Mur Lafferty is an award winning podcaster and writer and “…one of the worst-kept secrets in science fiction and fantasy publishing.”
2021 didn’t fully exist for me. I couldn’t even think of what came out last year, and had to look them up.
I played a lot of games in quarantine, of course, but most of them were continuations/replays from 2020 or earlier (Hades, Blaseball, Animal Crossing, Horizon Zero Dawn etc). However, I did watch a lot of gameplay on the Twitch platform, which is free, requires no skill, and you can distance yourself from emotional wear and tear, and got to see some incredible new games.
If there was a 2021 Hugo for Best Game, Life is Strange: True Colors would be a contender for the top. Life is Strange games famously feature real world problems (in this case, mine explosions and corporate cover-up and the heavy grief families suffer) with the main character having one special trait (time manipulation, telekinesis) to navigate the conflicts. In True Colors the main character Alex can see and absorb the emotions of others, and uses her power to figure out what happened in the mine explosion that killed her brother.
The game is gorgeous and the decisions are heart-wrenching. It was something I didn’t want to play, but some folks enjoy depressing-as-hell stories and games (see last year’s nominee, the laugh-riot The Last of Us 2) and watching the game narrative was enough to impress me.
The new Pokemon Snap was also fun to watch people play. It had much less emotional carnage. Seriously, who wants emotional carnage in these times?
Sharang Biswas is a writer, artist, and game-designer based in New York. He has won numerous awards for his games, while his writing has appeared in publications including Eurogamer, Dicebreaker, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. He currently teaches game design at Fordham University and the NYU Game Center.
I think Jason Cordova’s The Between is one of the most interesting games of 2021. Cordova builds off of the system he designed for 2020’s Brindlewood Bay: in both games, clues to a mystery are randomly selected by the game master, which players subsequently use to create rather than discover the solution to a mystery.
This time, the game is set in a supernatural, Victorian England, à la The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Cordova has introduced a heap of new mechanics and playable character types to immerse players in a seedy, macabre London filled with echoes of gothic horror.
Ira Alexandre is the primary campaigner behind the Games Hugo, a contributing editor at two-time Best Fanzine Hugo Award winning blog Lady Business, and a Co-Chair for WisCon for the second time. They live on Twitter at @itsjustira and, in the real world, with four cats and a corgi.
I have a confession to make: Even as I’ve been campaigning for a Games Hugo, 2021 was not a good year for me actually playing games. I know, it’s weird — and bad — but one of the games that I did play actually gets at this very dilemma. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game about creativity, responsibility, depression, mental illness, burnout, and dismantling systems that no longer serve the communities they’re meant to structure and support. But it’s also a game about people who are so overwhelmed by a responsibility they’ve taken on that they don’t get to enjoy what that work centers around. In Chicory, you play a (never gendered) dog who is the janitor for the titular Chicory. Chicory is current Wielder of the Brush, a powerful artifact that lets you bring colour to the otherwise colourless world. But Chicory buckles under the constant pressure to create art to serve those around her. She shuts herself away, at which point the player character, untrained and unchosen but eager, picks up the Brush — and discovers the darkness that has overtaken Chicory. The game looks like a digital colouring book, because it is one, and you can colour the world however you want, either for your own pleasure or to solve puzzles and deal with obstacles. The style, delivery, writing, and gameplay are all very gentle even as they grapple with truly dark and complex ideas. The game is not easy, with tricky puzzles and challenging boss battles. In the end, I found a lot of meaning in playing this game with my partners (it has a wonderful co-op mode) even as I worked on the Games Hugo campaign, getting a chance to actually enjoy the very sort of work I was championing. Now, working on the campaign in 2022, I’m learning to lean on my fellow campaigners and be gentle with myself to avoid burnout — and leave room for the very source of joy that I want our community to reward.
Anyone who’s allowed me to talk about games for more than a minute will have heard that I love Outer Wilds, and the 2021 DLC for the game, Echoes of the Eye is… perfect. We’re very lucky to have such a stellar example of what a Hugo-worthy “substantial modification” of a game could look like. Outer Wilds was a game so complete within itself that I could not imagine how a DLC could possibly work without undermining the structure and themes of the base game. And yet — Echoes of the Eye not only manages to preserve everything extraordinary and meaningful about the original game, but it actually builds on it and is even more clever and wonder-inducing. The environments are stunning, the secrets surprising and fascinating, and the atmosphere spot-on. Much as with the original game, saying basically anything about it takes away some of the joy of discovery, but I can say that the developers seemed to ask themselves, “What mechanic have we not yet thoroughly explored?” and then built not just an entire new gameplay paradigm, but an entirely different genre onto the base game. Incredible.
