Gosh, 2021 is much harder to define for me than last year. 2020 was full of turmoil, and grief, but it was also a year of putting myself back together and coming out stronger on the other side. Now that 2021 is ending, there are a lot of things that are the same. There’s still a pandemic going on, I’ve yet to actually get around to moving to the big city like I was planning before the aforementioned pandemic, and I played a fuckton of Pokemon. But that’s most years. Oh, one thing’s different: Fanbyte pays for my health insurance now. After years of freelancing, I finally have a site to dump all my time and energy into. I’ve been writing here for two years at this point, but it just feels a little different to finally be a Staff Writer, having started writing for the site on weekends back in 2019. As a result, I spent a lot of 2021 flexing a little harder than I used to because it was the year I felt most in a place to do it.
Maybe that’s what best describes 2021? Feeling more emboldened to be on my bullshit at all times, knowing that an amazing team of people was giving me the platform to do it. Even if some sides of my life felt stagnant, professionally and creatively, I did a lot of cool shit. And it feels like I’ve set myself on a solid foundation to do more cool shit in 2022. So let’s talk about the games I played along the way.
I feel like 2021 was the year I played more games that stuck with me than in the past… I don’t know, five or so? I usually only do a top five list for Game of the Year time because five games are all I can muster the words for by the end of the year. But not in 2021. This was a bangin’ year for video games. Scroll, dear reader, and read all about my favorites.
Honorable mention: Wildermyth
The only reason Wildermyth isn’t in my top ten proper is that I haven’t played a ton of it. I went through one campaign that, while somewhat of a frustrating learning experience, really illustrated the beauty of what Worldwalker Games has here. It’s the closest video games have ever really gotten to a believable tabletop campaign. While the characters I saw through that first run were shot out of a generator (save for one who was made to look and act like myself), I was pretty attached to them by the time their story ended. I think knowing I wouldn’t be able to take those characters through more adventures was what stopped me from immediately jumping into a new campaign. I’m the type to get sentimental about characters, and by the time I’d finished what basically equated to an hours-long tutorial, I was well-invested in them.
I want to go back, and I think I will soon. But until I’ve completed more of the campaigns, I’m not totally comfortable putting it on a list of my favorite games of the year. I just know that, unless something terrible happens, it would have been on it. And it would’ve been high.
10. Persona 5 Strikers
Admittedly, I wasn’t head-over-heels about Persona 5 Strikers when I reviewed it. And on the whole, I still think that’s true. But it was a game that gave me one of my favorite video game experiences of 2021: playing as Ryuji Sakamoto. Strikers’ musou-styled combat is fun, flashy, and stylish in all the ways you’d want a Persona 5 spin-off to be, but what elevates it most for me is being able to play as my favorite party members in a more direct way than the main series has offered. And playing as Ryuji, my favorite character in the series that has been tattooed onto my arm, was a moment, even if Persona 5 Strikers doesn’t have the same vice grip on my heart that the series usually does.
For a while, Gnosia didn’t work for me. It’s social deduction made mechanical, distinctly lacking the human element that makes the genre compelling. I learned its systems well enough to succeed in its roguelike-inspired loops, so by the time I was halfway through, solving its mysteries felt like muscle memory. But despite the limits of its video game code, Gnosia’s larger mysteries drew me in. Its characters expose new sides of themselves as different loops give them different roles, and those roles play into its repeating world in ways I still feel a sense of satisfaction having figured out. It can’t emulate what games like Werewolf and Among Us capture when they’re played by real people actively deceiving one another, but it at least uses the format to tell a captivating story.
8. Boyfriend Dungeon
I wish Boyfriend Dungeon had more “dungeon,” as the “boyfriend” part is sublime. Kitfox Games’ dating sim and dungeon crawler hybrid is a delightful game cut off at the knees by pacing that is impossible to predict. Just as I was getting into my groove, picking out my dateable man/sword Isaac, and learning the ropes of its dungeon crawler side, it was over. Two dungeons down and there was a story resolution waiting for me at the end.
So what gets a game I clearly was frustrated with on my Game of the Year list? Boyfriend Dungeon’s soundtrack by composer Marskye and vocalist Madeleine McQueen is, without exaggeration, one of my favorite things I’ve experienced this year across music, movies, and games. As I’m writing this list, I’m listening to “Diamonds” on repeat, and the album was heavily featured on my Spotify Wrapped this year. If you’re not gonna play the game, at least go listen to these tracks. It’s a goddamn perfect pop record.
7. Operation: Tango
I don’t play a ton of multiplayer games, but Operation: Tango is an example I’m going to use when telling people the kinds of multiplayer experiences I like. I played the asymmetrical spy game with my friend and Normandy FM co-host Eric Van Allen, and while it occasionally put our friendship and communication to the test, it was also one of my favorite experiences playing a game cooperatively. I don’t know how successful we would’ve been if we’d played it with someone we weren’t as familiar with. I filled the role of the hacker, removing obstacles and overloading servers while Eric was in the field.
Operation: Tango‘s design is so interwoven with both players’ skillsets that it never felt like I was simply guiding him on what to do. It requires a level of communication and cooperation most games have never offered me, all while giving both sides distinct and interesting roles. It’s the kind of thing I want from cooperative games. Don’t just stick me and a friend into the same character and tell us to fight with the strength of two instead of one. Give us different toolsets that require us to work together. Operation: Tango scratches that itch and makes me want more games like it.
