My Five Favorite Games in 2021

My tradition continues: below are my five favorite games that I played in 2021.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

I only started playing RDR2 in the latter half of December. I’d heard great things for a long time. I expected to find it enjoyable, probably better than the first Redemption. I’ve in fact been absolutely blown away by this game. It’s an incredible balance of Western simulator and heartfelt narrative vehicle, and I can’t get over how well that balance is maintained. Rockstar games typically favor the simulation side, creating big open worlds with tons of activities and locales, densely packed with AI inhabitants, awaiting you to create your own stories through the dynamic interactions with that world as you sow chaos or simply walk through it. Those games are often paired with stories about Big Ideas and memorable (and occasionally even complex) characters, but the story and gameplay often undermine each other. I’ve written about this before. But RDR2‘s open world and story don’t feel in contrast; they feed off each other. Your choices matter. Small choices create ripple effects, in and out of missions. How you act in the larger world determines to some degree how Arthur acts in missions and how the story plays out.

A lot of this is the richer Honor system pulled in from RDR, but not everything is simply tied to morality mechanics. The constant presence of characters who matter to the narrative helps, as well. You spend a lot of time at camp, and there are rewards and incentives for doing so. You get to know the camp members, who are well-written and well-acted; all but one or two of the most despicable have redeemable characteristics, and there are characters I found easy to relate to and care for. There’s a real sense of community, and that helps guide my actions as protagonist Arthur Morgan. But there’s always enough nuance in Arthur’s demeanor to justify a more honorable or more dastardly version of the character, and all versions feel within a reasonable range for this character as he is depicted.

There are also optional systems that provide additional depth to the stoic and gruff (though far-from-silent) protagonist; for instance, Arthur updates a journal to sketch places he’s visited, animals he’s studied and hunted, and interesting personalities he’s encountered, while providing his perspective on events in the game and his own (partially player-guided) actions. That journal feature is omnipresent, and when there’s an update, a notice briefly appears, but one never need spend time in the journal. I love to view it whenever it’s updated, though, as it adds much greater richness to the game’s story, providing a window into the inner life of a protagonist who isn’t always particularly inclined to tell people how he’s really feeling. Arthur’s defined personality traits but broad range of reactions has allowed me to find my own version of the character, one who tends to help those in need, who looks after women and children, who can be a bit too trusting, but who is also quick with a gun, willing to rob and loot, willing to turn a profit especially if it helps his outlaw community, and not out for blood but never afraid to get into a fight or even to kill if it serves his goals. He’s an interesting gray character–genuinely interesting, and not just the erratic set of disjointed choices that might normally define a “chaotic neutral” type of character.

The simulation side has engaged me far more than RDR, GTA IV, or GTA V, as well. I enjoy fishing and hunting. I enjoy seeking out a great buck, slowly stalking it, attempting to cleanly and mercifully kill it, and then collecting its carcass for a ride back through mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and rivers to share it with the outlaw camp’s quartermaster/cook for the benefit of the community. I enjoy simply riding my horse down wide roads and up narrow, winding paths. God, do I love the horses. There’s a button prompt to comfort/praise/reassure your horse, and I abuse the hell out of it. We’re closely bonded. And you can praise (or scold) cats and dogs, so I of course praise them when I can. You can pat dogs, so I do that often too. I suppose you could shoot them, but why would you? There are plenty of rewards in being a good person and treating the world like a real place, and I imagine there are rewards for those who want to play a far more violently aggressive personality as well, though I seldom see them.

There are also systems to punish wildly out-of-character behavior. There are harsh penalties to crime sprees. It’s inevitable–simply following the game’s story will get you involved in at least some criminal behavior, and my Arthur isn’t a saint. But the Wanted system combined with the lingering Bounty system and resultant posses of bounty hunters and lawmen that will follow you in territories where you’ve wreaked havoc provide for additional experiences to test your skills but also remind you that you shouldn’t push things too far, that the game’s “society” has clear rules and will demand you adhere to them or face dire consequences, locked out of most of civilization and on the run.

There are a lot of fascinating random events and strangers to run into. One time, I saw a fight to the death between territorial bucks. I’ve helped escaped prisoners and women captured by marauders. I’ve been ambushed by rival gangs. I’ve gotten swept up pursuing an impressive pronghorn buck or elk, or a legendary beast whose territory I innocently wandered into, ignoring for a while whatever my immediate goal had been. I’ve been invited to search for dinosaur fossils (an awesome acknowledgment of the rapid expansion of paleontological fieldwork and the wild characters involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). I’ve collected some treasure for a quest and stopped by a nearby abandoned cabin late at night, only to find skeletal remains everywhere and a message from a cult, with a sudden green glow and eerie thrumming to throw me off even further, my brain sounding alarm signals of fear before I realize I’m being buzzed by a UFO overhead just as it takes off. It’s a wild game.

