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2021 in Games

The year in games told by 40 writers.

Last year, we invited past contributors of the site to talk about their games of 2020. Now, we have extended the invitation to 40 writers, including a few special guests as well as a recommended read for each one of them.

Most importantly, everyone got to choose their own format. We hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to support all these talented folks!

See you in 2022.


Psychonauts 2

The most wondrous thing about Psychonauts 2 may just be that it exists. An unlikely sequel to a game that was, if we’re honest with one another, quite unpopular in its time, it’s no small miracle it arrived and I’m as thankful for its existence as it is magnificent. A thoughtful 3D platformer about the anguishes that wound us in ways we’d rather not show, Psychonauts 2 boasts an art direction that so vividly makes demons and worlds of our tiny imperfect thoughts and empathetic writing that reminds us we’re not alone in these battles and can overcome them. It’s one of the most stunning, constantly surprising titles of the year and you owe it to yourself to see it through. To use a turn of phrase I despise but is applicable here: it’s an instant classic.

By Moises Taveras
Recommended read: Far Cry 6 Missed Out By Not Casting My Dad

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero reminded me of a long drive on the highway after a lonely night working overtime at the office, things I never thought I would miss during two years of working from home. There is something about the loneliness of the cast of characters that really speaks to me. Each one lost in the night, clinging together to find something that might or might not be real. It reminded me of how I was lost in thought during those lonely nights wondering about something I didn’t know would be a mirage or reality.

Play it at night and rest after every act, don’t consume it in one sitting, let the experience brew before you dive back again to Zero.

By Aditya Felix
Recommended read: Virtue in Mundanity

Disco Elysium – The Final Cut

When I was a child my dream game was one of a deep, rich world where my every choice mattered, but also had little to no combat. I wanted to solve problems through decision making, diplomacy, and my character’s traits. Disco Elysium is that dream fulfilled.

I had a heart attack. I screamed “I want to have fuck with you” at a mourning woman. I shot a kid. I shot myself to assert my authority. I quit my job because I was too depressed. I ran around without pants on, booze in one hand, cigarettes in the other. I kicked a mailbox. I apologized to a mailbox. I apologized to everyone. I apologized to, and forgave, myself.

Disco Elysium – The Final Cut is a game of self-reflection. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of in the past, but are you the kind of person who continues a ruinous cycle of self defeat, or will you stop, take a moment, and try to be better? It’s a game of choice, of chance, and if you’re willing, of change.

By Dean Cooper
Recommended read: How I Found a Family in Animal Crossing

If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers

I adore scary point and click pixel art games for many reasons, but mostly because the art style means that they can depict really messed up things without being too confronting. Perfect for those who want all the psychological horror and none of the gruesomeness and gore. Behind the charming look of If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers there lie four compelling and surprisingly grim stories. Take the journey for yourself and see.

By Pixel a Day
Recommended watch: Playing with Death: The Long Dark and Pathologic 2

Unpacking

Unpacking pulls off miracles with its simple premise. In its stacks of digital cardboard boxes, you’ll find old toys, clothes, books, and other baubles of a life in transit. You’ll find hopes and dreams. You’ll find career ambitions, photos, keepsakes of old friendships, and mementos of a childhood that fades further away with each stage. Spend a few hours unwinding with Unpacking, and you’ll open up how you view the world. It’s not materialism for materialism’s sake — it’s a study of how materials touch our lives, and how we shape ourselves with what we bring into every new start.

By Ryan Stevens
Recommended read: The Uncanny Reality of Virtual Homecomings

Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

My interest in the Nier series started with the Final Fantasy XIV raid series. After it shared such unique lore and environments with me, Austin Jones’ piece on queer bodies in Nier Replicant sealed the deal. I don’t pre-order games often, but I took the plunge with Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

And hoo boy, am I glad I did. Its themes of radical acceptance and found family when everything’s burning down around you hit in ways we couldn’t have possibly predicted during the original’s release in 2010. Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is a game that I’ve mused on often throughout 2021, and I’m sure it’ll continue to influence my thinking about games in future years.

