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One of these days, I will simply stop saying stuff like “here’s to a better year!” and just let the year take me where it wants to go. Last year, I did not play as many games as I wanted to or hoped to, but luckily I found a few gems that shine a light on the spot that would be otherwise occupied by the shadow cast from my backlog.
5. Essays on Empathy
Essays on Empathy is a collection of several short games from Deconstructeam; all examining a different and unique narrative experience. Each game varies in story, gameplay design, style and presentation, but they all delve into the human experience as the core that holds everything together. Quite literally exploring the complexity of empathy and the forms that can take.
I don’t want to spoil too much, as all of these games are very brief and pretty wonderful, but one of my favorites is a game about an injured hitman working in a flower shop. It uses the language of flowers as a pseudo choice system, and depending on what arrangement you choose for any given situation, the outcomes could lead to healing or misery, and that goes for the hitman’s own narrative conclusion as well.
I think Essays on Empathy flew in a little under the radar, but it’s an incredibly worthwhile contribution to video games and what kinds of stories and emotions the medium can effectively tell.
4. Destiny 2
Okay, let me elaborate. 2021 for Destiny 2 was originally supposed to be much more dense but *gestures vaguely to everywhere and everything* held it back a bit. Still, last year’s series of seasonal content was a really engaging, interesting, and emotional build-up to this year’s expansion, Witch Queen. Last year in particular is where I think Bungie has hit its stride in coalescing a lot of the greater narrative beats in Destiny lore into a dramatic turning point.
Some things in Destiny 2 are still disappointing and frustrating, like the vaulting system (bewildering) and the New Light Experience (somehow kind of a turn-off for new players,) but improvements also persist. Last year we saw the aforementioned seasonal story and activities, the return of the Vault of Glass raid, some charming Bungie 30th anniversary content, the introduction of cross-play, and other quality of life tweaks.
While still a bit of a give and take situation, my own enjoyment of Destiny 2 last year stood in stark contrast to my enjoyment of it in its early years. It’s fun, and interesting, and it has helped some of my friends and I keep in touch and have more of those gaming bonding moments during a pretty alienating time, which is always invaluable to me.
3. Death’s Door
Death’s Door was a delight. I thought it might be one I play a little of, then put it down and never think about it again, but it stuck with me. It’s a charming and funny take on grim reapers – and the corporate structure that conducts them – as crows balancing paper-pushing and field work. Just like I always imagined. The combat is challenging and stylish, the music is dynamic and catchy, and there are so many cartoonish and interesting characters.
Overall it’s sublime and moody, cute and scary, and it’s a lot of fun to play. I have so many nice things to say about Death’s Door that I’m going to keep it short and sweet by saying amidst a year of really good games, it takes the third spot in my own personal list of bests.
I was a latecomer to Inscryption, and I’m disappointed that I waited so long. Inscryption is hard to describe beyond being trapped in a cabin and forced to play this creepy guy’s deranged card game. It’s a deck-building game. It’s psychological horror. It’s surrealism and aesthetic-blending goodness. There’s a heavy theme of sacrifice, more obviously due to the fact that it functions as a rogue-like and more subtly woven into the overall narrative of the game, and the chaos of its many other elements never seems out of your reach. While it’s fast-paced and snappy, the endlessness of your fate leaves you a ton of room to explore tactics, take risks, and make the heavier sacrifices to see if they pay off – and I really appreciate that.
One of my favorite things about Inscryption is that it often leaves you at the mercy of luck. I may draw my weakest cards, but that helplessness created new opportunities for me to survive. Sometimes, my decision to play aggressive and headstrong was punished, as one boss’s second round bashed my winners to bits and forced me to reconsider how I value and utilize all the cards in my desk. It’s frustrating, but challenging. Not the type of game I typically get sucked into so quickly, but this time every element fell into place perfectly executed.
1. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
What can I say about Disco Elysium? A lot, apparently! I don’t know yet if it will always be my absolute #1 game of all time, but I can confidently say it will remain in my top five for the rest of my life. Top five of any media. If it has a million fans I am one of them, if it has ten fans I am one of them, if it has no fans that means I am dead, etc and onward. What I have not already said about it amounts to this: Disco Elysium was a genuine groundbreaker when it was released in 2019, and The Final Cut polished the hell out of it. From the writing, to the art, to the music, to the belatedly-added full suite of voice acting, every person involved in the making of it are the brightest stars hand picked out of the night sky.
It pulled me completely in with some of the best writing I’ve ever read, and put me through an absolute circus of emotions. I found myself as invested in the characters and their complexities as I was with my own choices and reactions as Harry, with more care given to the greater thread of my relationships to everyone else than I’ve experienced in any other role playing game. I laughed, I cried, I nodded sagely along. This is it for me – this is the peak.