I don’t think we have enough appreciation for how weird 2021 has been for video games — or really anything. That anything came out this year is a small miracle; that enough really good things came out this year to fill a list, much less the list of 50 games I originally had before ruthlessly culling, is a much larger and more appreciable miracle. It’s the kind of miracle you call the Vatican to check out and put on their list of miracles that I assume they keep somewhere.
I’ve never subscribed to the idea there’s sometimes nothing to play on a specific platform or at a specific time. There’s always something to play. There’s honestly never enough time to play all the things there are to play. It is entirely possible this could have been an entirely different list had I only had a few more hours in the day. Maybe then I could have played Wildermyth. I could have finished Life is Strange: True Colors. Maybe I could have given The Forgotten City or Inscryption the time they deserve, or perhaps taken Genesis Noir for a spin.
I didn’t, though. There’s an assumption out there, which I can’t really blame people for because they honestly don’t know, that working this job means you sit around and play video games all day. Then, when the work hours are over, you sit around and play video games all day, but this time for fun. It doesn’t really work like that for a multitude of reasons. One is that it’s very possible to just burn out on video games when you’re playing them the entire day. Another is that your main responsibility is to write about video games, which means you’re familiarizing yourself with a thousand different tasting plates but rarely have time to finish a meal.
I think another major reason is that it becomes very easy to let “playing video games” define you in this career — and I’m fighting hard against that.
I started working at Fanbyte this year, which is another one of those miracles I talked about before. At a previous job, I worked long hours well into the night. No one ever asked me to do this, but no one ever told me not to — and I reasoned that having a job that hundreds of thousands of people want to do meant I had to work myself to the bone to earn it. On a Sunday night, I was up until midnight preparing stories and previews for the coming week of Gamescom. Eight hours later on a Monday morning, I was laid off on a phone call. It was there that I decided that making this job and this medium your identity will never pay back what you put into it.
This led to a pretty fundamental change in how I look at these lists. I’ve said this before in other venues, but the words “Game of the Year” mean something very different to me today than they did five years ago. They’re not rigid lists where you try to figure out what minor flaw means a game isn’t worthy of the top ten — or at least, I don’t think they should be.
These lists should be about personal resonance; about how something made you feel rather than whether it’s a better or worse game than something else.
So, let’s do something I haven’t done for a Game of the Year list in my seventeen years doing this: fuck the list. Let’s just talk about thirteen very good games. I don’t know if they’re the best games of the year, but they’re among them. Given unlimited time and unlimited energy, I’d probably make this the list of 50 games I mentioned at the top. But for my sake and your sake, we’re not going to do that.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Knowing the history of the two Great Ace Attorney games compiled together for their first western release makes for an interesting play experience. Both titles, originally 3DS games, were released only in Japan and prominently featured Sherlock Holmes as a character. The first game sold well when it launched, but reviews quickly turned sour as people neared the end when the game asked more questions than it answered. That lead to the second game rapid-fire answering every possible question and quickly shuttering what was intended to be a trilogy in just two games.
But in a weird way, that’s exactly what makes The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles work so well. Whatever cliffhangers remain do so three feet off the ground. You’re essentially given a mainline shot of Ace Attorney writing, humor, and characters without having to wait for arcs to finish or situations to resolve. The two games create one contiguous rollercoaster of excitement, heart, and humor that works out exceedingly well.
Moreover, they tell a story about what it’s like to be in a country that looks at different ethnicities with suspicion. For a lot of people, that’s a very alien concept and it’s exceptionally hard to explain exactly how commonplace it is. Sure, Great Ace Attorney’s microscope on ethnocentrism is cartoonish and ultimately acts as window dressing to a larger interpersonal character arc, but it’s just so rarely touched upon in games that I can’t help but celebrate its inclusion here.