By Melissa King
Recommended read: Letter to a Heroine – Kainé

Metroid Dread

Metroidvania fans rejoice! Metroid Dread is very much a return to form for Samus the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2017. The game features the backtracking and exploration we’re all familiar with as well as a few new flourishes. The main addition are the seemingly unstoppable killer robots, more than any other monsters these machines emanate the titular Dread. But the thing about this game that really wowed me in particular were the boss fights. Each one felt unique, perfectly designed, and challenging in just the right way. If you’re looking for a game to tide you over while we continue to (not so) patiently wait for Hollow Knight: Silksong, this is it.

By Joe Ostrander
Recommended read: The Essentials Workers of Death Stranding

GTA III: Definitive Edition

“The Dodo can fly.” I still didn’t really believe those playground kids when I reached the highest point of the Callahan Bridge two decades later and, entirely unexpectedly, took off. By the time I noticed, it had already happened – my wheels simply parting ways with the road, quietly and amicably. Soaring on clipped wings over rooftops designed only to be seen from below, my plane thwacked into the last lamppost before the grey ocean, twisting 200° to a graceless halt in the Portland docks.

You flew for 16 seconds! You’re damn right I did, GTA III. Never underestimate a grounded bird.

By Jeremy Peel
Recommended read: Meet the game makers determined to stop development from ruining lives

Wildermyth

I played Wildermyth for guides which, in hindsight, was probably the worst way to experience it. By the time people in games media were raving about its potential to tell grandiose stories with a procedurally generated foundation, my assignment was over already and I had to move on to the next one.

And yet, months after I opened the game for the last time, there is a conversation that remains stuck in my head. During one of many random encounters, I met an ethereal being who seemed to know one of my characters. “Are you sure I’m the one you want?”, Ulla keep asking the turtle. But the softness of the unspoken dialogue was enough of a reassurement.

The turtle promised that they will meet again one day. And I owe it to Ulla to see this through.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Solar Ash

Solar Ash is a visually stunning adventure about coming to terms with the realities that swirl infinitely around you, out of your control. It doesn’t just want us to cynically know the ugliness of our world and drown unflinchingly in its despair, it wants acceptance, not just of what we are within our power to do, but ourselves.

Solar Ash wants us to be kinder to ourselves, to hate a part of who you are can be so easy, to move forward, not just with what feels like an already broken world but with what you might feel is a broken you, is much harder. Although even then, it wants us to try, with whoever’s left, with whatever it is you think you’ve done, to keep going, to build something better, to see the horizon again.

By Althemar Gutierrez
Recommended read: The Best and Worst of Timelines

Unbeatable [white label]

I was asked a question earlier this year that I immediately knew the answer to: “Do you want to play a rhythm game where there’s a whole world to explore that looks like it was animated by Studio Trigger and music is illegal and you do crimes?” Reader, my answer was an unbelievably loud yes. Now, Unbeatable isn’t actually out yet. But the free demo for the game, Unbeatable [white label], is so good that it is easily one of the best games of the year anyway. You get a taste of the story, as well as a number of tracks so good you’ll say to your friends ‘should we start a band?’ It reminded me of playing a PS2 demo disc, and convinced me that the full release is a game of the year in the making.

By Oisin Kuhnke
Recommended read: Loop Hero and the Cycle of Grief

The Forgotten City

The Forgotten City lures you in with a Karen joke of all things and you’re left with an odd, sour taste in your mouth. This is the game my friends are raving about? Yet that Karen joke, an innocuous throwaway gag at the beginning, eventually makes thematic sense and ties into a killer twist. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’re thrust into a Roman settlement that’s on repeat, constantly being wiped out by the wrath of god. Someone is sinning and you have to sus out who that person is. There are multiple endings, routes to perfect, shortcuts to figure out, and a looming sense of sublime horror that makes you feel increasingly small. The existential dread sinks in faster than I’d like, but I’m left wanting more. I want more misery! The Forgotten City is a perfect detective game, a perfect time loop story, and a perfect imsim, and it’s a debut indie. Imagine what these lot will get up to next.

