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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.