All I Asked From Video Games in 2021 Was to Make Me Feel Something

COVID-19 has made reality slippery. From 'Inscryption' (good!) to '12 Minutes' (bad!), what stood out this year were experiences that broke the fog.

Dec 21 2021, 2:00pm

Numb. That was one of my most common feelings in 2021. Cancelled vacation with the family because some people we’d be around are anti-vax? Numb. COVID-19 outbreak at my kid's school? Numb. Inability for Democrats to do anything in the face of an increasingly facsism-adjacent Republican party, let alone deliver upon its electoral promises? Numb.

What I sought from the things around me, whether it was people or games, were ways of breaking that feeling. My oldest daughter, for example, met a group of neighborhood kids, people who’d been only a few houses down from us for over five years and yet never interacted—and now she has two best friends. Those same kids have parents we now count as friends, too, and we now spend weekends hanging out, daring one another to drink increasingly awful holiday-themed beers, and watching our kids bicker over who gets the red marker.

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That’s made my heart fuller, my mind less numb, this year. 

So when I started thinking about the games I couldn’t stop thinking about, games my keyboard and mouse kept deleting from this arbitrary list of 10 and putting back, were games that made me feel something. When we use the term “feel” we often associate it with positivity. This was a good game, that was a great game. This game looked great, that game played great. It’s true that I spent time with a lot of good and great games that looked and played great, but it’s also true that one of the games on my list is actually straight up bad. But importantly, it was memorable, and I will forever remember the reaction I had playing it.

In other words, it made me feel something. 

Another game on my list is one that I spent less than an hour playing, despite me being the kind of person who takes pride in finishing video games they start. In this case, I actually do think it’s a terrific video game, but personally didn't have much fun playing it. But that hour stirred something in me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about what it was doing ever since, prompting me to spend hours pouring over Let’s Plays to see how others approached it.

When I played these games and others in 2021, I’ll tell you this: I did not feel numb.

10. 12 Minutes

You might’ve guessed this was the game I was alluding earlier. 12 Minutes has one of the strongest openings to a game in recent memory, wherein anything the player thinks is possible might be possible, as every click (or non-click!!) changes the murderous story in seemingly profound ways. It’s so cool! Plus, you know….celebrities! And then the story happens, or more specifically, the moment. I yelled at my monitor when it unfolded, and immediately recommended my friends and colleagues drop whatever they were doing and reach the same sequence in the story. It’s one thing to be told what happens in 12 Minutes, it’s quite another to experience it yourself. While very little about 12 Minutes, especially the twist, is what we might traditionally call “good” or “storytelling,” hot dang was it memorable. It was wild, audacious, and truly one of my favorite moments in a video game in the year 2021.

9. Mundaun

If games are frequently about escapism through abstraction, Mundaun takes the opposite approach, grounding itself with humanity through its art. The game’s deliberately messy and haunting hand drawn aesthetic, complete with “mistakes,” literally transports players to a world created by someone’s fingers. It’s all around, and you can’t ignore it. That would be enough on its own, but instead, Mundaun also happens to be a spooky and memorable tale about returning home to your quaint (and naturally, creepy) mountain village, after your grandfather has passed. Talking goats, rideable tractors, walking hay monsters? Oh, yes. 

8. Guardians of the Galaxy

I think Disney should be broken up, characters like Iron Man should be in the public domain, and the way Marvel Studios co-opts decades of art and storytelling by its writers and artists without credit for its endless movie and TVs projects is shameful and should result in huge payouts to those creatives. But I’m also a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lol? Alas. Guardians of the Galaxy, as a property, existed before James Gunn’s movies, but in pop culture, that wasn’t true. An incredible challenge: this game was somehow supposed to ride that cultural wave without being a copycat and yet also do it’s own thing? Tough! The situation got weirder when it became clear the game part of this thing wasn’t that great, and the entirety of the experience would rely on the writing doing all of the heavy lifting. Despite this, not only does it forge its own identity amidst the MCU’s presence, it’s so smart and interesting and heartwarming that it makes you look past the upteenth monotonous fight you’re about to engage in, because the reward before, during, and after that fight is another wave of terrific interactions between these four characters. My biggest surprise of this year.

7. Sable

Even before children, I enjoyed games that pointed in a direction and said “hey, go do that.” A sense of progress. It’s for this reason alone Sable, a game that technically has objectives but whose function is primarily being vague guideposts across a gorgeous desert made up largely of nothingness, should not have clicked so hard. It’s also a game where the chunky frame rate, at least when I played it on Xbox, was borderline unplayable. I hate the way folks fetishize frame rates, but this was…woof. And yet. And yet! I couldn’t get enough of lazily blazing across this alien world, spending the hours catching up on episodes of The Filmcast while I tried to see whether this huge mountain in front of me was climbable. (It always was, and even if it wasn’t, it felt like my fault). Over and over again, Sable rewarded my poking and prodding with some of the most evocative architecture I’ve seen in a game. The moments etched into my memory didn’t result in the obligatory achievement popping up, but were the result of a lengthy hike into the unknown that I’d plotted entirely inside my head.