By James Troughton
Recommended read: Superman And Robin Coming Out Is A Huge Win For Bisexual Representation

Guilty Gear Strive

There’s so much I could praise about Guilty Gear Strive: it made Guilty Gear approachable while retaining the series’ depth; its incredible netcode allows near flawless online play across the US and to many other parts of the world; it looks and sounds incredible. But what keeps me coming back is the community, the friends I’ve made. Sharing tech, knowledge, and experiences across regions and platforms, learning and growing together. And when it clicks, when you see your practice translate to improvement – finally mastering that combo, landing an optimal punish, nailing an oki setup, winning a matchup where you’ve struggled, getting into Celestial after dozens of tries – there’s nothing else like it. Especially when you can share it with your friends.

By Will Borger
Recommended read: Fighting Games Taught Me to Love Losing

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

My favorite thing about Echoes of the Eye is how the way you learn about the world and its history is mainly through photo reels. Unveiling the dark secrets hidden within these reels as you click… click… click… through them is actually… eerie? And it’s not like there’s anything “bad” on them. But it’s still really unsettling??? I think it’s a testament to how well these reels tell a story and the way they convey the complex, rending emotions of the characters depicted in them. Melancholy, intrigue, anger, with no words – all at the same time! Out of all the video games, films, manga and whatever else I’ve consumed during my time on Earth, never have I ever experienced a story told in such an incredible way. Go play Outer Wilds!!! (Also, did I mention that it’s… nonlinear? Your move, Ken Levine.)

By Zak Nur
Recommended read: The Hunter Versus The Hunted

Deathloop

Deathloop is pure vibes. Every square inch of Blackreef is drenched in warm tones that make everything look like a 1970’s conversation pit if you squint hard enough. And that isn’t exclusively in service of the world’s retro-futurist 60’s psychedelia; it’s part of why there’s something unexpectedly cozy about the game. Everyone’s some flavour of arrogant and megalomaniacal in Deathloop, notwithstanding Captain Colt Vaun himself depending on your outlook. But that endless looping leading ultimately to some form of survival for every party involved makes the whole thing feel like just a bit of banter, doesn’t it? It’s just a bit of cozy, rock and roll, shag carpet, brutal murder, bants and goofs. Maybe Julia’s right.

By Astrid Johnson
Recommended read: We Need More Stories of Trans Happiness

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

Although I’ve played other visual novel and hidden object mystery games, playing the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS might be the most fun experience I’ve ever had. I never thought playing as a lawyer could be so much fun until I was yelling “Objection!” into my 3DS microphone. Not only is Phoenix Wright a relatable ball of nerves and energy, but the large cast of characters have their own amusing quirks as well. My personal favorites were Maya and Misty Fey, Miles Edgeworth, Gadot, and Franziska von Karma. Of the three games, Trials and Tribulations had the most engrossing storyline. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how epic Ace Attorney’s music is. After playing these games, I want ‘Cornered’ to play whenever I explain something nobody knows.

By Latonya Pennington
Recommended read: How I Learned to Quit Video Games Hurting My Mental Health

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon

Back in May, I wrote about how playing Grindstone had become a routine during my 2020 break. It was short, but for a few days, I was able to zone out during quiet times and just plunge through a few levels at a time. I had been waiting for the next game that would replicate that feeling ever since.

It may sound naive, but it took me a long while to figure out that finding a new game wasn’t the problem. What I was lacking was the opportunity to disconnect myself, even if it’s just for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and just play a few levels of something. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon arrives on the right time, as many others have in the past year.

As I wrap up my final work for the year, I look at the days ahead differently. There will come a time in which this routine will be lost again. But until then, I’ll make the most of it.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

No More Heroes III

At its core, No More Heroes III has a punk rock spirit. As a video game, it lacks any kind of polish. It’s barely held together with string and tape, running poorly and proudly displaying some of the ugliest environmental textures you’ve ever seen. As a digital art piece, it’s also a beautiful mixed-medium celebration of everything Suda51’s games have come to represent. No More Heroes III is endlessly surprising, constantly finding new ways to amuse and challenge its players: it switches up its visual language, genre and narrative trajectory more times than can be counted, refusing to back down from its unique vision with an admirably anarchic energy.