There’s so much to do, and so many of the situations in the main narrative and the random encounters can be shaped by your personal input. While this could easily reward replay of the story, the game is just so damn big, the choices so many and varied, that I imagine I’ll see the completion of the game as the completion of the story for My Arthur; no replay would be needed. (Plus, if I still want more when I’m done, there’s Red Dead Online.) I’ve played for just over thirty hours and appear to be just under a third of the way through the story, so there’s more than enough game in the single-player mode alone.

There is so much to RDR2, but the nature of the game, its story about a struggling community and the efforts to find safety and purpose on a fading frontier, allow for such a wide-open story. Unlike the first game, I don’t get a feeling of bloat (which is really crazy when I complained about completing RDR in 46.5 hours, compared to my 31.4 hours for less than a third of the story in the sequel). There are certainly excessive systems, but the game wants you to live in it, and the story is about living in this community. There is no burning rush for revenge, as in the original. Instead, it feels like a story in which you’re simply trying to hold out as long as you can with the ones you love and the ones who rely on you, even as the noose slowly tightens around you and your found family. (Oh, also unlike the first game, RDR2 has so far provided a quite diverse cast of characters, from some of the central figures to the many background parts, and they’re provided much greater nuance and, at least for the main characters, individuality and complexity than in any other Rockstar game. I’m really impressed by this development.)

Finally, the customization options for accessibility and UI appearance are quite welcome. I like keeping a minimalist overlay presentation, inviting greater immersion into the game. The one feature I often keep up is some version of a navigation system in the lower left corner of the screen. If I’m moving through familiar territory or not particularly concerned about direction, I turn it off. If I’m heading toward a goal, I keep a simple compass on so I know that I’m at least not riding south when I need to be going west. If I’m in a territory where I’m wanted, or if I’m on a mission, I tend to turn on the normal or expanded versions of the minimap with its associated markers and route guides. All of this can be done without even pausing the game, pressing a couple of button prompts the same as you would to rotate between your weapon options. It’s impressive.

Then again, this whole game is impressive.

2. Jurassic World Evolution 2

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved what Jurassic World Evolution evolved into with its DLC. I was eagerly awaiting the sequel. It has not disappointed. I’m sure I’ll be returning to challenges and sandbox modes for quite a while yet. And I’m hoping for some further story developments post-Dominion!

3. Book of Travels

Another title that shouldn’t be a surprise on this list. This is a game that focuses on the things I like most about roleplaying. I haven’t given it the attention it deserves, but the time I’ve spent in it has been delightful.

4. Halo: The Master Chief Collection

I got into the co-op with a friend toward the end of this year. I also started playing solo playlists of missions. Maybe I’ll get into the multiplayer? Then again, I imagine most people have moved over to Halo Infinite. Either way, it’s been a fun and nostalgic time.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

This was a go-to toward the start of the year, but my friends and I slowly burned out of this. We’ve idly talked about getting back into it. It really brought the sense of cinematic Star Wars space battles to life and personally invested you in it as a starfighter pilot caught up in the middle of it all. Multiplayer matches were chaotic and intense. We had one really strong player (not me–I was maybe the worst), but matchmaking unfortunately veered toward unbalanced rounds against incredibly skilled players or players who clearly didn’t know what they were doing at all, so we oscillated between fantastic victories and crushing defeats. I never got very far into the story, and the limited multiplayer maps could feel repetitive. But all that said, it was a way to socialize with friends during some of the worst of the pandemic while experiencing authentic Star Wars.

The Jedi Academy Reopens

I was quick to pick up, and play through, the Nintendo Switch ports for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Outcast was a title I’d never really played before and didn’t have much of an attachment to. Academy, on the other hand, was the game I had played a lot in high school. It didn’t get as much multiplayer time as the Halo games or Far Cry, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lightsaber combat and the sense of deep immersion within the Expanded Universe.

I had great fun with both games in their new lives as current-gen console ports by Aspyr. But my nostalgic connection to Jedi Academy made this the game I was more excited to revisit. I found that the lightsaber combat was a little more frustrating than I remembered, although after spending so much of Outcast without a lightsaber, it was great to come into the game with that signature weapon and some basic Force powers readily available. And I have evolved as a person and as a Star Wars fan, so while I still liked the cute references to the old continuity, I wasn’t as enraptured by these nods and winks, and I focused more on the story itself. It’s too bad, because the story is very mediocre.

