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.

Inktober 2018 selection

I don’t usually get around to doing inktober, but this year I was doing a lot with my iPad Pro, so it was easier to roll into it. What helped me especially was not to try and do the prompts list, but just draw whatever was on my mind that day. If there is an emotion behind it, I find it’s easier to start drawing.

Ocean Boy, the investigation of why I like stories at sea

I realized recently that I have a fascination for the ocean.

It felt like it came out of nowhere, but when I traced it back, it was surprised to find that it’s been something in the back of my mind for a very long time. Check this out:

Continue reading “Ocean Boy, the investigation of why I like stories at sea”

2018 focus points

In 2017 I stopped meticulously blogging about all the things I do because I simply do not do all that much next to my day job anymore. But for 2018 I’m gonna start again, it’s too easy to lose a year just sort of pushing projects forwards while not really achieving anything.

But this time I’m not setting goals; I’m defining focuses for each month. This is an idea I picked up from Design Life. It’s another way of saying “do this and nothing else for this period of time”. I’ll be picking from this list during the year to set a monthly focus.

  • Draw more Off-stage
  • Update portfolio
  • Improve drawing skill for poses and expressions
  • Learn to draw with my left hand
  • Release a new game
  • And a bonus objective: do something incredible every month.

January has already been dedicated to Off-Stage, and lo and behold, new comic pages have started to appear online! So it’s working.

Media log 2017

Continuing the tradition, here’s my media log of 2017. This year I’m highlighting a few noteworthy entries.

The Kanye West discography

kanye

I started listening to Dissect, a podcast about musical analysis. It examined what might be my favorite album of all time, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I already loved it for its artistry when it came out in 2010, but diving in this deep and exploring all the artistic nooks and crannies made me appreciate it even more. The way it tells a complex story and references mythology is very inspiring.

It may sound strange to people that know me, but a part of me identifies very strongly with Kanye. And listening to all his albums in sequence really filled up my artistic tank again, made me look differently at the work I do.

Prey + Spirits of Xanadu

prey

I love a good immersive sim. The year started off right with Deus Ex Mankind Divided, I played some Dishonored 2, but Prey really impressed me. It’s a classic formula, but it has just the right mix of setting, art style, gameplay, and level design to make me want to spend hours in that world. It cemented for me the idea that this might be my new favorite genre, and that I want to try and tackle making a game like this, however impossible that may seem.

Then I played Spirits of Xanadu, by the people currently working on the System Shock remake (it’s all connected, eh). It’s basically Prey, but at such a low fidelity that it could have been made by one person in a reasonable amount of time. It was then that I knew I had to attempt this too.

Blade Runner 2049

blade

I saw this one twice in a week’s time. The visuals are amazing (those colors!), but especially the thought that went into each part of this world, from the architecture to the functional UI for an AI companion, I just can’t handle it.

It’s okay to quit

birds

This one’s not specifically about one entry, but a more general feeling that I’ve developed this year: it’s okay to quit. We live in a time where we have access to such an embarrassment of riches, media-wise, that instead of looking for quality we now have to look for time. I would play all the games that look interesting and clear out my Netflix and IMDb queue if I could, but there is simply not enough time.

So instead of tightly maintaining my ever-growing backlog (which ironically is what generates the data for these posts), I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to not experience everything. I’m sure the new Marvel movies are good, I can live without them. These games that I played for two hours and enjoyed but have to push myself to finish, I can live without them. There is so much out there now that is good, I’m concentrating on finding the things that are great (such as those mentioned above). Focusing on one thing deeply instead of consuming three things at the same time and not really absorbing any of them. I think this will also give me more peace of mind.

I think for next year I might then transform my media log into an experience log that also includes trips, events, and other things that I find enriching.

See this year’s full list after the break:

Continue reading “Media log 2017”

Lights, hair, action

I felt creative this weekend but didn’t know which project to pour it into, so I spent some time speedpainting from photo reference.

grlsgrlsgrls

Instagram is a great source for crazy colors and compositions. I especially love hair that’s lit from behind or some similarly interesting lighting setup.

