My Top Games of 2021

It's more fun when nothing is the best.

I spent a lot of 2021 oblivious.

When the year began, I did what I was supposed to: I got the shots. I kept my mask on. I got tested constantly. The moments in which I saw my friends and family were joyful if cautious events. But while hope began to forge a path forward towards what will be, every bit of me stretched backwards towards the way things were. For almost all of 2021, I refused to believe that I’d fundamentally changed as a person after what we continue to go through, but the acceptance of that fact has paved the way for a better understanding of myself and the media I consume by extension. The truth, dear reader, is that the year served to highlight that the kinds of connective experiences I found so poignant in 2020 have skyrocketed towards the top of my wishlist going forward. Animal Crossing: New Horizons allowed me to celebrate my birthday among friends within a virtual space that felt as much like home as the physical apartment in which I played it. Blaseball reinvigorated my previously dour Twitter timeline with each passing day, focused more on collaboratively fleshing out the fictional world of its generative players than the sport itself. While Hades was far and away the best gaming experience of the year, the collective discussion around it was as much a draw as the play itself. I have a continued fondness in my heart for the games that served as a platform for community and the expression of love across distance. When I consider 2020’s games, I think about the joy I felt when reaching outwards and the titles that allowed me do so.

It helps that this is a year with no clear front-runner, as evidenced by the disparate Game of the Year lists you’ll find in every publication, podcast, Twitter thread and conversation. 2021 has been transformative in the way we’ll discuss lists such as these going forward — the emotion-first frame of mind I found myself in while considering the year was weirdly freeing and is one I believe to be essential. Shedding expectation and precedent leaves a void that can be readily filled with earnestness and joy. This year, the thematic center of my list is emotional honesty and the community it brings together. I’m so glad to be able to share it with you.

10. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy | PlayStation 5

By: Eidos-Montréal

There’s a chasm between being an effective leader and being a good one. While a lifetime can be spent thinking “number goes up quickly” is an accomplishment, acknowledging and endearing oneself to the people who make it possible is the true reward. Good leadership is accepting that the skills of individuals make the whole stronger, understanding nobody should ever be considered “replaceable.”

And in that sense, Peter Quill is trying to be good.

One tragic backstory later and Peter is going by “Star-Lord” while daydreaming of being celebrated and feared throughout the cosmos in equal measure. He’s emotionally stunted, a thirteen year old boy trying to live vicariously through his own thirty-something body. Though charming enough to assemble a crew of would-be-heroes, he doesn’t quite have the chops to command them. Even if he did, deciding to call the group “The Guardians of the Galaxy” is in itself a sign of fantastical thinking, totally detached from the reality that all five members are outcasts in a society that spans countless star systems. As the player we begin our time in Peter’s rocket-propelled shoes making decisions and issuing commands to the Guardians in combat, but the dialogue frequently betrays the man he’s striving to be. His teammates clearly don’t respect him, and his own insecurities about this bleed out as rash decisions and laughably futile motivational speeches.

The next roughly fifteen hours tell the story of a group coming together, falling apart, and coming back even stronger. It dives into the mind of trauma and proves love is a more powerful force than revenge, camaraderie and individuality defeat subjugation any day. Mechanically we find ourselves getting better at commanding the team alongside Peter, who somehow earns the right to be called “Star-Lord” by the time credits roll.

Being “the one in charge” is never an easy task, and those who desire it most tend to be those least deserving. Although Peter begins his story trying to be effective as the captain of his crew and force himself into an idealized version of leadership, truly accepting himself and his circumstances paves a path towards being someone better. Someone good.

9. Lake | Xbox Series S

By: Gamious

I’ve never once been able to figure out where I want to be in five years. I’ve never made a decision about my own future with a long-term goal in mind. I’ve never decided upon a “career trajectory.” While taking photography classes and making vlogs in high school I decided to become a cinematographer in the exact moment a student councilor asked me if I knew where I wanted to go to college. After six months in film school I dropped out to move in with and join a band. After that came the last Blockbuster in New Jersey. Then a movie theater. A cafe. An office phone refurbishment company and then a circuit breaker refurbishment company down the street from the office phone refurbishment company. A tech start up. Comic book company. Ten years have passed since I entered the work force and even now I’m not sure I have a concrete idea of who I am in the context of who I want to become. After dropping out, the immediate need to pay off my student loans meant I’ve always said “yes” to circumstances and opportunities as they arose. Anything to dig myself out of the debt, out from the shame I hadn’t yet realized was coming from unfounded anxieties. I just wanted to prove I was more than a “college dropout” by working my way towards more and more impressive sounding jobs, as if that single choice defined me. That journey, that rejection of a mindless climb towards a perceived societal vision of “success” that’s grossly misaligned from actual human need is at the heart of Lake.

