By ALLTheDinos 7 Comments
Over the last few years, nothing has changed my taste in gaming quite like having a little hatchling toddling about the house. For 2019 and most of 2020, it meant that I would just wait for my daughter to go to sleep before I played anything. But as she grew older, and smarter, and more capable, my instinct was to find things she would enjoy watching. I became way more self-conscious of any violence / aggressiveness in games I played, and not just around her. I don’t mean this as some sort of “arglebargle violent video games hurt children”; the whole of American media is bent towards violence. Right now, she’s a sweet, empathetic little kid who giggles like a maniac at her own jokes, and she likes watching pleasant things. It’s something I feel compelled to preserve as long as possible, even if it’s a battle I know I’ll eventually lose.
Unlike my personal GOTY blogs (the 2021 version of which should be posted sometime next week), I’m drawing from a pool of games my daughter watched or played during 2021, instead of limiting it to games released during 2021. Having Game Pass let us dip into more kid-friendly fare than we might have otherwise, and the little one would call out game thumbnails that looked appealing to her. She got me to try out Jurassic World Evolution on the console, which led to me obsessing over the PC version after I got a taste. It also taught me the tightrope walk of being done with a game long before your child was tired of watching it. One key factor in ranking this list was “did I endure a tantrum by choosing to not play this game”. But by far the biggest consideration was how much of her imagination it captured, fueling play outside the confines of the tv screen or computer monitor. Shouldn’t that be the point of all kids’ media?
(Special apologies to Planet Zoo, which would definitely have made this list if she hadn’t already watched me play it in 2020. I have to have some rules on this thing.)
10. Townscaper (Xbox Series X)
Disclaimer: this is less of a video game and more of a toolset. Unlike Dorfromantik (which she didn’t especially like watching), there’s no challenge aside from seeing what the tool will create. My daughter loves painting, and this was essentially a canvas of an endless ocean, with the tools being little houses. She had very strong opinions on which color houses should be placed where, as well as the allotment of bridges, ladders, and boots in front of doors. She received a small Duplo set from her grandmother early this year (and a much larger Duplo set from her aunt during the holidays), and it was clear that Townscaper gave her some ideas. It’s a little too finicky for her to place the houses herself, at least for now, but she enjoyed her time as a spectator.
9. MLB The Show 21 (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)
I am a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, and my daughter has never even visited the Eastern time zone. Nonetheless, she had a lot of questions about my Orioles t-shirts when she saw the smiling cartoon bird and the “baseball man” (aka MLB logo). When this game came out and immediately launched on Game Pass, I picked it up thinking it was simply a brute force journey of getting my precious losers to win a World Series in my lifetime. However, my daughter made it more rewarding by being surprisingly into the game of baseball. She picked out details, like how “the versatile” Pat Valaika’s shoes looked very similar to my own black Nikes. But I think the action was focused in a way that she could understand most of what was going on, and she was definitely curious about the game in a way I couldn’t have predicted. She received a teeball set for her birthday and loves gingerly placing the ball on the stand and bopping it. I won’t force her to root for the Orioles, although the hometown Rockies probably aren’t much of an improvement. Let her chart her own path, provided it doesn’t involve the Yankees.
8. Pikuniku (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)
I don’t have a way of verifying this, but I believe most of the appeal from this game comes from saying the word “Pikuniku”. That’s not to say my daughter didn’t love the colorful world and simple art style. The protagonist in particular looks like the kind of stick figure a toddler draws. The platforming is relatively simple, though there’s a level of finesse I don’t think a younger child can manage. Perhaps when she gets older, we can try out the multiplayer section together. By that point, I’m sure there will be other things for us to play. But for now, she always calls out “Pikuniku” when she sees the thumbnail on the list of games.
7. Sable (Xbox Series X)
I started playing this game after baby bedtime, thinking it wouldn’t be for her. That is, of course, until I encountered a Chum. My daughter absolutely loves the Chums, and when we encountered the Chum Queen together, there was nothing else she wanted to see for a time. She barked commands at me to approach the wriggling ground Chums until they hid, then to back off so they could re-emerge. She liked the other portions of the game just fine, particularly the clothing options, but it was all just biding time until she could visit the Chum Lair once more. This game just barely missed out on my personal GOTY list, so I’m happy it gets a spot on my child’s.
6. Goat Simulator (Xbox One)
If nothing else, I will always remember this as the first game she actually played. I came home from an early morning grocery run to find my daughter sitting on the couch, controller in hand (supervised of course). She was delighting in making the goat jump and move around a little bit, and she managed to get it to hop over an object. There’s little more to be said about the game itself, but the opportunity to emulate her parents made this one a big hit with the kid.
5. Katamari Damacy REROLL (Xbox Series X)
This is one of those games you think “well yeah, of course a toddler loves this”. The silly artwork, the big noises, the music - all of these are right up a kid’s alley. And yet, I’m honestly not sure why she’s gone so nuts for watching us play this game. It’s probably the same instinct that led to us getting hooked on the game in the 2000’s, that there’s something delightfully engaging about even just watching someone else play Katamari. She hasn’t tried singing the theme yet, but given how she spends the first 20 minutes of bedtime belting songs, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
4. Tetris Effect (PC / Xbox Series X / Xbox One)
I started playing the PC release of this game in July 2019, shortly before my daughter was born. I was unable to beat the final level (“Metamorphosis”) until I had a newborn sleeping in another room, which is such on-the-nose symbolism it’s almost embarrassing. I can’t play the game without getting vivid memories of the hospital and her little wrinkly body wrapped in a swaddling cloth. This was a game I’d been waiting to show her for years.
