Warning! The games I’ll be talking about might feature mentions of violence against marginalized people, sexist tropes and domestic abuse. I’m also including some videos for each, but none with spoilers nor any gruesome footage.
This was the year all of my game lists got kind of broken. The number of games that got released, announced and postponed was a bit too much to keep track of while I was working on my thesis. However, I have modified things to make everything a bit easier for me to understand and follow.
I’ve come to realize I will not be ever to play every single game that interests me out there, but I can still keep a handy list of those that seem promising enough for me. I’m privileged to be able to play all of these games in the first place, considering the kind of life I live, so I really wanted to write some brief reviews for each of them to have some kind of evidence of the impact they had in my life.
To start us off, I wanted to address two games that received some updates since I last played them!
Firstly, Control, with its AWE expansion. Control made it to my last year’s list due to its exhilarating and rush-inducing combat, along with its unique implementation of description-based stories. Finding items and documents with their descriptions to add to the universe of this game really made this game fun to explore and uncover, piece by piece. It was a nice surprise to see many of these documents lead to a connection with Alan Wake. The way Remedy takes care of its stories it’s quite admirable and I’m glad to see they’ll be continuing this little writer’s adventures.
npckc might actually one of my favorite indie developers, period. Their implementation of lived experiences and informative data in their games make them all a learning, enriching and heartwarming experience. 湯圓 [tong jyun], A Wheel Without a View and WANrobo were all excellent games I got to play this year, I really do recommend them. However, my highlight is, again, a game I got to play and love last year: A Year of Springs. Each of these little games in this collection were so special to me as I was exploring new ways to approach my own gender. Having a cute epilogue to wrap things up, plus new adorable art to accompany it all was lovely and endearing.
Please, consider playing Control and A Year of Springs, now that they’re complete and more available than ever! With that, here are my favorite games I got to enjoy in 2021!
D: The Game, developed by Warp – 1995
Warning! If you’re interested, play this game with as little knowledge about it as possible. Do not look up any reviews, maybe even consider skipping this small review (you can just scroll to the next one) and play it. Play it slow and patiently, give yourself a week or two of just trying to figure it all out by yourself. You might enjoy it!
Holy shit. I was introduced to Kenji Eno’s work this year and I was taken aback by just how raw good games can be. I firmly believe that resources to make a game can truly change them, but they’re never a determining factor in their quality. D is testament to what making a game with a unique vision can be, particularly when that vision challenges conventions other developers might not be comfortable with at the start.
I’m glad Kenji Eno was able to play with the concept of the unknown, specifically in a nightmare scenario in the setting of D. Without going into spoilers for a 26-year-old game, I can see how important it can be to keep elements of your game obscure to create a unique experience, even if clarifying those elements might interest more people from the start. Connecting FMVs with this simplified first-person navigation made the game obtuse, as intended. It makes me think as an artist about writer’s intention and execution, how things can be presented in such a way the audience might not accept them at first but might be reevaluated once the experience is over.
My favorite element of this game, however, was Laura’s slow and even clumsy navigation throughout the castle/mansion. As I mentioned, the intention was to make the game a slow, methodical and even exasperating experience to traverse. It makes sense, however: the whole setting is a nightmare, and the protagonist navigates it as one would do in real life. Nothing goes too far in this game, however, as each piece, angle and design element are there for a reason.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, developed by Omega Force – 2020
Currently, I’m a bit torn about Zelda, in general. On the one hand, I love the original The Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakning, Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, A Link Between Worlds, Breath of the Wild and, my favorite, Majora’s Mask. They’re all wonderful games and a staple of both design and even storytelling in games. I’m exasperated, though, by their resistance to change, even when the very foundation of the games’ mechanics and gameplay is renewed, like in Breath of the Wild, the games’ use of characters and their respective stories continues to be hindered by repetitive storytelling tropes that have gotten them stuck in a dully predictable design. I do not mind predictability in a story at all, but when that repetition gets in the way of exploring the ideas these games’ have presented throughout the years from different angles, it really is frustrating to see them repeat them for tradition’s sake.