6. Life is Strange: True Colors

What was always true but has now become abundantly clear is that I am a mark for the Life Is Strange games. I cannot think or talk about them rationally, or properly fault them for their issues. Please look as I, once again, hand wave the latest game’s narrative issues because, well, I really love the characters and want the best for them. This is a franchise that’s been Problematic since day one, all the way back to its initial popularity driven by an obviously queer romance that did more than play footsy with queer baiting tropes. But dang, they hit me in the heart every. single. time. I’m tired of pretending that’s not what I’m here for; it's a lie, folks. True Colors continues the grand tradition of Life Is Strange’s unrealistic idealism, this time set in a mining town that would definitely have numerous MAGA hats in real-life, but when I think about my time in Haven Springs, none of that bubbles to the surface. Instead, it’s how I want Alex and Steph to kiss; it’s the heartache of losing parents and coming to terms with their complicated identities; it’s taking pride in my role during the town LARP.

5. Cruelty Squad

Steam says I played approximately 0.8 hours of Cruelty Squad this year—less than an hour. I probably spent more time coming up with the questions for my feature about Cruelty Squad, or watching Let’s Play videos, than I did playing it. I did not enjoy playing Cruelty Squad—a bleak yet hilarious satire of capitalism in an old school Rainbow Six wrapper—at all. But once Cruelty Squad had entered my bloodstream, it’s all I could think about. It broke my brain, and had me running down rabbit holes to answer “why?” to a game whose worldview seems to suggest nothing is ever that simple, even in a shooty game. Give up, embrace chaos. Cruelty Squad rejects traditional notions of aesthetic and player in service of its own design. It’s as exhilarating as it is off putting, and I, for one, respect the hell out of it. 

4. Resident Evil Village

The Resident Evil series serves no master other than itself. Resident Evil is what it wants to be, when it wants to be, and Village is a testament to that. If Resident Evil 7, imo possibly the best and easily the scariest the series has ever been, was a testament to its origins, Resident Evil Village prays at the altar of its endgame. Horror sequels are universally hard, and it has nothing to do with video games. All horror sequels trend in the direction of action, because suspense is hard to maintain once the illusion is broken. A single xenomorph can only be spooky so many times, so how to up the ante? Maybe…hundreds of xenomorphs? What’s brilliant about Village is, unlike Resident Evil 7, it doesn’t pretend to be interested in tonal consistency, as it dances between terror (that fetus) and (the b-movie water creature) and, at times, horny (Dimitrescu). Taken individually, I’m not sure Village works all that well, but as part of a weird stew, it’s greater than the sum of its parts. That’s Resident Evil, baby.

3. Before Your Eyes

I like to cry. It’s cathartic and draining in a way not dissimilar to the way my body feels after a long run—it’s a process of renewal. I didn’t unlock that emotional feature until the passing of my father nearly a decade ago, but it now means I weep during one of those awful TV commercials where the parents drop their kids off at college and stare quietly from the car window. I am especially sensitive to parent/kid narratives, obviously! I am also a huge sucker for mechanical gimmicks, see: the way I fell for motion controls and virtual reality early on. Before Your Eyes being a story about family tragedy experienced by blinking through scenes while a webcam tracks you is—well, it’s extraordinary. It lasts just long enough to prevent the gimmick from falling apart, culminating in an ending that preys upon your body’s habitual need to blink, especially through tears, and our desire to keep watching, even in disaster. I’ve treasured every minute in Before Your Eyes and never want to revisit its darkness again.

2. Boomerang X

It’s fitting I’m writing this days before The Matrix Resurrections, because the sensation I would experience loading into Boomerang X was the same “oh crap” face characters make whenever that gross cable was pressed into the back of their heads before returning to the matrix. Playing Boomerang X, the best Spider-Man game that’s not actually labeled a Spider-Man game, elicited a genuinely physical reaction from me at times, as I glided through the air, hoping to never touch the ground, and took down my opponents with the precision of an airborne ninja. I rarely feel cool while playing a video game, but inside of Boomerang X, I was a legitimate badass. I’d regularly lose track of space and time, reacting without logical thought—only instinct. The hootering and hollering coming from my office while Boomerang X was in session would seem silly if it weren’t so authentically joyous, too.

1. Inscryption

It’s so hard to be surprised by a video game these days, and for that feeling to be maintained past a premise that catches you off guard. Inscryption is a roguelike deckbuilder, a phrase that’s nails on a chalkboard to my ears because my tolerance for them is directly related to my skill level (low). But there is a moment early-ish where the game’s possibility space explodes, and heck, anything could happen now. And anything does happen, even if, at the end of the day, Inscryption still is a humble roguelike deckbuilder. That truth is a lie, but that lie has truth, and the way Inscryption plays with your understanding of how a game like this should work is its biggest strength. By the end, all you want to do is zap your brain so you can experience it anew—or convince friends to play, so you can experience it through them.  

Tagged:

GOTY 2021

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