This is going to sound corny, but this past year has been a huge lesson in happiness and balance for me. I changed jobs, moved across the country, and started anew in more ways than one. Part of that transition has been interacting with games differently than before, allowing myself to be content with not finishing every game and spending more time with titles that I had no plans to write about. Essentially, I hoped to fall back in love with games after feeling burnt out by the games industry.
The change of pace has been nice, but because of that shift — and because I do less writing and more editing at Fanbyte — I played a lot fewer games than usual. I never finished games that I loved like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Hitman 3, and Chicory: A Colorful Tale. They’re all fantastic, and at least deserve a mention in this intro, but below are the games that stole my heart this year to the point where I couldn’t put them down.
10. It Takes Two
Okay, fine, you caught me. It Takes Two is one of those games I didn’t finish, but I was compelled to add it to this list anyway because it is such a wild and breathtaking ride. I never really jived with Josef Fares’ first game, A Way Out, which included some frustrating puzzle design and an overall lackluster story. But It Takes Two, his second game, is a creative marvel when it comes to level design and co-op puzzle design. The platforming feels great, the story is a big step up, and the world is brimming with imagination. I can’t wait to finish it and see where the rest of the game goes.
9. Resident Evil Village
To me, Resident Evil Village is a game of peaks and valleys. The latest Resident Evil entry takes a lot of inspiration from the more action-heavy installments of the series, like Resident Evil 4. This is good in some respects, giving an adrenaline rush when you play, but it also forgoes some of the quieter, creepy moments the series is known for. I enjoyed the story, the environments, and a particularly terrifying section that strips you of all your weapons as you escape a giant baby monster. Resident Evil Village excels at its characters, particularly with motion-capture and voice performances from Maggie Robertson’s Lady Dimitrescu. Still, the lackluster pacing and mediocre boss battles definitely dampened the experience.
8. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
Boy, I did not expect to like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Heck, I didn’t even watch the movies or read the comics. But here we are, somehow! I’m a sucker for great characters, and I instantly fell in love with Peter Quill and his ragtag team. The story is beautiful, dealing with themes like trauma and death in a much more profound light than I would have ever expected, and the characters are written with so much depth and heart that I imagine they’ll stay with me for a long time.
7. Little Nightmares 2
While I really enjoyed the first Little Nightmares, its sequel improves on almost every little stumble from the first game. It’s more polished, with better puzzles and some of the best sound design I’ve heard in a minute, bringing every environment and enemy encounter to life. I reviewed Little Nightmares 2 for The Washington Post, describing how it made me dread every moment — and I meant that as a good thing. This horror platformer excels at its scares, with terrifying monsters big and small, including a horrifying school teacher with a neck that can extend to unnatural proportions. The environments and horrors come to life in a symphony of atmospheric sound and visuals. It’s a gorgeous game that left me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
Developed in just 100 days during the pandemic, Overboard! is one of the most impressive games I’ve played this year. It’s a reverse murder mystery, where you play as a young woman attempting to get away with the murder of her husband on a ship in the 1930s. This visual novel-style puzzle game is all about lying and scheming so that you don’t get caught. Every little action you do — even how long you linger in certain areas of the ship, who you talk to, and what you pick up — has different butterfly effects. But it’s not just about getting away with murder — the brilliance of Overboard! is that every attempt (each run can be completed in 10-20 minutes) gives you new breadcrumbs of information so you can better understand the overarching narrative and the many characters’ intrinsic motivations. (Shout out to Hitman 3, which is also about creatively escaping suspicion while committing copious amounts of murder.)
5. Knockout City
I never would have expected Knockout City to make my GOTY list, let alone near the top of it, but here we are. This multiplayer dodgeball game surprisingly stole my heart. Perhaps that’s also because I tend to lean towards brightly colored, multiplayer experiences that aren’t overtly militant like so many shooters are, but there’s something inherently fun and addictive about Knockout City. It’s a game that is easy to grasp but hard to master, with a range of trick moves and maneuvers to learn. It’s very team-oriented, which I particularly like because you need to be in constant communication with your friends. While it’s only been out since May, there have already been consistent updates with new maps, new balls, cosmetics, modes, and more that keep the game feeling fresh.
Okay, so Phasmophobia technically came out last year, but somehow I’m still playing this ghost-hunting game pretty consistently. With the developers hiring more team members for consistent updates, Phasmophobia has changed a lot since its inception — and mostly for the better. The multiplayer horror game has you and a group of friends entering a building, identifying a ghostly threat, and attempting to leave unscathed. But the game is a little janky, with funny bugs that add to the charm and funny ways to die. (I love finding my friend dead, with his head stuck in a toilet.) More than anything, though, it’s become a virtual playground for my friends and me to just hang out. My best friend put it best when they said, “Phasmophobia is our virtual bar.”
Along with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, this is a game that has helped me get through the pandemic. It’s also been a huge catalyst in forming one of the best friend groups I’ve ever had. We have our own private Discord server specifically to play Phasmophobia together, and for a long time throughout 2021, we were doing that every single night.
3. Psychonauts 2
As a huge fan of the original Psychonauts, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel. It was a long wait – 16 years! – and I was nervous that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. The good news is that it did. Every world in Psychonauts 2 is an absolute joy to platform through, whether it’s a manic, deranged cooking show or a euphoric trek through a colorful, ‘60s-infused musical universe. The best part is that all of these worlds you explore have thematic importance, often portraying how characters are feeling through environments with clever tricks. While I have some minor grievances, like some character development and mental health themes that don’t go far enough, Psychonauts 2 remains one of the most creative games I’ve played in a while.
2. Life is Strange: True Colors
I love the Life is Strange series, but I had some hesitations about Life is Strange: True Colors. The series has always been a little corny, but this has generally worked because that’s mixed with a lot of genuine emotion and good storytelling. But could a story about what’s essentially a superhero “empath” really work? Turns out it can. Protagonist Alex Chen is my favorite video game character of the last year. She’s awkward, relatable, smart, and deeply cares about those around her. She will do anything for them – sometimes to the point of her own detriment. Life is Strange: True Colors is about loss and pain but also about understanding the deepest, ugliest, and most painful parts of ourselves. And while this depends on which choices you choose in the final portion of the game, I do think Life is Strange: True Colors is also a game about forgiveness – not just forgiving those around us, but also forgiving ourselves, letting go, and realizing not everything can be fixed or redeemed.
1. Before Your Eyes
It’s hard for me to talk about Before Your Eyes without getting deeply personal about it or spoiling it, but I’ll do my best. This indie game has you experience a story about a young boy’s life from birth to adulthood. This narrative notably progresses with every blink, for your webcam detects your eye movements and translates them into the game. Before Your Eyes deals with some heartbreaking themes that left me in what felt like physical pain because I’ve been through something similar myself. It isn’t a fun game, but it’s a deeply moving and powerful one about difficult family dynamics and trauma from a rather unique perspective. I would go as far as saying Before Your Eyes is a game that touched me more than any other in many, many years, because of how authentically it delves into processing trauma and the almost universal urge to push away — or even erase — our darkest memories.