Game of the Year 2021

Game of the Year 2021

Game of The Year 2021 was a massive challenge to decide. Especially because 2021 continued 2020’s trend of the biggest budget publishers struggling to adapt to the difficulties of pandemic. But even against that there were hundreds of releases across all genres and scales.

More games than anyone could reasonably play. But of those that did come out, and those I got to play, here’s the top ten.

10. Lake

Lake delights in it’s serenity and mundanity. A big city corporate worker takes a two week sabbatical to cover her father’s postal route while he’s on holiday. Returning to her family home means picking up the threads of a life she’s left behind. Old friends bring back old memories, while new acquaintances bring new opportunities.

Lake’s methodical process of driving the delivery route each day lends itself to thoughtfulness, considering the events of the day before. More than that, you get the satisfaction of finishing the day’s work, only to find yourself at some new event with friends each evening.

All of this in a lovely Pacific Northwest town filled with characters that move just far enough beyond trope and stereotype to be consistently interesting.

9. Necromunda: Hired Gun

Necromunda: Hired Gun is just a janky Arcade style First Person Shooter campaign with some roguelike level remixes to play when you’re done. 

But it didn’t really need to be anything else. Absurdly fast paced and lethal, this is Doom via the 41st Millennium. 

And what a trip to the 41st millennium it was. A perfect example of a licensed adaptation. Submerging the player in the world via even the smallest piece of design, making you feel like you’re right there in the Gothic filth of the underhive. 

And come on, they remembered the Land Crawler existed and modelled it into the game. This was clearly a labour of love.

8. The Forgotten City

Descend into an underground roman civilization, cut off from the rest of the world, and help them uncover the mysteries of their unique society. Formerly a Skyrim Mod, You can feel the jank coming off The Forgotten City from the moment you boot it. But this timeloop mystery game combines excellent writing with a thorough grasp of Greco-Roman history and myth for an excellent little puzzle game. Confidently unveiling it’s narrative through repeated loops, The Forgotten City ended up surprising and engrossing me in its story in a way that other time loop games this year simply didn’t. 

7. Life is Strange: True Colours

Creating the first mainline entry in the series following original developers Dontnod Entertainment departure, there was a lot of pressure on Deck Nine Games. Yet they’ve created possibly the most confident entry in the Life is Strange series. True Colours is a tightly scoped, character focussed drama that hooked me throughout my playtime. A less actively game-mechanic feeling supernatural power set of Telepathic Empathy means Alex Chen is able to flesh out the supporting cast far better than previous entries in the series. Meanwhile the entire game being set in one tiny mountain village means a deep dive into an evolving location. 

A distillation of what people love about the series, and a hopeful yardstick to judge further entries by.

6. Hitman 3

Even considering the flaws I found, Hitman 3 still absolutely in the running for Game of the Year 2021. IO Interactive created a beautiful set of playgrounds filled with Rube Goldberg machines of Murder and wrote us some incredibly deserving victims. On its own Hitman 3 would be on this list anyway, but when the whole World of Assassination Trilogy coalesces under Hitman 3’s upgraded umbrella it becomes marvellous. 

It never fails to be Fun, which may be why I’ve found myself returning to the many levels of the game so often over the last twelve months. Puzzle games feature throughout this list, and playing Hitman 3, working out exactly how and when to kill that person with that method in any given level is a moment of catharsis of puzzle solving that earns it this slot. 

5. Adios

One of the early standouts for Game of the Year 2021, Adios pairs incisive writing with truly superlative voice acting, reflecting living a single day as a man who’s reckoning with his choices and his principles.

All you’ll do is go through the motions of maintaining a farm, while talking things through with your companion. Simple, meaningful tasks paired with straightforward meaningful conversations.

Adios is quietly affecting, relying on embodying a very specific (almost theatrical) situation and encouraging the player to go along for the ride.

4. Wildermyth 

Wildermyth struck me like a bolt from the blue. I’d missed the early access launch, missed the whole development and the full launch. 

So what a surprise to find such a fascinating systemic take on Western RPGs and Narrative structure. Procedurally generated characters and events, playing out within the confines of a longer structured campaign, all with a stunning paper craft aesthetic. And then adding legacy mechanics where characters would age and have children and grow.

Wildermyth kind of blew me away with the level of storytelling it allowed, telling sagas of family conflicts and inherited rivalries, all within the confines of an approachable RPG framing. 

3. It Takes Two

Hazelight make good games. I liked Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I have a lot of time for A Way Out, a co op game that was a fun take on the prison break genre.

It Takes Two builds on everything Hazelight have done to date for a truly spectacular experience.

A co-op third person platformer where you play as a couple about to divorce. Unfortunately the wrinkle in this is that the couple’s daughter has turned them both into toys in order to convince them to stay together.

It’s Hallmark meets Mario. And easily one of the best of this list for Game of the Year 2021. Endlessly innovative gameplay sequences have each player rely on the other to progress, constantly switching between fresh mechanics. A whole dreamlike world made up of being reduced to a toylike scale means inventive world design and art throughout. All of this built on a solid core of smooth platforming, with a plot that rattles on at a breakneck pace. A truly excellent co-op game, one especially good for partners, but joyfully brilliant for anyone.

2. Unpacking

Unpacking showcased Environmental Storytelling and Sound design in an unparalleled fashion this year putting it seriously in tthe running for Game of the Year 2021. Following the life of a character purely through playing a puzzling object placement game as they change homes. Learning who they are by what objects are important to them, what’s not, and navigating shared spaces with others. Short and sweet, Unpacking feels so flawless that it’s hard to envision quite how much work the team put in, until you realise every object makes a different noise depending on what surface it’s placed on. 

Then it’s suddenly very easy to appreciate the volume of work required to make something quite as charmingly simple seeming as Unpacking.

1. Sable

I expected Sable to be a pretty indie game with a neat art style and some fun world design. I hadn’t expected it to feature a gameplay structure that perfectly encapsulated a tone of earnest wandering, nor writing that left me ponderously melancholy after only a few hours. 

It evokes a sense of mystery every time you see something strange on the horizon, and offers you almost no answers bar the ones you can work out yourself.

The game is full of things like that. One of the biggest quests in the games has multiple endings, each as valid and justified as any other, depending on your choice. There’s a Jetbike that ended up feeling more like a companion than any wisecracking NPC or pet, filled with a personality that I’m 90% I’ve assigned it from no evidence but my time with it.

Sable got under my skin in a way that makes it Game of the Year 2021 with ease. A huge moebius art inspired desert, filled with life, ancient artifacts and maybe the best sunrises in any game. Most importantly though, Sable’s narrative was one built around communal kindness and support. Not just finding your place in a world, but actively choosing your place.

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