Malindy’s 2021 GOTY list
Today is the last day before I stop working for the year, and I’m allowing myself an hour of silence beforehand to do nothing but acknowledge the games I’ve enjoyed the most this year. It is an incredible feat to make and release a game during a pandemic that is very much not over, to continue to ask questions and to entertain. Thank you for making something even in an industry where nearly everything gives you headwind and where we create despite, or because of, the scars this very industry gives you. Thank you to everyone who kept and keeps going, I nearly didn’t, but continuous awe (and envy) keeps me on my road to making something.
I’ve played over 50 games this year, so even with trying to adhere to a manageable number of GOTY games, it would be ludicrous not to mention some additional games that gave me a lot of joy.
Honestly, I haven’t spent enough time with Wildermyth — I’m not sure I ever will, such is the crux of procedural generation. I hate the way people talk about this game sometimes, because they focus on the procedural generation aspect so much when so many narrative designers try to tell cohesive stories in much the same way — trying to allow for flexibility without crossing wires.
Wildermyth is an achievement not because so much because its procedural generation works, but because that system is nothing without the design effort that goes into the words so they can fit its system. (shoutout to inkle) Donlan gave me this game saying “hey, you love DnD, you love stories” and isn’t it just great to have a game that fits this very broad criteria to a T that its not just another RPG?
Signs of the Sojourner
Look, you know the only reason this is isn’t at the top of the main list is that I technically played the 2021 Switch port of a 2020 game. Signs talking-via-cards mechanic is such a good idea of how to make a non-violent action into interactive play. This is exactly the kind of game I wished for when I started thinking about how I would enjoy less violent/non-violent games a lot more than what the industry calls standard.
The mechanic isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t get myself to care, which is exactly the point I know I love a game — when the inner critic falls silent. It is so brilliantly written and warm it compels me as a writer. It makes me want to be better both as a person and a creative force. Signs of the Sojourner is everything I want to see more of.
Monster Hunter Stories 2
It’s odd how a game about grinding to kill creatures can be so kind. While Monster Hunter Stories 2 has very plain narrative and gameplay structures, it hooked me. Monster Hunter Stories puts your very cute rider up against monsters that are a threat to different communities, so the structure for each chapter sees you finding the threat and then eliminating it, just like a regular Monster Hunter game would. But I love the vibrancy of MHS2’s world, and it’s enthusiasm for peace. Also as someone who loves turn-based combat no matter what people say about it these days, I just loved the flashy fights and the possibility of collecting a new friend at the end of it. MHS2 very much tickled my lizard brain and felt like the kind of grindy JRPGs I would play as a kid.
I embrace my love for the sappiest otome visual novels wholeheartedly, but then Bustafellows wasn’t that. It was serious, and took its subject matter seriously in a way the VNs I tend to play usually don’t. It’s end goal isn’t so much to get you with a cute guy (and believe you me, they are cute), but to tell a story about injustice and morally grey behaviour. If it were an anime without the romance parts, a lot of people would rave about it, and honestly, I was so blown away by it partially because I haven’t played a lot of high-quality otome games before. I definitely see the difference now.
I love it when I happen upon a demo in the Steam Games Fest and immediately want more — this year, that was Black Book for me. It is incredibly atmospheric. And it has cards. Let’s be real, I will absolutely play your card-based anything. Black Book had the feeling of a pleasantly spooky fairytale to it, and I just kept wanting to see more of its world, which is one of the highest compliments I can give.
THE GOTY LIST 2021
Hello and welcome to the, er, main event. Here are my top 10 of the year.
10. Genesis Noir
Genesis Noir is more fascinating art experiment than game. I didn’t always understand it, which is already vastly preferable to games who have nothing even remotely challenging about them. The fact that Genesis Noir is interactive is what makes it so wonderful to me — it’s incredibly haptic and you just want to see what it does next, how your own mouse movement can make a difference, showering your screen in sights and sounds. Genesis Noir opened my mind to a different facet of play once more in 2021, a feat I mostly gave monsieurs Hogg and Hagget credit for before.
A lot of people called Dorfromantik relaxing, but honestly, I have never built villages so competitively before. Looking at some streamers, I have to conclude I’m bad at this game. Nevertheless it hooked me in the same way Signs of the Sojourner did, with a quickly explained mechanic that takes time to learn. Beautiful tiles with village elements on them that are still surprisingly mean to you! Those river/train track tiles, arrrrrrrgh.
Greg Lobanov, you’re it. You’re the one. Greg Lobanov is the kind of designer I want to become — a kind designer! Who doesn’t sacrifice any kindness or fun by designing really innovative gameplay. And that gameplay always seems influenced not by what exists in gaming, but by childhood delights — first it was singing, now it’s painting with big strokes. I’ve never felt so validated in just enjoying an artistic pursuit, and then seen and soothed by Chicory acknowledging that burnout is real, being creative is so hard, and managing outside expectations is often the final straw.
