Another year has come and gone and frankly, I can barely remember it. This post wasn’t even written on time–2022 is just starting down the tarmac and I’m already nearly three months behind. To what shall we attribute these time slips, these missing hours? The pandemic? Probably. General stress? Almost certainly. But I’ve also found that, in the last two years, my time has been sliced up into chunks with very small windows of free time in between. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember many details about the last 24 months.
I suppose this has something to do with working from home. As absurd as this sounds, I miss having a commute. I miss the alone time in the car, listening to music, an audiobook, or NPR, unable to look at my phone, join a Zoom call, or actually multitask in any way. We used to complain about transit time to and from work but in retrospect, I wonder if my commute was actually a forced, and ultimately healthy, break. I should note that I’ve been blessed with a short commute time for many years, which is perhaps why I now remember it with some fondness, while some of my coworkers cringe in horror at the thought of ever working in an office ever again.
I can’t even remember all the games I played in 2021. But I can tell you that I did play a whole lot of them. Way more than I’ve managed to play in recent years. At work I am focused on VR video games, some of the most immersive, interactive game formats in existence, and in my free time, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to create a separation between my work and my life that is wider than the few feet that divide my bed from my desk, I swerved hard in the other direction and played a ton of 2D titles.
Part of the volume accounted for here was enabled by my purchase of an AYA NEO, a small, Nintendo Switch-style handheld PC. It’s bulky and heavy and has nowhere near the finesse or ergonomic quality of the Switch, but it let me play PC games on the go and from the comfort of my bed, which let me spend a lot of those little slices of free time between other obligations on games that I otherwise would never have had time to play. The Steam Deck will probably obsolete this thing, but it was a life saver for me this year.
Here’s a list of some of the games I felt most strongly about in 2021. As usual, this includes titles that were released in other years but are new to me. Also as usual, I’m omitting VR games from this list, although anybody who is reading this blog should absolutely play Resident Evil 4 VR, which I had the intense pleasure of working on.
Inscryption. Probably, and unexpectedly, my game of the year. I thought Inscryption was going to be a card battle game similar to Hand of Fate, and that’s not an inaccurate description of this title, but it is so, so much more. Yes, it’s a card game (a pretty good one!), that you’re playing against a mysterious antagonist, and about the time the cards start talking to you it becomes clear that there’s a lot more here than meets the eye. I’m not even going to tell you more about it. You should play it.
Mundaun. A delightfully weird romp through the (possibly cursed) hills of Switzerland, all done in pencils and charcoal. This game knows how to set up a shot and uses straightforward game play for storytelling and foreshadowing better than some AAA games.
Resident Evil Village. An evolution of the Resident Evil 7 format that banks harder on combat and deploys a lot of RE4-isms, Village somehow manages to retain the soul of this franchise while jettisoning nearly everything else. I was particularly impressed with the visual level design (this game does a better job of directing–and misdirecting–your focus than just about everything else out there). Each area has a strong theme with easy-to-identify influences, and some of the game play mechanics fell flat for me, but overall this was a super fun, super high-end AAA horror game. I was particularly impressed with the sound design of Ethan’s breathing, which communicates so much about his mental state so subtly.
Gregory Horror Show. I bought this PS2 game in Japan about 15 years ago, and have never played for long enough to get into it. But the game clicked when I played it with my son, who immediately went into full obsession mode over it. Gregory Horror Show is a horror stealth game with blocky (and hilariously designed) characters, which is just on the border of silly-and-scary for a fourth grader. Run, hide, use loops in the map to escape a one-hit-kill enemy, collect items and ward off constantly increasing stress, steal souls from the residents of a hotel that sits between life and death, you get the idea. The design is solid, the graphics are super good, and the style is legit. Most impressively, it manages to be fun and frightening for children without giving them nightmares. More thoughts and images on twitter.
Gnosia. It looks like a visual novel, the story is a time loop / The Thing mashup, and the gameplay is a debate system that constantly requires you to try to separate truth from lies (and sometimes lie yourself). Plus the character designs are super cool, the game lets you play as non-binary if you choose, and the dialog is very well written. Super interesting and innovative game.
The Good Life. OK, so I suck at open world games because I have NO IDEA what order to do things in. I either get bogged down in infinite side quests or I finish the main quest too early, and at any given time I can’t tell which path I am on. The Good Life is an open world weirdo murder mystery / sheep riding simulator from the mind of SWERY. I have been looking forward to this title forever, and really enjoyed playing through it. The SWERY-isms (like an e-mail client named “Lookout!”)
are all over the place and hilarious. As usual, his character writing is the main draw and does not fail to entertain. Also as usual, I suck at playing open world games and definitely completed this one too early. Lots of Zelda: Breath of the Wild DNA here, but wrapped up in an absurdist package. I spent 100 hours on this one.
Higurashi: When They Cry. I have been meaning to check out this series for a long time, and this year I finally got around to it. As visual novels go, this one is pretty good: it avoids the common traps of superfluous cheesecake and romantic conquests, and while the story setup is full of common tropes and extremely routine, it develops in unexpected directions and the ending of each episode is hard to predict. The Higurashi series is notable in that every episode repeats the story but alters it: questions raised in one episode are partially answered in the next, but in such a way that yet more questions are raised in the process. It kind of reminded me of how Evil Dead 2 spends its first 45 minutes reproducing the complete events of Evil Dead 1 and then picks up the story and takes it in a new direction. It is, unfortunately, a bit long-winded, and the repetition got pretty boring midway through the second episode. I think this story would be more fun to consume as manga. That said, these games have something I think every mystery game ought to have: a conversation about “what happened” with the principle cast members at the end of the game, sharing theories and reflecting on possible explanations. These after-party sequences were by far my favorite part of each episode.