Guardians of the Galaxy
In some ways, Guardians represents how bad I still am at predicting what I will like. After the game’s E3 debut and Square Enix’s sometimes laughable previous Marvel title Avengers, I very much expected not to like Guardians of the Galaxy. After rolling credits on it, the game taught me the very valuable lesson that I can’t always be sure what I am going to like and what I am going to hate. This, I like.
Guardians of the Galaxy is about its characters, who come in with pre-established dynamics and relationships and backstories, but all have their own individual and surprisingly fleshed-out character arcs. This is no better exemplified than through lead character Peter Quill, who wrestles with his tendency to react solely to his emotions over logic as he desperately tries to pull the people he loves out from traps that prey on their traumas. It can be hokey, overwrought, even cringey, but the end result is one of the best Marvel games out there — and one of the best narratives of the year.
Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139
The original NieR is probably one of the most important games in the world to me. It attains this accolade without necessarily having the best gameplay, best mission design, or quality of life things that modern or even contemporary games had at the time. Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139 had an impossible task to live up to because no game can really ever be as affecting the second time around. And, well, it’s not, but that’s kind of the point.
While not quite a time-loop game, NieR is about repeating the same ideas and hoping for a different result. This isn’t presented to the characters as something they recognize, but the player knows they are doing the same events over and over for different results. That’s what makes a remake of NieR so fascinating: as someone that loved the original game, I am going once more unto the breach, and am mining new things out of it. It reminds me that, no matter how much I think I know something, there’s always more to it that the creators can add, or that the context of my life changes.
Ten years ago, NieR was a game about my own depression and lack of ambition. A decade later, it’s a game about the ember of hope buried underneath all that, and the ability to become better and stronger people. It’s rare that games give you an avenue of introspection, and I doubt anyone will have exactly the same experience with NieR and NieR Replicant that I had — but that’s okay because they can make their own lists.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
In the first year of a console’s life, we tend to look at games for how well they justify the existence of said console. I have spoken to developers over the years that consider this a level of pressure they generally don’t want to deal with when crossing over the console launch demarcation line. A game releasing in November before a console comes out can be anything. A game releasing in November after a console comes out needs to be a persuasive system seller. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart had a lot of those pressures on it. Despite coming more than six months after the release of the elusive PlayStation 5, it pretty much delivered.
I don’t really know what to expect from a Ratchet & Clank game at this point besides cartoon-like graphics and big guns. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart takes the idea a bit further by introducing Rivet, who acts as a new heart for the story and is just way more fun to follow than her aging parallel universe lombax brethren. It’s an illusion, a magic trick, but putting the franchise behind fresher eyes does help, even if Rivet doesn’t play any differently.
Beyond that, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a collection of fun and interesting set pieces gussied up with incredible graphics and interesting world design. We all seem to be falling into a multiverse trend in fiction these days, but I expect that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is going to be one of the more memorable examples when all is said and done.
One interesting thing about voraciously consuming video game content while growing up is that I ended up really idealizing video game journalism and the people who got to do it. I talked at the top about not really knowing what this job is until you do it, but that lead to me eventually meeting a lot of people whose names I had seen for years as leaders in this career and discovering that all of them are just human. In 2021, I discovered that some way or another, I ended up as one of these people to younger game journalists and people out of the industry (which is baffling to me personally).
That is, I think, what made Chicory: A Colorful Tale so resonant for me this year. On its face, the game is a little indie title about putting color back in the world, which is well-trodden ground for cutesy-cartoonish games. What Chicory actually becomes is a meditation on imposter syndrome, meeting your idols, and understanding they’re fighting all the same demons you use their existence to ignore. The game’s title character, Chicory, is not the protagonist, but she ostensibly is everything the protagonist wishes they could be. When the player character discovers Chicory is just another person with their own issues who is mired in their own self-doubts, they don’t recoil — but they do their best to work with someone who is hurting without infantilizing or over-nurturing them.
More than the simple adage of “don’t meet your heroes,” Chicory: A Colorful Tale is about learning to live with the fact that your heroes are human, and you’re someone’s hero that is also human, too. You don’t need their approval — and no one else really needs your approval to live the lives they want to live. Meet your heroes, celebrate them, commiserate with them, but leave remembering there’s still a person there.