I recorded the one in the bottom-right. In the beginning these usually looks like shit, it’s a real process of sculpting with the brush. I wasn’t shooting for a 1-to-1 likeness either, just to capture the light and the wildness of the hair.

girl_speedpaint

How to do datamoshing in Photoshop

Datamoshing is “the practice of intentionally using compression artifacts in digital video and animated GIFs to create glitch art”.

It’s an effect popularized by Kanye West in his video Welcome To Heartbreak, but it’s mostly been an effect exclusive to video. There are a few crazy ways to get this effect on images by editing them with text or audio editors instead of image editors, but it’s hard to find a straightforward way to just do it in Photoshop. But, there is a fairly simple way to emulate it with a few filters. Here’s how:

Continue reading “How to do datamoshing in Photoshop”

A former drug addict, a priest and an investor walk into a games expo…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

INDIGO, the games expo put on by the Dutch Game Garden, was pretty intense this year. 32 local devs gathered on the spaceous ninth floor of music palace TivoliVredenburg for two days to showcase their games in development. I was there too with Black Feather Forest.

I saw some familiar faces, some fresh new ones, and talked to a ton of people. Seeing visitors take the time to play through the entire demo and most of them raving about it afterwards was a really great experience, and a much needed refreshment after the past few weeks. Thank you to everyone who came out and stopped by! My parents, uncle and some good friends included. Also dinner with my Game Oven friends was a good time, and my booth neighbours from Wolfdog Interactive kept me going through the long hours. And a special shout-out to Benjamin who came to help me out on friday evening after work when my legs had turned to jelly. You rock dude!

It’s hard to describe all the moments and conversations from those two days, but I wanted to highlight a few that really stood out.

As a kid I used to read Power Unlimited, the biggest games magazine in the Netherlands. Of course like any publication it’s run by normal people, but having looked up at these guys in my teens it felt pretty special to have them stand in front of my booth checking out my game and following me on twitter now. Check that off my bucket list.

Speaking of nostalgia, the memories left behind by the game Broken Sword are what compelled me to start making my own games, and then all of a sudden I run into a programmer from Revolution Software, and a dutch one at that, on the show floor. It was really cool to meet Joost and exchange adventure gaming stories.

Near the end of the VIP night on thursday an older man came up to me. He started on the demo as I explained what the game was about, then he turned to me and asked me why I cared so much about this particular true story. From there we got caught up in a passionate exchange of ideas, where he revealed that he was a recovered stock-broker-turned-drug-addict who just started learning about computers three days ago. After getting clean he had set out on a quest to learn about himself, and had become a very joie-de-vivre carpe-diem kind of guy. He wasn’t even on the guest list that night, he had just wandered in and was having a blast talking to people. We spoke for about half an hour and at the end shook each other’s hand with a well-meaning I haven’t experienced in a long time. Like we were both genuinely excited to see the other enjoying life, and wishing eachother well.

The second day of the expo was also punctuated by an unexpected meeting. 5 minutes before the end of the show a man dressed in a priest’s garb came up to me. I recognized him as Roderick Vonhögen, also known as the podcast priest. He hadn’t played the demo yet but had read all about the project on my website before coming here and went on to tell me how incredibly cool he thought it was. He was even familiar with The Walking Dead games, which was perhaps even more of a surprise. It was super cool to have had a chance to talk with him before packing up and heading off, and I took his encouragement to do a Kickstarter and get on Steam to heart.

I’d been on the fence about Kickstarter for a while, but after I left the hubbub of INDIGO behind that night and checked my email on the bus home I saw that perhaps a Kickstarter was not even going to be necessary…knock on wood. More info on that very exciting email soon.

All in all INDIGO was a great succes and I want to thank the Dutch Game Garden for letting me be a part of it.

Week 52, or Year One

This is a weekly recap of the goings-on in my professional life – to keep track of what I’m doing and to give you a peek at what it’s like being an independent creator.

