Content warning for a mention of a COVID 19-related death in this article.
I’ve been writing about video games professionally since 2006. I’ve done it full-time since early 2013, when I joined the staff at Polygon, and I think this is the first time since then I haven’t had a “full” list of 10 games on my Game of the Year list.
My life changed radically this year for many reasons that I won’t get into. It changed a great deal last year, too, when I was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of this lovely website just as the world was ending (my official EIC day was April 1, 2020, when the streets around my apartment were Silent Hill-eerie, with medical gloves strewn around the once-busy blocks of Bushwick, ambulances wailing at all hours, and refrigerated trucks full of deceased COVID victims chilling by the hospital nearby).
It was a weird time.
I was going out in my ambulance shifts in a Teflon suit, resembling something like the government officials at the end of E.T., and coming home to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons, taking the edge off a bit the same way as everyone else that month.
For most of 2021 (until now, sadly!), I was lucky to enjoy something like a return to normalcy in my life: after the vaccine made it possible, I got back to training and competing in grappling again. Seeing friends in person. Enjoying my community without a screen in place. That is all in flux in the waning days of this year, as Brooklyn erupts with the new omicron wave, but it holds the reason why this list is shorter than usual.
The change in the nature of my work (and in my teaching job, my EMS job, and in my sport) meant that the kinds of games I play (not to mention the number of games I play) had to shift dramatically. Fanbyte’s staff size grew something like threefold in this time, so I mostly play games conducive to my ability to talk to other people, while having meetings and putting out little fires. The time to jump all the way into an immersive world, to lose myself a little and forget my phone in the other room is a wonderful — but rare — treat, and I could only fit a couple of those into my 2021.
Despite that — and the fact that there are only five games on this list — games have meant as much to me as ever. I went through some deep personal shit this year, and the experiences here offered a welcome escape — the opportunity to feel something else, and even get a bit of genuine comfort. This is the shortest GOTY list I’ve ever written, sure (and no doubt contains the longest preamble). But, if anything, these titles proved to me how crucial it is for me to have positive, creative, inventive, or simply playful distractions in my life. For that, and for these five games, I’m very grateful.
Fez was a surprise release on the Switch this year. It wound up being a very pleasant throwback to the game’s initial 2012 release. I tripped over myself earlier this year, unsuccessfully trying to write something about how much I love it. About how pretty and cute it is, how it feels like much more than the sum of its parts (solid 2D platforming, a world with a genuine sense of mystery and depth, wonderful music, and bright, fresh pixel art that never feels gimmicky), despite the many cliched cycles of development before and since.
For a couple of weeks in April, my entire desk was covered in notebook paper as I joyfully translated glyphs and dug through puzzles half-remembered from nearly a decade before. Then (in an act that will come up once more on the GOTY list), I just let my character sit on the screen as I enjoyed chilling to the music and a pretty sunset gradient.
Sable is basically a hyper-indie Breath of the Wild without any combat. That is to say: it’s fantastic. It does so much of what Nintendo’s maybe-best Zelda does so well. It evokes a grand adventure, giving the player all kinds of fun quests and a means of traversing an interesting, beautiful world. It does so with a pleasant, more homespun look and feel (the same goes for the story, which renowned narrative designer Meghna Jayanth worked on).
I’ll just say this despite being way too old to say it: this game just has vibes for days and days. It’s the type of thing I turn to often just to relax and explore, and while I may never finish the main quest, I don’t care. Sable is good enough and beautiful enough — perhaps even comforting enough — to keep me coming back again and again.
3. Hitman 3
Early this year, around January and February, I could not play enough Hitman 3. Despite the fact that I hilariously played the whole thing “wrong,” I couldn’t get enough of this clever, clockwork immersive sim. I even went back and played dozens of hours of Hitman 2 when I finished 3’s campaign. I ate up all the early DLC like so many coconut bombs on the Miami waterfront.
Aside from 3D platformers, immersive sims are by far my favorite genre. Any game that really lets me play around with the rules, to see what kind of mischief I can get up to with an expansive set of tools and ever-changing list of challenges is going to hit that for me — and Hitman 3 delivered in all aspects, at all times. I can’t wait to dip into all the add-ons I’ve yet to play.
2. Cozy Grove
Just about every single day from March 2020 to April 2021, I played Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Like many folks, I found comfort in its sweet, colorful little world as the one outside felt like it was straight-up ending in a viral apocalypse. After a time, it became my daily warmup game — something I booted up over coffee and reading emails first thing. In April of this year, I got a couple of early press releases for Cozy Grove: a game that certainly takes many genre cues from Animal Crossing. While it looked cute (and looked to be doing some different things), I nearly dismissed it, thinking, “Well, I already have my little warmup game.”