For two weeks in 1986 protagonist Meredith Weiss is tasked with delivering mail to the residents of Providence Oaks, the small and beautiful town in which she grew up. Having moved to “the big city” to pursue a career in the fast-paced world of software programming, she hasn’t returned home for an extended period in over a decade. Gameplay involves driving a United States Postal Service truck around the titular lake, slipping envelopes into mailboxes and occasionally hand-delivering packages when the need arises. As with any job that involves human contact, Meredith frequently gets into stop-and-chat conversations with the residents of Providence Oaks: An old friend from high school left behind, an acquaintance of her father’s with a shaky past, the owner of a local diner who still remembers Meredith’s “usual” — one slice of blueberry pie. These seemingly innocuous discussions pave the way for Meredith to reflect on her time spent away and consider the differences between the life she has and the life she’s slowly starting to realize she wants.

There’s an audacity to Lake in its command of subtlety: You’ll always be driving the speed limit around town, and there’s no run button to be found when you’re not sitting behind the wheel. Meredith’s daily route is slow and purposeful; her leisurely jaunt through Providence Oaks forces the player to sit with the weight of these decisions — it’s impossible to not ask yourself the same questions when given so much time. Most of my experience in-game was spent just as it was in high school: Disposable camera in-hand, driving around Meredith’s hometown looking for beautiful photographs while wondering about my future. At any point in life “who am I now” is as difficult a question to consider as “who do I want to be,” but given two weeks in a sleepy town with a few low-stakes tasks and the comfort of conversation with others, Lake helped me get slightly closer to finding answers than before.

8. Halo Infinite | Xbox Series S

By: 343 Industries

Halo Infinite’s campaign is messy. In a confounding attempt to bridge the narrative gap between Halo 5: Guardians and Halo Wars 2, 343 Industries have served up an almost incomprehensible mash-up of plot. When it comes to the struggles of Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, I just don’t care about the can-do platitudes, two-word responses, and “hoo-rah” mindset. Contrasted against Weapon — the ironically-more-human AI companion replacing Cortana this time around — or Echo 216 — a regular-ass dude who rightfully doesn’t want to throw himself into harm’s way to win a war that’s already been lost — Master Chief feels as empty a suit of armor as ever before. While playing, these characters almost feel like purposeful foils to Chief’s stoic roboticism, mirrors put in place to let him consider his own lack of humanity. Unfortunately this golden opportunity for a 20 year old series to get introspective goes wholly unexplored and feels like one of the year’s most high-profile fumbles.

And yet even though this failed addition Halo’s overarching narrative left me stunned in lethargy, Halo Infinite’s mechanic strides elevate it to not only compete with the current crop of first-person shooter monoliths, but absolutely trounce them with a heavy emphasis on fun and physics. At this point I would be comfortable saying this is the best Halo has ever felt. Weird!

At its core, Halo’s greatest strength is improvisation. In the compact corridors of previous entries we’d mosey our way from setpiece to meticulously designed setpiece, all the while swapping weapons as quickly as we could drain them of their ammunition. Every grenade was thrown within seconds of picking it up, every gun utilized to the last few shots and discarded — as it turns out, “evolved combat” means reloading takes more time than grabbing an already loaded gun off the ground. Miraculously, 343i’s decision to move Halo Infinite into an open world expands the opportunities for improv. Grappling between pine trees, hijacking vehicles, and discovering new weapons feels even better in an expansive physics-based sandbox than it did within the metal labyrinths of the series’ past. Even the spontaneity of the original trilogy’s more open levels pale in comparison to what can be accomplished when an enemy encampment can be squirreled away in any forest or quarry or atop any hill. And say you get tired of this “new” Halo and find yourself missing said metal labyrinths, all you need to do is head towards the nearest story mission to reacquaint yourself with the quality of level design that put the franchise on the map to begin with. Outside of its bizarre plot, Halo Infinite’s campaign is fun to exist within and poke at the edges of. Every whiffed grapple shot and every truck flipped off a cliff is just another opportunity for procedurally generative comedy, aided at its best by the all-too-serious in-game characters who don’t get the joke.

Crucially all of these mechanic improvements make their way into Infinite’s free-to-play multiplayer component as well, which has revitalized the series in a way most corporate executive freaks could only dream of. In the few short weeks since its “beta” release we’ve seen balance changes to the way experience is gained post-match, a suite of new and returning game modes, and multiple events. It’s absolutely enthralling. As of this writing I have played at least one multiplayer match daily for about a month. For years and years I’ve been on a hunt for “the one,” the one multiplayer game I can feel good about jumping into to clear my head or listen to podcasts or a new album.

Finally, Halo Infinite is that game.

