My Top 8 Games Of The Year 2021

This has been an incredible year for videogames. I don’t know if it was the pandemic, or the high of my career move, or what, but something about the games this year hit different. I guess it’s been a while since I really got lost in a game. The kind where you play it every day, and think about it when you’re not playing.

You may ask “why a top 8? Why not 3 or 5 or 10?” Well, because these are the games that came to my mind as GOTY contenders; the rest was fine.

#8 Hitman 3

An extremely strong start to the year. I may have mentioned before that the Hitman series is one of my all-time faves (together with the other two pillars of the Eidos Trinity: Tomb Raider and Deus Ex). I love immersive sims in general, but there’s something to the layout and rhythmn of a Hitman level that makes me want to spend hours and hours in them, finding every secret and attempting every challenge.

So it’s almost a crime this one is in last place here. But to be fair, it’s part three. It’s more of the same. More of what I love, and the undeniably refined pinnacle of this trilogy, but it’s more of the same. But hoo boy that Berlin level was awesome.

#7 Forza Horizon 5

I am forever on a quest for the most chill driving game. Due to this, I’ve bought and abandoned quite a few titles over the years… but Forza Horizon is a bullseye for me. The driving feels so good, and it’s open world, so you can essentially do it for hours on end! It looks gorgeous, and there’s incredible pacing and game design at work, too, in the way it unfolds. Definitely the winner in the category ‘comfort game of the year’.

#6 The Gunk

I have to start by saying this indie only came out very recently, and I haven’t gotten far in it yet. So why is it on the list? Well, because it’s a game that I could have made. Not practically, God no, but thematically, visually, conceptually! It’s similar to a prototype I worked on for a while, but Image & Form’s execution is *mwah chef’s kiss*. The writing and voice acting is great, I love the clay puppet aesthetic, and it’s a fun and challenging action platformer that doesn’t resort to violence. I’m looking forward to seeing how this one unfolds.

#5 The Artful Escape

If I hadn’t gone into the visual arts, I would almost certainly have done something with music; I’m continuously amazed by how much emotion and storytelling you can put in three minutes. This feels like as close to that as a game can get. What a trip! Gorgeous, colorful, fantastical. Of course it’s an AnnaPurna Interactive game, yes, obviously.

If I was ever to make an homage to music, it would be something like this. It’s light on gameplay, but man it feels good to trek across the cosmos while wailing on my guitar.

#4 Deathloop

This game really surprised me. I don’t know why, I mean, I really love all of the games Arkane makes, but I suppose I kept this one at a distance because I wasn’t in the mood for a really violent adventure. But boy was I wrong. There are so many interesting things that this game does with storytelling and structure, ugh. I hope we see more roguelikes with this structure in the future. I was captivated right away, and blew through the campaign in a long weekend. Let’s be real, once I found that silenced SMG, the Visionairies never really stood a chance.

#3 Death’s Door

Another Death-something game! (and no, Death Stranding isn’t on the list). I often dislike roguelikes because I can’t justify spending time on unnecessary repetition, but when the conditions are just right, a game can just consume me. This happened with Death’s Door. It’s hard, but not frustrating, long and deep without being exhausting, and most importantly, it lets you keep your souls when you bite the dust!

So, did I scream in rage after failing a few fights for the tenth time? Yes. But I became a little bit stronger each time. Strong enough to plow through this gorgeous world in a week. In my opinion, an instant classic. And it has a subtle kind of humor that I really

#2 Halo Infinite

I haven’t played a Halo game since Halo 2 multiplayer in my friend’s attic, when I was still in highschool. And I wasn’t planning on playing this one, but it was available on Game Pass day one. And man! I would have missed out! It’s everything I remember and love about Halo 1 and 2, mixed with a well-scoped open world and satisfying gunplay. I love it. Even the multiplayer is fun and quick to get in and out of. A really impressive and noteworthy sequel (and in addition, I would say FINALLY a system seller for Xbox again).

Halo is only narrowly my #2, but there is one game that blew me away in 2021, and that is:

#1 Disco Elysium

Where to begin…

Perhaps that this is ZA/UM’s first game?? Maddening!

