people it probably wasn’t,” he explained. “But I think moving forward, now that we’ve all experienced that world, playing games together, getting together for an event in a digital hangout will be much more common. There’s no going back.”
Other top apps in Canada for 2020 included, unsurprisingly, social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and for the iPad, streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix—while Canada’s COVID Alert app came in at No. 8 on the list of the country’s most downloaded free iPhone apps.