By FRANZlSKA 2 Comments
Estrogen is a hell of a drug folks. I'm not about to credit it entirely for my improved mood throughout most of this year compared to last - it obviously isn't the only reason. But for a year in which I went through several kinda major life changes, started to really feel The Effects ™ of a worsening pandemic, and burned myself out on things time and time again (I have complicated feelings about both Unexplored and being in the top 50 GB wiki editors), I'm surprised - and glad - that I can look back and mostly see positives throughout this year, because it was pretty positive! I had a lot of fun this year writing, baking, getting into art and 3D modelling, reconnecting with some great friends - even making a small Yume Nikki fangame with them, and- oh right, video games.
For a while throughout this year, I barely really played anything. I got tired of games for a little while there, as fueled by few games catching my attention early on and a completely middling showing of Geoff Keighley's E4. But, somehow that's turned around in the past few months, and a good chunk of the year's later releases really grabbed me. There's still some I would like to get around to, - Chicory and Hitman 3 to name a couple - but for a year people seem convinced was entirely forgettable for media across the board, there were still some real good games to be had.
Disqualified #1 / Honorable Mention - VRChat
Or The "I Can't Make my 2021 GotY a game from 2017" Award
As someone who has long loved virtual worlds, this year has been an... interesting time, what with people clinging to the term "metaverse" as if they've invented something actually novel, and y'know what? Fuck every single one of those people. Facebook integrated-anything, NFT-whateverthefuck, it's all the most soulless shit imaginable. I can not for the life of me comprehend looking upon the potential for expression and interaction that virtual worlds present, seeing the slowly increasing quality and accessibility of the technology, and having my first thought be to make people do their regular-ass office jobs but in VR now, or own dumb commodified, mass-production facsimiles of actual self-expression, but in VR.
Which both gives me mixed feelings about loving a game like VRChat so much, and reinforces that love. VRChat is what virtual worlds can be - what they should be, and it's an absolutely amazing thing to see. It's somehow the cleanest virtual world package out there, beating Second Life by a long mile, and also one of the most readily accessible, effectively just being a Unity front-end with some rails. Far from the "ghost town" effect most parts of Second Life have these days, VRChat's clear efforts to promote community content go a long way in helping surface the expressive, VR-powered worlds and avatars that bring it to life in a way that can't be overlooked. If VRC carries Second Life's legacy into the future, I think virtual worlds will still be in good hands, at least for a little while.
But beyond even that, it's amazing with friends. Genuinely, some of my favorite memories of this year revolve around this game and the experiences in it that I've shared with friends. It's easy to stream anime for a friend group over Discord, but all piling onto the couch of a dingy apartment world designed specifically for illicitly streaming anime has such a strong feeling to it. As does finding some absolutely ridiculous shit and reveling in the collective nightmare, or staying up until 4am hopping from world to world, having your increasingly sleep-deprived minds blown by the amazing things VRC's userbase has made.
Hell, two of my friends have already gotten headsets just for VRChat, and I honestly understand it. I'd be lying if I said VRC wasn't the first game to make a genuine case for it.
#9 - Halo Infinite
Or The "I Can't Just Not Give It a Chance, Right?" Award
I have to be honest, I haven't played a single Halo game up to this point. As someone who has never owned an Xbox, it's just something I never did. When Master Chief Collection came to PC I figured I should probably pick it up, and then I never did that either.
But a brand new, hyped-up video game releasing part of itself for free is something I will always find myself compelled to at least give a shot - and I'm glad I did in this case. Halo Infinite's multiplayer is an incredibly solid shooter... as long as you ignore 95% of the progression and monetization systems. Those issues aside, it's no small feat to keep things flowing as smoothly as Halo Infinite's MP constantly manages to, and no smaller a feat to make the standard rifle and melee combo feel as good as they do. Maybe eventually people will get skilled enough to where I stop managing to fend for myself, and I'll change my mind and decide the game isn't fun anymore, but for now? Absolutely a good bit of fun!
