Culture, Culture / Video Games, Year In Review

The Best Games of 2021 Were an Explosion of Color and Charisma

This might have been the first full year of the new console generation, but we won’t remember 2021 as a time of technological breakthroughs from the industry’s major companies. Rather, innovations arrived via indies that, unable to render as many raw polygons and pixels, showed us how novel approaches to design and aesthetics yield arguably richer rewards.

Games such as Sable were an explosion of color and charisma, but unassumingly so. They demanded our attention because of their thoughtful idiosyncrasies rather than brash, blockbuster style. These titles are a long way off the corporate mainstream that found itself in crisis on a number of fronts. Like Cyberpunk 2077 the year before, Battlefield 2042 and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy came in too hot for their own good. Even those that arrived polished as a gemstone, like Halo Infinite, seemed to belong to the previous crop of consoles rather than the current one. We’re more likely to remember 2021 for the workplace scandal that rocked Activision Blizzard (following those of other major publishers). All of this happened during a decidedly weird year that began, for many, with coronavirus lockdowns and will end, if not with the same restrictions, then with a feeling that the virus, newly mutated as Omicron, is making its ugly return.

And yet, it’s important to remember that things are tangibly different. Effective and life-saving vaccines arrived (although they’re still not accessible enough in the Global South). As a result, many got to enjoy a late spring, summer, and autumn of relative normalcy. The following resolutely outward-looking games feel as if they resonate with a world beyond the pandemic. They’re filled with vivid tones, personality, and an unshakeable lust for life, brightening our screens in a year that, however fleetingly, at least seemed a little brighter than the last.

The funny, smart, and poignant Psychonauts 2 was more than worth the 15-year wait. Like its forebear, this action-platformer sequel stars Raz, who’s able to delve into the minds of people and help them overcome their mental constructs. 

It’s uniformly excellent, featuring level design that truly conveys the weirdness of our brains, but one section, involving a disembodied character called Brain In A Jar, stands out. 

Brain In A Jar has endured what’s essentially an extended and darkened lockdown of the mind, and so Raz must help them rediscover their five senses. As these flood back, developer Double Fine lets the stylistic hand brake off with a psychedelic platforming sequence that culminates in a jubilant musical number. “I can smell the universe and I can taste the sky/I can see each molecule through my cosmic eye,” sings the now fully bodied brain, engaging with the world once again.

The first time you play Ynglet, it can be difficult to know exactly what’s going on. Sure, you’re playing a 2D platformer in the vein of Mario, but here your avatar is a tiny creature that jumps from bubble to bubble. Are you navigating a twinkling cellular microworld or is this something else? 

Actually, the game’s levels are loosely based on the geography of Copenhagen. Once you know this, Ynglet transforms into an urban excursion—one where every jump and landing triggers a delicate explosion of particles and a trill of musical melody (the game’s reactive score is excellent). 

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