By Adam Arter
Recommended read: 20 years later, Wario Land 4’s sound room still haunts me

Age of Empires IV

As more and more old franchises are revised, remade, or otherwise revisited to mixed results, Age of Empires IV works as a fun, no-frills revival of a series that hadn’t seen a mainline installment since 2005. As an introduction or reintroduction to a floundering real-time strategy genre, it’s effective. As a history lesson, it’s timely. The campaigns show us modern cities occupied by the ghosts of long-gone men, a reminder that no matter how strange or stressful the times you find yourself in, all the drama we’re dealing with will eventually pass into textbooks and myth.

By Mark Hill
Recommended read: Revisiting Dishonored’s Dunwall During Our Own Plague Year

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

I don’t think an elevator pitch for a game can get more tailored for taste buds more precisely than “Ace Attorney meets Sherlock Holmes.” I grew up on Conan Doyle’s great detective and seeing him as the hapless sidekick to a Japanese ancestor of Phoenix Wright was worth the price of admission alone. But that’s not all The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles gets right. The long-awaited English localization of these two previously Japan-only titles not only capture the effervescence of Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice, but stand on their own as detective stories with something to say. At the heart of Great Ace Attorney, you will find the most incisive writing about discrimination in the legal system that the series has to offer.

By Bryn Gelbart
Recommended read: Defining the unique identity of Deathloop’s world and Visionaries through sound design

YOUR_NEW_LIFE_LETTER.RTF.EXE

Buried underneath the distorted tones scavenged from a tarnacop machine, YOUR_NEW_LIFE_LETTER.RTF.EXE reads like a page ripped from a journal. The poetics of Bagenzo’s heart lie open betwixt the transbitsyfied spaces of Petscop as the player searches for an answer — no, an understanding, of existence. A Pixel monolith cuts through the orange canvas. A body is crushed. Amongst these images and words is a myth relaying the comfort in the stories we create, more comforting than the stories that are made to believe are true. May they entomb themselves in your soul.

By Waverly
Recommended read: Escape System

The Artful Escape

The Artful Escape doesn’t have the most compelling gameplay in the world, for the most part, you just walk around. But what it lacks in gameplay it more than makes up for it with its creative art design and its great story. The game follows a young musician as he explores different planets and tries to figure out who he is, all while shredding on his guitar. It’s filled to the brim with wonderful visuals, bright colors, and incredible music. The Artful Escape lives up to its name and is a beautiful game to jump into if you need a break from the real world.

By Jose Hernandez
Recommended read: Finding Myself in Outer Space

Toem

When I first saw Toem I just thought it would be an excuse to practice one of my hobbies, photography, inside of a game. To my surprise, it not only worked great but became a relaxing, even cathartic experience. Traveling across different biomes while meeting a diverse set of characters and events encouraged me to search through every nook and cranny, not for an achievement or a secret, but just to experience each scenery from as many perspectives as I could. Funnily enough, it reminded me of the joy of admiring life through a lens when exploring outside felt like a distant dream.

By Frank Reyes
Recommended read: Finding A Piece of Myself In Civilization VI

Boyfriend Dungeon

I got an Xbox Series S this year and the cute little console combined with Game Pass means I’ve played more indies than ever. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of them. A short and bittersweet experience that made me question my own bisexuality before actively reinforcing it, its excellent exploration of relationships and beautifully written characters made me consider consent in a deeper way than I ever had before. It was my first foray into the world of visual novels, and its art, music, story, and charm have set the bar very high. To my dearest Valeria, I’ll always treasure the time I spent with you – even if you made my girlfriend jealous.

By Issy van der Velde
Recommended read: Arab Game Devs On Forza, Call Of Duty, And How Gaming Is Failing Muslims

NEO: The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You stayed with me as an all-time favorite JRPG that didn’t receive enough attention. Its sequel came as an unexpected blessing that didn’t quite follow the formula of the first game, yet excelled in its own way. NEO: The World Ends With You wasn’t as character-driven as its predecessor. However, it still hit enough heartwarming story beats that it appealed to me as a new player. Not as a TWEWY fan, but as a stranger meeting its long-lost relative. NEO also deserves credit for improving on the chaotic combat system and bringing back fashion and food-related stat boosts. Also, as always, the soundtrack is banging.