The campaign, on the other hand... is fine. The grappling hook is the star of the show, turning a world that would otherwise be a slog to navigate into one of the more enjoyable parts of the campaign. But almost every piece of writing is just grating, with a mostly unlikable cast facing enemies that are either rattling corny-dumb dialogue or being the most generically vicious enemy force imaginable, both of which contrast the serious sci-fi war power fantasy setting it feels like Halo wants to have.
I don't regret my time playing Halo Infinite's campaign, not at all. But... whether it's an indicator of the rest of the series or not, I think it's given me enough that I don't need to look at the MCC like I used to think I should.
#8 - Quake: Dimension of the Machine
Or The "God Damn, Look At This Good-Looking Shit" Award
Outside of its aesthetic, representing one of the cornerstones of the early-3D era of video games and doing so better than most of its peers, I never saw the appeal of Quake. The level design, the flow of combat, the eldri-goth sensibility of it all, none of it was for me.
Dimension of the Machine, a new campaign made by MachineGames for the Quake re-release earlier this year, is the closest I've gotten to changing my mind about that. The level design puts in some real work, each level flowing smoothly, with clear thought to how weapons were given out. It quietly manages to address my biggest issue with Quake, forcing the player have to stop and think about what weapons they used where, rather than just using the explosive weapons 90% of the time.
But to top it all off, the levels all look absolutely gorgeous, achieving visuals that feel like they shouldn't be possible in a game like Quake, and which would even be impressive out of something made in GoldSRC, while maintaining a clear design sense and that perfect early-3D cruft. It almost makes me wish Quake had a photo mode, and even without it, the campaign warrants a play-through just to see some of the environmental design.
#7 - Dorfromantik
Or The "Could Have Been a Contender" Award
Dorfromantik is the only game on this list that I knew was coming out in 2021 and that I was looking forward to playing in 2021. The demo offered last year under Steam's semi-annual demos event remains the fastest one such demo has ever caught my attention, and I immediately kept an eye on Dorfromantik. Ultimately, the final version doesn't quite have the attraction of the demo, with more direct achievement surfacing leading to a less-relaxed, more directed feel compared to the laid-back tone of the demo. But, Dorfromantik still manages to deliver a chill-ass game while having just enough clever strategy twists to make it worth more than just a pre-sleep wind-down.
#6 - Unpacking
Or The "Coziest Vibes" Award
I've never been a particularly "detail-oriented" person, which perhaps makes Unpacking a bit of a strange choice. If nothing else, the aesthetic design of the game is absolutely amazing, with some amazing pixel art work which specifically hit me with a bit of nostalgia for the type of non-retro pixel art illustrations that were somewhat common in the early-10s, paired with some amazing sound design. I won't claim I caught every detail of the story conveyed through home items, but I definitely got a lot of it, and what I did get absolutely landed better for the game having such a carefully crafted aesthetic.
Bonus points for conveying my real life experience cleaning, wherein I take care to sort everything neatly right up until I start getting desperate for places to put stuff. And besides, what other game this year has a reference to Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, of all games?
- Intermission -
At the beginning of this year, I finally got fed the fuck up of dealing with Spotify, both for their aggressive marketing campaigns and swift degradation of the music industry, and swapped it out for a classic, reliable desktop player: WinAmp. I made this choice partially because it's a name I knew, but... mostly for the skins. After years of programs increasingly removing any options for user customization, it's genuinely nice to have a program that is almost entirely customizable in the way WinAmp is. I have tried other players since, and genuinely found myself unable to connect with any of them, mostly because of their oft-larger UIs and far more lacking customization options leading to that off-putting impersonal feeling.
But on a larger scale, what followed my uninstallation of Spotify was a slow realization that I had gotten so used to putting on my mess of a "favorite songs" playlist - complete with random things I had been throwing in there since 2013, - that I had a bit of reevaluating and branching out to do with my music taste, since complacency was no longer the easiest option. So, a lot of this year was spent listening to albums I had meant to listen to before, but never got around to, as well as finding some new things from BandCamp and other sources.