— Imran Khan (@imranzomg) July 3, 2021
There’s a part in the game where I spent about ten minutes just coloring in the entire scene because it felt like I didn’t need to make something perfect — I just needed to make something I was happy with. It didn’t matter what someone above or below me thought about it. So I sat there and painted and made the thing I liked. I think those ten minutes in an otherwise also fantastic game are still the most valuable ten minutes it gave me overall because I got to leave my mark on it and make it my own without anyone (including the game) judging its quality.
Monster Hunter Rise
One of the things I grew to dislike about Game of the Year lists over the years, which I still can’t really shake, is this urge to say that a game has to be deficient if it isn’t the best game of the year. The winner is flawless, maybe with minor issues, and the second spot has major issues we have to acknowledge. At a time earlier in the year, Monster Hunter Rise was #1 on my list with a bullet. Over the course of the year, I started imagining it slipping with a couple of other different contenders. I reasoned that I wanted more from Monster Hunter Rise than Capcom was willing or able to provide.
But actually, you know what? Fuck that. Monster Hunter Rise is really damn good regardless of whether it’s the best game of the year or not.
While writing this, Nintendo released the monthly Switch stats for people to spread across social media. I saw a number of people I follow all have around 100-300 hours in Monster Hunter Rise. That, to me, doesn’t speak of a game that is bereft of content. It is maybe a little short of its most recent predecessor, but a game I personally put 115 hours into is not a game I can reasonably feel disappointed by. I need to let go of the idea that a game that doesn’t keep me entertained forever wasn’t worth the time I put into it — and Monster Hunter Rise is a good reminder of that.
I think we all have a tendency to lionize older games in a series as a way to bolster our own credibility. Personally, I’d swear up and down that I love Super Metroid and that I believe it is one of the best games ever made — which I do and it is. But the unsaid and implied part is that there are aspects of the other games, including Fusion, Prime, and even Samus Returns, that I believe outdo Super in some ways. Do I think Metroid Dread, the newest title in the 2D series, is better than Super in absolute terms and not just in handpicked mechanics? I’m honestly not sure, but it’s the closest any game has gotten to a cohesive whole.
There’s a danger with returning to old series, especially darlings like Metroid, where any change in direction, focus, or perceived intention can be a spark that starts an entire flame of emotion against the new idea. Metroid Dread, specifically, decided to focus heavily on action while streamlining tenets of the Metroid formula. It’s divisive, controversial, and in my opinion one of the best games of the year.
I don’t think I really know what I want from Metroid personally. There have been literal decades of games like Metroid at this point — some just as good as Metroid’s various highs, which leaves an open question of what a new game in the series can do to justify its existence. What I learned from Metroid Dread is that there’s still something ineffable about the series, which is perhaps annoyingly frustrating for someone who writes about video games, that leaves a lifelong mark during the experience. I can paint a mental picture for you still of what it’s like to be chased by SA-X in Metroid Fusion, or how it felt to fight Mother Brain in Super Metroid. I expect, in 20 years, I will still be able to recount with precision exactly how cool Metroid Dread is in the same way.
Deltarune Chapter 2
It’s a little hard to quantify exactly what Undertale did for indie games since its release over half a decade ago. It established a particular tone, art style, and musical style as a template for a lot of indie games to follow, sure — but that’s not as much inspiration as it is influence. What Undertale actually did was make clear that a game can be emotional, sincere, and sincerely emotional and still be a commercial success. It meant that there didn’t need to be the misanthropic beating heart of capitalism at the core of every multimillion-dollar video game success story, even if designers did their best to layer over it with genuine work.
It also meant that any sequel faced an uphill battle to avoid the inherent cynicism that comes with the territory of sequels. Deltarune, a game that doesn’t even technically exist yet, had to prove to me that it needed to exist for a reason beyond a quest for more money. It’s the definition of threading a needle: how do you manage to be heartfelt without seeming manufactured with a sequel?