7. Forza Horizon 5 | Xbox Series S

By: Playground Games

Including this one, almost every recommendation of Forza Horizon 5 starts with the same sentiment: “I’m not into cars.” And I think that’s probably a good thing! As a society, we would ideally be unified against cars as they exist today. I’m writing this sentence during the warmest New Year’s Day on record. The automotive and fuel industries have such a tight grip on the leaders of our planet that they’re willing to kill it — and us — in the process. Most days it feels like they’ve won, like cars have supplanted humanity as the dominant species.

Forza Horizon 5 presents, for better and for worse, the kind of romanticized fantasy Hideaki Anno has spent an entire career rebuking. Twenty-six episodes of television, five movies, and twenty-five years later, Anno and team have created what is paradoxically the most complex AND most poignant argument against escapism possible with Neon Genesis Evangelion. A franchise about teenagers using big robots to fight even bigger monsters is eventually revealed to be a vessel through which to tell viewers that it’s time to grow up — put it all in the box and experience the real world — horrifying as it may be. Societally cars are a status symbol, a mask we wear for others, and a means to express our freedoms all in one. Forza Horizon 5 rejects the reality of the industry and instead chooses to fully lean into the societal pedestals we’ve placed cars upon to create an escapist dream. What if, in this virtual space, it was all just okay? Not only does Forza revere cars in the way one might have in the mid-to-late 1950s at the birth of the US Interstate Highway System under Dwight Eisenhower, but it also can’t conceive of a world in which said highway system might have been a bad thing. In fact, Forza Horizon 5 frequently asks you to leave behind the act of driving a supercar 200mph on highways and roads for the even more thrilling experience of driving a supercar 200mph through some unfortunate soul’s farmland.

It’s through this “ignorance is bliss” lens that I have to be honest and say Forza Horizon 5 is one of the most joyful video game experiences you can play on Xbox Gamepass, or anywhere for that matter. It’s the ways in which Forza sidesteps the dissonance entirely and creates an automotive dreamworld that draws me to its absolutely gorgeous setting time after time. When I’m behind the wheel, rewards come as quickly as I can propel my car forward. An accidental donut in the middle of a city street here, an eviscerated cactus there, everything amounts to points I can put towards adding another car to the garage. Can I drift for an entire mile? How fast do I need to drive to launch myself off this cliff and clear the entire river? What would happen if you put a jet engine in the first-ever automobile? Playground Games has asked these questions, discovered the answers, and understands how to compensate you for your curiosity.

While the structured experiences and rewards therein provide enough pure adrenaline-based fun for most people both on and offline, it’s the open world aspect that always hooks me more than anything else. Despite devoting a portion of this piece to a “fuck cars” mentality, the truth is that the dichotomy I feel between this game and the reality of the automotive industry is one I’ve experienced for most of my life. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and, just like the rest of the United States, it’s unfortunately difficult to exist without access to or the possession of a car. Like most teenagers I spent an inordinate amount time longing for the freedoms owning a car provided. To go anywhere, and to do it with or for others on a whim is the stuff of fantasy. I was fortunate enough to finally get one in my senior year of high school, it was a big red thing that sure looked like a truck but was definitely not a truck — I loved it dearly. It was in the years that followed I learned something very important about myself: No, I’m not into cars… but I absolutely love driving. I’d spend hours by myself with an iPod plugged into my tape deck blasting music through shitty speakers and weaving through the mountains in upstate New York to discover which songs paired best with which roads. I’d pack as many friends into the back seat as possible and, with the windows down, cruise to the beach for a day and marvel at the first moment you could smell ocean air from the highway. In the nights insomnia got the better of me I’d get out of bed in the early morning hours and roll around the neighboring towns as silently as possible, a passive presence among groups of grazing deer until I felt like I might be able to go back to sleep.

Sometimes, with the right song on Spotify and the right time-of-day and weather systems aligning, Forza Horizon 5 manages to get pretty close to recreating that feeling. Even while writing this I struggle to decide if I’d really consider it escapism at all. Was it escapism in 2013 when I couldn’t sleep? Was it escapism in 2017 when I wanted to see the leaves change? Is it escapism now when I want to drive as fast as I can with my friends on a road purpose-built for connective experiences? And even if it is, is that such a bad thing?

6. Metroid Dread | Nintendo Switch

By: MercurySteam, Nintendo EPD

Before release, Metroid Dread was pitched to the world as the conclusion of a “five-story arc that has been going on for 35 years” although specifically not the “ultimate end.” Speaking to CNET, series producer Yoshio Sakamoto stated that “as long as the character Samus exists, I think her adventure will continue.”

What a cruel fate.