In particular, some of my new favorites include KLF - Chill Out, SOPHIE - OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, and G&tH - Come, Now. But, for the first time in a while, I have a specific favorite album for this year, and it's not one I would have expected.
Album of the Year: Vylet Pony - CUTIEMARKS (And the Things that Bind Us)
Or The "Sing a Song About Life" Award for Making Me Actually Cry
The My Little Pony fanbase has generally gone down as "a weird, bad time on the internet", and I'm not about to say it was all perfect, but as someone who was a kid back in the days where ponies were around every corner, there was genuinely something really cool about it, beyond the awful parts that usually constitute most discussions of that time.
Some slight influence from the furry fandom meant that the things MLP fans produced were a lot more varied and interesting than your typical "fanart and some shipping" that a lot of internet communities put out, including music, animation, a ridiculous amount of fangames, etc. In a lot of ways, the community was sort of a prototype of what Blaseball more intentionally cultivated last year, with a sudden influx of fans extrapolating their own varied stories off of a minimal common base, although the MLP community rarely declared things quite as explicitly canon as the Blaseball community, and typically had far more inexperienced creators than Blaseball. Top it off with the fact that a notable part of the community would go on to realize they were trans directly or indirectly because of their time with MLP- there's some interesting discussion to be had about the whole thing, is all I'm saying.
CUTIEMARKS is an album which manages to beautifully combine all these ideas and more, and in a way that hit me unexpectedly hard even as someone who hasn't paid attention to that corner of the internet in a good long while. The album takes a simple, but fair criticism of one of the main themes of the show, cutie marks - markings indicating a pony's sole purpose in life,- and extrapolates that idea out over the course of each song, all presented as interpretations of a character from the show while quietly building up a sentimental story of self-discovery for Scootaloo, a character defined by her inability to fly and desire for purpose, while also clearly pulling from deeply personal yet fully relatable experiences along the process of self-discovery. While CUTIEMARKS will certainly never be the most famous thing to come out of the MLP fanbase, the level of detail and tact with which CUTIEMARKS sets out for and executes on its concepts certainly put it in the running as one of the best works to come out of the fanbase, alongside making it fully capable of standing on it's own, separate from the context of MLP.
But, while there's no shortage of things to talk about with CUTIEMARKS, and I would be glad to extol its quality all day, there's for sure a personal aspect to my love for this album. Even ignoring my own following the fanbase, way back in the day, CUTIEMARKS perfectly landed in the middle of the journey that has been this past year. Remember that thing I said earlier about estrogen being a decent part of why I felt much better throughout this year than before? Part of that is because it slowly unlocked my emotions, which had, for the decade or so prior, felt completely muted and inaccessible. As it turns out, being able to feel shit again feels really great. CUTIEMARKS feels like the moment where it all came together, being the first album I listened to after that particular ball got rolling, on top of being so strongly emotional, and this album will always have a place in my memory for that.
- End Intermission -
#5 - Babble Royale
Or The "Words With Enemies and Born to Spell are the Taglines of the Year" Award
Everybody loves a good bit, at least for a little while, but most entire games designed as a goof tend to last for a week before being completely forgotten about. If nothing else, that probably makes it a good thing that Babble Royale came out as late in the year as it did.
However, I genuinely think it will be worth coming back to, at least for a while to come, because underneath the joke Babble Royale has a ridiculous amount of genuine strategy to consider. This past couple of weeks its been a more-or-less daily play, getting my fix of absurd, high-adrenaline scrabble PvP, netting me more clutch plays than even more-traditional PvP games like Halo.
But on top of that, the jokes in Babble Royale are funnier and last longer than any other "goofy" game to recent memory too. The death phrase incorporating the word that killed you, resulting in sentences like "You Got NUKE'd" and "You Got ANIME'd" will never not be funny. Add to it the bit where you can pay them 60$ up-front and get every cosmetic, maybe the funniest thing I've seen in a video game all year, as well as a genuinely neat idea. If that doesn't sum up Babble Royale I don't know what does.
