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Friday, May 17, 2024

The Best Games of 2021 Were an Explosion of Color and Charisma

This might have been the first full year of the new console generation, but we won’t remember 2021 as a time of technological breakthroughs from the industry’s major companies. Rather, innovations arrived via indies that, unable to render as many raw polygons and pixels, showed us how novel approaches to design and aesthetics yield arguably richer rewards.

Games such as Sable were an explosion of color and charisma, but unassumingly so. They demanded our attention because of their thoughtful idiosyncrasies rather than brash, blockbuster style. These titles are a long way off the corporate mainstream that found itself in crisis on a number of fronts. Like Cyberpunk 2077 the year before, Battlefield 2042 and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy came in too hot for their own good. Even those that arrived polished as a gemstone, like Halo Infinite, seemed to belong to the previous crop of consoles rather than the current one. We’re more likely to remember 2021 for the workplace scandal that rocked Activision Blizzard (following those of other major publishers). All of this happened during a decidedly weird year that began, for many, with coronavirus lockdowns and will end, if not with the same restrictions, then with a feeling that the virus, newly mutated as Omicron, is making its ugly return.

And yet, it’s important to remember that things are tangibly different. Effective and life-saving vaccines arrived (although they’re still not accessible enough in the Global South). As a result, many got to enjoy a late spring, summer, and autumn of relative normalcy. The following resolutely outward-looking games feel as if they resonate with a world beyond the pandemic. They’re filled with vivid tones, personality, and an unshakeable lust for life, brightening our screens in a year that, however fleetingly, at least seemed a little brighter than the last.

Psychonauts 2Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PC$60 $54 at XboxBuy at PlayStationBuy at PC

The funny, smart, and poignant Psychonauts 2 was more than worth the 15-year wait. Like its forebear, this action-platformer sequel stars Raz, who’s able to delve into the minds of people and help them overcome their mental constructs. 

It’s uniformly excellent, featuring level design that truly conveys the weirdness of our brains, but one section, involving a disembodied character called Brain In A Jar, stands out. 

Brain In A Jar has endured what’s essentially an extended and darkened lockdown of the mind, and so Raz must help them rediscover their five senses. As these flood back, developer Double Fine lets the stylistic hand brake off with a psychedelic platforming sequence that culminates in a jubilant musical number. “I can smell the universe and I can taste the sky/I can see each molecule through my cosmic eye,” sings the now fully bodied brain, engaging with the world once again.

YngletPlatforms: PC, MacBuy at PC, Mac

The first time you play Ynglet, it can be difficult to know exactly what’s going on. Sure, you’re playing a 2D platformer in the vein of Mario, but here your avatar is a tiny creature that jumps from bubble to bubble. Are you navigating a twinkling cellular microworld or is this something else? 

Actually, the game’s levels are loosely based on the geography of Copenhagen. Once you know this, Ynglet transforms into an urban excursion—one where every jump and landing triggers a delicate explosion of particles and a trill of musical melody (the game’s reactive score is excellent). 

Following a year in which cities effectively went into hibernation (save for essential services), Ynglet reminded us of the fundamental pleasures to be found in simply navigating urban landscapes—feeling part of a hubbub rather than distanced from it.

UnsightedPlatforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo SwitchBuy at XboxBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at PlayStationBuy at PC

Who knew this much life was left in the metroidvania genre? Unsighted, the work of Brazilian trans duo Studio Pixel Punk, puts you in the shoes of Alma, an android who, like the rest of her robotic kin, has achieved sentience thanks to a resource known as Anima. 

As you’d expect from a metroidvania, the combat is great and there's a lovely flow to exploring its beautifully lurid levels. But Unsighted adds a few wrinkles to the genre’s formula. The first is an upgrade system that eschews linear progression in favor of customizable chips. The second is the ticking clock that exists for both Alma and each NPC android, meaning you know exactly how long they have to live (unless you replenish their Anima). Unsighted is surprisingly touching as a result, an ode to both transforming one’s body (electronic or otherwise) and caring for your community in a time of crisis.

Genesis NoirPlatforms: Xbox One, PC, Nintendo SwitchBuy at XboxBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, Mac

Genesis Noir appears minimalist at first glance but quickly reveals itself to be anything but. You play as a nameless noir detective, and it’s your job to figure out how the big bang happened as if it’s a murder mystery. 

Compared to this premise, the gameplay is straightforward—part point-and-click adventure, part interactive animation in the style of ’50s graphic designer Saul Bass. But what’s remarkable, aside from the sheer aesthetic verve, is the way the dynamics of this cosmic rupture are channeled into a video game. 

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Across five hours, Genesis Noir, whose delightful bebop score chimes with its noirish silver-screen look, slowly builds to a genuine cacophony of color and sound. Like Pixar’s Soul, another existential jazz odyssey, it will leave your eyes dazzling, ears ringing, and brain tingling with a newfound sense of wonder.

SablePlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PCBuy at XboxBuy at PC

Slo-mo sunsets, crumbling stone ruins, and ancient technology submerged in undulating dunes. Sable’s setting is familiar—think the opening moments of Star Wars: The Force Awakens involving Rey on Jakku, but this belies how fresh the game feels. It’s an open-world adventure made by a small team with no interest in replicating the busyness and bloat common in its AAA counterparts. 

Rather, you cut across sandy banks on a spluttering hoverbike, taking your time to investigate each landmark that’s gently calling you from the horizon. When I think of Sable a few months after its release, my mind is filled with the space, possibility, and rich tones of this finely rendered desert-scape. More than that, its coming-of-age story captures the feeling of having your entire future ahead of you—a gift indeed during these strange times of stasis.

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