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Jess O'Brien's Top Ten Games of 2021

How many horror games will this dork slam into this thing?

Art by @konebomb
Art by @konebomb

Before Jess got hired at Giant Bomb as a video producer a few months ago, she was a SomethingAwful Let's Play forums alum, making a bunch of LPs for Silent Hill games like a big dumb idiot. This cool job is her first foray into using her "IRL" name online, so everything else she's ever done has been under the name VoidBurger. Follow her on Youtube, some other Youtube, a third Youtube, and also Twitter, and Twitch and all other fine hustle hellscapes.

Wow! My first GOTY list at Giant Bomb!! If you had told me a half a year ago that I’d be writing this, I’d’ve called you a silly bean, or worse. It’s been really cool and I’ve gotten to play more recent games than my usual fare, as someone who was previously a cheapskate streamer who leaned on Steam sales and gifts a lot. Also, shout out to Gamepass for making this stuff a lot easier to catch up on. As much as I’m into physical media, I’m also into the idea of having a huge library of games to noncommittally try out, which allowed me to bounce off Artful Escape, and hate-play It Takes Two (I’ll talk about it some other time, I don’t wanna sully this article with negativity! If you liked it: hell yeah).

I wanna start with a weird side category:

Best Community Collaboration Indie Horror Dev Project Production Thingy That Everyone Should Check Out Cause I Said It's Cool

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Dread XP and Haunted PS1

As you may have noticed from the bizarre (and sometimes uncapturable/unstreamable) games I often bring to Unprofessional Fridays, I like charming indie efforts to do a cool thing. Haunted PS1 and Dread XP are two such bastions of my bullshit. Little treasure troves of experimental horror fun that shows off the genre from all possible angles: from the seriously scary, to the somber and sad, to the strangest and goofiest stuff you can imagine.

You just can’t get this quality from AAA games.
You just can’t get this quality from AAA games.

Like this little dude that says “boner” when you press B.

These are excellent (and free!) venue to check out upcoming games, and for devs to build hype for their projects. I look forward to these two groups’ trailer shows (EEK3 and Spooky Showcase) with the same amount of hype as E3… except maybe it’s a little more because these things actually show off stuff I like.

My Steam wishlist is loaded da heck UP with games from these showcases, which hopefully adds some fuel to the creative fire these indies gotta have to make these great things.

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It also seems like these two curation entities have fostered a really welcoming community as well, which is just heartwarming as heck. The whole situation is really neat and I want more people to know about it! So yeah, check em out, play some demos, have a spooky good time!

DA ACTUAL GOTY LIST

#10: New Pokemon Snap

God, that was this year? And it wasn’t even January, it was April?? Bwuh???
God, that was this year? And it wasn’t even January, it was April?? Bwuh???

This pick is extremely tainted by my nostalgia for the original but hey, screw it. New Pokemon Snap is just bigger and better and cuter than the original and I don’t have much to complain about.

I’ve felt a little distanced from the Pokemon Gens since like, the second one? I haven’t really felt that familiar connection with the little critters past Togepi, an egg who is a baby and also your friend.

*Werner Herzog voice* I would like to see the baby.
*Werner Herzog voice* I would like to see the baby.

And as someone who tends to find turn-based menu-navigating games pretty tedious (even an easy one like Pokemon), it was really my connection with the original 151 (plus like 30 others) through the anime that kept me playing Pokemon Red and Yellow when I was in 3rd grade or whatever.

Who the fuck is this guy
Who the fuck is this guy

Then they introduced all these new guys and Fairy types and I no longer knew the type advantages and it was all downhill from there cuz I wasn’t watching the show anymore.

But anyway, through taking a bunch of cute and silly pictures of them, I started warming up to even the ugliest and shittiest Pokemon. The personalities, behaviors, and interactions between the little guys in this game are so charming and capturing pics of them doing something rare is oddly exhilarating. I now like Bidoof!!! Why did I ever hate Bidoof!!! I like games that can change my mind on something, and that’s a big one.

I love you, friend.
I love you, friend.

#9: Chicory: A Colorful Tale

What can I say about Chicory that hasn’t already been said about Chicory? Nothin’ except that it’s also great if you actually wanna give the art angle a real college try. And I did. Because I went to art college. Here’s Aiden Pierce’s iconic cap.

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And a thicc Amogus I drew.

Finally my art degree is actually being put to use in my career.
Finally my art degree is actually being put to use in my career.