Or that it’s the most competent detective game I’ve played in… forever? As well as perhaps the most interesting D&D campaign?

Or maybe that it looks as beautiful as the best isometric 2D RPGs of old?

Disco Elysium was a transformative experience, and the first of the three games this year I played to completion within a week.

I haven’t felt part of a place this much since Broken Sword, the game that made me decide to become a game developer over a decade ago. This is equal parts due to the incredibly compelling world that ZA/UM has created, and to the way they allowed me to interact with it.

Much has been written about the innovative skills system, but what I enjoyed even more are the choices you have to shape your character. Most games go for a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ version of the same personality, but Disco lets you assume different personalities altogether. If you believe what other characters say about you is true, that you are a no-good drunk rockstar detective, then sure, play that way, be loud and extroverted. Or will you set out to prove you are more than that, and actively pursue ways to cure your physical and mental ailments? Or, will you, like me, generally try to do the best you can, respect the rules but sometimes bend them to get ahead, and be prone to a bit of tomfoolery when things are going well?

Disco Elysium is a game like no other as far as I’m concerned, and if you have any interest in narrative games or solving mysteries, you should check it out.

Did you have some of these games on your list as well? Or completely different ones? Let me know what your GOTY was in the comments!

What I’ll take with me

If anything, 2021 has cemented that making games is what I love to do.

Secondly, I realize that while making games is getting easier and easier, making a good game is still hard as ever, and there is so much I can still learn. In 2022 I hope to take a crack at my nemesis, 3D modelling, and write more.

On the subject of writing, I’d like to study the ways in which Disco Elysium dialogue worked for me, and how I can apply it to my own writing. I also feel like I need to go have more experiences to refill my inspiration tank. My life is pretty much a routine now, need to shake it up – which is asking a lot during a global pandemic, but yeah.

I would love to make more semi-non-linear exploration games. I really enjoyed wayfinding in the world of Death’s Door; Halo has a big map to explore; Deathloop has you revisit locations a lot in different contexts; Disco, Forza, Hitman, The Gunk, they all have some kind of hub-and-spokes structure or open space to explore. I love that.

And lastly, I want to become less precious about my quality standards. I gotta experiment, think simpler, make more. Play to my strengths, which I think are 2D and narrative exploration.

But first, I’m gonna play some more Halo.

Honorable mentions

I did play a lot more, some of it not worth mentioning, but some of it I really quite liked, though not as Game Of The Year picks.

Concrete Genie

This was kind of like if you took the graffiti minigame from Infamous Second Son (throwback alert), cut the protagonist’s age in half, and made a wholesome game out of that. Very charming and pretty, though a bit repetitive.

Industria

An atmospheric firstperson shooter I stumbled upon by chance on TikTok, but which could have well been the lovechild of Half Life and Bioshock. It looks and plays really nicely, and is short enough to blow trough in a few sittings.

Tails of Iron

I was all set to dive into this 2D fantasy RPG, if only because their 2D tech was so impressive to me, and it is cool, but it hasn’t grabbed me yet. It’s awaiting it’s fair shake in the new year. So strange to hear Geralt’s voice in another game, too!

Lake

This small-town mail(wo)man sim from a dutch friend was a lovely autumn intermezzo. It’s chill and fun to explore, and perhaps above all I could recognize the seams of an small indie title. I thought “I could have built this” and that gave me confidence in my own work.

Teardown released the second half of its campaign, and more importantly, settings to tweak the difficulty I bounced off of. It’s like Minecraft in reverse, very satisfying destruction simulator.

Exo One was impressive and grand and beautiful.

Spookware is so imaginative and has such a great art style, it’s a shame I’m no good at its minigames.

And finally there’s PUBG. It’s not from this year, and I don’t love it’s aesthetic, but it has been the game me and my friends keep returning to to hang out in. When we can’t see each other in real life as much, we can still get together every night and have fun. That’s worth something.

Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2021.3

Hedgefield quarterly review

Hey there! In the Hedgefield Quarterly Review I look back at the work I did in the past three months, both as a diary for myself and a way to consistently update you on what I’m up to. I talk project details, achievements, and the highs and lows of self-employment. Come follow along!