While the fascination has dulled over time, she spent hours of 2021 glued to my lap, listening to the songs and watching Tetris pieces fit together. Her favorites included the balloon level, Turtle Dreams, and (extremely unfortunately for us) that awful rap song in the second stage. I could also put it in Theater Mode and let her press buttons to her heart's content, although more often than not she hit buttons that skipped the level she wanted and got frustrated. But nothing can replace my memory of her playing with toys and singing the balloon song in her silly little baby voice, one of the very first things we heard her sing.
3. Lego Duplo World (iPad)
As noted above, this kid loves her some Duplos. Since both of her parents are still working from home (and fortunate to be able to do, I must add), we occasionally need some help getting through meetings with her in tow. There is a ton of mobile dreck out there, but this game has the type of experience a toddler craves. Ever since she first encountered a smartphone, this kid has swiped and tapped and dragged things with astonishing proficiency. Being able to do that to very recognizable objects (thanks to her own real world Duplos) locks her attention in a way that’s simultaneously relieving and worrisome. Lord help us when she discovers Roblox later in life.
Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this game (it’s not my tablet, and I’ve never seen a menu screen), I can’t say for certain whether parents need to be careful of microtransactions and accidental purchases. It’s possible the whole thing is free thanks to it being a glorified advertisement for Duplos, which are not cheap. But my daughter is equally pleased with tapping along the pieces of this game as with physical Duplos, and this game ranks very highly accordingly.
2. Zoombinis (PC)
My family grew up during the Broderbund era of games, when a slew of educational computer games flooded the market. One of my first real games was Sid Meier’s Civilization II, presumably because my mom thought it was another educational game. For most of my siblings, their first real game was The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, or just Zoombinis as it’s now known on Steam. Over the years, we’ve referenced it enough times to keep the existence of the Zoombinis relatively fresh in our minds, so I finally looked up if it was available on Steam. I gave up on waiting for a sale and finally purchased it during the summer, then tested it out in front of my daughter to see if she liked it.
Holy MOLY does this kid love her some gosh-darn Zoombinis.
She received a whiteboard from her grandmother for her second birthday, and I’ve lost count of how many Zoombinis I’ve drawn for her on it. She became obsessed with Zoombiniville, so I started drawing that or recreating it with toys. After encountering the Allergy Cliffs in the game, she understood why her dad can’t eat certain foods. She’s repeated lines from the pizza trolls, talked about the Fleens, and requested replays of specific levels. I have to be careful when using Steam around her, lest she see the tiny Zoombini icon in my list of games and demand it. The game has become less of a staple of our house as the difficulty has increased (and the time to beat a given level exceeds a toddler’s attention), but thanks to the training mode, she can still get hooked watching it. I can’t wait for her to get old enough to actually play it.
1. Phogs! (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)
Finally, we reach the ultimate toddler’s choice of 2021: a couch co-op puzzle game released in December 2020 (and therefore eligible for many publications’ best game of 2021). My wife and I played a bit of it early in the year, and eventually I tested it out while my daughter was awake to see what she thought of it. She was instantly obsessed with the Phogs, to the extent that she wasn’t quite sure how to handle her feelings about the game. The Phogs make their way across levels by being swallowed by dinosaur worm creatures, and this greatly upset her at first. However, seeing the happy Phogs emerge from the other end, ready to get into more misadventures, helped calm her down. She loved the hats each Phog could wear and the happy creatures that populated the Phogs’ world.
The game itself is low stakes, slow-paced, and overall just really pleasant. That being said, it had controls that a toddler sadly can’t really master, even during co-op with a parent. I’m not sure what the minimum recommended age for playing Phogs is, but if I’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that children are always way more capable than their parents think. From a spectator point of view, she was absolutely enthralled with Phogs in a way even the Zoombinis can’t touch. I 100%ed the game in front of her, and she still wants more. Maybe after a few months I can go back and start a new playthrough; I know who’s going to be glued to my side when I do.
Honorable Mentions: I mostly bought KeyWe because I thought she’d like watching it, but it’s a good Overcooked-like in its own right… She liked Donut County, but never hit the same levels with that game as the ones on this list… My wife and I absolutely hated this game, but I Am Fish is something that may have made her top 10 if I could have tolerated playing it longer… Finally, there are other games she was into that will make my own GOTY list, and picking out car colors / patterns with her in Forza Horizon 5 (for example) was something that influenced my final game order.
Dishonorable Mentions: Not much belongs here, because we shut games off if they got violent or scary for my daughter. However, I’d like to shout out Kingdom Hearts 3 (aka “bad game” in her parlance) for trying to get my daughter interested in Disney. I’m trying to enjoy the time I have left before I have to hear the music of Frozen on loop, and you jerks at Square Enix are not helping… Also, I didn’t play this game, but a special raspberry towards It Takes Two for the infamous stuffed elephant murder scene. My daughter loves elephants and that would have traumatized her if we had let her watch it.