I started my own journey with 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission, the Game Boy Advance remake of the original 1986 genre-establishing classic. In it, bounty hunter Samus Aran is hired by a galactic federation to eradicate stolen biological samples from a group of space pirates. The samples are in fact creatures known as the titular “metroids,” a horrific jellyfish-esque parasite that feeds on the literal lifeforce of anything it comes into contact with. Throughout the game, Samus squares off against recurring series bosses like the big lizard Kraid and the big winged lizard Ridley, culminating in the first destruction of the space pirate leader Mother Brain. Sure!

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Metroid as a franchise is that despite its very 1980s B-sci fi premise, the sense of atmosphere is palpable in its minimalist environments and sparse sound design. The strength of the games is perhaps best highlighted by the frequent choice to drop music entirely in some areas, leaving you with only the sound of Samus’ feet as she wanders with aimless purpose through metal corridors and forgotten tunnel systems. When the ambiance clicks in these moments, players feel the isolation inherent to the journey and settings therein — we get to experience the emotion beneath the armor, and that emotion is tense dissolution. Without the need for dialogue or explicit story, fans of Metroid have a firm grasp on who Samus Aran is as a person through an almost imperceptible excellence in the cohesion between art direction, sound design, and gameplay.

But to accept our read of Samus Aran as a person is to accept that for 35 years, she’s been through hell. As sequels to the original, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Super Metroid, and Metroid Fusion see our hero facing off against the same threats over and over and over again in the pursuit of her original goal: destroy the metroids. Even by the end of 2002’s Fusion, this goal has merely evolved slightly, though it still remained wholly unaccomplished. What it must be like to be trapped in such a cyclical nightmare, to never emerge victorious and only emerge alive; it’s no wonder the series slowly morphed from a focus on tension to a focus on horror.

Nineteen years later and we’re met with Metroid Dread, the end of a story that started with galactic federations and space pirates as an almost laughable scenario now repeated to the point of tactility and abject trauma for its protagonist. After all these years, Nintendo EPD and MercurySteam seem to have a firm understanding of the anguish and exhaustion Samus must feel knowingly heading down to the surface of a new planet to fight the same old threats all over again. But by allowing the game to be an ending from the outset, the developers are able to ask how Samus has grown as a person throughout her journey and how she’d react when thrust into both new and similar circumstances. A key component of Dread’s success comes from the subtleties in the way she’s animated — whether it’s killing a boss with her back turned or standing motionless in almost annoyed disbelief as one of the series’ recurring bosses emerges from the dark and lunges towards her — Samus has had enough of this shit. How has she changed since 1986? She’s become even more of a badass, thank you very much.

So isn’t it fitting that Dread is probably the best Metroid has ever been? Isn’t it almost too perfect that the catharsis and triumphant rage Samus feels when finally coming to the end of her journey also makes for the most emotive and expressive highs in the 35 years of the franchise existing? By taking its time and choosing to contextualize all of her adventures as one cohesive narrative, Dread delivers a chest-pounding and tense exultation with some of the most difficult gameplay Nintendo has ever committed to a video game in a mainline franchise. I was glad to see Samus hint at relief by the time Metroid Dread came to a close, because as with the palpability of isolation in the quietest moments of previous games, I too felt the same way. It’s done. It’s finally done.

But I return to that quote from Sakamoto: “As long as the character Samus exists, I think her adventure will continue.”

What a cruel fate.

5. Tender: Creature Comforts | iOS

By: Gideon Lazarus, Jie En Lee, Kenny Sun

2018 was a strange year for mobile gaming in that the Venn diagram of “games designed for mobile” and “games designed for everything else” were starting to overlap in a real industry-shaking way. Pocketable hardware was powerful enough to run modified ports of console-level experiences, but in my opinion the peak of mobile at the time came in the form of games designed around our devices’ specific characteristics and the ways in which we interact with them. That year, two mobile games had made it to my top ten list: The first was Florence, a visual novel that employed the various input methods we use daily like tapping, swiping, and more to tell an emotionally wrought story about love and heartbreak. The other was Twinfold, a brilliantly designed mash-up of roguelike and puzzle elements by developer Kenny Sun that I still believe to be one of the best games on my iPhone.

In 2021 while the aforementioned Venn diagram continues to shift closer to perfect fusion between the two circles, I found a different kind of fusion in the form of Tender: Creature Comforts. Miraculously, Tender is a visual novel that employs the various input methods we use daily like tapping, swiping, and more to tell an emotionally wrought story about love and heartbreak — this time by Twinfold’s Kenny Sun, along with collaborators Gideon Lazarus and Jie En Lee.