And I guess the answer is that you just do it. While the first chapter of Deltarune was this experimental attempt at revealing a game through clandestine means, the second chapter feels like a treatise on two shitty years of a pandemic and how even a game about feeling your real emotions and empathy doesn’t know where to begin with that. Deltarune Chapter 2 takes place largely in a technological city and, between all the jokes and fun asides, it asks the player to not forget their humanity even amongst inhuman conveniences.
It’s deft, cute, and funny while being emotionally devastating and sometimes chilling. It’s a Toby Fox game, of which there are precious few — for better or worse.
Tales of Arise
I very distinctly remember picking up Tales of Symphonia when I was still in high school, cajoling my parents to drive me to the local Electronics Boutique so I could grab the game and the artbook and rush home. When I arrived, they told me they sold my copy, which is not how a pre-order works. I ended up grabbing it at Toys R Us, but remain annoyed at that pre-order confusion to this day. Over the years, I’ve approached Tales games with a similar sense of expecting to be disappointed, with game after game failing to hit the high points I expected. I absolutely adored Tales of Vesperia and have finished a few others, but the series has felt like it’s been coasting by for the last decade. I think Bandai Namco noticed it.
It’s not clear what makes Tales of Arise so arresting that it has bucked this trend, but the game seems to be earnestly trying in a way I haven’t felt from the series in a decade. The series has for so long been comfort food that it kind of allowed itself to settle into the realm of unchanging stubbornness — one that I think Tales of Arise tries to fight. It’s not perfect, and feels at times like a game ravaged by the effects of the pandemic, but it is a genuine effort that gets most of the way there and evolves the series in the process.
But I think more than that, Tales of Arise marks a series looking to grow up. The Tales games have always hewed toward an anime aesthetic. They represented a segment of the medium that jived with me less and less as I got older. Tales of Arise seems to want to follow the trends of anime growing up and trying to appeal to the mid-to-late 20s audience more than the younger group that was once its bread and butter. There’s room for both kinds of games, yes, but Tales of Arise gets most of the way there to acknowledging that.
Returnal is one of those games where I was cursed with bad luck. At the beginning, when the title first launched, I lost two runs to a crash and then a game update — neither of which I could really do anything about. With the multiple games I play at a time, having a game that demanded to be my singular focus is a tall order. It was enough to uninstall the game and pack it in cold storage until I felt like playing it again or, more likely, just moved on. When developer Housemarque eventually patched the game to add mid-game saves, I went back to it. I am glad I did.
One of the key components of action games for me is how good it feels to control — and Returnal feels like a dream. The actual act of movement and shooting feels good and helps alleviate sore spots I had with other aspects of the game. Unlike a lot of other time-loop stories of the past year, Returnal is neither eager nor particularly willing to give the player a bunch of answers upfront. It trusts its gameplay to keep you engaged and compelled to proceed without needing to immediately explain what’s going on.
Regardless of how one feels about the execution, Returnal is nothing but extremely bold. It knows exactly what it wants to be in every aspect and is completely unmoving in the face of any friction. I don’t know if I’m on board with all of it, but the parts I am onboard for are out of this world.
I think there are reasonable people out there who were fatigued of Hitman by the time the third game of the kinda-rebooted series rolled around. By this point, there have been two entire games and a host of DLC’s worth of maps to toy around with, so looking at yet another one might induce exhaustion at a glance. Those people, however, are missing one of the best stealth experiences of the decade and the strongest complete package when factoring the previous two games bundled in.
There’s not a whole lot to say about Hitman 3 that hasn’t been said from the previous Game of the Year lists when the first and second games also made their appearances. I think maybe the most important factor is that Hitman 3 solidifies the idea that making the game you want, even after two major publishers have shaken their heads at your vision, can still produce some of the best games out there.
