This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2021.
2021 was a rough year for video games underlined by a returning theme of delays. In a way, I understand the pain developers and fans of new games are feeling — I’m going on my second year without a 3000 series GPU. But just like a good parent is willing to go hungry to see their children satisfied, I’ll gladly suffer through another year on “Low” graphics settings if it means an ethereum miner can enjoy his third drawing of an ugly monkey. I didn’t play a ton of new games this year, but I did play some good games. Continue on to the non-fungibles below.
Unpacking’s gameplay isn’t revolutionary. Its graphics aren’t monumental. Its characters never speak. And it’s a game about moving boxes of furniture from one place to another. Unpacking‘s strength is in its subtlety. It doesn’t have to force you to feel things, because it knows you will. Leaving one place and starting a new phase are inherently emotional experiences, and everyone who’s moved from their high school bedroom to a college dorm to their first apartment and then to something resembling a home has strong memories tied to these transitory moments. Moving bras, D&D books, and toothbrushes helped me relive my own moves even though I’ve never myself used any of these things.
But the experience wasn’t entirely my own. Moving this one person’s stuff from one place to another as she accumulates more belongings and loses others was a unique way to meet and get to know someone I never saw head-on. The familiarity of a stuffed dragon or a teddy bear gets more endearing the more I pull it out of boxes, tethering these otherwise-unrelated spaces together as pieces of a broader lifelong narrative. I know the protagonist well enough to have presaged that her relationship with a post-college boyfriend is doomed from their conflicting styles alone. I feel for her when the inevitable comes to pass and she’s forced to return to her childhood bedroom. By the end, I just want everything to work out for her and her new family. Unpacking is short and sweet, but wholly worth it. It’s currently free on Game Pass.
BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS
I hesitated about putting this one in here, having started and completed it just days ago. I’m worried the emotional impact may be too fresh on my mind, that I may have been strong-armed into appreciation. But what am I gonna do, pretend I played it in January and jettison all the journalistic integrity I’ve earned by writing about Japanese butthole demons?
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a short, unique, and emotional narrative puzzle game that puts you in control of two brothers searching for medicine for their dying father. What’s unique is that the control is simultaneous; if you’re playing with a controller, one half operates the older brother, the other half the younger. I think this qualifies Brothers as my favorite single player co-op game. The whole of the gameplay is a series of puzzles that always keep the game interesting and rarely, if ever, overstay their welcomes. The whole thing can be enjoyed in an evening (estimates suggest about 3 hours for the standard story) and it’ll make you very sad. I think it affected me enough to have earned a very late spot on this list. Ask me next year if I fucked up.
Valheim was this year’s surprise hit. Survival games are a dime a million, and thematic ones feel especially prone to failure. This one’s special. It’s not really that something about Valheim works, but that almost everything does. Its art style is unique and inviting, evoking RuneScape without the party hats and ruthless PKing. Its building is both challenging and rewarding, inspiring near-infinite creativity. Its world is engrossing and interesting, and its combat engaging and fulfilling. Few survival games come close to nailing the feeling of adventure that Valheim seems to hit so effortlessly. Embarking on an overseas mining expedition, improving the longhouse forge, and gearing up to take down a boss all carry feelings of meaningful progress, steps on the path to Valhalla.
Critics of the game may be quick to point out the considerable grind involved in acquiring resources and equipment — they have a point. In my two playthroughs, my friends and I have both times come right up to the point of fighting the fourth boss before trailing off, our attention pulled elsewhere. I’m starting to think the third time’s the charm, though, and if Valheim’s future updates are as solid as its present core, I think we’ll be going back to reave for quite a while.
I don’t think any other game I’ve played this year has been more of a unifying force than the one I’ve enjoyed as much as the nine year olds I work with. There’s something about this game’s simplicity and infinite opportunities for creativity that make it perfect for bringing large groups of far-away friends together, no matter how unprecedented the times. I’ve started putting up servers for my group of friends a couple times a year. It’s nice to be able to see evidence of community-building and progress. It’s also fun to build with blocks.
THE WITCHER 3: BLOOD AND WINE
Last year, I used this space to complain about my poor decision to put off completing The Witcher 3. History repeats itself; having completed most of its crown DLC, I turned away and almost forgot to come back. I don’t think that’s a mark against The Witcher — I’ve explained before the effect these massive RPGs have on me. I go in with hopes of finishing them, but the more time I spend in these worlds, the more daunting the idea of completion becomes. This difficulty was particularly compelling in Blood and Wine. The amount of content in this expansion is insane. Blood and Wine improves almost everything about The Witcher 3 and does it while telling a compelling story in one of the prettiest settings I’ve ever killed things in.
This is, by far, the longest single-player expansion I’ve ever delved into. I had no qualms about the way it ended, but I still wanted more. If it weren’t for the gargantuan carnivorous plants, horse-eating wyverns, and crowd-mangling vampires, I could see myself selling down on my own Toussaintoise vineyard beside a poorly-mused portrait of myself, taking in the sights of this beautiful and troubled country. Do yourself a favor and, for once, believe the hype.
Halo Infinite had an imperfect launch. After a month’s worth of tweaking, it’s still a flawed game. Its monetization structure is poorly-implemented and overbearing. But where it does well, it exceeds expectations. Multiplayer feels like Halo with enough innovation to keep things new and interesting. The single player campaign takes big risks that start paying off almost immediately. I love the Halo series. The Master Chief Collection won the inaugural Raisin d’Or last year. But it’s gonna be hard to return to a pre-grappling hook Halo. I wish I could report on a feature-complete game with full co-op and custom maps, but even as it is, Halo Infinite feels like an instant classic.
RAISIN D’OR: STARDEW VALLEY
Stardew Valley won my heart almost immediately. This king of cozy games and passion project of a solo developer came out exactly when I needed a distraction from the stresses of the world beyond my bedroom. Since then, I’ve packed hundreds and hundreds of hours into it, first solo, with Sara and I sometimes playing on our own farms side-by-side, and then co-op when that mode launched years later. Stardew Valley is a delight in both formats. Its core gameplay loop takes forever to get old and progress in the game feels ridiculously satisfying. This is one of few games I have recommended to everyone who’ll listen. My friends who love Minecraft and Terraria love Stardew, but so do my friends who love Halo and DOOM.
Early this year, I set out to achieve what I’d never achieved, in this game or any other: I was going to complete it. I set out to grow and ship all crops, to maximize my relationships with all of my neighbors, to earn every in-game achievement, to acquire every collectible — everything the game’s internal completion tracker required me to do to hit 100%, I was getting there. To my good fortune, that tracker ignores the two achievements that would have required I beat one of the saloon’s (devilishly difficult) arcade machine mini games. That’s a goal for 2024. Over a few months, one step at a time, I reached my goal, min-maxing a game pretty specifically built not to be min-maxed.
I’ve had ambitions to 100% almost every game I’ve really enjoyed. Once I complete the main quest, campaign, or objective, that ambition usually falls off a cliff. That I stuck with Stardew means something to me. This game is special. It’s heartfelt and endearing, and every part of it radiates the care that was put into it. If you have any inclination that this game might be up your alley, buy it. You’ll be glad you did.
Read the rest of my favorites here.