2021 has often been pretty terrible, but at least it’s been a fantastic year for video games. I genuinely mean that. Video games are in some way tied to every source of happiness I’ve had throughout the last 12 months. That they’ve had such a spectacular year, offering plenty of much-needed distractions, fills me with gratitude — especially to all the developers working through an ongoing pandemic to make them. While the number of games I’ve enjoyed is larger, here’s a list of my favorites from 2021.
I’ll get through my honorable mentions first:
It Takes Two: A delightful co-op exercise in self-discovery and relationship building. I was thrilled to see how my friendship with the person I was playing it with would manifest in-game; how we’d work together and sabotage each other. Despite its flaws (namely the writing), every session evoked nonstop laughter and joy. That It Takes Two feels so effortless in its mind-boggling levels of creativity is a testament to impeccable craft.
Before Your Eyes: Sometimes, you experience something that leaves you wondering how humans are capable of so much brilliance. Before Your Eyes is one of those experiences. With a unique mechanic that forces you to progress through a deeply affecting narrative whenever your webcam catches you blinking, it’s unlike any other game out there. It’s the kind of story that doesn’t leave you — that you know you’ll return to later on in life to ground your perspective again and again, in ways only powerful art can.
Unpacking: A zen puzzle game about the joys of moving in and moving on. While I loved playing Unpacking, I’ve almost loved seeing other people experience it even more. Few other dialogue-free games achieve the emotional depth and range of experiences this one does. Another small but extremely special game, Unpacking hasn’t stopped surprising me since I first played through its demo. I’m not writing as much as I used to these days, but this is the only honorable mention I chose to write about previously — and one of just three in this article overall. I hope that conveys how wonderful I think it is.
Ruined King: A League of Legends Story: A superbly written RPG that marks my first foray into League of Legends. It has everything I love: intriguing characters within a compelling and diverse world; a fun and surprisingly deep (yet digestible) combat system; a gorgeous art style paired with a satisfyingly clean UI. I’m astounded by how — through both its mechanics and worldbuilding — it has made what was a previously impenetrable franchise feel accessible. Thanks to Ruined King and Arcane, I’m no longer uninterested in the biggest game in the world.
Sable: When I remember my time with Sable, I remember gliding between the highest peaks of a canyon. Each time, I assumed there was no way I’d reach the other side. Yet I did, eventually, manage it every time despite my fears. I saw myself in Sable — in her uncertainty about the world as a young woman, her desire to explore and have experiences for no other reason than to say she had them. This might be the most gorgeous game I’ve ever played, its beauty reflected through colorful vistas as much as via poetic quotes and freedom as a true open-world game.
Now, moving on to my proper GOTY list…
(Note: Although I’ve finished it, Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is not here because it came out so late that I’m counting it for next year. I’m also not counting remasters like The House in Fata Morgana: Dreams of the Revenant Edition or Mass Effect: Legendary Edition — two of my favorite games of all time — in favor of highlighting new releases and old releases with brand new additional content.)
5. Tales of Arise
While Tales of has always been in my periphery, I’ve felt little compulsion to check out the series despite being a huge JRPG fan. I can’t honestly say that’s changed, either. I don’t think I’ll go back to the older releases. However, I can say that Tales of Arise is one of my favorite JRPGs of the last decade.
A nuanced exploration of discrimination, oppression, and revolution isn’t what I expected from Tales of Arise. But, to my great pleasure, it’s what I got. Even when JRPG tropes rise to the surface, it doesn’t cower behind them or dilute its messages. Its entire cast is incredible, with Kisara, Dohalim, Rinwell, and Shionne in particular introducing spectacular arcs from the beginning until the end of an approximately 35-hour campaign. Perhaps even better than these characters individually are their dynamics between each other, and how those relationships — their collective journey — are shaped by marginalization. It’s impossible to deny: The developers rejuvenated what I’m told has long been a stagnant series.
4. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
This game being on here — much less in my top four — should be impossible. I have no fondness for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Nor Marvel in general. In fact, out of all the stories within the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far my least favorite. Seeing snippets of those movies (and snippets are all I’ve tolerated watching) has legitimately put me in a bad mood without fail over the years. I can confidently say I hate them, those characters, and that world as it exists in the films.
Confidently saying something doesn’t mean you can’t be wrong, though — and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy from Eidos Montreal proved me wrong more than any other game this year. It turns out even what you most instinctively dislike can be enjoyable in the right hands.
