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Samantha Kalman's Top Games of 2021

Longtime friend of the site Samantha Kalman is here with the games that spoke to her most in 2021.

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Samantha Kalman is a game designer and musician. She's currently at Respawn Entertainment working on Apex Legends.

Wassup bomb kids? Bomb fam? Bombarinos? Bombadillos? Bombaramas? Fans of the excellent PS2 puzzle game Bombastic? And duders of all genders? It’s 2022 but with the ongoing time warp it might as well be 20XX, the exact year Megaman X occurs. I suppose our robot tech has come a long way, but Replicant tech is still lagging behind Capcom’s clairvoyant fortune telling. Honestly I’d take a robot apocalypse over this very real and very boring one. But enough about the droll of miserable reality, let’s talk about video games!

I have a short list for 2021. A lot of great games came out this last year, but unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to fully adopt 10 whole lovable games. I had to be selective about what I wanted to play and only a handful of games spoke to me enough that I really stuck with them.

#4 Deathloop

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I always have this pattern with Arkane games ~ I’ll go into them hyped af, play a level or two and really soak into the experience, at this point I usually get frustrated that I’m not able to play stealthy or non-violenty enough. The allure of the perfect level playthrough hangs over me and I fall off. Or in the case of Prey, I got stuck in a corner without enough ammo/health to survive the skirmish of my save.

Although I didn’t finish Deathloop, it (ironically) helped me break out of my own personal trap with Arkane games. The emphatic violence and ridiculously intriguing setup kept me going for a while! I must have uncovered 60% or so of the solution to the perfect day, killed each visionary at least once, and earned that kickass shotgun which changed the game completely. The progression from stealthy nail gun and panic-escapes to kick-down-the-doors and shotgun everybody is probably my singular favorite moment from this year of play.

As a designer and a player, I enjoyed working toward the objectives, but the REAL game doesn’t start until Julianna shows up. I must have had every possible kind of encounter with Julianna players. Treading stealthy, watching rooftops / sprinting toward combat Cole’s apartment / playing it cool and mainlining objectives / getting a surprise drop and blowing her away with my shotgun. I was also a fan of hacking the turrets, and lemme tell ya a well-placed turret is a GAME CHANGER when playing against her. I liked this PvP game smashed into the core of a PvE game so much that I ended up playing a bunch of games as Julianna, just to climb up her progression tree.

Ultimately my impression of the longevity game is a common one. I was breathless for the first 20 or so hours, then hit a point where something in the objective progression fell flat for me. After about 26 hours I put it down, but I fully expect to return to it this year to finish off the story and find out what the fuck is actually going on with that island. And just enjoy murdering the visionary pricks a few more times.

#3 Lost Judgment

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This was a late addition to my year in gaming! I’d been waiting to secure a PS5 to play it on some buttery framerates. The one PS5 I did manage to buy was a gift for my brother in law. Funny thing is he managed to get one too, as a gift for me. Love is when family buys each other impossible-to-find gaming consoles for each other for the holidays! As luck would have it, the evening after the gift exchange we had several inches of snowfall in Seattle. Being effectively snowed in with a little time off work, I had no choice but to sit at home and play through Lost Judgment. Woe, woe indeed.

Some of you may remember that the first Judgment was my game of the year last year! So I went into this sequel with high expectations. Perhaps mistakenly, perhaps unfairly, I was a little disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong, Lost Judgment is a great game! It’s my third best game of the year! But it hits different. OG Judgment had the benefit of telling a story that was centralized and eventually revealed to be formative to the main character’s VERY compelling story. This story is very different, as it’s centered around events at a high school starting with an investigation into the severity of bullying that’s occurring. It goes from there, and it goes many places! It’s interesting and mysterious and it’s not at all clear how all these events and pieces of the puzzle fit together until quite late in the game. The revelations and motivations of the characters are nuanced and mature in the way adult humans are complex. I absolutely applaud the game for leaning into that nuance for character motivations. In an industry of entertainment products where “shoot the bad guy” rules all, a bit of unapologetic complexity is most welcome.

A critical aspect of tension in the story is uniquely rooted in Japanese culture, which I think works against most western players who probably don’t understand some fundamental differences about how Japanese society differs from our own. Briefly, the role of obligations to the society at large is vastly different in Japan. An individual’s actions reflect on their family and institutions they’re connected to. Committing a shameful act can bring shame those around an individual. We don’t really have the same concept of shame ingrained into our social codes. An example of this is actually a story from the first Judgment. After the initial Japanese release, one of the actors who was cast as a key character was arrested by police for a real-world crime. The crime was seen to be so shameful that it violated these rules I’m describing. The response was for the developers and publisher of the newly-released game to recall all copies that featured his likeness. They took some time to completely remove his presence from the game and replace it with another actor. This is the kind of action taken in response to this shame; erasure.