By Jessica Reyes
Recommended read: The World Around Me

Lost in Random

Lost in Random was this year’s biggest surprise for me. I’ve never been big on Tim Burton-esque gothic fairy tales, but Zoink’s tabletop-themed action-adventure was captivating. Set in the Kingdom of Random, we played as Even, a young girl determined to rescue her sister Odd from a cold-hearted Queen, travelling between six realms with a sentient D6 called Dicey. There’s a heartwarming story within, though what truly caught my eye was an intriguing fusion of deck-building and real-time combat, where Dicey summon pre-selected cards that provide weapons once rolled. It’s one of 2021’s more unique games, and I’d strongly recommend looking.

By Henry Stockdale
Recommended read: Amidst Trying Times, Hades Taught Me Perseverance

Guardians of the Galaxy

You’re searching all across Knowhere for a lost friend. The team has split up for the time being, but it’s important to you that you find Drax, who is in a crisis over the thought of having his family back—even if it’s just an illusion. When you do find him, you have a chat while staring out into the beautiful, abstract abyss of space, leaning on the railing with your buddy like you’re at a sports bar and not the edge of the universe. For just a short while, there’s no snark, no joking. The walls come down. It’s a moment that understands what makes these fantastical comic book stories so special—and hammers home why Guardians of the Galaxy stands among the best of them.

Then, naturally, you go meet a reality-bending space dog. Just another day on the job.

By Jeff Zoldy
Recommended read: Thinking of You, Wherever You Are

Hitman 3

Hitman 3 was my early shout for 2021’s gaming highlight. The first time I put Agent 47 in detective clothes and solved a murder mystery (before causing another one), it was so clearly the perfect culmination of everything the series reboot has been working towards since 2016. There are so many gorgeous locations to visit, a wild variety of murder options to consider, and a delightful number of death-related quips from everyone’s favourite shiny-headed assassin.

By James Law
Recommended read: James Law’s Writing Career Was Finally Taking Off. Then He Burnt Out

Deltarune: Chapter 2

Since the release of Chapter 1 three years ago, Deltarune has somewhat seemed to dwell in the shadow of Undertale. However, Chapter 2, generously released for free in September, finally begins to flesh out the game’s story and proves that Deltarune isn’t just another version of its predecessor — in fact, its battles and worldbuilding are arguably better. It never takes itself too seriously, though, and its lore-heavy story is balanced out by oddly lovable enemies like Spamton and Queen (god, I love Queen so much) and a world that feels like a fever dream induced by spending a few too many hours online. With a whopping five more chapters on their way, it’s hard to know where Deltarune is headed, but I’m all buckled up and ready for the ride, no matter where it may end up (and however long it may take).

By Amelia Zollner
Recommended read: The longtime Animal Crossing fans that resurfaced with update 2.0

Persona 5 Strikers

Persona 5 Strikers gives us all the good stuff: more time with our buddies Phantom Thieves, more epic fights, and more personas to be fused. The fact the characters take a road trip makes it pretty refreshing after spending so much time inside our houses. It also lets you control Makoto, the best character, so… it is a must play!

By Paulo Kawanishi
Recommended read: Far Cry 6’s guerrilla fantasy paves over real Latin American trauma

Resident Evil Village

Resident Evil has ditched the number in the mainline title and opted for a focus on its creepy new setting; the village. Ethan is down on his luck once again as this time his daughter goes missing and he must tackle on some new and terrifying foes to discover what happened to her. This is no ordinary village though, as mutated villains make for a series of unique and interesting challenges for Ethan to overcome, including a truly unforgettable horror sequence that makes for brilliant reaction videos on YouTube. This is a continuation of a great return to form for the classic horror series, and I’m here for it.

By Kieran Harris
Recommended read: Skyrim Taught Me That Any Progress Is Still Progress

They Won’t Go When I Go

A rogue with thunderous eye,
I never did seem him cry,
He held you in their beauty,
Their effervescent sparkle.
Who else could tell our people,
We could actually be free?