Famicom Detective Club. Nintendo has remastered a couple of old 1980s NES adventure games, and they are possibly the most beautiful 2D video games I have ever seen. The art quality is off the charts, both for backgrounds and characters, and this easily wins my Prettiest Game of the Year award. The visuals are so good that the clunkiness of the 1980s adventure game design stands out in sharp relief. There’s a lot of moving back and forth between locations, talking to people over and over, hoping that something will change. Modern versions of this format are so much better at directing the player, dropping clues, and generally making sure that you don’t get stuck that these games feel extremely cumbersome by comparison. Still, I really enjoyed both of these titles.
The Silver Case. Another remastering of an old adventure game, this time an early SUDA 51 title. Although there’s a lot to like about this game, it ultimately reminded me of an anecdote my 12th grade philosophy teacher shared with our class on the first day of school. It goes like this: There is a rare rainforest bird colloquially known as the Thinking Bird because it has an oversized skull. When the Thinking Bird is thinking about something complicated, it will fly in circles over and over, each slightly smaller in diameter than the last, until finally if it flies up its own ass.
The Blackwell Series. If I had to make one criticism of the indie game scene, it would be that so many indie games are primarily focused on capturing and bottling the nostalgia that the creator has for titles of a previous era. They are so focused on reproducing the look and feel of those old games that often they forget to actually design the part where you play: many products are all form and no depth. But occasionally I find somebody working in a retro game format and doing a better job at it than the games they were inspired by. Photopia is, as far as I am concerned, the best Zork-style text adventure game ever written. And the Blackwell series, which play like 1990s point-and-click adventures, are way better than most of the games in their lineage. These titles, which all involve a medium and her hard boiled detective spirit guide, are well written, well paced, and don’t overstay their welcome.
World’s End Club. I’m a big fan of Kotaro Uchikoshi, director of the Zero Escape series, so when I heard that his team had released a new game I ordered it sight unseen. Turns out World’s End Club is thematically very similar to his other titles (a death game, participants awakening in a post-apocalyptic future with no memory of how they got there, etc), but designed for children. My nine-year-old son played this game and really enjoyed it (and it’ll be a while before he’s old enough to play anything else from the Uchikoshi catalog). I liked it as well, despite the relative simplicity of the story and very wide variance in visual quality (some bits of this game look great, others look terrible). The pirate doodle boss was my favorite bit.
Indie Darlings and Other Obscurities
Haunted Demo Disk. Speaking of the indie vogue of emulating old game consoles, I spent some time with the Haunted Demo Disk, a collection of indie horror games mostly designed to look like PS1 games. I wrote about a bunch of the individual games on twitter, and there are a couple of stand-out titles (Sanpo and Risu were my favorites), but a lot of derivative and hackneyed titles as well. Still, I really like the way these developers got together to bundle their work into a thematic collection, and wrap the whole thing up in a meta game that also serves as the launcher.
Chilla’s Art. Chilla’s Art is the name of a two-person developer duo who make very short, snack-sized horror experiments. They’ve made a ton–Steam sells a bundle with 15 of their games, which individually cost $3 to $5. I completed several, and enjoyed most of them: these games work better when they are short and simple, and start to fall apart when they get too complicated. They look great–and rely heavily on VHS glitch and other lo-fi effects–and generally play pretty well. I particularly liked GHOST TRAIN and OKAERI, but was frustrated by AKA MANTO, YUKI ONNA, and ONRYO. These titles are prefect for horror streamers: short-form horror with a pop-out scare or two hiding under the floorboards that just ooze atmosphere. I wrote a lengthy twitter thread about these games (and Puppet Combo’s games, see below) back in October.
Murder House and Bloodwash. Puppet Combo is another small team making VHS-glitchy horror games, but with a completely different aesthetic. These titles take their cues from 1980s slasher movies: lots of blood and a psycho killer on the loose, all wrapped up in a not-quite-serious Playstation 1-style graphics engine. Murder House in particular tries to get at least one instance of every important 3rd person horror trope wedged into its Killer Easter Bunny gameplay. I really enjoyed these.
In Vivo: A very weird first-person tunnel crawler with an a partially-pixelated art style and a really cool dog whistle mechanic. This is a great example of sound doing all the heavy lifting in a horror game that would otherwise have felt pretty routine.
Veiled. A short-and-sweet point-and-click horror adventure with a cool dithered art style. Play it in your browser!
Reikoku. An ancient first-person PS1 horror game with an aesthetic that a lot of modern indie gamers would kill for. Interestingly comes with a database of spiritual concepts. I learned about chakras. Twitter thread with some video here.
Not at This Time, Thank You
Man of Medan: The first in the Dark Pictures series from the Until Dawn team. Some great visual storytelling and probably the highest-end contemporary implementation of the Resident Evil 3rd person camera, but the game can’t hold itself together enough to make sense. This title suffers from the same issues that Until Dawn has, but without the same level of coherence or production quality. I feel like this team ran out of time.
Virus: It is Aware. A new contender for “worst horror game ever made,” although probably not going to knock THE RING from the top spot. I made a video of my attempts to beat the first boss.
Yuoni. A horror stealth game that puts nearly all its chips on its (super cool) blood red sunset art style. Unfortunately not a lot of meat on the bone, though.
12 Minutes. A time loop mystery game that went from “this was made for me!” to “uhh, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this” to “game no longer launches on my Xbox.” I didn’t finish this one and I think that’s probably for the best.
That’s it for 2021. Here’s hoping that 2022 is kind enough to allow me the time to write more for this blog than year-end game synopses. Thanks for reading!