2021 was a strange year for gaming. Well, to be fair, it was a strange year overall, but for me doubly so since it was also the first where I managed to be – for the most part – concentrated on the industry. In a way, it felt like a major step forward for the design of many titles, but in another, it felt pretty much like stagnation. For example, I cannot think of one title I would choose to symbolize the year. I would be hard pressed to find a game to even nominate as the best of the year, but there were many that I really did appreciate, among with a few duds.
As you may well be aware, I am not a fan of writing negative things about games. I prefer to spend time discussing games that I think are worth people’s time but, since this is a lookback, it would be unfair to ignore the ones that I did not like, but ended up playing anyway, at least for a bit.
Without further ado, here we go.
Under the banner of stories that stayed with me, one of the first titles that come to mind would surely be Grotto. Its mechanics are pretty simple: its gameplay is about moving, in first person view, from one room to another in a single cave location. Playing the role of a soothsayer, you’ll have to read the stars to answer the people’s questions. While this might sound repetitive, Grotto makes this very simple mechanic the focus of its message: struggling to make one’s intentions understood through the limited means of communication. For one person “blue” might mean a colour, for another a feeling. The game showcases a complex and intervowen narrative which touches upon many topics: death, sex, violence, power struggles. Very much recommended if one doesn’t mind simple mechanics in service of a dense and satisfying story.
Strangeland is another title that easily comes to mind among the year’s best narratives, for the way it managed to tell an interactive story through a kaleidoscope of inspirations and influences, even ones I could never imagine. Overall, its psychological horror ambiance is expertly written, in a way that requires more than one playthrough to fully appreciate, for sure. Some would say that the need to actually listen to the post-game commentary to understand some of the story’s intricacies, would actually imply that the writing is not easy enough to understand and, thus, failed to reach its inteded objective. Personally, I do not think that is the case. While Strangeland can be fully appreciated even without the commentary, like many good stories, having more details and listening to the intentions of its creators means being able to better appreciate the overall picture. Click here to listen to my podcast with Strangeland writer, Mark Yohalem.
I rarely look forward to a game these days, since I have been burned many times in the past. There were a couple of titles that I have been following kind of closely, though, one of those is Genesis Noir I tried the demo during the Steam Next Fest and I was immediately hooked: that short interactive experience featured one of the best sequences of the game, where the player moved around an appropriately noir movie character while smoky jazz and styilish graphics flowed beautifully into one another. Unfortunately when it came time to try the full version, I found out the developers decided to “enrich” what could have been an intriguing toy-like jazzy artistic experience, with puzzles. Not a bad idea per se, but these puzzles are hard to control and sometimes just plain obtuse. I really wish the developers just stuck to designing an encompassing musical experience based on freeform jazz, but I guess the need to have gameplay got in the way. It was one of the year’s biggest disappointments.
While I was never a huge fan of the Shelter series, I definitely appreciated its idea of trying to bring a different experience to the average gamer: one focused on motherhood in the animal world. The two first Shelter titles did not really feel the need to feature a narrative or an actual objective, beyond that of following the cubs as they grow and get older, ready to leave their mother. Unfortunately, the third title throws all that out of the window, even though the mystical narrative is not really one of its main problems. No, I would say that the game actually fails in each one of its simple mechanics. Shelter III features mother elephant as the leader of the herd that she will have to lead through the dangers of the jungle. The experience of motherhood is barely there, but the developers decided to keep it anyway. Press a button to call the baby elephant and give it some attention, which is pointless since nothing really happens if it ends up being neglected. Endless minutes are spent leading the herd around, headbutting trees in a desperate attempt to not die of starvation, while being randomly attacked by predators. It felt almost like playing a parody of the original, one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
Beyond disappointment and beyond “just bad”, there are those games that made me stare in disbelief at the monitor. The very first title that belongs here is one that left me with a mix of confusion and bewilderment after playing it: Of Bird and Cage. While I have played my fair share of non-mainstream games, especially in the realm of unique indie titles like Will You Ever Return, let us keep in mind this is a fully commercial game, released on Steam for 13€. At its core, it is an interactive metal album that plays like a first-person adventure, basically a musical developed as an action adventure. While the idea dates back to 2014, along with probably the recording of the music, I do not have a clue about what happened in the last 7 years. Of Bird and Cage reimagines the story of Beauty and the Beast adding a series of interesting concepts: drug addiction, rape, molestation, incest and shootouts with the police. While it is rare to see a game make such brave narrative choices, they all end up being awful. Addressing the elephant in the room: writing about female rape and molestation from an exclusively male perspective, in 2021, is an incredibly primitive idea, if not outright offensive. But even beyond the narrative choices, the gameplay mechanics are terrible: in each location the player has a limited amount of time (basically before the song ends) to solve puzzles or do certain things, which are NEVER clear or obvious. Let us not forget the obtuse QTE mechanics, puzzles that do not make sense and terrible platforming sequences in the dream world. In the end, it’s not even clear what changes if one doesn’t manage to do everything in time. Probably very little but, even still, who cares?
