2021 has been a tremendously odd year. It has also been my first year with a real job as a games writer. This means that I have a lot of pent-up feelings from the past several years about video games that I love, many of which are embodied by this very strange and messy list–which, yes, includes several games that did not come out in 2021.
Instead of just telling you how they made me feel and why, I’ve instead chosen to write a series of vignettes and poems, which try to create a window into the world created in the space between these games and me. This list is not comprehensive, nor are these stories, but I hope that they can convey a fraction of what this year felt like. I don’t know how to do so in any other way.
Persona 2 and Persona 5 Royal
I played all of Persona 5 Royal in one week, during an intense depression at the beginning of January. It was the exact game I needed at the time, despite all of the broken things about this series — its relationship to queerness chief among them. I found a way to love it, nonetheless. Persona 2 was released over 20 years ago, and stars a young bi man slowly reckoning with his own identity and place in the world, using a wildly different set of mechanics. It is the quiet queer heart of the series, beating brilliantly. If you have a PS Vita, grab it while you can.
the protagonist of every persona game is trans because so am i
sometimes a girl googles a name
because she is tired and because
she thinks that names are important.
so, before she names the boy, she
wants to know what else
he has been called. girl googles
and sees the boy’s (canon) name
is her (noncanonical) name.
the story writes itself, doesn’t it.
there is a little boy
who grows up to be a ghost
who grows up to be a trickster god
who grows up to be anything that light or fingers
can touch for long enough to catch.
isn’t that what gender is?
a thing made of hands.
yesterday he was strength.
today they are a hanged man.
tomorrow she will be a tower falling.
maybe someday they will be the high priestess
because she loved so much
that she became it.
i am thou
thou art i
thou has turned a vow
into a blood oath.
thy self shall become
the wings of rebellion
and break the yoke of thy heart.
thou hast awakened to the ultimate secret
of the Fool, granting thee infinite power…
the story writes itself.
one day there was a flower,
It dreamed of trees.
Wildermyth is a tactical RPG for telling stories about people. In it, you guide dozens of characters through five prewritten campaigns and endless procedurally generated stories, as they fall into local legend. At the end of each campaign, some of those characters become a part of local storytelling traditions, and show up in future campaigns. It is a phenomenal storytelling tool, enhanced by its ability to tell affecting generational stories over the course of decades, and I am beyond excited for its arrival on Switch next year.
Ana has been walking for three days. Her wife, Junvier, has been missing for four. In this time she has spoken to no one. Her knees would hurt if they were still flesh. They have not been flesh for a long time.
The stone of her feet is loud on the cavern floor. She has never been one for stealth, and she knows that Junvier will be expecting her — scared and refusing to admit that she is not alone.
When Ana finally finds her, in the depths of that place, she is wrapped in vines. She is marked by the magic she has relied on for these last seventeen years. It is beautiful and terrible. She is very afraid to become different. Ana would be hurt, to see her partner fear a body so much like her own, but she remembers being afraid, too. When the stone first took her legs, it nearly broke her. But it did not. Junvier will be strong, too. She has always been the stronger of them.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
I began playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in late spring of 2021, almost immediately after graduating — this was the correct time to play it. The game sees you explore the blighted wasteland of Chernobyl, scavenging your way across what’s left of the old city. It’s defined by tense gunplay in which you wield shitty, barely operational firearms. In between the bouts of gunfire, there are moments of incredible beauty and solace. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a tone poem about violence.
17 февраль: Three men. Two Makarovs, one Viper. Six blind dogs. Meat.
19 февраль: A small encampment, forgot to count. Two Stalkers joined me, one survived. The other carried identification, three cans of salted meat, and an AK 74/2u. The weapon broke in my hands after being fired seven times.
24 февраль: Seventeen blind dogs. Four snorks. Six flesh. Thirty nine rodents. I sat on a roof today. They charged at me, directly into the anomaly below — in the train yard. The pulse of force reminded me of a heartbeat. Thrum, charge, scream. Thrum, charge, scream. Thrum, charge, scream. Some of them used to be people. I did not search the bodies, because I was afraid.
26 февраль: Empty campsite. Guitar beside the long embers, owner absent. My fingers have almost forgotten how to play. Almost. It hurt less than last time, my fingertips have become calloused by the concrete and cold. They smell like metal now.
i think i am becoming tired.
Etrian Odyssey Nexus
Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a dungeon-crawling RPG with a very limited main narrative, leaving space which provides an opportunity to make something else. It couples this sparse narrative with a handful of character portraits, and a terrific battle system. All of these things come together to allow you to tell your own stories with the game’s myriad systems.
Elise has always been the strongest of her siblings. Her blade the heaviest. Her memory the longest. Her body the most tired. But now, she is brought low. When the bird-thing rips at her side, the blood is warm and familiar — and she feels terribly alone.
She asked that Elanor stay home. Her magic is strong, and she is swift and brilliant. But Elise cannot help but fear for her. Elric, too. His shield is trustworthy, but she is tired of seeing him hurt and afraid — especially when in her stead. She thinks about tending his wounds. Imagines his body in the bird-thing’s way. The spat of blood, the scream. She imagines being unable to do enough for him.