Not only is there simply so much writing in this game (there is constant conditional dialogue), but it’s all immaculate. Every character is full of wit and heart, supported by a larger touching narrative that makes each one shine. I can’t believe how “not-irritating” they are — how funny and endearing they can be. By the end of its opening hour, it achieves what all the money, power, and fame the MCU has failed to produce for me. A game this magnificent is a studio-wide endeavor, but the writers, narrative designers, and actors are undeniably the biggest stars. I can only imagine how rich the stories we tell could be if every piece was treated with the love and respect of the source material that’s on display here.
3. NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139…
Nothing makes me feel the way NieR does. NieR: Automata will always be one of my favorite games (and, on some days, my favorite game period). This year’s remaster of 2010’s NieR Replicant certainly feels aged in comparison; its exploration and quest design feel particularly archaic. But nothing can detract from its spectacular cast — especially Kaine and Emil — and what director Yoko Taro built for the franchise’s glowing future through an extra ending. Unlike its first iteration, it’s painless (even fun) to play. What was an originally unmatched soundtrack is somehow made even better here, too.
It feels almost silly to write this, but seeing NieR Replicant get this treatment feels like an assertion that the right thing happens in the world every now and then. Sometimes excellent, weird, and powerful stories get the justice they deserve despite every practicality that makes it difficult for them to emerge on their own terms, let alone survive and thrive. Overall, this is simply the definitive way to experience one of the best stories in the medium — one whose strengths can only be improved upon. It’s hard to imagine any other direction for the series after this.
2. Life is Strange: True Colors
I’ll never get over Life is Strange: True Colors. That’s just what Life is Strange is destined to do to me. I’ve constantly refreshed the Steph and Alex tag on Archive of Our Own like a sicko (accurate) who can’t relinquish their hold on this one thing (also accurate). I’ve gotten emotional while listening to its soundtrack on loop during late nights. I’ve watched so many Let’s Plays, learning the game like the back of my hand, while somehow finding something new to love about it each time. You know… the kinds of things you do when something imprints itself on your mind, heart, and soul so thoroughly.
My love for this game always comes down to one all-encompassing aspect. Each Life is Strange is marked by an eagerness to highlight the types of stories this industry is often too afraid to put at the forefront — and Life is Strange: True Colors is no different. I constantly think about how lucky we are to have a game like this one. About how so many first-generation queer girls of color who struggle with their mental health (girls like the one I once was and still feel like some days) can experience this and be at peace, knowing nothing is inherently wrong with them for being who they are. Try as I might, the full scope of these feelings is impossible to capture in words.
Frankly, these last few grafs feel less like actual sentences strung together; they feel like word vomit. I like to joke that this series turns my critic’s brain off, except I don’t think it’s a joke at all. I did plenty of that in my actual review of Life is Strange: True Colors, so I feel comfortable simply gushing about it more here. I hope everyone has a Life is Strange — a thing that excites you and makes you feel so unable to articulate your feelings that you wonder if your brain is short-circuiting. Life is Strange games tend to be fleeting, coming and going in almost the same breath. In many ways, I’ve grown up with those little doses speckling my life. I’m so glad to know the series has grown alongside me. It feels like it’s still growing, too.
Listen to our spoilercast, hosted by Features Editor Elise Favis, News Writer Kenneth Shepard, Featured Contributor Fūnk-é Joseph, and myself here. I also talked about the game with some equally wonderful people on Waypoint Radio and the MinnMax Show.
1. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Logically, I know there’s no such thing as a perfect game. Emotionally, it’s absolutely a thing, because Chicory: A Colorful Tale is perfect. Months after playing it, I’m still trying to find some sort of flaw. It’s what people like Chicory — the game’s titular character, whose dedication to creating art is inseparable from the mental illnesses which threaten to overwhelm her — and I do. But unlike myself, I’m convinced this game exists without flaws.
The thing about Chicory: A Colorful Tale is that it makes me feel okay writing something that goofy. Admitting my flaws doesn’t feel self-depreciative so much as honest — like I have agency over a struggle seeping into every aspect of my life. This is a relentlessly vulnerable game that looks at your ugliest parts and sees them as messy, yet necessary, brush strokes to paint an irreplaceable picture. With its ever-surprising wit, delightful characters, and boundless creativity, it disarms you. By the end, Chicory has you question why you ever thought wearing armor was necessary in the first place.
We are such small, imperfect things in a world that’s so colorful and full of beauty: of incredible places to explore and weird and wonderful people to meet. At every turn, Chicory: A Colorful Tale reminds me of this during a time in which it is incredibly hard to keep this in mind. Although I love these last two games equally, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a legitimately perfect game to me, making it my game of the year.