I like any game I can do art crimes in.


#8: Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

When I was playing it back in June, I was chanting “GOTY, GOTY, GOTY” basically the whole time, but then like 7 other games came out or left a longer-lasting impression on me and my chanting got quieter and quieter. It’s still really good, though! And felt real nice to play! And it's super pretty! A really solid game and fun platformer all around. Really good times.

Also is this guy unexpectedly hot or is it just me?
Also is this guy unexpectedly hot or is it just me?

Big year for Star Trek actor Armin Shimerman, by the way. He was the voice of Dr. Nefarious (the way less hot one) AND Razputin’s Dad in Psychonauts 2! He’s still got it, baby.


#7. Cruelty Squad

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Okay, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this one, so I might re-think its ranking at a later point, but there’s something compelling about this freak of a game. It’s too unique and bizarre and garish for me to not be oddly fascinated by it, even though I am absolute dogshit at playing it. I even got nauseous from the head-wobble, which is rare for me (I turned it off once I realized “wow I feel kinda barfy?”)

Cruelty Squad seems at first to be just a grody-looking FPS but wait! There’s more! There’s a… stock market?

what
what
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You can buy and sell company stock, human organs, and …fish. Cause there’s also a fishing game in this mess. Actually, the hitman jobs you do in this game don’t seem all that lucrative, the real way to make money seems to be via the stock market. Also, all the characters you talk to seem pretty “done” with …all this. I’m gesturing around but you can’t see it. All this stuff. This game isn’t just a weird janky joke, it has some seriously anti-capitalist bite to it. Everyone’s getting fucked over and you’re fucked up mutant hitman just trying to get by in this crazy, ugly world. Maybe reality is just as janky and ugly as this.

But then again, I haven’t finished it. Maybe it’s just about being a mutant hitman with augmented feet that fart so hard that you can double jump.


#6: Unpacking

Wow, that’s some whiplash. Going from Cruelty Squad to this. I’m a real freak.
Wow, that’s some whiplash. Going from Cruelty Squad to this. I’m a real freak.

While I'm here: A reminder to not download a game that LOOKS like Unpacking on the App Store! There is no mobile version of Unpacking! It’s a fake! Perhaps you’ve heard about these sorts of plagiarist games from a little episode of The Very Online Show, a cool show edited by me.

Unpacking made me happy-cry by the end. How a game can do that with hardly any dialogue, no on-screen characters, and literally only environmental storytelling is a hell of a feat. The care that was put into this game is apparent in every little corner, from the lovingly rendered box of tampons, to the dish towel you stole from an ex, to the fact that there are over 14,000 foley files for plopping items on every possible surface in the game. There’s gotta be a more impressive word for “impressive” but I’m not smart enough to know it. But it’s that.


#5: Resident Evil: Village

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Don’t take out the pitchforks over this, but I must admit that - technically - I did not play this game. My partner Josh (@ChipCheezum) was helming the controller, but I was along for the entire ride of Resident Evil 8. And it was a great ride! I helped solve puzzles! He just wanted to physically play it more than me, and it’s a real pain to be a gamer couple sometimes when you’re both interested in the same game. You either watch the other person do a Let’s Play of it (Which is fine, we’re both Let’s Players. What a meetcute!), or you gotta stay in separate rooms playing the same game and not see each other or talk about the game to each other to avoid spoilers until you’re both definitely done. Which sucks!

So, I watched Resident Evil 8 and it was excellent. The devs of Resident Evil have been making us Silent Hill fans painfully jealous since RE7 happened. They’re GOOD at what they’re doing. They’ve managed to mix up the franchise in big ways while still having its roots firmly planted in schlock.

After so many years of making zombie games, they went and said “What if.. Instead of zombies… it was werewolves? …. AND vampires? …..AND ghosts (uh, possessing dolls)? …. AND swamp things? …. AND Frankensteinses?”

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You absolute madmen, you fucking did it. You went and did the whole classic Party City Halloween crew and made it work, you crazy sons of bitches. AND they made a section inspired by P.T. and didn’t just outright steal P.T.! I can’t be prouder. Much respect for the devs, and much jealousy towards Resident Evil fans. Be kind to us Silent Hill fans, we’ve been really going through it the past … like 15 years. :(


#4: The Forgotten City

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Danny O’Dwyer got me into this little gem. I knew it was a timeloop game, and that was it! But then he further described the basic plot and feel of it, and it shot up my list from “mildly interested” to “downloading NOW.”