Tender takes the form of a fake dating service, and upon downloading the game you’ll be asked various questions about yourself to best inform perspective dates about your whole deal while also making the app feel more natural to use. What’s your name? How about your birthday? Do you usually capitalize sentences when messaging someone else, or do you write in all lowercase? Are you a “haha” person or a “lmao” person or even a “hjskdfhialf” person? Once this information is entered, the game begins, and it sure looks exactly like dating apps you might have used before. You’re presented with various creatures who have profile photos and short bios that are punchy or too revealing or say nothing at all, and it’s your job to swipe left or right if you think they might be interesting. And then you wait. And you wait for a while sometimes! Tender takes place in real time, which means it might take multiple days to match with someone, and even if you do it might take another few days for them to respond to your opening message. If you play your cards right and choose all the correct dialogue options in conversation, you might even be able to schedule a date which must also happen in real time. Tender will send you a notification when it comes time to “attend” the date, and what follows is a beautifully written choose-your-own adventure story about how you did or absolutely did not connect with this creature.

The genius of Tender is that everything I’ve described involves procedures and concepts and input methods you’re already intimately familiar with. We don’t need to be told how a dating app works in 2021. When “playing” comes so naturally that input doesn’t need to be taught, what’s left is artwork, storytelling, and emotion. More than anything else, Tender is a platform for character studies and the ways in which we can inform them through interaction. A couple you match with on Tender looking for a third might break up based on your innocuous questions to make sure everyone is on the same page. You might then see both individually in the dating pool the next week when they’ve each decided to get back on the horse. A seemingly innocuous invitation to visit the Museum of Humanity for a date might pave the way for some speculative science fiction twists that are both too horrifying and too hilarious to spoil — by the time you’ve finished reading the information around the exhibits you realize you’ve ignored the date entirely.

By taking place in real time, Tender asks a lot of its players. For the 10–14 days spent playing, you’ll also be signing up for near-constant notifications and emotional gut-punches at inopportune moments in your real life. The frightening heart of Tender is that it’s almost too good at being a facsimile of online dating. This can be a lot to handle, especially for those who are already using dating apps in real life. But at the end of the day the secret to Tender and the secret to Tinder are one in the same: Be honest with yourself, be open to new experiences, and at the very least you’ll have a story to tell.

4. Psychonauts 2 | Xbox Series S

By: Double Fine

In 2005’s Psychonauts, protagonist Razputin sneaks into a summer camp for psychics in an attempt to fast-track his way towards his heroes: The Psychonauts — a team of psychic spies as valiant as they are powerful. Throughout the game we jump into and out of the minds of counselors, fellow campers, and more with each mind boasting a unique platforming experience that presents a tight juxtaposition between theme and gameplay. All the while we hear tales of the Psychonauts’ triumphs on the world stage from Raz as he continues to get embroiled in a psychic conundrum of his own, eventually leading to his becoming a Psychonaut himself. It’s a good video game!

But it’s in 2021’s sequel that Raz discovers the minds of the seven founding members of the Psychonauts — the ones he’s idolized and whose adventures he’s memorized after a childhood spent reading comic book chronologies — are as susceptible to the struggles of daily life as the minds of those he’d explored in his own summer camp exploits. In a crucial acknowledgment of the real world’s greater emphasis on mental health awareness and acceptance since 2005, everything about the game’s subject matter and mechanics (including the very act of jumping into someone’s mind without consent) is both questioned and explored to its fullest extent. It’s an even better video game.

And I think “better” may be the perfect word to describe the difference between the two games. As much as I loved Psychonauts in 2005, it had a tendency to occasionally be mean and almost revel in mental health struggles to make its cerebral worlds more vibrant and exciting. A sequence of levels spent in “Thorney Towers Home For the Disturbed” feels especially troubling these days, sending Raz into the minds of various inmates struggling with a multitude of mental and behavioral disorders. The oft-cited and applauded “Milkman Conspiracy” involves wandering around the mind of a milk delivery man named Boyd who is suffering from paranoid delusion and lives in a world twisted into an almost indefinable shape. While celebrated at the time, it’s upon reflection that levels such as these admittedly lack the empathy needed to properly handle such difficult topics. Psychonauts 2 by comparison has empathy in spades, and marries that empathy with its design to be better than the original in every way.

Hope and irreverence permeate every decision of this game. Even in its darker moments Psychonauts 2 manages to strike an extraordinary balance between exploring mental health struggles in a way that takes them seriously, while also not crushing the player beneath their weight. It’s a tight-rope act that never once falters in its twenty hour story, and culminates in level design even more tightly constructed and considered than the first. While diving into the minds of the Psychonauts’ founding members, Raz finds himself face to face with versions of his heroes who have been hollowed out by time and the weight of the sacrifices they’ve made to repeatedly save the world. In its deftest moments, the game understands that acknowledging a struggle can be as difficult as seeking a path through it.