#4 - Psychonauts 2
Or The "Archetype Raz for Character of the Year" Award
It's... kinda ridiculous that Psychonauts 2 exists. The original Psychonauts was an undeniable classic, but it always felt like a "cult classic", even sixteen years ago, and time has not been especially kind to much of what the original game did. While the sequel has been in development for a while, it was always one of those things that felt like it would never really come out. Add onto that a protracted development cycle and some of the less-than-amazing releases Double Fine has had in the past decade, and I wouldn't have been surprised if this sequel had quietly vanished.
But it did come out, and it might just be the best "modernization" of a classic game ever made. It feels so perfectly like the original, with all of its improvements being things that were sorely needed presented just right to feel like they were always there. From the improved controls to more narrative trappings like cleaning up the setting's previously-a-tad-questionable treatment of mental health, it's all warmly welcomed and yet the sort of thing that could easily be missed and the whole game would feel none-the-lesser for not realizing it. It's really interesting, in a way, even if I didn't absolutely love it as much as some people did.
#3 - Cruelty Squad
Or The "Oh Jesus, Look At This Fucking Thing. Fuck yeah." Award
There's something real beautiful in all the ways Cruelty Squad goes all in on its disgusting aesthetic. It could have just been abrasive-as-hell visuals, and that'd be something, but they really go the extra mile to mess things up in just the right way. They thread a very fine needle of making the deeper mechanics of the game obscure and difficult to understand without making them too frustrating, instead enhancing the game's aesthetic and giving it an air of mystique that a lot of games don't get these days as they're quickly picked apart top to bottom. Add onto that the tiny visual flairs, like the sickly unnatural way the LIFE indicator moves, or the way that talking to NPCs only shows a closeup of their gross mouths flapping, there's very clearly an entirely uncompromised vision here.
I halfway expected Cruelty Squad to make the top of my list, although I prefer to think that speaks to the quality of the next to more than anything else. I could still see it climbing a theoretical retrospective list, if I ever get around to replaying it and really diving into all of the weird secrets, but even still Cruelty Squad is a bold, commendable commitment to an idea, and it's just really fucking cool to see it in motion.
#2 - Minecraft: Caves and Cliffs/1.18 Update
Or The "This Might Be The Best Single Update This Game Has Ever Gotten" Award
But... for the past few years I've sort of drifted apart from it for a number of reasons. A lot changed about world generation after 1.0, a lot of which made exploring not quite as fun, and I started spending my time on a server where a lot of the players were interested in the more technical side of the game, an attitude which, while totally valid, changes up a lot of how the game goes for everyone involved. I still found things to enjoy, namely building and mining out increasingly ridiculous tunnels ad nauseum, but increasingly I found myself disinterested in the game.
However, I was excited for the Caves and Cliffs update, and started a new world in singleplayer when it came out, wondering if the sweeping changes to the game's world generation system would finally bring it back around to where aimlessly running around could be exciting again. Sure enough, it did! Not only is the overworld a bit more cohesive, but caves went from being a somewhat drab and repetitive part of the game to having some of the most ridiculous (and ridiculously cool) variety in the game, with far more open cave systems revealing caverns that are beautiful and daunting in equal measure.
Game of the Year - Deltarune Chapter 2
Or The "The Main Thing My Friends Talked About For a Solid Month" Award
At this point I'm pretty much guaranteed to be willing to check out something Toby Fox has made, especially if it's the sequel to Deltarune Chapter 1, the great game Fox released out of nowhere several Halloweens ago. While it's been a long time since the first chapter, the extra time is evident in every single part of chapter 2, with incredibly good art even compared to the first, an amazing soundtrack, and more instant-classic characters.
It's genuinely amazing how Toby Fox (this time joined by quite a few notable friends, mind) can so consistently put out amazing content, and I can't wait to see what the full version has in store. I can't help but wonder if the bar of quality is so high now that it will cause issues down the road, and I hope that's not the case, but... I guess that's a good problem to have? Even if, somehow, the other chapters never came out, Chapter 2 would still be stellar even by itself.