I’d rather play an interesting game that looks like shit than a gorgeous game that’s vapid, and this is a great example of that. This game can’t look any more Skyrimmy, and that’s because it was built off Skyrim’s engine, originally as a mod for it.

There's no mistaking that Skyrim look and feel. Thank god there's no horses in this place.
There's no mistaking that Skyrim look and feel. Thank god there's no horses in this place.

The basic, back-of-the-box premise is that our protagonist is transported to a Roman-style city, where its small population is being held there under the rule of a god who will kill every last one of the citizenry if even a single one of them “sins.” Your mission is to timeloop through the day to find who is going to sin, and prevent them from doing so, thus saving the city. While doing that, the game raises a bunch of fun questions about the nature of “sin”: What counts as one? Doesn’t it vary between cultures? What about intent? Etc.

I love Philosophy 101-ass games. I’m a big fan of The Talos Principle, SOMA, and The Turing Test. I feel like interactive media like games are such an excellent playground for Socratic dialogue and getting the player to think about stuff they might not usually be confronted with, so HEY, here’s a game where there is literally someone who asks you to have a Socratic dialogue with them. Bingo! A thing I like!

I also had a problem with this guy and his whole deal, but I won’t get into it.
I also had a problem with this guy and his whole deal, but I won’t get into it.

There was also an unexpectedly spooky section of the game that made me do a poggers face for the entirety of it. Just absolutely up my alley.

I will say, however, that The Forgotten City didn’t quite stick the landing for me (although I did get all the endings). There was just a little something missing from the climax that made it feel a bit disjointed and awkward, but hey, the journey there was super engrossing, and I have a lot of forgiveness in my heart for the sin of jank.


#3: Inscryption

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Another thing I like way too much in games is meta-narratives and genre switcheroos, and Daniel Mullins’ Games is always peddling their fine wares of games about games about games. I’m a big fan of Pony Island, and a moderate fan of The Hex (I think they bit off a bit more than they could chew with that one), so from the instant I saw the trailer for Inscryption, I knew it would be this developer’s finest work yet, iterating on all the other crazy-ambitious ideas they’ve fiddled with in their previous games. It’s really cool to see a developer learn from previous successes and mistakes through each subsequent release, as you follow their career.

cool :')
cool :')

Inscryption is cool as hell, and has more secret lore than you can shake a stoat at. There’s also an ARG surrounding this thing, but I’m not even getting into all that. But what I thought was real cool about this game is simply this: I didn’t know I liked card games, really. And it turns out that a great way to get me to like card games is to encourage me to break the card game in any way I can possibly devise. Hell yeah.

As someone who was already familiar with Daniel Mullins’ Games, the genre flipping aspect came as no big surprise to me (play The Hex for lots of that), and yet how Inscryption presented the genre-flips and style-swaps were still potent and dramatic enough to feel so damn cool when they did happen. The music cues, lighting, and pace of it all were finely crafted to still make it feel like a surprise, even after two games of Stuff Kinda Like This happening. It’s still my jam.


#2: Outer Wilds DLC: Echoes of the Eye

Good lord, this game rocks. Oh my god. I can’t fathom that this developer is like… new at this? Who are these people? Where did they come from? How dare they make not ONLY an expectation-shattering masterpiece like The Outer Wilds, but then they go and have the audacity to make DLC that’s JUST AS GOOD as the original, where I thought “Welp, there’s nowhere else to go with this story, or this universe.”

The nerve!! They did it!!
The nerve!! They did it!!

If you haven’t played The Outer Wilds, I urge you to do it, and bring a buddy or two along for the ride with you. It’s an extremely good couch co-op game, in that one person can drive the spaceship, while the peanut gallery can help puzzle out the intricate mysteries of the universe. More brains = more fun. I had an absolute blast with Outer Wilds, and then the DLC came and scratched the itch that it barely poked at in the first one:

Spooky stuff!! Booga booga!
Spooky stuff!! Booga booga!

Yes, this DLC is just a little more spooky than the original campaign. My jam, once more! And don't worry, it’s not cheap about it. This ain’t Jump Scare Planet we’re going to.

The mysteries are spooky. The implications are spooky. The sad parts are spooky. And there’s an ever-present undercurrent of facing those fears, pushing through it for the sake of knowledge. In lots of out-and-out horror games, you might get better weapons and become more powerful over time in order to face terrifying things.

