Games of the Year — 2021

Mike Kelly
7 min readDec 20, 2021

Another year. These are the games that kept me sane and occupied in a world gone mad.

10. The Forgotten City

The many shall suffer for the sins of the one. This is the only law of the ancient Roman city and ethical puzzle-box of The Forgotten City. You navigate not only the needs and desires of the city’s inhabitants, but also their interpretations of the law. Does the threat of collective retribution lead to the creation of a more just society? Or does it incentivize harsher treatment of your neighbors to keep divine punishment at bay? And what is the nature of the God that would set down such a law? Like all great science fiction, The Forgotten City dares to ask questions that cause you to confront and focus your own ideas and philosophies.

9. The Gunk

2021’s winner for best video game name is also a damned joy to play. At first glance, The Gunk appears to be a well-trod tale about cleaning dark pollution from an alien world, but its humanity shines through in its writing. Rani and Becks, two partners on a salvage trawler at the edge of the galaxy, share a gentle rapport that speaks to years of companionship and conflict. Rani wanders the world, vacuuming up the dark corruption that threatens its wild beauty, while Becks worries about the next paycheck. They evolve alongside each other as they (literally) uncover the wild beauty of this new world.

8. Loop Hero

Very rarely do you see a game that completely upends the concept of genre. Loop Hero eschews controlling a character and instead builds their journey. You create their path, line it with lands, monsters, and buildings, and watch them endlessly loop through them in search of new encounters. Depending on how those lands are arranged, the realm creates different unique challenges for the hero to overcome with each turning of the wheel. More city-builder than RPG, Loop Hero shows what can happen when creativity is allowed to roam free.

7. Destiny 2: Beyond Light

Well, it finally got me. I have been playing Destiny 2 off and on since it launched in 2017, but it is only with the most recent expansion that I was finally hooked. When I dive in to persistent world, the story is what keeps me coming back. Bungie finally found a way to deliver the events of its world in a way that felt like it gave me agency. Far from the days of lore hidden on grimoire cards buried in submenus, the world of Destiny now invites you in. Instead of reading about the machinations of the Witch Queen Savathûn, I unraveled her plot of the Endless Night and knew exactly why I was acting the way I was every step of the way. It is a first step to fully realizing Bungie’s vision, and a world I hope to keep exploring.

6. Unpacking

I have a stuffed animal that has followed me throughout my life, one of the few gifts that remain from my grandmother who died when I was six. A small trinket with the weight of memory that I have kept by me for three decades. Unpacking is a game that knows that some items, no matter how small, represent parts of our lives that we don’t want to forget. The gameplay is simple — move items from boxes to your new home. But these items build stories over the years in what stays with you and what you leave behind with each new home. It is a poignant game about the passing of time, the weight of decisions, and about finding (and keeping) what matters.

5. Psychonauts 2

Comedy in games is hard. In an interactive medium, things like setup, tension, and delivery depend on both technical realities and player input. But Doublefine has created a triumph of narrative that excels in telling cannibalism jokes while seriously examining what it is to live under the weight of past traumas. Psychonauts 2 is a story about love, family, painful secrets, and the ways that we seek to atone for the consequences of our choices. You process these thoughts while exploring vast psychic worlds made to look like a Beatles-era psychedelic music festival, a lonely deserted archipelago, and a cosmic cooking show. The original Psychonauts was a triumph of creativity, and its sequel raises the bar yet again.

4. Metroid Dread

Nintendo makes games at their own pace, public pressure be damned. 35 years after she first landed on Zebes, Metroid Dread brings the core story of bounty hunter Samus Aran to a close. Dread is comfortable territory — navigating an alien world, finding upgrades, and blasting strange creatures. There are new mechanical wrinkles, such as the relentless E.M.M.I. robots, but Dread feels more like a return home for the genre that Nintendo first pioneered all those years ago. It is an ending that feels like closure more than goodbye. See you next mission.

3. Eliza

Occasionally a game comes along that feels like a prophecy of a not-too-distant future. Eliza, a visual novel by the usually mechanics-focused Zachtronics, paints a picture of the subtle dangers of our modern technological age. You play as Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, designer of Eliza, a psychotherapy AI system that human proxies use to “optimize” mental health returns. It’s less a cyberpunk nightmare as it is a reflection of the ideals of a corporatized technocratic mindset.

Evelyn embodies the alienation of the modern age — a genuinely skilled mind who sees their creation separated from its purpose and made to serve capital, not humanity. She becomes a proxy for the system to understand how it serves the people who come seeking help. Now that Eliza is a packaged product, does it improve the lives of people who use it? Or do the limitations of technology, humanity, and society compromise the promise of a mass-market mental health system? There are no easy answers, but this glimpse of the future shows that the realities of our world will eventually demand we find them.

2. Inscryption

Inscryption begins. You sit at a table in a darkened cabin opposite a creature with glowing eyes who speaks in so low a tone it crackles your speakers. On the table between you is a simple card game — play creatures to attack and defend. You win or lose by your hand and your wits.

Then you rise from the table to explore. The cabin is filled with curios, strange objects that seem there for you to discover even as your host’s otherworldly gaze follows you at every step. An iron-bound safe. A caged wolf figurine. A door with lightning flashing through the window. There’s no way out. You sit back down to play again.

Inscryption is a game that revels in mystery. What it contains is so much more than what it appears to contain, and to talk about it would be to rob it of its magic. A game can be more than a game, or it can be no game at all.

1. Wildermyth

All modern RPGs owe a part of their existence to Dungeons & Dragons, but very few are able to capture the feeling of gathering around the table and collectively creating a thriving fantasy world. Wildermyth is a collection of many different systems — tactical battling, strategic exploration, character stats — that coheres into something much more than the sum of its parts.

Wildermyth’s true beauty lies in how story emerges from its systems. Characters start as paper dolls with a litany of dry descriptors: class, traits, attributes. As the adventure continues, an actual person is pulled into reality through story moments that range from high drama to absurdist tabletop comedy. What was once a random roll of stats became Mithuren Gael, leader of the Bulls of Dawn, who wielded a petriglass seaspear against an invading Gorgon army and retired to the peace of her loom. Or Xanesse Arglesythe, the archer who was the lone witness to the passing of the giants who roam the Twynona Wilds. These characters build their legacies before your eyes, passing down the experiences of their life to their natural or found children.

Wildermyth is a blank storybook for you to fill. There is possibility in every new land you explore. A cave can lead to a shrine of a forgotten god, or a foundry that serves to bring Morthagi automatons into the realm. Every word on the page hints at stories, hopes, and legends that you may yet find in the valleys of this world.

Wildermyth evokes the simple joy of sitting down with your friends, pulling out a character sheet, and saying “What adventure should we go on today?”

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Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.