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Academy hits many of the same beats as Outcast. You’re improving in the use of the Force while hunting down a band of Dark Side cultists preparing to take over the galaxy. There is a pivotal duel with a secondary antagonist in which the protagonist must wrestle with the temptation of the Dark Side. There is a final battle within a temple as the primary antagonist attempts to tap into an ancient power. And there’s weird stuff about pulling the Force from people/places. The secondary antagonist of Outcast even becomes the primary antagonist of Academy. Plus, Kyle Katarn remains sarcastic and bordering on the edge of having a real personality, though he moves from protagonist to mentor/support character.

Academy mixes things up by focusing on customization and choice. That plot point about facing the Dark Side is actually a player choice in Academy, resulting in a Light or Dark ending–which had been a feature of Outcast’s predecessor. (I don’t think I’ve ever played through the Dark Side ending, because the choice is either killing an unarmed and pathetic former “friend”/rival or sparing him.) And the larger plot is told over just a few bigger levels, with the majority of the game coming in the form of available missions that you choose from. Before each mission, you pick your starting weapons and level up Force abilities. And you can choose to complete all the missions within a given chapter of the story or skip the last one to go onto the next big story quest. These choices are meant to provide a sense of customization and non-linearity, but they result in only trivial variation in order rather than real impact (and as far as I can tell, you’re just missing out on an extra Force point by skipping a mission).

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The biggest player impact on how the game appears is through customization of the protagonist. You can choose the gender and species of your character, Jaden Korr; can select from several face, torso, and pant options with clothing trim color choices; and can pick a lightsaber hilt and color. Later on in the game, you can even choose to dual-wield lightsabers or carry a double-bladed saber. But while your lightsaber choices at least feed into combat, the other choices are purely aesthetic. And for that reason, it’s very bizarre that the game limits you to certain races for men and for women. You can be a human male or female, but you can only be a female Zabrak or Twi’lek, while you can only be a male Kel Dor or Rodian. On top of that, there’s only one male voice and one female voice. This means that, when I played through the game this time as a Kel Dor, the wry, clear voice of a human male was jarringly inserted, without any sort of filtration or mechanization, over the blank staring of my protagonist. With Plo Koon’s deep, muffled voice in mind, it was quite the disconnect to hear a voice apparently unrestrained by the respiratory apparatus over Jaden’s mouth, and a lot of character moments were oddly muted–especially since the graphics don’t allow for any expression of emotion in the character’s brows. If you’re going to just assign the same voice to every race of the same gender, why limit the race/gender pairings at all?

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This game feels very much of its era, down to female characters in skimpy and outrageous outfits, including a Zabrak woman wearing boots with heels as displayed in many of the loading screens. As one might imagine, hetero teenage me didn’t mind that so much, but now, it’s some uncomfortable baggage.

But importantly, even with my critiques, and even with my occasional frustrations with a particular opponent or scenario in the game, I still had a lot of fun. I liked playing a Kel Dor hero. I liked exploring planets from the movies and the EU. I liked the references to Luke’s early students like Corran, Tionne, and Streen. I liked the goofy weirdness of the plot and its insistence that players be familiar not just with the previous game’s story but with a dozen other stories and characters as well for maximum appreciation. The New Jedi Order series ended in the same year that Jedi Academy came out, so this was the peak for wild, weird, edgy, self-referential Star Wars, at the very edge before I finally got burnt out. I was reminded of that feeling and that setting when I played the game again. And I got to swing a lightsaber a lot, so it was still worth my time. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to sell you on it. And if you’re not a fan, the loose controls, dated graphics, and casual density of background lore might not be appealing. I guess this post was just for me, and others like me, who maybe could use a little escape into nostalgia during a particularly dark time for America.

Review: Love, Death & Robots

I did not like Love, Death & Robots, but I’m glad that it exists. It’s incredibly genre stuff: scif-fi, horror, and fantasy. Some of the stories do interesting things and take risks. A lot of the stories seem to delight in the chance to be included in an “NSFW anthology,” leaning into gore, grotesque violence, graphic sex, and sometimes a combination of the three. Most of the stories are dark and despairing and macabre. Most were vulgar and crude and unpleasant. A few were not these things, and seem to have been included because of their ideas or their humor or their style rather than sheer edginess alone, and I liked these few best.

My favorite thing about the anthology as a whole was that each short film in the anthology was so different. Some were mostly live action, some were puppetry and/or stop-motion (or else convincing CG-based facsimiles), some were CGI animation (with some of the films within that category appearing hyper-realistic), some were apparently traditional animation, and one was a seemingly live-action film filtered with an over-saturated and cartoonish look and punctuated by text sound effects (this last one was the most visually arresting, but the story was a fairly bland time loop narrative with violence and hyper-sexuality). The drastic shifts between styles kept each new film fresh and distinct.