But Echoes of the Eye really knows what kills fear: knowledge. Knowledge is power.

And you’re constantly learning new things, applying them, and overcoming any and all frightening aspects of this game, and it's one of the most empowering feelings I've had in a game. Echoes of the Eye takes the concept of “fear of the unknown” and dares you to be intrepid, to learn what it is that you’re scared of, anyway. And once you figure it out, it may not be as scary as it seemed.


#1: Devotion

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Oops she’s doing it! She’s doing it to us! She’s giving us the ol’ switcheroo!

Devotion is an astoundingly affecting Taiwanese horror game that I don’t wanna tell you too much about. It’s about a family, it’s about Taiwanese culture, it’s about mental health, it’s about putting your faith in the wrong things in desperation, and it’s about how one can be driven to do monstrous things. Again, that’s my jam!

Plus, it’s outrageously pretty.
Plus, it’s outrageously pretty.

The thing is, Devotion came out in 2019. Not 2021. But here’s the deal. I’ll just quote Wikipedia here: “The game was released on February 19, 2019, but was removed from Steam shortly afterwards on February 26, after a controversial Easter egg referencing Xi Jinping, then-General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was found in the game.”

So yeah, that sucks. Devotion was robbed of being on any Game of the Year lists due to this censorship.

But in March of 2021, Red Candle Games opened their own storefront where you can finally legitimately purchase this incredible game. (May as well buy that bundle that come with Detention, too. That's also an incredible horror game that I recommend whole-heartedly!)

So what I'm saying is Devotion actually was released for the public – for reals – in 2021. And I think that makes it eligible for my Game of the Year 2021 :) Deal with that! And go play Devotion! I also recommend you watch my friend Bob’s incredible video about how you should play Devotion, he’s very convincing, and also my video editing sensei.

Okay, now that you’re done dealing with it, here’s the Actually Released in 2021 #1 GOTY Game. Go ahead and shift every other game down a notch if that makes you happy.


Actual #1: Psychonauts 2

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I had the great misfortune of not playing Psychonauts 1 until like, 4 or 5 years ago. I fucked up! If I had played this game when it came out in 2005, it would have become a hyper-fixation of mine. If I was a few years younger, I would have had an OC that was also going to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. I’d draw one now if I wasn’t writing this on a deadline! But oh well!

I'll wait.
I'll wait.

The point is, I absolutely adored Psychonauts 1, though I do acknowledge that it definitely had its own 2005-era issues, as many of us did at the time. (Turns out “gy**y was a slur! Who’da thunk! Not me either, in 2005!) I also played Rhombus of Ruin before Psychonauts 2 came out, and it was such a joyful experience.

And here comes Psychonauts 2, 15 years later, and 15 years wiser. And here I'd like to point you over to Cohen Edenfield’s GOTY article, because they put into words exactly how brilliantly Psychonauts 2 approaches its sometimes-grim topics with empathy and grace. They put it far better than I could have! 100%, hit-the-nail-on-the-head there, Cohen. Go read that bit and come back to this page, actually.

This hilarious, charming, smart, cute, and shockingly cathartic game is practically perfect. It somehow didn’t feel at all like it’s been 15 years since the last major installment! Characters even reference a few times how the events of Psychonauts 1 transpired a day or so ago! The fact that the plot picks up without missing a beat fills my sad, shriveled heart with appreciation and my husk of a gamer-brain with serotonin. The fact that all these new characters fit in with the old ones so seamlessly is bonkers to me. The gameplay, the art direction, the sound design, the music, the voice acting, EVERYTHING is just… so right. It feels more right than the first game to me, as if Psychonauts 1 was a less refined version of what it was always meant to be: Psychonauts 2. Double Fine are creative geniuses that pulled off the borderline-impossible after 15 years and an unreasonable amount of hype. Kudos to all the amazing people who made this awesome thing. <3

I also hereby award Nona as the best grandma in gaming because she is so very much like my own Nonna (it's with two "n"s in Italian), who I miss very much back home in New York :')

I love her and want her to cook me food.
I love her and want her to cook me food.

Wow, that was actually a really good year of games, in my opinion! Hell yeah. Hope it was a good gaming year for you all too, and thanks for reading my list! The Giant Bomb fans have made this new job situation all the more sweeter by how cool you've all been to me, so thank you for that as well. :') PEACE!