I’m, of course, talking about princess Zelda. Her character has never, ever been as good as it is now. Breath of the Wild brought us a complete human being, with ambitions, frustration and wonder. I was beaming with positive energy every time I uncovered a memory in Breath because I noticed most of them revolved around Zelda. However, the more I think about how her character works out in the end, and what it all leads to in the game’s finale, the more frustrated I got, specially considering where they seem to be headed in the sequel.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity gave me what I wanted, and I acknowledge it is self-centered to place a game like this for that reason. I do not particularly enjoy Muso games, but I get them. I liked the combat enough to entertain myself. I did see, however, a heavy focus on storytelling in this particular game. I noticed the game kept the characters’ stories and goals as incentives for each scenario, particularly Zelda. Initially, I was not amused by this, as it made sense that a game promising to be a prequel to Breath of the Wild in all of its announcements was going to focus heavily on this. However, I slowly realized how much love the narrative designers and writers poured on making Zelda the center piece of this game.
She is a leader, a fighter and a fully determined individual I can’t help but to admire. With this game, she’s a complete character, even with all the silly events occurring in this story. Breath of the Wild’s narrative design might be groundbreaking for the series, but Age of Calamity gave me the character I knew was there in the first place. And for that reason, it earned its place here!
No Longer Home, developed by Humble Grove Studios – 2021
Many, many of the musings and conversations I have had with myself, friends and close family members regarding insecurities, gender and ambitions were present in No Longer Home. In this sense, this game really felt relatable, but I don’t think a conversation about this game should stop there. It does, indeed, go over a myriad of issues represented in conversations that many people from my generation have gone through, particularly people with mental health issues and queer people. However, what I appreciate the most is the representation of the developers’ personal stories in a game.
This year, I developed my own game, mil rosas, and I found myself using most of my own personal struggles fighting cancer and coming to terms about my gender to create that game. No Longer Home is not shy at all about their use of personal life: the game begins with a written clarification about this. I admire this because it then proceeds to tell a story that feels its own thing very much, making use of clever changes in angles that clearly refer back to the game’s themes about perspective and isolation.
No Longer Home feels adrift, like a thought in a Sunday morning. It may be because of this why I liked it a lot: I tend to just lay down and think every Sunday morning. Maybe that’s why I end up writing most of my poems right there, and maybe it is also why No Longer Home feels like a solemn, personal poem. Its verses lingering in my mind as I write this in the morning.
Emily is Away ❤, developed by Kyle Seeley – 2021
I really enjoy Seeley’s Emily is Away games. Beyond their evident nostalgic effect, they all address the feeling of change and resistance to change when growing up. The dialogue is, as always, essential to the experience and to create the game’s interaction with the player. It remains my favorite aspect about this game and something I truly want to learn from as I aim to become a better writer in general.
What surprised me the most was how much I loved the ending of this game. Of course, I won’t spoil it, but this ending in particular, with its unique use of LCD’s “Someone Great”, along with the sequence it presents feels exactly right. Letting go, I noticed, was at the core of this game and it nailed it by associating this theme with the very use of a social media platform, particularly one like Facebook.
Currently, I’ve only experienced two similar endings. I’m not sure when I will be playing another one playthrough, but I know for sure the ending I got originally feels right for me. Having lived a similar experience, I related to it.
Last Call, developed by Nina Freeman and Jake Jefferies – 2021
My opinion about this game as someone who hasn’t gone through the trauma of having an abusive, violent partner is not important at all. I do want to briefly talk about this game as the valuable experience it is. I have been following Nina’s work for years now and she continues to write and develop wonderful games that draw from her own life to build solid and thoughtful experiences. This one in particular refers to a difficult topic people should discuss more about.