With 18 episodes averaging about 10 minutes each, it’s incredibly easy to binge the roughly 3-hour affair (even though the episodes range in length, they’re all still rather short). I know that I did. At some point, though, it became about finishing, wanting to put the show behind me. The amount of bad outnumbered the good.

I had my favorites. “Three Robots” follows, well, three robots who are touring a post-apocalyptic city; it’s funny and cute. “Suits” feels a bit like StarCraft fan fiction in the best possible way–it’s about farmers living normal lives except for the mech suits they must use to fight off Zerg-like aliens. “When the Yogurt Took Over” is just plain silly, and it’s one of the rare nonviolent stories in the bunch, serving as sort of a ’50s B-movie deconstruction with charming animation and a Vincent Price sound-alike narrator. “Lucky 13” feels like something set in the Halo ‘verse, but it’s essentially the story of a pilot’s bond with her craft, and it’s rather sweet. “Zima Blue” is an interesting sci-fi art story with a fun twist. And “Ice Age” is a whimsical story about a young couple who discover the old fridge in their new apartment contains its own lost civilization.

References and homages to other stories abound. In addition to the references I noted above, some of the stories felt like they were fan fics for Mass EffectDoom, a variety of werewolf stories of all things, ’80s toy-tie-in cartoons, and Pokémon (but with considerably more sex, violence, and gore, and set in a hard dystopian-cyberpunk setting). Fan fiction initially feels like the right term; they’re not officially licensed to play in those worlds, but the stories seem to work best when contemplating the universes and ideas they’re riffing off. To be fair, much of the source material for these short films outright predates the sources I’m pointing to; my lack of familiarity with most of the original short stories leaves me ill-equipped to say how much is contained in the originals and how much actually could be drawing from later sources. Sci-fi and fantasy are rather self-referential genres, after all, and the round of properties I’ve named are of course referencing dozens of other stories in turn. So to be more accurate: the anthology is a send-up of genre pulp of the past few decades. There are very few ideas that feel truly original or fresh–or even complete, without the context of the genres that they reside within.

While I won’t break down all the stories, I do have to point out that many of the shorts would have simply been easier to get through if they could have shown some restraint, focusing more on telling a consistent and notable story rather than focusing on maiming and killing. Just for example, consider “Sucker of Souls” and “Good Hunting.”

“Sucker of Souls” was incredibly gory and violent, which was a turn-off for me, but it felt a lot like a mature spin on Jonny Quest or something similar, spliced with a Castlevania-esque Dracula story, and it was just plain funny even amid the bloodshed; still, that relentless violence and blood splatter, and the ultimately futile ending, makes it hard to recommend as a comedy or parody. “Good Hunting” is The Witcher meets wuxia meets steampunk, but the grotesque violence against women and moral blackness of the setting (and a sociopathic, morbidly obese man’s tiny flopping dick) are hard marks against it for me; the setting was interesting but the story it wanted to tell was not what I wanted to see. I cannot overemphasize how much graphic violence there is in this collection–and how much of that violence is directed toward women.

Like with Black Mirror, I can appreciate the good episodes but don’t like having to wade through so much bad to get to the good. Like with Black Mirror, I feel like Love, Death & Robots is presented as an edgy, genre-pushing, radical reinvention of speculative fiction, but in the end they both feel like mere edgelord recycling of what’s come before.

That said, I hope that Love, Death & Robots can lead to more genre anthologies and more experimentation, on Netflix and other platforms.

Five Favorites Fast

Finishing Breath of the Wild, I thought to myself that it’s probably one of my top favorite games ever. This, of course, prompted a bit of further reexamination. A favorites list is an inherently subjective and personal artifact, no matter what numbers one assigns to a thing in the attempt to give a more formal rating. It is also fairly mutable; my favorites list–especially if you get out to the fringes of a top ten or top twenty anything–changes relatively frequently.

So if Breath of the Wild is one of my top favorite games now, how do the others shake out?

In no particular order, my five favorite video games are currently…

I. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).

II. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

The list changes a little bit, but not that much. This permanent ranking at the top of my games pile is part nostalgia and part a reflection on what a wonderful game Bethesda put out back in 2002. It’s buggy and a bit ugly around the edges, and its (unmodded) graphics certainly don’t live up to the test of time–but it was rewarding exploration and wild experimentation almost two decades ago, and it felt like a truly massive game world at the time. Plus, by focusing on a fairly small geographic footprint, a volcanic island in an inland sea, the game tended toward density over sheer openness. There could be a lot of wandering, sure, but over just about every rise and in just about every hollow would be something new and interesting. The realm of Morrowind was a truly weird place, with bizarre plants and animals, fungi towers, and an elaborate set of competing and overlapping cultural and political systems. The tension between a (racist, classist) native culture and (corrupt, domineering) imperial presence blurred the lines of right and wrong. Not that your character was ever bound by doing what was “right” so much as what said character could get away with…

III. Beyond Good and Evil

This was another game with a bizarre world to explore, with humanized animals and strange invasive aliens and bizarre native wildlife. It wasn’t truly “open-world,” I suppose, but there were massive hubs to explore and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like Breath of the Wild, this game employed a photography system, and photographing key objects was often essential to completion of mission objectives. It could also be used to take pictures of native fauna to pick up extra cash cataloging the remaining life forms on the planet. The combat system was typically light and breezy, though some of the boss fights–especially the final boss–tended toward the tedious. I truly appreciated the wonderful sense of empathy expressed by the main characters, as well as the portrayal of a wildly multicultural and welcoming world. That’s in addition to the conspiracy-theorizing, love-letter-to-freedom-of-expression, resistance-to-fascism themes of the game.

IV. Fable II

Another fairly open-world game–huge swaths of territory to explore in open hubs containing either cities or wilderness. The ease of combat and the easier ability to intermix magic, melee, or ranged attacks into a fight improve upon its predecessor, and the additional ability to pick a gender was a nice change (even though you’re still stuck being a pale Briton, despite the inclusion of people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the game). The third game offered further improvements to combat and the interplay between the three types of abilities, and its expansion of property acquisition and rise-to-the-throne plot were refreshing. Still, I think the second game represents the peak because of the Hero’s companions. Hammer, for instance, is just a fantastic video game character and always more clearly heroic than the protagonist, even if she is prone to anger and rash action. Once again, experimentation is another thing that can be valued about this game–experimenting with combat styles, experimenting with mercantile tactics, and experimenting with social interaction. Everything feels quite organic at first, a series of player actions and world/NPC reactions, although the simplicity of each of the main systems in the game quickly reduces them to something feeling transparently mechanical. This is probably the most troubled game on my list, and I think the ending in particular was disappointing, rushed, emotionally manipulative, and overly simplistic (why must it be one of those three wishes? I could think of other variants with better outcomes!).

V. Deus Ex

Writing up this list, I thought the fifth entry would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, there are other games I like more than that; they’ll come first. But I was sure KOTOR would take the final spot. And then I got here, and I realized, Deus Ex came out three years before, it was in some ways a more experimental game, it certainly gave the player a lot of agency (probably more so than in KOTOR), and it dealt with moral choice in a far more mature way than the other game! Deus Ex may not be the better game, but I think I prefer it, if I’m being honest and not blinded by fanboy nostalgia. I think I talk about that game more–and recommend it to others more, even now. And Deus Ex‘s story was wild, taking the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and rebranding them as a twisted truth, all adding up to an awful dystopian future. The blocky character models and dark environments are definitely dated, but they also fit with the gritty and failing cyberpunk world explored in the game. KOTOR’s characters stuck with me more, but the Dentons’ story is a bizarre one that’s worth remembering too. Plus, there were multiple approaches through any situation; stealth, diplomacy, or a tech-based approach were often not just alternatives but often far superior to a straightforward combat option. The dense, shady urban environments in each level were lurid and rotten and packed with secrets to find. It was a weird game, and it was hard at first for me to get into, but it’s worth taking the time to unpack it. It’s a game that’ll eat at you a while after playing.

Runners Up

It is really hard to contain oneself to five favorite things. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic for a worthy Star Wars story with a robust dialogue system, interesting companions, exotic environments, and a turn-based combat system that was simultaneously tactical and cinematic; Stardew Valley, for its seemingly simple farming simulator that also contains a dungeon-delving combat game, a community of quirky personalities, and a deeply rewarding cycle of daily tasks, all set to the most pleasantly peaceful music; Analogue: A Hate Story for being a visual novel with a good story, interesting themes, and a clever collapse of the fourth-wall through the nature of play, making it a visual novel that I actually wanted to play; Life Is Strange, for the emotional (and not just melodramatic) high school drama and weirdness and cool game mechanics; and Halo, for being the first FPS I loved as a youngster and for its derivative-yet-imaginative epic sci-fi setting. Oh, I guess that makes five runners-up, so this is secretly a top ten list, and you’ve just reached the end.