Thankfully, however, I tried it. And within a few days, I was absolutely hooked. I never looked back once.
Cozy Grove is my warmup game now. It’s a regular dose of comfort and joy when I need it. I’ve written before about how it’s much more like a sweet, peaceful Don’t Starve than Animal Crossing, really, since it includes more crafting and harvesting. The story and characters are much more sharply written than anything on Nook’s island, too. I also want to throw a shout to the developers at Spry Fox for the continual seasonal updates. Yes, I get very excited about new features (and craftable items), in ways I’ve maybe never gotten as excited about in a service game before. But it really is all in service of the simple pleasure of my daily routine: I wake up, feed my pets, get coffee, and start up Cozy Grove while I check into Slack.
It is sweet and warm and offers a pleasant routine that works with my life. So yeah, I put (well over, at this point) 743 hours into it.
1. Psychonauts 2
There was almost no way that the sequel to my *easy answer* favorite video game ever would hold a candle to its predecessor. I wanted it to, obviously, but I didn’t think it could fill those shoes. Psychonauts is just a game that appeals to me strongly: a 3D platformer with adventure elements, a big world full of secrets and seemingly endless little touches, as well as a big, corny, sense of sweet humor. It’s also janky as hell, but I don’t care. I love it.
So, here came Psychonauts 2, sporting all the elements of the first (creative level design, bighearted cornball humor, tons of nooks and crannies to explore and seek out). It’s like a game that can’t possibly exist in 2021. Yet, here it was, arriving in late August to herald a Danielle Christmas.
I think about the levels in this game every day — from the way they showcase character design as level design (levels are based on characters minds, after all), from the cooking show as performance anxiety stage of “Compton’s Cookoff” to the champagne barf sea of “Bob’s Bottles,” to the bowling ball bacteria city of “Strike City.” It’s weird and colorful and honestly beautiful. I will always remember flying through Psi King’s Sensorium having the time of my damn life, where I decided to just stand in one place, peering over the psychedelic architecture and blissfully (here’s that word again) vibing. I actually said, “oh wow” and sat there on my couch for minutes. That really just… doesn’t happen anymore in my life.
Everything is too compressed, or I’m too distracted. But here was a game offering me the things I enjoy most, the types of interactions and exploration that feel good to my particular tastes, and it made my hyper always-needs-to-be-doing-12-tasks self sit there and say, “wow.” I love the overall story and conceit, the slightly fucked up world, the core design, and the experience of exploring these minds. I loved them so much that I almost ruined the game for myself. I simply couldn’t stop playing it, combing through each stage for every collectible, until I cut finally myself off. I didn’t want that “100 percent every game” instinct to frustrate and color something that was just too special for me.
Psychonauts 2 somehow made me feel the kinds of things I come to games for. Creativity, gentle challenge, wackiness, a legitimate sense of wonder and surprise. It’s the kind of game I don’t frankly see very often, or nearly enough. But it felt, in ways that are hard to articulate, like a genuine gift.
Every year, I like to honor those games that almost made my list. 2021 is no exception. However, instead of including awesome games I played that were just shy of the numbered list, this time around, I’m going to honor games that I really, really wanted to play, but couldn’t fit in…
If you know anything about me and my work, you probably know how much I love Prey, my 2017 game of the year. You probably have an inkling about how much I love immersive sims. About how much I love Arkane’s brand of immersive sim, in particular. And yet, somehow, I didn’t get around to Deathloop. It has to do with timing, I suppose, and my inability to get a PlayStation 5 (which it’s been recommended I play Deathloop on over the PC version). I know I will play Deathloop sometime in the new year. I will probably love it and potentially be pissed off that I didn’t play it sooner. Sadly, I do not possess a time machine.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale, The Forgotten City, Ad Astra, Before Your Eyes, It Takes Two
I know very little about these games, other than their central conceits, aesthetics, and the fact that multiple Fanbyte staffers loved them (and keep telling me to play them). I’m sad I didn’t get to them!
I “played” a little of this with John on a stream last fall, and I love everything I saw it do.
This game looks like it is 100 percent my shit. Yet, again, I just didn’t have time. I will play it, I’m sure — just not in time for this list.
Disclaimer: I worked alongside Kris Lorischild, one of the writers on Cozy Grove, at Zam.com.