He is gone and I remain,
Keeper of mem’ry and pain,
Ruined but never dying,
Building this stone elegy,
With a boy – eyes like the sea,
What knows he of the man slain?

His sword, in the sea boy’s hand,
It glows, purifies the land,
The gravestones and even me,
Peace flows from his ocean deep,
Sea air tastes like once lost hope,
Is that tomorrow I see?

By Oluwatayo Adewole
Recommended read: Let Black Boys Be Soft

Death’s Door

It’s a stretch to call Death’s Door a puzzle game, but that’s how I’ve come to think of it- as a window onto an expanding puzzle box of shiny things to find. It is a game with curiosity at its core, and all of its systems – its several dozen collectible “trinkets” that can be found through hearsay and careful exploration, its enigmatic characters like the squid-covered chef who will give you hints and a bowl of soup, and even the melancholy grandeur of its evocative sound design- contribute to that curiosity: behind every spiraled tower and forest glade, there might be something for you to find. And while it wears its many influences on its sleeve- the aesthetic of a Zelda game, the metroidvania progression of Hollow Knight, the boss fights of a less punishing Dark Souls – it’s this commitment to discovery over utility that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

By Emily Price
Recommended read: Mad at School

Inscryption

For Inscryption, the devil is in the details. What starts as a deceptively simple card game roguelite mixed with an escape room expands into ever-greater forms the more you play. It’s incredible how the game lets you touch every mechanic yet gives you the freedom to play your way. Every change the game makes, every twist you find yourself contorting through fits perfectly within its thoroughly unsettling world. What’s more, Inscryption goes places where video card games didn’t dare go before, playing around with postmodern subversion and narrative richness in ways even something like Frog Fractions would be jealous of.

By Jeremy Signor
Recommended read: How The Celeste Speedrunning Community Became Queer As Hell

Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania

Nothing makes for a better GOTY for me than giving me cute monkeys and brightly colored visuals. Outside of my excitement of exploring the new worlds AiAi gets to see while getting in the way of Dr. Bad-Boon’s plans, and loving every inch this game was giving me– it created a really special memory between my youngest sister and I. My sister isn’t much of a gamer, but will ask about them when she’s around me to understand why I might be fighting with fake people moving around on the TV.

When Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania came out, I wanted her to get in on the series that brought a closer bond to my younger brother and I years ago (thank you Super Monkey Ball 2). After half an hour of teaching her the Switch controls, and getting her warmed up on some easy maps, we started cracking down on the levels I was stuck on. Before I knew it, three hours flew by and we were able to pass two whole worlds together.

She will ask each time I call her now if I have gotten to a new level, and if I have any screenshots to show her of new outfits I put on my monkeys.

By Monti Velez
Recommended read: “Not Like Other Girls”

Chicory

It was way too easy to get lost in the shuffle of game releases this year. As someone who mostly covered games as a service titles and AAA giants for my job, I kept seeing indies pass me by. Now that I’ve been catching up with Chicory, I realize how much I would have benefited from playing it earlier.

For me, 2021 was a year to be fixated. Fixated on ongoing problems, on things that were out of my control, on the next deadline. I kept going and going. Now, with only a couple days left until 2022 rolls out, Chicory is not only healing wounds, but also reminding me of that pure enjoyment of playing a game that is easily lost in the shuffle as well. I didn’t know how much I needed to hold paintbrush on one hand and see NPCs calling me “burgers” to find my footing again.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Wandersong

While Chicory released to an excellent reception this year, I was busy admiring Greg Lobanov’s earlier work, Wandersong, with its endearing bard protagonist. I was delighted at how warm and well-written the game was, and it has a lovely mix of humour and drama in a fantastical setting.

By Aamir Mehar
Recommended read: The power of text in games

It Takes Two

My piece for Into The Spine this year was called ‘Single Player’ – I wrote about gaming as an only child, my relative indifference to multiplayer, and how I’ve grown into an adult through gaming’s capacity to enrich the individual.