It’s hard to fathom that it’s been a year since I started working for myself.

Said goodbye to my desk job designing games for someone else (honestly it was a sweet job, what was I thinking) and started my own thing.

I got some assignments pretty quickly, thanks mainly to friends/colleagues putting in a good word, and thus I started incing my way up. I’ve been able to carve out a pretty okay living so far, struggling some months when the work dries up for a bit, but enough to move up to a nice studio apartment with my girlfriend and pay the bills (and jump into a Steam Sale every now and again).

And now, 52 weeks later, I announced my first solo commercial title! Holy cow I hadn’t even thought of that. When people asked me around week 45 what I was going to do for my ‘anniversary’ I shrugged. Turns out week 52 was pretty special after all, thanks to the fellas at Warpdoor. More on that in next week’s update.

But for now I want to thank the fine folks that offered their support, good conversations, and/or advice this past year. Some names that come to mind: Jens, Michiel, Adriaan, Bojan, Benjamin, Ilona, Lowen, Anke, Alwin, Niels, Esther, mom and dad, Ralph, Anne, Matt, Chris, and ofcourse you, dear reader.

Then, presskit! I am perhaps disproportionately excited to have this bit of php code, but if you as a journalist or what have you ever needed any info on my company or my games, the presskit’s the place to be.

So now, back to the daily grind.

Before HoT started getting picked up by the media I found myself mostly doing small tasks – a subconcious way to avoid having to deal with the large and nebulous tasks still in the backlog. However it wasn’t without its merits, the demo segments are a lot more polished now. “But,” I thought on tuesday, “what actual new content was added to the game? None!” So I got to it and started doing animations, and made a start on a new scene. Then over the weekend I went on a small vacation with friends, during which the social media coverage really fired up.

Next week: tales of exciting new improvements to the interface, and great feedback on the demo from cool people.

Imposters

Today I want to talk a little more about something I touched on a few weeks ago, and I’m seeing it more and more now when I’m talking to people about their creativity. We can call it Imposter Syndrome.

That is an actual clinical term, describing people who are ‘unable to internalize their accomplishments, despite external evidence of their competence.’ They remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. That sounds strange, but it is more common than you think.

The first time I noticed it was when it was a running gag among cartoonists. We joked it was part of the job, and we didn’t really see it as a bad thing. It seemed like something everyone has to go through from time to time, this crippling fear about your work and career (especially if it is also your source of income). The idea was most clearly expressed by Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub in their daily podcast from way back in 2007 when they talked about being scared of the ‘Failure Police‘ – listen to the clip here.

I always took solace in the idea, this shared burden that united us. But it wasn’t so much at the forefront of my thoughts until I heard Alec Baldwin’s interview with David Letterman on WYNC’s Here’s The Thing podcast earlier this year. Listen to the clip here, and tell me what you think that sounds like to you.

Here are two very succesful people, famous, wealthy, loved, with a revered body of work, and they are just as scared of the Failure Police! It was like a lightning bolt to my brain. Clearly everbody creative struggles with this in some way or form. And you don’t have to look far to find more examples. In Indie Game The Movie we saw the creators of some of the best indie games of the recent years profess to feeling horribly insecure about whether or not their game was any good. For the dutch readers, HollandDoc did a great documentary related to this years ago called Alles Wat We Wilden. And last week Donald ‘Childish “Troy” Gambino’ Glover instagrammed a series of notes in which he said the following things:

I’m afraid that this was all an accident.
I’m afraid I’m here for nothing.

I’m afraid my show will fail.
I’m afraid people hate who I really am. I’m afraid I hate who I really am.
I feel like I’m letting everyone down.
I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential.
I’m scared that sounds pretentious.

I got really lost. But I can’t be lonely, cause we’re all here.

Wa are all there.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing per sé. It’s not a great thing, to feel like that as a human being, but I think eventually it helps you get better at what you do.

And if you, right there, are someone who enjoyed the creative work of someone else, think about taking a minute or two to send them an email saying that. It means more than you think.