You can find older entries here.

It has been three months since I quit my day job. That feels weird to say. It both feels like such a short time ago but also like it’s been ages already.

I’m not gonna lie, it feels pretty good to be totally in control of my own time again. I spent a week or two catching up on games, podcasts, movies and life stuff, and then started structuring my week around my new set of projects. It’s an on-going process, as it’s tempting to start any day working on the project I feel most inspired for at that moment, but then before I know it it’ll be friday and I’m left wondering where the time went.

Mondays I now spend at the Immer office in Utrecht so I don’t completely alienate from society in my home office. The crew there is growing already, which is fun to be a part of. We even did a photoshoot!

And it’s weird to say, but I realize now I missed the bustle of the big city. As much as I value quietness and nature, I do love the feeling of being surrounded by people with ambitions and things going on around you in every direction – something that is definitely lacking in the suburb I live in. But after each monday I am also thankful to be back home with my dogs and get to work there too. I think it’s a good balance so far.

Meanwhile I started work on the prototype for my game pitch. Whereas I’d previously been focusing on mechanics prototyping and level design, I now also had to think about backstory, scope, budget, contractors, timeline and all that. It was quite a dizzying time to be honest, there’s a lot that goes into the development of a game!

I got the chance to consult with Dan and Ben of Size Five Games (Lair Of The Clockworld God, The Swindle, etc), which I’ve been in the vicinity of since my early early gamedev days on the Adventure Game Studio forums. It was great brainstorming ideas with them, and it gave me a nice starting point for the plot and characters. And I spoke with other devs who had gone through similar things, and learned so much. Still, it dawned on me just what a boatload of work is still ahead of me to get to a good pitch package!

One line of code at a time I guess…

I did a quick sketch for the potential key art of the game, and next quarter I definitely want to start doing more concept art and graphics work. That is the biggest unknown at this point I’d say. I have faith that the idea and the mechanics and the AI and the level design will get there, 3D art is the next frontier.

On other fronts the work is keeping up as well. My reliable connection in Amsterdam is supplying me with a drip-feed of small illustration assignments, I’m helping an old client with the branding graphics on their website, and I have a few more things lined up for the coming quarter. Altogether I’m pleasantly surprised by how well the transition is going, and that I get to make a good living working on these interesting projects. I hope this can be my life for a good while now.

Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2021.2

Hedgefield quarterly review

Hey there! In the Hedgefield Quarterly Review I look back at the work I did in the past three months, both as a diary for myself and a way to consistently update you on what I’m up to. I talk project details, achievements, and the highs and lows of self-employment. Come follow along!

You can find older entries here.

At the start of the month I wrapped up work on the second book from The Recharge Company. They’ve been a longtime client, and this time they bundled all their wisdom to help you get the most out of life. I drew a series of more abstract illustrations and mental models to make the book more visually pleasing to read through.

https://worksmartplaysmart.nl

I was also asked to make another animation for Contronics Dry Misting, which you may remember I created an elaborate animation for last year. This year was their 40th anniversary, and this time they commissioned a motion-graphics-esque video to celebrate their accomplishments.

It wasn’t a style I had worked a lot in before, and the deadline was tight, so I was a little worried, but in the end I managed to bang this thing out in about three or four days, surprising even myself. Pretty pleased with the result!

And for the final project in the work-for-hire category, a local marketing agency asked me to create some comic pages to promote a shoe brand. The scripts were prepared for me, so I could do what I do best and create some cool page layouts and linework. At least, I thought so, turns out the client was too smitten with the tight vector style of the concept mockup made by the agency, and that’s not a style that suits me particularly well. So unfortunately after trying a bunch of designs I had to pass on that one, but hey, that also happens sometimes. I knew drawing honest-to-god comic pages for an ad agency was too good to be true 😉

And of course work for app startup Immer continued as well. We shipped an update that adds reminders, and next quarter there will be a long-awaited update that adds discovery and search, along with a bunch more books, something I’m personally very excited about.