What I didn’t realise was that back in January, my growing wasn’t yet done. Since then, I’ve freshly planted my feet in this messy, fantastic, buzzing industry, but most importantly fostered and nurtured relationships that I hope will last.

It Takes Two is a beautiful, emotionally intelligent co-op that very much hinges on helping each other succeed – even if its in the brutal murder of an innocent stuffed elephant. That I’m playing it with someone who I now call a close friend, I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

By Daisy Treloar
Recommended read: Single Player

Everhood

Everhood is the most novel game I played in 2021. It might look, at first glance, like another of the many indie RPGs with a “quirky” veneer and riding Undertale’s long coattails, but Everhood rises above that. Its hard-as-nails encounter system mixes Guitar Hero, platforming, and bullet hell into a fresh, cohesive that lets you tune the difficulty however you like, from pleasant synesthetic to grueling challenge. Maybe more importantly, though, it has heart, underpinning its stressful fights with a trippy, heartfelt tale about loyalty, community, and acceptance that’s constantly throwing one-off tricks, set piece moments, and building a sense of mystery that make its rabbit-hole descent such an unpredictable rollercoaster. The soundtrack’s pretty killer, too.

By Suriel Vazquez
Recommended read: Whether You’re Confessing or Fighting, Video Games Let You Enter Other People’s Minds

Boneroom

Boneroom isn’t Oma Keeling’s most elaborate project this year, but it’s the one that continues to haunt and rejuvenate me. Styled “an ambient space operated by and for angels”, it consists of malleable celestial metaphors and simple poetic mechanisms that make me think of pootling around in Kid Pix as a child: a pillared enclosure ringed by towers; a heap of giant animal bones that can be kicked around and jumped on; changeable colours, gravity and time of day; an ornamental crescent moon. When I interviewed Keeling this summer they told me that Boneroom draws on the experience of living with daily death tolls during the pandemic. A memento mori, then – but death, here, is a kind of toy. I hope all angels are this playful.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
Recommended read: Playing videogames carefully

JETT: The Far Shore

JETT isn’t an easy game to love but then, it’s not meant to be. This mythic sci-fi tale about a people’s desperate flight from a dying world, chasing a prophetic dream of another world where they might terraform and survive, is all about friction. The friction between our desire to reach out into space and explore while we destroy the only world we’ve ever known. Are we worthy? Is our very presence damaging? The promise of a new world being born of a vision invites us to question the validity of such a quest, that’s certainly relevant to our present.

By Samantha Greer
Recommended read: ‘The Last Of Us Part 2’ Is A Game About Healing, Not Just Violence

Sable

After the introduction, Sable leaves camp to journey through the overwhelming, colorful world outside of where she grew up. An effervescent urge to glide everywhere overtook the fear of getting lost when wandering in the vast desert—it seemed liberating to want to explore without thinking of the consequences. It felt as if I was the one gliding underneath the violet-blue night sky and got chills from the desert breeze while the warm sand hit my feet. It became a personal moment for me because I grew up in an overprotective household and was able to vicariously experience that childhood freedom through Sable’s heartwarming story of a brown kid learning about their world on their own terms.

By Saniya Ahmed
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Flesh, Blood, & Concrete

Doomerism isn’t something I ever feel fully connected to, but Flesh, Blood, & Concrete renders modern day malaise with such sharpness that it’s hard not to sense a collective blood vessel on the verge of popping. Decay of all kinds—architectural, organic, cultural—follow the same life cycle, twitching with dying spasms until their belabored passing. Rigor mortis is a relief that won’t set in soon enough, a numbness we are often denied in favor of the constant churning of the moribund. But maybe that feeling comes from a place of light, from a nostalgia for something lost, whether that be our youth or cultural vestiges, that comforts like a warm blanket. It doesn’t matter whether these things ever existed, or if they were as happy as they seem now. What matters is what’s left behind, what still pulsates with life and not grief, which takes us in its arms and overflows with warmth. That’s the world Flesh, Blood, & Concrete suggests; one where, in supporting ourselves, we leave behind cures for those to come.

By Austin Jones
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