Honourable mentions to titles I haven’t played: Speaking of time loops, Deathloop looks fantastic! I’m replaying Psychonauts because (a) of all it’s awesome and (b) of all Psychonauts 2 sounds GREAT. And I absolutely cannot wait to try Inscryption, because games about games, games that interrogate the nature of gameplay, of play, of narrative, like The Stanley Parable and Bioshock, are pure catnip to me. I am so excited to check out these great 2021 titles and the others recommended here!
Joe DelFranco is a Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.
Three games come to mind when I think of the best games of 2021: Returnal, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, and It Takes Two. If I were to look at 2021 as a whole, I would say that I didn’t see or experience anything that I would consider transcendental, but some great titles were released.
Returnal did a wonderful job with fast-paced, frenetic, high stakes gameplay in a procedurally generated sci-fi atmosphere that exuded beauty and danger in equal measure. It fell short of being phenomenal because of its lack of boss difficulty, and vague/unsatisfying story conclusion, but it was still a great game overall and something I’d like to see a sequel to in the future. A great foray for rogue-lites in the AAA gaming space.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart was a great continuation of a two-decade-old series. Impressive visuals in cartoony sci-fi worlds have never looked better, and the game delivers fun gameplay with exciting new weapons and weapon upgrades. While the game never tries to reinvent the wheel, they do well with the formula they’ve become comfortable with. Rift Apart delivers a good story with fun characters and is more than worth checking out. It’s also a great example of the power of the new generation of console hardware.
It Takes Two is a wonderful co-op title that spans all different kinds of genres during its 12-hour runtime, not only story genres but gameplay genres as well. By constantly changing things around, It Takes Two keeps things fresh for players. The game is a mandatory cooperative experience with a heavy emphasis on couch co-op. In a world so divided, it was nice to have a game that did its best to bring people together. Some bugs and weird story beats/characters, and over-simplicity kept it from being perfect, but it was a ton of fun with a partner and highly recommended to play with a partner or close friend.
There are some other games I missed out on like Deathloop and Psychonauts 2, but I intend to get to some of them when I have time, Deathloop in particular. It was a great year for games, even if there were no earthshattering releases. Looking forward, 2022 will be a significant year for video games with the releases of Horizon: Forbidden West, Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Starfield, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2.
Gregory A. Wilson is an author of speculative fiction and TTRPG adventures and supplements, a college professor of literature and creative writing, a lead singer and trumpet player in a progressive rock band, the lead writer of the video game Chosen Heart (currently in development), and a long time game master of TTRPGS of every type and description. You can find him at his own website, www.gregoryawilson.com, on his Twitch channel, www.twitch.tv/arvaneleron, on his actual play podcast Speculate!, www.speculatesf.com, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/gregoryawilson, as he gears up to launch his new Grayshade IP (with novels, a TTRPG, and an audio book) in June.
Here’s the thing about the current video game landscape: as opposed to the 1980s and 1990s, when games came out less frequently and were more universally played, in 2022 there are so many thousands of games produced every year, from one person indie studios to AAA studios with hundreds of employees and budgets to match, that it feels like an awful lot of hubris to think I can come up with one best game for the year. But I do play a fair number of games on both GOG.com’s and my own Twitch channel, and I’ve interviewed a number of developers and writers for these games, and of all the work I played, saw, or read about in 2021, there’s one game I’d want front and center in a Best Video Game Hugo for 2022: Metroid Dread.
The Metroid series has always had a special place in my heart, with its blend of exploration, wonder, revealed lore, and challenging play. (It’s also got Samus, one of the most iconic protagonists in video game history, which doesn’t hurt.) The brilliant thing about Metroid Dread is that it understands this history without being weighed down by it. The typical play conditions of Metroid games are all here: no weapons, and thus a very limited area of travel, followed by the gradual opening of more areas as more weapons and equipment are discovered. As usual, the satisfaction of seeing previously inaccessible areas become available to explore is unmatched by almost any other game, and the feeling of growing power–balanced by the growing threat of increasingly dangerous bosses and environments–is as enjoyable as always.
But Dread goes further, both by introducing the (almost) unkillable EMMIs, which can only be defeated by getting to the weapons which can break their defenses, and by giving further backstory information about the mysterious Chozo, the source of Samus’s weaponry and training. This is a completely new game, not a remake in the style of the brilliant Final Fantasy VII Remake, which redefines how such projects should be done. But it understands its own history, and gives those who spent much of their childhood wondering about that history a reason to again become fascinated in its own lore. You don’t need to have played previous Metroid games to enjoy Dread, of course…but if you have played others, this Metroid game will hit even more strongly.
Dread isn’t completely perfect; there are a couple of difficulty spikes which seem to come out of nowhere, and the early experiences with the EMMIs can be frustrating. But it’s extremely, extremely good, and reflects an understanding of both the past and present of Metroid games and fans. If this is any indication of the care with which Nintendo and its affiliated studios are managing the franchise, the series is in good hands, and the upcoming Metroid Prime 4 will be a true tour de force. In the meantime, Metroid Dread is an incredible game, and well worthy of a Hugo award.
