Let’s not beat around the bush – 2021 has been weird. It’s been one of the worst and best years of my life, and games have played a big part in keeping the wheels turning. I graduated university in July, threw myself into freelance, and found my footing right here at TheGamer, now irritating everyone with my love for Jak and Daxter and Doctor Who. All the while, a mountain of personal troubles continued to hurl avalanche after avalanche, but I kept going thanks to the comforting arms of Boyfriend Dungeon. Well, the comforting arms of Valeria.
There are plenty of games to have instilled such a feeling in me this year but not all of them will make this list – there are just too many. 2021 has not only been a great year for games but one of the best in recent memory. I’m upset I couldn’t feature Loop Hero, Death’s Door, Tails of Iron, Little Nightmares 2, or Worms Rumble, but they sure came close.
10 Boyfriend Dungeon
One of those aforementioned avalanches saw me being dumped by someone I’d been in a relationship with since I was 13. To say I’ve been lost would be an understatement, so playing Boyfriend Dungeon was like taking a sip of cold water after being out all day in the scorching hot sun. Or Britain’s equivalent which is more of a lukewarm ray struggling through the clouds.
It was comforting as both a bittersweet break from my depressive episodes and a way to explore my bisexuality that inspired me to broaden my horizons in real life. Getting into dating during a pandemic with zero experience is hell. Seven circles? Aye, that’s the inner one. Your self-esteem crumbles like a Greggs pasty as you’re left picking up the flakes like the slob you are.
Boyfriend Dungeon felt tangible. I was texting these people and building bonds, living out a romantic adventure in a new city – something I’m desperately chasing again now I’ve moved into my own place. For a few short hours, it was bliss. I was at home embracing my queerness and it inspired me to get out of my slump – it isn’t just a game worthy of being on this list but one I’ll cherish for years to come.
Moving on from deep undertones and personal conflict, Griftlands was pure, unadulterated fun. I’m a sucker for a good roguelike but I could never get into any that used cards. Griftlands completely changed that, offering up a vibrant anarchist world where you could charm the pants off aliens instead of blasting ‘em. And by god, I sweet-talked those aliens.
What gives it an edge is its sci-fi fantasy aesthetic and distinct characters with ‘80s wit – I could picture Harrison Ford in this world. You get to shape your characters into different people with each passing run, letting you dance around morals without too much repercussion. Every single run has that unique feel, and I keep coming back to it again and again in the pursuit of trying and seeing something new.
It’s been a long, long time since Half-Life 2 launched in 2004 and it’s still one of my favourite games ever. The wait between Episode 2 and Alyx was painfully long – I scoured Reddit, all the forums, watched countless datamining videos, keeping up to date with every revelation and slither of hope for a sequel. As much as I love and adore Alyx, Industria offers a more classic Half-Life experience. It feels ripped from the early ‘00s down to its janky skybox and awkward out-of-bounds trickery. But it also has a mind-bending and otherworldly story rich with mystery, so sublime in execution that you almost can’t place it.
7 The Medium
Look, somebody had to have The Medium on their list. It just so happens that somebody is me. Perhaps one of the most divisive games of this year, The Medium was Bloober Team’s foray into a new kind of survival horror, acting as a Silent Hill-esque glimpse into mental illness told through the lens of a spiritual guide. From the get-go, I was hooked. The environments are stunning, the use of tank controls makes for an unparalleled cinematic experience, and the narrative hits me right where it hurts. I’ve been grappling with similar internal struggles, that feeling of nothingness and as though everything doesn’t matter – a deepening sense of loneliness – and The Medium’s core message was exactly what I needed to hear. You’re not alone.
6 Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
There’s a poignant moment on Knowhere after the gang has split up – you find Drax alone, staring into a white void. He’s mourning his family just as Star-Lord is mourning his mother. You walk over and, in spite of all the childish jokes, riffs, and antics you’ve been up to, you start to understand each other, taking a moment to wind down and sympathize amidst all the chaos. It’s a poignant exchange because it breaks down what makes the Guardians such a compelling team, showing how much they have in common despite all their differences, that they can bring each other up and give their hearts to one another in the face of everything they’ve been through. It’s the first time that we’ve seen this brought to life outside of Gamora and Star-Lord, and it warmed my little heart. The game is that rich in storytelling throughout.
5 Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
I’ve been playing this series since it started way back in 2002 so I have a strong bond to the goofy fuzzball and his shiny robot companion. The 2016 film was accompanied by a diluted reboot, completely ripping away most of the charm in the process, so I was overjoyed to see it was the original universe returning with Rift Apart, continuing his story all these years later. It picks up after 2013’s Into the Nexus, building upon the internal struggle of whether Ratchet should fix the Dimensionator and return home to his people, or whether it’s selfish because of the risk it creates. Nah, Clank just does it anyway and thank god he did. I love Ratchet – I always will – but Rivet elevated the series and brought something new to the table. Her retelling of that struggle to become a hero, building a bond with her Clank equivalent Kit, was a perfect way to open the door to new fans. Sure, it’s a soppy blockbuster, but I love every second of it.
4 Halo Infinite
I haven’t played the campaign yet. I don’t have the time or the energy. Or the energy sword. But Halo Infinite has some of the best multiplayer we’ve seen in the past decade. I’ve fallen out of favour with the FPS genre, often finding I enjoy battle royales more. But Halo is an arena shooter designed for consoles that you can get lost in for hours, unwinding after long days for some much-needed catharsis. It’s classic but modern, keeping a level of simplicity that’s been lost. Rip away all the cosmetics people are whining about and it’s a perfect ‘00s shooter – the battle pass is just the cherry on top for that bit of serotonin when we get a level up ding.
3 The Forgotten City
Another mod turned game, The Forgotten City was originally made in Skyrim to the backdrop of Markarth. It’s a time loop title – of which there were many this year – that pushes us to be a detective in a world where everybody forgets who you are when the clock strikes midnight. You have to figure out who is sinning, ultimately ending the world. I won’t spoil the twist, but the uncovering of clues and putting the puzzle pieces together is one of the most satisfying resolutions to any detective game. You earn your ‘victory’ and really put your brain to work. I was so captivated by it, in perfecting my runs, that I ended up staying awake ‘till 6 am, getting every ending.
2 It Takes Two
It Takes Two feels like a co-op Ratchet & Clank. From the grind rails to bosses designed around platforming to grav-boots to swing shots, everything harkens back to classic R&C. It has that old PS2 feel but you get to experience it with your best mate which is all I’ve ever wanted, only it’s not just two of us running around the same map, fighting over the same objectives like in All4One. We have to work together to solve unique puzzles designed around two players and it’s the best that we’ve seen this in action since Portal 2. It’s borderline perfect.
You wake up on a sandy beach with a hangover, only to discover that you’re in a time loop meaning you’re always going to wake up with a hangover. Imagine that for an eternity. I’d probably get a little desperate to break the cycle too. Colt and Julianna are incredibly charismatic and it’s a treat to hear them banter while murdering each other while you’re also thrown into the thick of another detective-oriented time loop game.
This one holds your hand a bit more, sure, but breaking (or keeping) the loop is just as satisfying as you begin to grow in power and familiarity, uncovering Blackreef’s secrets and learning its routine, schedules, and layout like the back of your hand. You become at one with this location in a way that few other immersive sims let you because you are always returning to the scene of the crime for more. Toppled with its incredibly freeing movement and punchy combat and what you get is a game that is nigh impossible to put down. One more run… One more achievement… One more hunt as Julianna. Oh, I’m in a loop.
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