6. The Last Friend
Stonebot’s The Last Friend is one of the most genuine games I played this year. Its silly premise of rescuing dogs in the post-apocalypse so you can all travel in a van together paves the way for an incredibly solid tower defense system, all while keeping the dogs at the heart of it. It’s sweet, stylish, and also a ton of fun to play. I even loved it so much I bought the special edition to get my dog drawn into it.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
There’s a sincerity to Eidos-Montreal’s depiction of Guardians of the Galaxy that I’m drawn to. The actual playing of the game is mostly okay, with its action feeling just a hair above the Uncharted series it’s clearly inspired by. But the tale it weaves between Star-Lord and his friends is a mature meditation on grief and what happens when we’re stuck on the bargaining stage. Much of the game’s early hours are predicated on the quips, hammy jokes, and some extremely rote territory that video games collectively need to move away from. But by the time it’s over, all the safety it presents at the beginning is subverted. I want to see more of what this team can do with this group of roguish ruffians. Because there’s still so much it can do — and even some deficiencies it can make up for. After all, the galaxy’s a big place, and it’s not gonna guard itself.
4. Pokemon Shining Pearl
Going back to Sinnoh in Pokemon Shining Pearl isn’t so much a nostalgia trip as it is an opportunity to consider what Pokemon means to me. It reunites me with my favorite Pokemon after I hadn’t seen them together in Pokemon Shield, but it also makes me sit with how much my love of this universe has been extrapolated from all the investment I’ve already put into it. It’s a chance to reset and think, “what do I want out of Pokemon games that I don’t get anywhere else?” And while I’ve loved the Pokemon world for so long, re-experiencing Pearl with adult eyes means confronting that even if the world isn’t been portrayed in the most granular way, I can still find joy in exploring it with my friends by my side. Pokemon is all about how the journey is best taken when it’s taken together, and Shining Pearl gives me that in spades.
3. Life is Strange: True Colors
My feelings on Life is Strange: True Colors are so wrapped up in feelings about my own life that talking about it feels like tearing a piece of myself out and showing it to you. It’s all about what ‘home” is to each of us while recognizing that sometimes “home” feels like this unattainable thing. True Colors’ base game touched on themes of forgiveness and grief that The Last of Us Part II occupied for me last year. But I think what pushed it higher up this list for me has been its Wavelengths DLC, which takes the focus off of main character Alex Chen and instead puts it on her potential girlfriend Steph Gingrich.
Here, it feels like True Colors isn’t just speaking broadly about the idea of finding a home. Instead, it hones in on my every insecurity and fear that home is something I might never find for myself. Yet it ends on a hopeful note that reminds me home doesn’t have to be where you’re at now. It can be right around the corner; you just have to be willing to search for it. The search continues, but I leave True Colors and Wavelengths with a hope in my heart that it’s out there waiting for me.
2. Pokemon Unite
Look, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how a MOBA ended up being my most-played game of 2021. If you had told me that would happen even after Pokemon Unite was revealed, I would have called you a liar. I never thought the genre was going to grab me, even after years of hearing about Dota and League of Legends through cultural osmosis. But all it took was for it to be in a setting I cared about, with a character I loved enough to devote my time into it as a new “forever” game.
Pokemon Unite isn’t as complex as its MOBA contemporaries, but its simplicity makes it more accessible. Even as I find frustration in the randos I find myself grouped up with online, the thrill of carrying a team to victory, or the synergy of being in a coordinated force with friends, eclipses any match in which a team of probable children wouldn’t follow the objectives.
Plus, it’s given me a new connection to Pikachu, who, to be clear, is essentially a younger version of my favorite Pokemon Raichu. But now, I have a new layer of connection with him as a main in a video game I actually like. When it comes to character-driven games like fighting games, hero shooters, and now MOBAS, I have an emotional investment in what’s usually a mechanics-driven experience because I love the character I’m playing as. This is why I tend to have mains and spend all my time working to improve my playing based on how they fit into the game’s larger puzzle. It means characters like Overwatch’s Soldier: 76, Injustice’s Green Arrow, and Street Fighter’s Ryu are inseparable from my love of their games. And while Pikachu (and eventually, his evolved form) has always had a spot on my team in most Pokemon games, now he’s a main in a game I plan on spending a lot of time in.
[Disclaimer: Fanbyte is owned by Tencent, which also co-developed Pokemon Unite. Though the company has no editorial oversight with Fanbyte Media. Nor have any of its representatives had direct contact with this writer.]
1. Before Your Eyes
I don’t think I’ve recommended a game to more people in 2021. Before Your Eyes is a brisk 90 minutes of narrative that tracks your eyes to move the story along every time you blink, whether you intend to or not. On the surface, that sounds like a gimmick. However, this mechanic is woven into a story so gutting and profound that no one I’ve told to play it has gotten through it with dry eyes.
Before Your Eyes is like a game-long play on the “blink and you’ll miss it” idiom, but it’s more than just a demo for innovative tech. It’s a life played in highlights and flashes that force you to confront things you can’t just close your eyes to and ignore. Before Your Eyes recognizes the pain of a life unfulfilled, the vanity of a life that doesn’t neatly reflect the stories we’ve been taught to tell — and the peace that follows when you accept even the smallest stories can be tall tales in the eyes of those there to see it unfold. In the eight months since I first played it, I don’t think I’ve quite reached the peace it pushes forward in my own life. But as I head into 2022, I hope I can catch up. And until then, it’s going to stay with me longer than anything else I played in 2021.
Old Game of the Year: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
Okay, fine. I couldn’t not bring it up. For Old Game of the Year, the only option has always been Mass Effect: Legendary Edition as it’s a collection of my favorite games made pretty for modern systems. But even though it’s been a decade since they came out, they still stand the test of time as something special; as something no one’s ever been able to capture the magic of since. Though the future is uncertain, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition solidifies that this series still matters. Even if it heads in a direction I don’t care for, I’ll always have Mass Effect: Legendary Edition to go back to and experience Shepard’s story again.