She readies her driveblade, despite the shock of pain. Its engine thrums and screams and the sword vibrates in her hands. It is a brutal and precise weapon — built for finishing blows. And she sees the bird-thing, tired and bloody, driving its beak into her side again, and she knows that she will die here along with it. And then the boy steps between them. The stupid Hero, who has been better, faster, and stronger since the day they met, steps between them. His shield cracks from the impact, something in his arm rips.
Elise plants her feet, her shoulders wrench the weapon forward. Violence happens, and it is good. The bird-thing is dead and she is alive and she is not alone. She does not know what to do with that.
Halo Infinite is a very good video game. It manages to interweave a solid campaign with a delectable open-world structure that, despite how generic the form has gotten, consistently provides opportunities for experimentation and great set pieces. The multiplayer is similarly exceptional, and will likely be my primary chill game for the next year. Read this essay about Halo–it says many of the things that I would want to say about the series better than I could.
Shin Megami Tensei V
Shin Megami Tensei V is a very good JRPG about what you are supposed to do when God was real, but now He is dead. To answer this question you move through a post-apocalyptic Tokyo with a team of powerful demons, recruiting and fusing them together as you go. When faced with a dead God, the game suggests that it is time to build a new one.
It is also about a boy, who isn’t a boy. I don’t know what to do with that.
after (the dancer)
moving aporetic, the boy flicked tears like daggers
into the open mouth of the crowd.
a critic would later compare it to watching a bird break its wing
and then try to fly nonetheless.
the broken bird wing boy
moved like dying.
and he didn’t know why.
he didn’t know why.
after the piano stopped,
all the audience could hear was the dumb sound
of the boy’s feet slapping against the wooden stage.
it made a man feel sick.
he hasn’t danced since, the broken bird wing boy.
he misses it. or maybe he doesn’t.
i don’t know much about gods.
Sable is a terrific game about finding your identity in a Breath of the Wild-esque open world, by helping the people who inhabit it. As you journey across its uniquely gorgeous, Moebius-inspired desert landscape, you come across many kinds of people, each of whom is marked by a mask. By the end of the game, you will choose your own mask and identity to embody. It is a tremendous and meditative experience that I would recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in video games.
In the 15 years since her first gliding, Machinist Sable has dreamed of two others — neither of which she has embarked upon. The first was following her longest day. It is normal to reconsider one’s path after a long day.
The second, however, was one of her shortest and most unremarkable. Its unremarkability is what broke her. Her love of the machines, of their gentle hums and beautiful idiosyncrasies, faltered from familiarity. She wondered if she were truly built for this — if she were really a machinist then she would love every day more.
And the next day the children came, at the cusp of their own glidings, and asked how to dream a hoverbike into being. She smiled, and taught them how to listen to the hum of engines — how to learn the songs of the Perpetual. It was a better day than most. She has yet to embark on her second gliding.
Disco Elysium originally released in 2019. This year, I finally understood why I loved this strange video game about being a cop who genuinely cares. It is the most important piece of art in my life right now.
CONCEPTUALIZATION: In Italo Calvino’s uniquely brilliant novella, Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes hundreds of cities to the ageing emperor Kublai Khan. At one point, the Khan asks him why he has not spoken of the city of his birth, Venice. Polo replies that in every one of the hundreds of places he has described, he has been describing Venice. Revachol, the city in which Disco Elysium takes place, may be my Venice. Beautiful, repulsive, furious Revachol.
1. Un jour je serais retour près de toi, la Revacholiere.
SHIVERS: The Gates J growls overhead — and its weight resonates down the old metal stairs into the concrete below. A woman, quiet and almost alone, feels it through her feet as the line behind her grows ever longer. Her face is worn, beautiful, and alive. Behind her, a girl — younger — tries to get her hands out from the cold. Her wrists scrape against the zippers of her coat. They will be raw later.
The wind is a violent companion, falling in waves — and the woman, further worn and still beautiful, pulls the girl into a window nook. A handful of words pass between them. This is the first time they have spoken. The woman’s phone begins to ring for the fourth time in as many hours. The girl smiles, sad and warm — knowing that, like the rest, it will be unkind to her. The city wheezes, terrible and alive.
Cloud Gardens is a gardening game about the end of a world. You place plants, and the broken remnants of the world around them — this allows the plants to grow. It is a game that asks you to prioritise growth, and a future without people, over traditional aesthetics. It is a uniquely beautiful game.
this world is not a broken machine
it is the antifactory.
an open plane where nothing is consumed
transmuted or produced.
a series of unrelated objects, living together.
the investors ask why it is,
and their world, too, is un done.
Umurangi Generation came out last year, but that does not change the fact that it has become my defining game of 2021. Set in a city at the end of the world, Umurangi Generation is both a stellar photography simulator and a terrifying portrait of the years to come. If there is one game from this list that I demand you play, it is this one. I will let it speak for itself.
And so ends my incredibly strange first year at Kotaku dot com. Godspeed, gamers.