Thankfully, the core of Psychonauts 2 is a message that rings out confidently: No matter what you’re going through, it’s okay to ask for help. Raz, although imperfect in his own ways, is willing and able to be a supportive force at any stage of the healing process from forgiveness of the self to the forgiveness of others. The truth, brilliantly explored in multiple key moments, is that although antagonism and hate can come from within, these feelings alone don’t make an antagonist. In fact, they’re a natural part of life if accepted, understood, and managed with care. Psychonauts 2 wants you to know that your struggles doesn’t define you. Accepting others and accepting yourself are two sides of the same conflict, but by doing both you can set off a chain reaction that makes the world a better place — with or without psychic espionage.

3. The Forgotten City | PlayStation 5

By: Modern Storyteller

This review will contain very slight spoilers for a game best experienced with no prior knowledge.

There is a point in The Forgotten City — and this point can arise at almost any moment in your playthrough, or not at all — where you happen upon an old man sitting alone in a dimly lit cave. This stranger is surrounded by damp walls and artifacts of an ancient civilization strewn upon the stone at his feet, but he wears a soft smile, clearly happy to see another living being after so much time spent in solitude. He’s content, despite what you may or may not know about his circumstances by now. With your permission, he proceeds to ask a series of questions that — though undeniably expository — feel like a natural extension of the game’s underlying desire to have its players linger over their answers. This man, and The Forgotten City by proxy, is wholly obsessed with one query above all else:

“Would you say you know the difference between right and wrong?”

After waking up beside a riverbed in the modern era, The Forgotten City sends you back in time to a lost Roman city entombed deep underground. There you’ll come across the city’s magistrate who warns you of impending doom via what he and the other 20+ residents refer to as “The Golden Rule.” Put bluntly, if anyone in the city commits a sin, everyone in the city will die. The magistrate is certain someone will break The Golden Rule today, and has prayed at a nearby temple to unhook a traveler from time who can help find the culprit before they perpetrate a crime. So begins what is unequivocally the best timeloop game of 2021 and an experience I’ll hold with me for years to come, because as clear as the central Golden Rule may seem on the surface, careful consideration reveals layers of depth that spiral downward further and further towards self-examined moral standing.

“Better to know that you know nothing, than to know nothing and think that you know.”

The Forgotten City brilliantly ends your first conversation with the magistrate by giving the player their very first lead: He asks you to speak with Lucretia, a doctor in a nearby temple, to determine why she’s so upset. This early on it’s possible you don’t know the location of the temple in relation to the magistrate’s villa, and by wandering around with this one simple goal the player may find themselves subconsciously mapping the area in the process. While doing so it’s possible to stumble into most of the city’s other residents, who are all in some way involved with piecing together the larger mystery via smaller disparate side-quests and leads of their own. It’s in this way that the team behind the The Forgotten City manages to take a complex and seemingly daunting web of interactions, dialogue trees, and timing and use them to their advantage by taking it all one step further: If everything is connected, every player will discover a path to progress no matter what they do. Every conversation on the path towards one lead uncovers another lead in its wake, and suddenly the player is progressing on multiple fronts simultaneously. For a game about looping through the same day repeatedly, its clock-like construction feels as ironic as it is purposeful.

“If there is one thing I have observed about rules, it is that virtuous people do not need them, and evil people will always find a way around them.”

Lucretia, as it turns out, is distressed because her patient Iulia is dying. The only person in the city who holds the cure is a nearby merchant by the name of Desius, who has placed such an exorbitant price on the medication that it’s a certainty he is resigning Iulia to death. Players might assume this decision breaks The Golden Rule and wait for the thunderous voice of an angry deity to shout downwards into the city from the heavens, but the only audible sound is the soft cry of Lucretia as her patient slips away.

Desius thrives under The Golden Rule. Essentially a con-artist, he spends his time in the city considering various loopholes he can use to increase his standing and expedite his way to riches without breaking what he assumes to be any of the Rule’s core tenants. Personally, I think the sick freak finds it exciting to get away with murder beneath the nose of an unknowable cosmic force. Desius’ interpretation of the Rule is a dark reflection of what he presumes an honorable god would enact upon the city, using his conjecture to skirt around his imagined rules. After seeing his actions, players might start to challenge The Golden Rule themselves: If Desius can knowingly cause the death of another under Rule’s dominion, how truly just is this system?

“We must accept the sad truth that no human society will ever achieve the utopia for which it strives. Because the only way to create a utopia is through the ever-present threat of force, such as The Golden Rule… and life under tyranny is no utopia at all.”

Although real life doesn’t have a singular Golden Rule to follow, every era of human civilization has multiple moral ideologies. Depending on region, religion, or lack thereof, any individual might adopt or reject the societal code into which they have been born or raised. Reflecting on the laws of previous civilizations from our privileged position in the Now reveals entire eras of barbarism — how could they not have known their morality was so grotesque, so inhumane? The truth is that the same reaction will spew forth from any historian fifty, one hundred, or one thousand years from now when they too look back on our society as inferior.

