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The Best Video Games of 2021 … So Far

When it comes to gaming, technology only ever tells half the story.

The Best Games of 2021 (So Far)
Photo: The Outer Zone

That many are still unable to get their hands on a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X attests to the fact that the ninth generation of consoles is very much in full swing. And the improvements in technology that are accelerating—better framerates, graphics, and effects—have well served gaming experiences that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago. That’s evident in everything from Hitman 3 surpassing its predecessors in nailing the feeling of the living sandbox to Returnal using the haptic DualSense controller to make you feel as if you’re actually holding alien weapons. It’s even in the way that Before Your Eyes eerily uses a webcam to track your eyes and tell its story about a soul’s journey into the afterlife.

But when it comes to gaming, technology only ever tells half the story. Indeed, most of our favorite games this year aren’t beholden to 4K graphics or fancy ray-tracing abilities. A few smooth, ambitious co-op titles were content to emphasize the power of communication, which came to feel like a vital balm in the midst of an isolating pandemic. Other titles also caught our eye with their unique artistry, namely for the way they fully merged their narratives with their aesthetics, from Loop Hero’s grimdark pixels portraying a world’s struggle against nihilism, to Mundaun’s loving hand-drawn art bringing life in and around a remote, backward village to vivid life. As technology makes it easier for us to go anywhere, the journey itself, and the stories we choose to focus on along the way, become more important than ever. Aaron Riccio


Adios

Adios (Mischief)

In one of the earliest conversations in Adios, a slice-of-life game made up of 17 short, lightly elegiac scenes, a hitman (D. C. Douglas) and a pig farmer (Rick Zieff) philosophize about whether or not pigs know that they’re going to be killed. The game doesn’t answer this question. It does, though, invite you to draw your own conclusions about how such ponderings affect the farmer. Over the course of the day you spend with him, it becomes clear that his choice to quit the mob’s corpse-disposal business will lead to the deadliest of severances. And in a nod to this inescapable fate, the game largely restricts your options. With no control over your final destination, you find yourself fixating on the smallest of details. At one point, the hitman asks the pig farmer why he keeps a horse on the farm, and the farmer tells him that it’s because he couldn’t imagine a farm without a horse. The biggest compliment one can pay Adios is to say that after an hour in the farmer’s shoes, this statement—which isn’t about a lack of imagination—makes perfect sense. Aaron Riccio


Before Your Eyes

Before Your Eyes (GoodbyeWorld Games)

FOMO has never been more palpable in a video game than it is in Before Your Eyes, which uses your webcam to literalize the notion “blink and you’ll miss it.” Players step into the disembodied shoes of one Benjamin Brynn, a lost soul who’s been fished out of a vast, limbo-like ocean. Your guide and savior is a boatman, a wolf, who offers to speak on Benny’s behalf before the afterlife’s judge, and what follows is a series of memorable slice-of-life vignettes from Benny’s birth to death. This is a quiet, contemplative game, but behind even the most mundane moment is the powerful uncertainty of what may come next. Is the phone call from Benjamin’s mother a routine one, or is it the last time you will hear her voice? There comes a point where you may start to dread the act of blinking, and while there are a few narrative choices that feel irrelevant throughout, that’s only because the past is always beside the point here. There’s only the present, and so when Before Your Eyes reveals its final trick—convincing you to close your eyes—it will leave you shook. Riccio


Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Greg Lobanov)

Every design choice made by the developers of Chicory is earned. Though it follows a familiar Zelda-like template—travel an overworld, gain new puzzle-solving powers to progress, defeat a growing darkness—there isn’t a single mechanic that isn’t speaking to the game’s emotional, earnest exploration of the pressures of being an artist. You don’t slay monsters with your paintbrush here, but rather help to bring color back into the lives of those beset by a colorless, crippling ennui. And you won’t have to take sidequests out of obligation, but because it’s a relief—given the protagonist’s imposter syndrome—to be able to help them. Every character matters here: When a meditating bug notes that when he first came aboveground he had to get used to the way you looked, that’s not a joke so much as the game once again reminding you of the importance of perspective. The through line of this artistic adventure is that “you don’t have to be perfect for anyone to care about you,” and it’s true. Chicory could’ve had puzzles that were half as clever, characters half as personable, and far cruder hand-drawn environments and it still would’ve earned our affections. As it is, it demands our love. Riccio


Cookies

Cookies (Stef Pinto)

Imagine if Cosmo D, creator of surreal first-person adventure games Off-Peak and The Norwood Suite, was less interested in musically driven narratives than Lynchian, nightmare-inducing dark comedy. Such is the tonal register Stef Pinto’s Cookies, which astonishingly puts the player in the mind of a paranoid drug dealer wandering the walls of his dilapidated apartment building after evading the cops, seen here as literal trigger-happy pigs. The setting forms a unique open world where exploration leads to one of 10 different, and equally appalling, narrative threads, including working for a snuff film production company, escaping a psychotic meth-addicted clown, and discovering the secret behind a fast food chicken restaurant’s mystery meat. A permanent VHS filter and confined field of view (adjustable to avoid motion sickness, though that physical response is far from undesired) adds to the sensation of paranoia and nausea. Cookies is filthy, and not just in terms of its PSX aesthetic and grimy hallways. Every individual the player encounters is exploiting others or being exploited, cogs in an uncaring capitalist machine that despises outsiders and the lower class. Ryan Aston


Cyber Shadow

Cyber Shadow (Aarne Hunziker)