So I think it’s safe to say business is good. And while all of that is fantastic, it was also eating time away from the further development of my game idea that I mentioned last time. And from what time I could put in, I started to get the idea that this was going to be a big undertaking. Like applying-for-funding-and-assembling-a-team big. And then there’s my part-time day job too! So I had to make a decision that I’ve been considering, pondering, and putting off for quite some time now.

I quit my job.

I’ve spent more than five great years doing UX design and branding for Yoast, and it’s been a wonderful safe haven, but faced with all the possibilities in front of me currently, I had to admit that SEO just isn’t where my passion lies. I enjoyed solving the design puzzles it threw at me, and it taught me a ton, but I have no ambition to dive further into that world and master that product or domain. So it was time to move on.

That was a scary decision! And I’m going to miss having my co-designers to bounce around ideas with, but getting to spend more time with the projects I love is already giving me much renewed energy. I look forward to the months to come, getting settled into this crazy new routine, and I’ll take you along for the ride!

Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2021.1

Hedgefield quarterly review

Hey there! In the Hedgefield Quarterly Review I look back at the work I did in the past three months, both as a diary for myself and a way to consistently update you on what I’m up to. I talk project details, achievements, and the highs and lows of self-employment. Come follow along!

You can find older entries here.

The first quarter of 2021 sure was a wild one! I started off by releasing a small game called WanderWoods….

Continue reading “Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2021.1”

Experience Log 2020

As every year, I like to highlight some of my favorite moments of the past year. Especially in a year with so much bleh, it’s nice to look back on the good times.

Continue reading “Experience Log 2020”

Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2020.the-rest-of-it

Hedgefield quarterly review

Hello there, nice to see you again. I was going to write one of these each quarter, wasn’t I? Well, it’s been a weird year. I hope you’re all doing okay out there.

It’s been 9 months since I started working exclusively from home. In the beginning I loved it, then I hated it for a bit, now I generally enjoy it. I built a really nice home office, but, I don’t think it’s been my most productive period. Not because of working from home, but mostly I’m missing people. People to bounce ideas off of, laugh with, motivate me, and experience new things with. I’m super thankful I have a great wife here with me or I’d probably go a bit mental, but I definitely don’t feel as inspired as I normally would. I didn’t expect that to be such a thing, but here we are.

Still, I did things:

Continue reading “Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2020.the-rest-of-it”

Off-Stage is back on stage

Some of you may remember my webcomic about music and life in Amsterdam, Off-Stage. I worked on it during the twilight years of the traditional webcomics model, where you have a website and post pages each week and maybe earn something from merch and book sales (I never got to that point). It didn’t feel like the right format for that story anymore, but I wasn’t sure what was.

Fast-forward a few years, and we’re in a new era. Comics exist on social media now, and in a way that makes sense for our mobile-first world. Pages get chopped up into panels that fit the portrait-orientation screen of a smartphone. Platforms like Tapas and Webtoons are bringing a whole new generation of comics to readers.

So this week I re-launched Off-Stage on Webtoons! It’s a full remaster at a higher, crisper resolution, optimized for a vertical scroll.

I was not looking forward to having to chop up all the existing pages, but I must say the process was fairly quick, and it is opening up so many possiblities to write more naturally, now that the length of an update doesn’t matter anymore. Once I get to the point where I can start making new material, I’m sure that will feel great. For now I’m busy reworking all the existing pages and posting them week by week.

Head on over to Webtoons and subscribe to stay informed!

Six fanarts

I put the question out on my Instagram which characters I should draw for the #sixfanarts challenge, and here they are:

It was a lot of fun to work on these, and I still have some good suggestions laying around, so I might do another one. Got more suggestions? Drop ’em in the comments!

Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2020.1

Hedgefield quarterly review

Hello and welcome, to the first Hedgefield Quarterly Review.

As the name implies, this will be a place for me to take stock of what I’ve accomplished in the past three months, and share it with you. It’s a nice middle road between a handful of tweets, and a yearly review, which I tried to do last year but resulted in an OVERWHELMING Google Doc that I haven’t dared look at since. The plan is to write these as a bookend to the close of each financial quarter, a good a time as any to look back and see whether I made any duckets (or not).

Continue reading “Hedgefield Quarterly Review 2020.1”