The reason Chicory isn’t higher on my list is that its control scheme is really taxing on my disability — I don’t know how to solve this, but I struggled to play it and kept going because I really wanted to play it.
7. The Artful Escape
The Artful Escape, which I have waited years to play, is one of those games that makes people look at me and say “well, you do care more about narrative than gameplay”. Wow, rude. But also — yeah, sometimes. Or rather, let’s say that The Artful Escape’s gameplay manages to deliver precisely on what I need from it — just grand, bombastic feeling.
I shivered my way through this game with every time Francis Vendetti took off and just shredded. This is such a personal game to me, because music, my first, perhaps my only real love, is what keeps me alive. The feeling of hitting that note is indescribable, and The Artful Escape is a game all about the chase for that feeling.
6. Life is Strange: True Colors
Poking fun at Life Is Strange gave me life. Now look where that got me. Okay, look — I still think Life Is Strange is a bit cringe. I think that’s part of its appeal — it is earnest to the point real life would never be. But this is an honest GOTY list, and the truth is that while I didn’t think my decisions made much of an impact and I had no desire to play it again simply to romance the character I hadn’t picked the first time, I just… really enjoyed it.
If this sounds a bit baffled its because I was, but True Colors had some great LiS-esque showstoppers — the scene about blaming your child for a death is oof, so difficult to pull off, and it just did. The LARP was pure joy, and every single nose twitch caught in the mo-cap was just another testimony to a game paying attention to what its particularly good at. I just needed warmth this year, and this game delivered. You got me this time, Life is Strange.
5. Tales of Arise
Finally, some good fucking…JRPG. I feel like these days we pin so much on a very small number of games. Final Fantasy 14 and Persona 5 have to do the lifting for an entire genre, and that seems limited and boring to me. So imagine my surprise when one of my favourite series, obscure to many people, came out of the gate swinging.
It looks gorgeous, that’s the first undeniable thing, but it somehow marries serious storytelling with pure anime showboating. Huge explosions! Screaming! Everybody dies — or did they! Ugh, the drama, I live for it. Plus the voice acting, good god, we need to give more credit to voice actors and great voice direction. Call me, Ray Chase, call me tomorrow.
4. No Longer Home
Reviewers have described this game as something you can only enjoy if you can empathise with the very specific feeling its trying to convey. That would normally spell death to many commercial games. While not every game is going for mass appeal, I still think in commercial terms broad appeal is generally the goal, and the cycle that goal perpetuates makes me feel really bad sometimes about the industry and my part in it.
No Longer Home was difficult for me to play precisely because it is steeped in a feeling of uncertainty and loss, certainly the exact feeling I had when I realised my time at school wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go, and suddenly having no goal, no job, no way forward as an “adult”, a “functioning” member of society. That we can even begin to talk about such feelings in games is marvellous to me and shows how the industry is evolving in all the necessary ways if we look past whatever fare the mass market offers us.
3. Before The Night Comes
Don’t you just love it when you happen onto games you love by accident? I don’t mean the calculated accident of an algorithm, I mean the hook behind your ribs that materialises when all of your interests coalesce. Here was mine: High fantasy western otome game with a character voiced by Gideon Emery. I am beyond shame (she writes, feeling the warmth tingle in her fingertips)! For game makers to come so far to find the means to put the things they want into the world without begging at the door of major corporations is magnificent, and WTNC is just that, a self-made success by friends who through clever marketing, kickstarting and delivering on something the larger industry won’t give us are now game devs like any other.
WTNC is a gorgeously written visual novel. Its world, though only hinted at, feels complete, its characters are charming, and it works well in every way it deals with its constraints. I want to be able to write like that, I was blown away.
If you’ve followed me for a minute, you know eastward was it for me this year. It was coupled to an intense feeling of loss — it was one of the last games to come out that I had played at Rezzed 2019, the last time I went out for an industry event — but it gave me so much in return. I just love when a studio has clear and honest love for its influences, but manages to make their entirely own thing out of it.
Eastward is funny, eastward is sweet, Eastward is full of amazing little details in its charming pixel art, and in eastward violence is not a random occurrence, nor a means to an end. It’s a defence, nothing more. I want more kids like Sam in games, then I’ll put up with the daddification of the medium.
Yes, I know. Lame, unsurprising! But as you know, I love storytelling, and Unpacking just gave me a wholly new way of exactly that, and one I’ve never considered. It’s the game of game that made me wonder how this didn’t exist before, it has a clear vision of where it wants to go and what it can achieve with its design, and it stays with you even after you’ve finished it.
Unpacking doesn’t ask for much of your time or skill, but it manages to give you something, and I just love it when the equation balances out in my favour like that. Look, I know games should have friction (trying to put all the damn pots away sure counts for friction in my book), but sometimes I only have so much skill and attention and time, and I feel unpacking understood what I needed, as player and a person, in 2021.