Having said this, the idea of listening and verbally responding to these experiences is admirable. I see why Nina insisted greatly on the use of a microphone to fully understand this kind of game. Knowing how to use this particular way to communicate and interact with the game was a natural way to address this story. I’m humbled for and thankful that Nina gave us the opportunity to play something so personal to her.
Violence of any kind of far more visible in a relationship when you know how to look for it. It is paramount to understand how little increments will lead to a major incident. Not only that, but having the courage and self-love to recognize these violences and being able to face them is not easy at all. Seeking the help of others is vital to survive.
Tell Me Why, developed by Dontnod Entertainment – 2020
Dontnod’s writing is outstandingly and consistently good, and it’s been improving with each game they release. Research and a sense of responsibility towards the stories and the characters you create is essential to write not only a relatable experience, but to also incorporate its implications and unique tools to weave it in the first place. In order to fully know what they were creating, Dontnod’s approach, albeit flawed, is exactly what most storytellers should do when writing about struggles that might lay beyond their own lived experiences.
I’ve mentioned before I truly find essential to incorporate feminist theory’s interview, imagination and storytelling techniques to improve our understanding of the societal issues we face each day. Tell Me Why might start off a bit clumsily by leaning too much on portraying what the audience might expect from a trans man’s story, but it then delves into its unique mystery to give the player something good by itself.
I truly appreciate the effort that went into writing and portraying Tyler, to the point that the actor, Aiden Black, suggested edits during the voice recordings. It made it so his character felt natural, defined by his interests, relationships and, of course, his struggles as a trans man. By making sure to have a positive representation to begin with, the narrative designers and writers were able to then focus on the other issues that the twins had to face.
Lastly, Alyson’s character was outstandingly complex, to the point that led to the story feeling more complete. Her inner struggles to face trauma and her current uncertainty in regards to her mental health and lack of direction made her gameplay sections even more intriguing. The responsible research and care that went to developing everything else is also reflected in her character, as her segments are full of thoughtful moments that made the game more insightful.
Gravity Rush, developed by Team Gravity – 2012
WOW, okay, okay… So, right off the bat: gameplaywise, this was my highlight from the games I played in 2021. I had seen trailers and other people recommending the game by showing off its mind-bending character navigation, but I was not ready for the exhilarating feel of kicking ass while changing gravitational pulls and the daze of a story that weaved everything together unto an amazing experience.
Sometimes all you need is a game that puts you in specifically exhilarating situations to make it fun. I think Gravity Rush is an excellent example of elements that just blend excellently together. By themselves, the navigation through gravitational shifts and the combat are not actually that invigorating, but combining them with the pacing, the grand soundtrack and the ridiculous scenarios, they both push the game forward with each new chapter.
I’m truly looking forward to playing the sequel in 2022, considering that they may have addressed the few issues I had with this game.
Life is Strange: True Colors, developed by Deck Nine – 2021
Life is Strange: True Colors was one of those games that had an interesting contrast that had nothing to do with the game by itself as I played it; or, accurately, when we played it. It has been a while since I was able to sit down and really play something like this with my sister, Estefanía, but we have both enjoyed every Life is Strange, so we decided to play this one together, with her on the controls and collaborating for each choice in the game.
The contrast laid in the fact that the game presented some tough decisions regarding relationships between siblings and friendships. Having conversations about the possible outcomes for each moment we went through made it a pleasant and unique experience. Estefanía’s reactions to the games were heartwarming and took me back to when we used to play N64 games as kids.
True Colors’ strengths were, evidently, in the relationships between the characters. I’m glad to see that the powers they present in each game are becoming less important compared to the human story they aim to tell. As I mentioned before, the concept of community I believe the concept of community is an important societal element we need to see portrayed more in art. I think True Colors takes a step towards this.