Dr. Shaun Duke is an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D in English from the University of Florida and a B.A. in Modern Literature from University of California, Santa Cruz. He studies science fiction, postcolonialism, Caribbean literature, spatial theory, fan cultures, and social media.
It figures you asked the guy who has been trying to play his entire Steam catalogue in alphabetical order, which has the effect of ensuring that I almost never play anything released after Biden became President… But here goes in no particular order:
Vampire Survivors (poncle): Released in March 2021, this action roguelite game has everything you could want in something designed to take away your entire evening: a fast-paced game with fairly simple mechanics but an easy-to-understand-but-kinda-complex strategy element. It’s addicting and so much fun!
Riders Republic (Ubisoft): I am a sucker for any “racing, stunt, whatever you wanna do” game which gives me something other than a car or a motorcycle. Riders Republic is basically just Steep but with mountain bikes (same studio and all) and a lot more style. And it’s a lot of fun. You can get competitive if you want, or you can just be a dork doing bonkers tricks for funsies. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon!
Sable (Shedworks): What else am I a sucker for? STYLE, baby! And Sable is stylish as hell and absolutely beautiful to look at. In a lot of ways, Sable reminds me of AER: Memories of Old (Daedalic Entertainment) with its lowkey quests, emphasis on exploration and discovery in an open world, and a general chill (and stylish), non-linear play format. It well worth checking out.
And here are some games that probably would get nominated by people other than me: Metroid Dread, Monster Hunter Rise, It Takes Two, Hot Wheels Unleashed, Shin Megami Tensei V, Back 4 Blood, and Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl.
Do with this knowledge what you will…
Michael R. Underwood is the author of over a dozen books across several series, from dimension-hopping story heists in Genrenauts to found family space opera Annihilation Aria. When not writing, Mike streams games at Twitch.tv/TurboTango and podcasts with the actual play show Speculate! and occasional appearances on The Skiffy & Fanty Show.
2021 gave me one game that stood head-and-shoulders above the others. Combining Roguelikes and Deckbuilders (a pairing that I’ve loved since 2017’s Slay the Spire), Inscryption by Daniel Mullins games opens with incredible aesthetics – moody music, an evocative art style, and clear base mechanics. The game evolves as the story unfolds, revealing Inscryption to be much more than expected several times over. I had the great pleasure of playing the game entirely on-stream, sharing the twists and turns with friends, colleagues, and viewers.
Another surprising favorite was Eidos-Montreal’s Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which delivered solid combat and beautiful art stylings alongside very effective dialogue and character work. This version of the Guardians clearly draws from the James Gunn film versions without being fully constrained by the MCU versions. I’m very fond of single-player games with solid storytelling that don’t overstay their welcome or pad out the game with endless busywork or uninspired side-quests, and thankfully, Guardians is as tight and propelling as a classic rock tune.
Adri Joy (she/her) is co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, a reviewer for Strange Horizons, and a dog owner. She lives in East London.
I’ve always been that person who fills half my Best Dramatic Presentation: Long ballot with video games (no I will not be getting into theoretical eligibility debates at this time), so last year’s whole ballot of video games was a super exciting experience! That said, last year was more of a year for past favourites (i.e. Fire Emblem Three Houses) and catching up on the ballot with my shiny new Playstation than mainlining new game releases. Luckily, the 2021 game I sunk the most time into is one that would be perfect for a theoretical Hugo award ballot: ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium: The Final Cut.
In Disco Elysium (which originally came out in 2019 but easily passes the substantial modification requirement with its 2021 content, which added full voice acting and several plot-relevant new quests), the player explores a tiny corner of a strange, epic world through the eyes of an amnesiac, addict detective on the brink of total mental collapse. Unfortunately for you, there’s no time to wallow in the misery of your broken life: there’s a dead body at the back of the hotel you’re staying in, a simmering conflict between the local dockworkers’ union and the international owners which is threatening to turn into a bloodbath, and your new partner Kim Kitsuragi keeps patiently but persistently expecting you to get your shit together and solve the case with him.
Disco Elysium does a great job giving the player just enough choice for each run to feel different – you make early choices about your detective’s skill distribution and get to level it up accordingly, making some things trivially easy and others impossibly difficult depending on what kind of skillset you have – while telling a compelling, if sometimes deliberately anticlimactic, story about love, loss, and what humans cling to in the face of colonial destruction and a slow apocalypse. It balances humour with passionate political statements and some utterly haunting existential one-liners, all delivered through The Final Cut’s excellent voice acting that brings all the weird denizens of Martinaise to life. That you get to do it alongside one of the best sidekicks in gaming history is the icing on the cake. Seriously, Kim is the best, and the alternate Hugo for Best Video Game or Interactive Experience should absolutely be his. No furhter questions.
POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.