CLT is a tarot game that is supposed to be centered around female sexuality. I say “supposed” because, well, I am not sure what the female idea of sexuality should be after playing this. But if there is an “idea” I got from playing this, is that everything is very disqueting and scary. CLT features very simple mechanics of progressing through vaguely sexual short stories, usually centered around masturbation or encounters with other partners. The text on each tarot card is appropriately mispelled, an intentional choice by the developers to “comment on the censorship on Steam”. Which would make sense if the words censored were the nasty ones, but they are chosen at random and makes everything difficult to read. The player progresses by remembering what they have previously clicked on, thus choosing the “new” card. While the mechanic alone is not particularly entertaining, the game makes it even worse by featuring a dreary atmosphere where the cards seem bathed in blood and the female genitalia is depicted in abstract ways that one would be hard pressed to describe as attractive. At times, it really does feel more like a horror game, rather than a positive narrative experience on sexuality. Perhaps that was the intentional all along, I am not sure, but with shallow and repetitive gameplay mechanics, CLT cannot be recommended as a scary experience. It just feels pretty much empty.
I found about Say No! More via a random tweet, and what a nice little surprise it was! Its graphics and style of gameplay bring me back to the simple times of wacky Japanese Ps1 games like Impossible Crisis. The player is thrown into a modern office dynamic, thus quickly learning how to react, negatively that is, to an increasingly asphixiating environment. Indeed: at first, by rushing out a simple and quick No! then adding some flavours of icy and spicy to all these rightful denials. From there, the player will be on their way of mastering the powerful art of denial, in the process destroying walls, desks, chairs and, finally, entire buildings. Say No! More brings us this wonderful little message, definitely necessary in these dark times where people seem to show little respect for their co-workers and employees, all rolled up in a sweet envelope of simple 3D polygonal models and absolutely crazy voice acting. Despite its overall simple gameplay mechanics, Studio Fizbin keeps the game from becoming stale or repetitive with a wacky and emotional narrative, never wasting the player’s time.
I have been following Daniel Mullins’ career since 2015, so it was almost touching to see him finally come out swinging with a game that, in the space of a couple of weeks, ended up being played by more people than his first two games put together. Granted, not that it took that many people to do that, since his first two titles were pretty much ignored by the public and press. Anyway, Inscryption promised to deliver, as opposed to The Hex and Pony Island, a much more fleshed-out gameplay experience. This was Mullins trying his hand at a serious deckbuilder roguelite title, one that could be enjoyed even by those who were not really familiar with the usual Mullins’ metanarrative. While I do not think he has entirely succeded in that objective, I still think that Inscryption remains one of the year’s most intruinging ideas in both narrative and design. True enough, it employs the Mullins’ books of tricks from start to finish: the Steam friend list that turns against the player, characters actively threatening your computer, breaking the fourth wall, etc. Nothing new on the narrative front but, again, since this time he had a much bigger public, Inscryption seems to be one of the indie darlings of the year, featuring strongly on many end of the year lists as the best game of 2021. While I do not really share that sentiment, since I was not surprised with what it brough to the table, I can definitely understand it. So, if you agree with Inscryption being brilliant, then do yourself a favour and check out The Hex as well: perhaps more flawed, but quite more interesting in the long run.
Death’s Door, despite a few hiccups, especially in the final boss fight, is a delightful experience, both graphically and narratively; one I could not put down until I finished it.
No Longer Home is an incredibly powerful narrative experience, simple mechanics but a strong believable story that comes from a personal place and left me emotionally devastated.
Loop Hero is a game that expertly mixes casual mechanics with deep hardcore gameplay details which require attention and care by the player to actually progress through. I love that contrast.
The director’s cut release of Kathy Rain was a very welcome addition to a year where many point and clicks seemed to shine with great narrative ideas.
Among the few horror games I have played, Mundaun was the absolute stand-out: using an obscure language and a sepia tone to tell a story of a distant small mountain town is a genious design idea.