The Forgotten City asks its players to consider the code they follow as a personal act, because righteousness from within spreads outwards into society and brings us closer to the aspirational utopia we can never truly grow into. And we shouldn’t grow into it, a humanity that has reached its apex is no longer humanity at all. Without constantly striving to better ourselves and others, we’ll languish as a civilization, like golden statues with nowhere to run.

2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart | PlayStation 5

By: Insomniac Games

Oddly enough the closest 2021 companion piece to Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart comes in the form of The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise after an eighteen year absence that sees Lana Wachowski triumphantly returning to deliver a remake, a reboot, and a sequel in one tactful and considered swoop. In it, as with the first film, we’re reacquainted with our heroes Neo and Trinity as they endeavor on a quest to reemerge from The Matrix and fight back against their machine overlords. Unlike the 1999 original or the sequels that followed, Resurrections is wholly aware of the impact the franchise has has upon film and pop culture collectively — this is a Matrix film in which Thomas Anderson is a critically and commercially lauded auteur game developer after creating a trilogy of titles called (drumroll) The Matrix. As viewers, we’re asked to mull over our own relationship with this franchise and its key players as we watch similar beats play out in a new way. Simultaneously, the now iconic characters similarly contemplate their own place in the story and decide how much agency they would ultimately like to have over repeating themselves narratively. It’s an ambitious film that’s as much about examining our affinity for the franchise as it is about rejecting it whole-cloth, and deciding that love and the connections formed between others is more a radical and appropriate response to storytelling than any other.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart opens with a parade. The titular characters are being celebrated — again — for their past heroic deeds. Before the release of Rift Apart there were 16 Ratchet & Clank adventures, the most recent of which (not counting the PlayStation 4 remake of the original) came in the form of 2013’s middling Into the Nexus. Since then, Ratchet and Clank have been just kind of… hanging out? Both characters, though grateful for the fame and fortune heroism has finally brought them, can’t decide whether they’re bored of the same old “us versus Dr. Nefarious” routine, or so bored of doing nothing that they’d give anything to experience an adventure so rote once more. During an extended action sequence that involves the two once again fighting Nefarious — this time over a gun that can allow one to travel into parallel universes — Ratchet and Clank are separated in an alternate dimension where the villains always win. In this universe we’re introduced to Ratchet’s dimensional counterpart Rivet, a well-meaning resistance member whose altruism comes at the cost of victory, and Clank’s dimensional counterpart Kit, a defective Warbot designed by this dimension’s Emperor Nefarious.

It’s in this reframing of our heroes and villains that Rift Apart is not only in conversation with the legacy of Ratchet & Clank as a franchise, but with storytelling as a medium. Pick up almost any adventure from the shelf and being all-too aware of formulaic and repetitive “good triumphs over evil” endings has the potential to remove stakes entirely from the get-go. By setting Rift Apart in a dimension where the heroes always lose, the narrative finally goes into uncharted territory while still feeling familiar enough to not be off-putting.

Brilliantly, Ratchet is paired with Kit, and Clank with Rivet, meaning that each well-worn hero is able to impart some wisdom upon their new partners. In the very first Ratchet & Clank, Ratchet is a lone inventor on a backwater planet whose dreams of being a Galactic Ranger were dashed despite his aptitude for flight and combat. Almost immediately, he comes into contact with Clank, a defective Warbot who hopes to warn the Rangers of Dr. Nefarious’ evil plans. Both suffer from a lack of confidence, as Ratchet questions what failings led to his inability to join the Rangers and Clank wonders if his defect defines his life — and what it would mean were he to be “fixed.” Of course as with any good pairing, the two bring out the best in one-another and manage to canonize themselves in both the game’s literal Hall of Heroes and the pop culture landscape of everyone who paid attention to video games throughout the 2000s.

Rift Apart, by extension, follows a similar formula as we follow Rivet and Kit’s journeys through self-acceptance via the help of their extra-dimensional companions. For new and old players alike, these two prove to be the emotional heart of the story. Rivet’s constant failings against the too-big-to-fail Emperor Nefarious shatter her self-worth in the way it would anybody, though her drive to help others serves as a bedrock upon which she can build a healthy foundation towards heroism. Kit’s programming defect means she occasionally suffers from uncontrollable outbursts, her Warbot form causing her to become an accidentally destructive force against her will. Her inability to reckon with this side of herself has manifested in habitual seclusion — she spends most of her time on a desert planet, her only contact in the form of alien life practicing transcendental mindfulness. When paired with the titular heroes who have literally lived through similar struggles and know the best ways to be supportive of one another and themselves, Rivet and Kit eventually do the soul searching required to pull themselves out of their inner-strife. The game examines its new characters through the lens of its old characters, and in so doing informs players and itself of the nearly infinite, dimensional-spanning ways stories can be impactful for generations to come — even if it turns out good always will beat evil in the end.