If Found…, developed by Dreamfeel – 2020
This was the game I mentioned in my previous list, last year. I immediately fell in love with this game, deeply. Erasure, instead of writing, leads the game’s execution beyond its literal implementation as a gameplay mechanic. Speaking about the indifference, isolation and subsequent erasure of trans people’s lives is central to this game, as it both contextualizes, builds on and, gradually, deletes the protagonist’s life.
The game, however, goes beyond to tell an ultimately heartwarming story about friction and acceptance, using astronomy as a beautiful background to push the themes of social violence forward. Regarding gender questioning, playing this game gave me plenty of ideas for my own poetry book, but what it truly gifted to me was the objective to bring harmony to multiple aspects of my identity and portray it in a piece of art of my own creation.
The game is rather simple in its execution, but what it achieves will stay in my heart for the rest of my life. It also gave me something I truly needed for the year: hope. It enabled me to have hope in regards to showing other people, even close people, who I am truly, and to explore every part of me.
Devotion, developed by Red Candle Games – 2019
Tragedy drives horror, and horror drives tragedy. Red Candle Games, once again, show that they understand this with Devotion and just how heartbreaking this game was. Of course, however, this heartbreak may be deeper than what an initial impression may entail. After playing both Detention and Devotion, I can see that this is an additional aspect about horror that Red Candle truly know to heart.
Without getting into spoilers, understanding both the objectives of the father in this game is essential to delve into how interpreting art from different angles makes it richer, a more complete experience. Acknowledging, for example, how the father did what he did with a good intention, while also pointing out his flaws, then proceeding to consider the limiting circumstances his family lived in, makes it so playing the game continues even beyond a playthrough, as you make sense of what happened afterward. Gameplay happens in the mind too.
Devotion hits hard with its ending alone, but it’s a game that continues to invite both horror and sadness throughout its whole playthrough and doesn’t let you go even when you put the controller down. I truly believe this game is a masterpiece in every way, and that it will continue to break my heart every time I think about it.
Mutazione, developed by Die Gute Fabrik – 2019
Finally, we go back to community. Mutazione’s writer, Hannah Nicklin, brought forward an experience that takes into consideration enriching characters with flaws and dreams. Conversation, dialogue, is what makes this game special. There’s a sense that lingers throughout the whole game about the relevancy of communication, of listening and taking each moment for what it is. By making these elements the core of this game, Mutazione connects its story across media and becomes a paradigm shift in how we think in society.
I insist in this as I have come to realized just how important it is to consider the self as part of a larger, infinitely diverse community. Even from an astronomical standpoint, knowing we’re but a pale blue dot lost among the infinity of space, we are all together an ever-growing organism of multiplicity. Experimentation, individuality and understanding ourselves are key to find ourselves in the chaos of existence, but what makes the difference in the end is what we do with that complex identity, how we bring ourselves into other people’s lives to contribute.
Again, without spoiling much, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised to see the game address the raising of an infant through the lenses of community-based upbringing. It does not dismiss the evident influence people’s decisions have on each other, and it reflects this idea in its design, even when you’re planting trees. Each seed is given by different characters, showing how important everyone’s contributions are to the environment, which is an evident reflection of their own society.
Finally, I’m just glad to see a game that builds itself entirely upon the foundations of characters’ limitations and ambitions. It fully understands this and implements right into the gameplay: navigation, exploration, acquiring materials are all defined by the people, the time of day and the given circumstances in each sequence. It’s a game that makes you feel like each element is in communication with each other, while also preserving a sense of uniqueness to everything it does.
Making me understand this through a game is what it now places Mutazione in my heart, making it an instant recommendation whenever people ask what good writing and pleasant gameplay can look like in a game.
With that, I can’t help but to think about the whole year in the grand scheme. I have come to understand so much, while also realizing that I don’t know anything at all about the universe and about other people. The uncertainty, albeit frightening at times, it’s also a relief. And I believe these games, readings, movies, music and my own creations will continue to displace me, move me forward as a I flow through my own identity, ideas and others’ lives. I’m honored and privileged to have experienced so much this year.