Lost Jugment grapples with this uniquely Japanese characteristic of shame in a serious way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the controversy surrounding the original actor was an inspiration for the story of this sequel. It’s very hard to understand how shame is integrated into the new story without some pre-existing knowledge. The translation of the game (in subtitles because I’m a dirty gaijin) doesn’t go out of its way to explain the dynamic to us foreigners. I only know a little about it because I was fortunate to study Japanese language & culture in high school. It’s the thesis of the story ~ an obligation that we all have to each other, and the impact of our actions on other people. It’s dark and complicated and moving, but it doesn’t have the hook of personal stakes that was present in the first game. By the end of the first game I was fully invested in the conclusion because I felt so personally affronted by the manipulative villain. In this sequel I “merely” wanted to help resolve the conflict for the good of greater society; the understanding that we are all in this together and we have to take care of each other.

It still has Mahjong! And great fighting games ~ both the latest Virtua Fighter 5 AND Sonic The Fighters! Bust out those arcade sticks, kids! Plus you get to ride a skateboard around Kamurocho and Yokohama and that’s cool as hell.

#2 - Inscryption

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I’m not a big card game person. I played a lot of SNK vs CAPCOM Card Fighter’s Clash on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but that’s about it. I had to hear repeatedly how Inscryption is a must play game. The sleeper indie hit of the year. And yes, it’s very impressive in the ways it is experimental. To talk much about it is to spoil it at all. And spoiling it at all is much too much spoiling.

What I’ll say is that Inscryption is full of surprises. The number and variety of them is kind of astoundingly creative. I think everyone should try this game. You might bounce off of it in Act 2 like I did, but I already played a shitload of Card Fighter’s Clash so that’s my excuse.

#1 - Metroid Dread

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Remember when video games used to be difficult? In an esoteric way that’s more about deciphering “wtf am I supposed to do?” rather than “how do I git güd? Metroid Dread is so old-school in some very particular ways that for me it was a beautiful nostalgic joy. It also made me realize that I’ve actually played and finished every Metroid game, which was a small shock. I even played through Metroid 2: Return of Samus on the original blurry-screen Gameboy. In fact that was the first one I finished! Probably explains a lot about me. Fun fact: the way the occasional Metroid bosses evolve in that game scared the shit out of me as a kid.

The modern if minimal story setup is told through tightly-packed cutscenes. Don’t sneeze or you’ll miss something important. It’s sort of like the Matrix Reloaded where it just assumes you know everything that’s happened prior to this game. It does not give any more context than what’s needed to move forward, and I respect the hell out of that. I’ve seen a recurring complaint that it’s too hard to figure out what to do to move forward. But as a designer I think they did something really incredible. Here is a game that helped define a specific style of open-world 2D exploration games, and they implemented a very complex map with a system that prevents you from getting too lost. It’s basically a linear game up until the very end. I know because I tested that boundary many times, sometimes intentionally! The solution to move forward is always somewhere in front of you, and the game trusts you to figure it out. At the same time, the exploration ability progression that we’ve come to love about Metroidvania games is alive and well here. Probably one of the most satisfying progressions for me in a long while. When you finally get that screw attack it’s like coming home to a warm cup of cocoa. However they managed to make this game both linear and fulfill the escalation aspects, imo it’s a total badass accomplishment.

I found a certain but not overwhelming nostalgic joy in playing with Samus again. This is clearly the Samus I remember from all these other games, but in critical ways she is very much not the same Samus from the jump. All these missions fighting Metroids and the X Virus in Metroid Fusion have fucked her up real bad. And it’s not a story of recovery either, it’s about moving on and making peace with what’s happened. There are remarkable moments of both revelation and closure in the minimalistic story. It’s really satisfying if you’ve been checking in on the drip-feed of the series over 30-something years. Like meeting up with a childhood friend who’s grown and changed but you’re still very interested in their lives and want to help them shoot shit to solve problems. The boss battles are hard as fuck, and really very frustrating~! But not so frustrating that I ever believed winning any battle was impossible. Maybe once I backed out and did some powering up to make the next fight less of a struggle. The EMIs are a very new kind of “boss” encounter. I guess not everyone liked them very much, but to me they were almost all an interesting experience of stealth and tension. Those that weren’t were actually too easy.

#0 - The Matrix Resurrections

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I thought the Matrix Resurrections was a movie, but is it? Lots of video games want to be movies. This is he only movie that wants to be a video game. Yeah I’m old and I saw the first Matrix in theaters when I was 17, twice on opening weekend. So the characters and the world are extremely formative for me. Right up there with Rez baybeeee. The new movie has been so divisive, I had to take a moment here on this platform to stan.

The Matrix Resurrections is not a power fantasy. It’s not about being the most badass kung fu man plugged into a video game. It’s about accepting what you know must do when you’ve been worn down and abused by the world. When age has drained you of vigor for life, how you might have already made severe surrenders just to get by. It’s about shaking off the dust and being brave enough to rediscover what makes your life worth living. Spoiler: it’s people, maybe a special person. It’s a deeply hopeful film that stakes its claim in the importance of love as critical to the human experience. It shows how we inspire each other, why we should take chances. It depicts a post-war world where peace survived! Imagine: a without warfare is actually attainable! And it reminds us how fantastical the real world can be, how rich it is with marvelous nature and technology that can’t be replicated in even the most cutting edge immersive VR.

It has a scene where Morpheus literally Does A Matrix from one table to another while dual-wielding guns, shooting down seemingly endless waves of riot cops that flood into the room. Sure seems a lot like a video game to me.

Plus Bugs is hot af and NO I will NOT be taking questions!