It’s a remake, it’s a reboot, and it’s a sequel. It’s also the most beautiful game released in 2021, with perfect gameplay systems and an impeccable score by the legendary Mark Mothersbaugh… so there’s that too.

1. Monster Hunter Rise | Nintendo Switch

By: Capcom

Sat at the mouth of a serene underground river flowing far into the surrounding bioluminescent cave system, I aim my camera upwards towards a craggy volcanic plateau atop which two Wroggi sleep and a third keeps watch. I’m far enough away that the one watchful sentinel doesn’t see me slowly line up my shot and snap a few photos for research purposes — no need for the rule of thirds or precise framing here. One hour into my solo excursion and I finally feel like I have an idea of the topography here, the ways in which my companions and I can weave effortlessly in and out of the twisting and expansive natural tunnels in the heat of battle, and the places in which we can replenish our stock of items in a pinch. For the moment, at least, the area is calm. The sound of running water and the soft reptilian purr of sleeping Wroggi are only punctuated by the infrequent shifting and splashing of my canine companion in the river. When I return from my tranquil expedition I’m greeted joyfully by the denizens of the village, each with a request for materials that can be used to offer increasingly impressive services to myself and others.

Surrounded by three of my closest friends, things are not going according to plan. Magnamalo, a hulking tiger-like creature sporting purple-plated armor for skin, is making quick work of the four of us as its frenzied blows come faster than we can react. With every slow swing of our comically large weapons, the monster manages to dodge swiftly and retaliate with the swipe of its claws or purple hellfire from its jaws. Standing again at the mouth of an underground river beneath a craggy volcanic plateau, I shout to my companions that grappling upward and outward to heal our wounds and hope Magnamalo doesn’t follow is our best bet at survival — which is becoming more important than victory at this point. Before we zip into the sky, one brilliant mind among us takes the opportunity to throw a flash bomb at the beast, ensuring it won’t be able to see our escape plan as we clamber to safety. Atop the plateau, we eat steaks and drink health potions and sharpen our weapons and continue laughing the whole way through. Within the hour Magnamalo has fallen, and we all sign off until tomorrow’s hunts begin.

In my free time I find myself chatting with the residents scattered around the village of Kamura, taking care to learn more about them as people instead of as walking-talking vending machines. Yomogi, a young chef who runs the village tea shop, sees her constant menu expansion as an expression of artistry and the best way to serve her community. Iori spends his days surrounded by felynes and palamutes, and by using his unique gifts can help them grow in strength and resourcefulness. Both separately express to me their desire to do something more overtly cool, like becoming a monster hunter, but by utilizing and honing their talents they’re able to impact Kamura as much as, if not more than I ever could.

Monster Hunter has never been known for its story, despite the series’ multiple attempts to put narrative first. At best, entries have been innocuous to the point of forgettable, and at worst the franchise has a tendency to play into troubling colonialist attitudes dressed up with a fantastical albeit ignorant sheen. Rise though, more than any other entry, smartly focuses on the hub village itself as its emotional core. By endearing me to the place in which I find myself safe and at rest, I care more deeply when that safety is threatened by outside forces. I would never let anything bad happen to Yogomi or Iori or the many other faces of Kamura. For the first time in its seventeen years, Monster Hunter smartly centered every piece of its gameplay around the betterment of the community — both human players and NPC alike.

That focus bleeds into every decision and mechanic on the multiplayer end, where my time spent sitting at a table eating dango and talking with my friends can feel as fun as the hunts we’re ostensibly preparing for. In 2021, Monster Hunter Rise was my continued link to socialization in the ongoing pandemic-addled world. Just like Animal Crossing: New Horizons before it, Rise represented an on-ramp to the franchise for many of the people I hold dear. Although I always hoped Animal Crossing would realize its potential to catch on with mainstream audiences, I never imagined a world where Monster Hunter broke out of its “hardcore” shell. I recognize this wasn’t the norm in 2021 the way New Horizons was for just about everyone in 2020, but to see so many willingly toss themselves headlong into a title known for its complex mechanics and opaque design was a joy. As with most things, to be able to teach your friends how to play Monster Hunter is a dream come true.

But writing this in 2022, Kamura is less vibrant than it once was. Life in its natural state is a series of ebbs and flows, and the friends I once found myself surrounded by have since moved onto other adventures. Every once in a while, the most die-hard Monster Hunter fans among us will jump in for a hunt and a chat, but it’s nowhere near the nightly ritualistic experience we’d all briefly had at launch. Still though, I’m happy to knock out a hunt or two with my buddies when the timing is right. Every moment spent together, virtually or otherwise is a moment to be cherished. To spend so much time in a place as beautiful as Kamura is a privilege, and sharing that time with others is the best experience I had playing a video game in 2021.