It’s odd and feels a little weird to say that I missed part of the pandemic in 2020. To be sure, there were a lot of crappy parts. It was…mostly crappy parts. But for an introvert like me, to have all my social plans scuttled for months gave me some breathing room that I didn’t know that I needed, a silver lining of sorts to the world stopping. To simply fire up my Playstation 4 on a Saturday and play Persona 5 all day because there wasn’t anything else to do was a throwback. It was nice.
In 2021, normalcy returned in many facets. I began rehearsals for ensembles again. I was back in the office full time. There was a new set of fun games to play. We had a full season of baseball. But my relationship to the media I consumed also grew back to a more normal relationship, where it ceased being a lifeline and shifted back towards its status as a hobby.
This shift hit how I felt about the video games I played this year more than how I felt about other media. Games take a long time to complete, and as a result, where you are in your life can be a bigger factor in how you remember experiencing them than with other media. For instance, I remember playing Horizon: Zero Dawn after I lost my job. I remember playing Persona 5 when I had been forced to work from home for three months. I remember playing Mass Effect 3 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in my college dorm.
All this is to say that I had my favorite games this year, for sure, but it felt different playing them this year than when I played last year. Maybe this is really all to say that I feel worse now when I play eight hours of one video game on a Saturday, and I enjoyed it when I didn’t feel bad at all. Who knows.
Honorable Mention: Life is Strange: True Colors
The first Life is Strange came out in 2015, and it was somewhat of a revelation. One of the first major “walking simulator” games, its popularity helped pave the way for the similarly constructed Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch. It was also just…completely bonkers, with supernatural time travel powers and a wild, wild narrative that unraveled in unexpected directions.
I was expecting True Colors to be more similar to the first game in the series in that regard, and I kept waiting for the other, crazy shoe to drop, as it were. But once I got over what True Colors wasn’t, I began to appreciate what True Colors was, which is this: an emotional story wonderfully painted with three-dimensional characters that you’ll love. True Colors is more grounded than other games in its series, which is just fine. It is especially good at depicting individual moments of heartfelt character interaction, which it does again and again.
Bronze Medal: Knockout City
Knockout City is the inverse of True Colors; where True Colors is all about narrative and has essentially no substantive gameplay, Knockout City is all about gameplay and has essentially no substantive story. And that’s ok! Games are unique in that regard, as a great game doesn’t need a great story. Just look at Tetris, or Flappy Bird, or, heck, Candy Crush. A great gameplay loop is all you really need.
Knockout City is a multiplayer only game, but where it differs from other recent multiplayer only games (think Fall Guys and Among Us) is the uniqueness of its gameplay. It’s dodgeball! And it’s really, really good dodgeball. The core mechanics are excellent, the variety of stages and ball types make every game different. Plus, and very importantly, every game is fast and fun even if you’re losing.
Silver Medal: Persona 5: Strikers
Persona 5: Royal is a heaping gob of a game, with an average playtime that’s equivalent to seven and a half seasons of your favorite 22-episode, hour-long cable drama. I love it, but I don’t know if I’m ever playing it again. So, along comes Persona 5: Strikers, presented as a true sequel to Persona 5, but whose gameplay is in a completely different genre and with a playtime only a third as long. Can it hold up to Persona 5?
Strikers passes with flying colors. Its combat is, in many ways, more rewarding than the turn based style of Persona 5. It smartly adapts the famous parts of P5, such as dungeons and an emphasis on hanging out with your teammates. Plus, Strikers handles the characters brilliantly, building a great story and including some great character writing. There’s one moment in particular that was simultaneously so out of left field and so narrative satisfying that I pumped my fist and yelled “YEAH!” at the screen—and that was with a new character and not a returning one, no less. It’s a great RPG in its own right.
Gold Medal: Halo Infinite
I’m an interesting breed of Halo veteran: I’ve played the games since high school, basically, but since I never had an Xbox until 2011, my most played Halo by multiplayer standards has been Halo 4. This makes me somewhat of a hybrid, as I love the old games but not so much that I don’t also love even the newer entries, which have not been quite as well-received. Still, the Halo games are my favorite shooters, and I am happy to report that Halo Infinite simply slaps.
Let me describe one quick story here. There’s a new gun in the game called the skewer. It is a power weapon, meaning that it spawns in one spot on a map and then only occasionally. I did not know what it did when I picked it up—though I could guess, considering it was a rocket launcher looking thing with a bayonet at the end—but then I saw an opposing player shooting me. I fired the skewer, which then promptly shot a three-foot metal spike at a billion miles an hour into this enemy, pinning their corpse against the wall they were standing in front of. I let out a hoot of equal parts surprise and primal glee.
I will remember firing that gun for a very long time, and that moment is a microcosm of why Halo Infinite is so awesome: every single thing in the game is delightful and satisfying to do. The game feels extremely good to play, with a rare level of polish and care. Halo Infinite also has, inarguably, the best Halo campaign. This is in part thanks to its open-world sandbox with Breath of the Wild style exploration and movement options. But it is also in part because it is tightly focused on three characters, each of whom undergoes an honest-to-goodness satisfying arc. And considering one of them is a faceless, genetically engineered supersoldier, that is quite the feat.