I don’t know why I’m back on Genshin Impact. I can’t even properly be sure here today telling you Genshin Impact is a good game. It’s a hamster wheel in good and bad ways. In a sense, I feel obligated to put it on this list because I’ve put so much time into it. But I also believe that anything I have put that much time into has to actually be pretty good, or else I would have long since moved past it.
I think that’s where Genshin Impact exists for me: as a constant rollercoaster that oscillates between high peaks of dopamine hits with incredible content and world design and the deep, deep valleys of trying to play a free-to-play game in 2021. There’s a world where miHoYo realizes what they’ve got outside of its potential profit, where Genshin Impact actually achieves its gameplay potential — but that world isn’t this one.
Since I first stopped playing Genshin Impact, the game has finished one region’s storyline and fleshed out an entire other region’s. Not only that, but they have been fleshed out well, with an interesting story, plenty of characters, cool new gimmicks, and tons of side quests. Yeah, it’s a hamster wheel, but I think even the hamster enjoys running on it occasionally.
Shin Megami Tensei V
There’s something to be admired about Atlus’ complete insistence that Shin Megami Tensei never affords any considerations for people who are yet to get into Shin Megami Tensei. The series prides itself in just trucking along, defining itself by all the things it wants to be rather than what some people demand it to be. In some cases, like in terms of some truly archaic UI design, this kind of sucks. In other cases, it’s pretty refreshing. Shin Megami Tensei offers you no quarter and doesn’t care if you stick around.
There’s a part early on in Shin Megami Tensei V where you face a snake lady. I imagine most people will get to her, bash their head against the boss fight a few times, and then retire, saying Shin Megami Tensei V is not for them. I think that’s a mistake. I think fighting the snake lady forces you to go outside of battle, figure out the best way to deal with her, and create a Nahobino build that can appropriately deal with the fact she is designed to wreck the default build.
I have a strong belief that turn-based battle systems get a bad rap because they allow players to ignore their design and just grind around them, which ends up causing this reputation that you have to grind rather than engage with the systems. One of the things I love about Shin Megami Tensei V is that, while grinding may help, ultimately the only way to beat a boss is to rethink everything about your build, party composition, and strategy. Give ’em hell, Shin Megami Tensei V.
It Takes Two
I know this isn’t a list, but if it were, It Takes Two would probably be at the top. A few years ago, in an EA meeting room, I got to sit down with director Josef Fares for a few hours while we played A Way Out and just chatted about movies and video games. While his public persona can be abrasive, Fares one-on-one is filled with childlike awe about the way video games work and how his imagination can just run wild with them in ways he didn’t feel he could easily create with movies. Even the limitations of the medium, and the challenges it gives him to work around, seemed to fascinate him.
When playing It Takes Two, I could absolutely see that level of genuine wonderment made manifest in every aspect of the game. The level design is not only superb, but it’s also incredibly creative. The title borrows a lot from the three-act structure of Mario games where players learn, execute, and then finish with a showstopper for every new mechanic. It Takes Two does that again and again with dozens of new items and mechanics, managing to feel fresh the entire way.
There’s a bit of a danger with co-op games, where rating them based on an experience can be misleading. It’s difficult to separate the quality of the game from the quality of the time spent with your co-op partner. I think, after a trepidatious year where we slowly eased into the ability to see people again, one of those things feeds into the other. It would be easy to mindlessly progress through a game with someone else while enjoying their company — but it’s much harder for the game to make people enjoy themselves playing the game together.
There are issues with It Takes Two, and I don’t think it earns its ending, but I really do think there are aspects that are absolutely the best in class and should serve as inspiration for future games like it.
Things That Were Dumb in 2021
- The proliferation of NFTs and NFTs in general
- The executive team at Activision is still employed
- Ubisoft is still a clown show
- Nintendo’s Switch Online expansion pack
- PlayStation 5 save transfers
- Releasing games before they’re done
- Judgment not being on PC
- Every single thing that had to do with Abandoned and Hideo Kojima