As the cyborg ninja at the center of Aarne Hunziker’s Cyber Shadow, your goal is to slice through robotic foes across 11 chapters, all while contending with various obstacles, such as spike-filled pits. This action platformer, then, owes a sizable debt to Ninja Gaiden, as well as to other 8-bit sidescrollers of yore. But to commend the game purely in terms of retro fealty risks glossing over the considerable precision and craft that Hunziker, the sole member of Mechanical Head Studios, has put into each gorgeously pixelated gauntlet. The game is set in an exaggerated cyberpunk future, and each of its levels presents you with new mechanics, from enemies that send electric bolts between one another to a sky laser that targets you the moment you step out from under a roof’s cover. The piecemeal approach to your growing ninja arsenal lets the game subtly tutorialize, allowing you to hone each new skill that’s handed to you until it’s time for them all to come together as the game kicks into high gear. Cyber Shadow’s virtuosic brio is such that you will find yourself instantly hooked. Steven Scaife


Griftlands

Griftlands (Klei Entertainment)

With Griftlands, the Klei Entertainment streak of mirror-polished early access games shows no signs of flagging. Griftlands takes the card-based roguelike to new heights by seamlessly building a more authored, narrative-driven RPG around it. Alongside the by-now-standard decisions for what cards to include in your deck and what number constitutes too many for your play style, you take on quests and make story choices that manifest allies and enemies in equal measure whose feelings will, in turn, confer bonuses and penalties on the card battles. The game’s masterstroke lies in how it realizes that, by abstracting different mechanics into cards, negotiation becomes an arguably more complex “battle” in its own right, complete with its own health indicator and a second deck of cards with similar yet separate rules. As a result, the violent and nonviolent options in Griftlands evolve beyond simple player preference into calculations made out of desperation and necessity, where you weigh what energy you might wish to conserve against how long you think you can hold out and what can be gotten away with under the noses of your ostensible allies. Scaife


Hitman 3

Hitman 3 (IO Interactive)

Agent 47 arrives at Thornbridge Manor tasked with taking out aristocratic matriarch Alexa Carlisle, only to find that one of the Carlisles has already been murdered. Fortunately, the PI investigating the matter is a bald white man, about the same height as 47. What a coincidence. A little bonk on the head and quick outfit change later and you’re down to more than just the business of whodunit. Hitman 3 doesn’t substantially change the tried-and-true World of Assassination formula, but it subverts the gameplay within fresh and unique scenarios that take the series outside the box. The game’s triumph is a level set at a Berlin nightclub, throughout which 47 is pursued by multiple assassins. Having 47 be the prey is an inventive twist, and with no Diana to guide them, players must use their wits and ingenuity to identify and take out his would-be killers. And Hitman 3 brings the trilogy to a close without losing sight of its organizing thematic conceit: that the elite rulers of the world may think that they’re safe regardless of where they go, but they can’t evade a bald, seemingly invisible arbiter of justice who knows how to weaponize their (and his) isolation against them. Aston


If on a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers

If On a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers (Dead Idle Games)

At first glance, Mrs. Winterbourne and Dr. Samuels have nothing in common. In the 1920s, the former, a rich white woman, lives a life of inherited privilege in an English estate while the latter, a talented black doctor, lives in a squalid basement apartment in New York City and faces constant discrimination from his peers. But they, two of the four titular travelers in If On a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers, are both haunted by the past, and this isometric adventure captures—in ravishing pixel art—the oppressiveness of depression. All your pointing and clicking suggests that darkness can be pushed back, that happiness can be restored by solving a puzzle. When Mrs. Winterbourne takes her laudanum, night turns to day, the sheets that cover the pictures and sculptures vanish, and the music shifts from Satie’s “Gymnopédie” to Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings.” It’s an illusion—like that offered by all games—but that brief flash of hope is no less potent for it, and in coming to address the loss experienced by these travelers we can better understand our own life’s journey. Riccio


It Takes Two

It Takes Two (Hazelight Studios)

Though It Takes Two focuses on two people trying to repair a broken relationship, there’s no unlockable achievement for doing so. The trophies earned in-game tend to be rewards for completing optional activities, a subtle bit of reconditioning that will have you focusing less on big-picture “winning” and more on the journey itself. After all, a good relationship isn’t something you can “beat,” but rather a feat that requires constant care. Though it has a lot in common with Hazelight Studios’s prior A Way Out, the game’s fantastical setting sets it apart. A visit to a pillow fort that doubles as a space station’s mission control introduces anti-gravity mechanics, and a sequence within a broken cuckoo clock adds time-warping powers into the mix. Each of the metaphorical levels in It Takes Two offers players the opportunity to practice the different ways—among them communication, collaboration, and respect—in which two people can work together to sustain a friendship, let alone a romance. In short, this genre-bending co-op platformer uses a smorgasbord of gameplay techniques, buttressed by a lot of attentive small touches, to set us adrift in the field of couples therapy. Riccio


Loop Hero

Loop Hero (Four Quarters)

This ingenious, craftily addictive RPG asks us to manage what your hero accumulates through his journey, from the expected rewards of better equipment to cards that represent memories of the world that once was. Placing a mountain card on the blank map will create one from the ether and boost the hero’s health. Placing a grove on his path will let him harvest wood on each pass, one of many resources to be used in the slow rebuilding process when he returns to camp and the world beyond once again darkens and empties of everything you’ve built. By mingling the familiar setting of the fantasy roguelike with mechanics that emphasize a detachment and repetition, Loop Hero functions as a statement of persistence in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. Through repeated trials, you experiment and intuitively figure out some way to manage an ever-evolving situation. Loop Hero is a curiously hopeful game of adaptation and reaction, where you struggle to optimize a thing that rebels at the very concept of optimization: the world itself. Scaife

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