I spent a long time this week trying to figure out how I wanted to do my annual Game of The Year blogging. I’ve never had a consistent approach in the past (I wrote a big top 10 list in 2018, a top 10 countdown in 2019, and in 2020 I split my list into two parts), and every year I play different quantities and kinds of games.

2021 has been a strange and difficult year for a number of reasons. It’s also been an insistent reminder that, while games may be a refuge from the real world, they are often made under abysmal real-world working conditions. Revelations of recent and ongoing abuse and mistreatment at studios both small and large (and medium, etc.) have been frequent this year, and mainstream reporting on them has become more openly critical. While these abuses are not new to folks who follow the industry, the scale and volume of the news does feel like an escalation of its visibility.

And meanwhile, the year wraps up with what feels like an exhausted return to the “Top X Games of the Year” tradition. The Game Awards, a combination award show and advertising bombardment, opened with a sober message of sympathy for game workers struggling for safe, fair, and healthy conditions, before veering immediately into trailers and awards. The message did not directly name or condemn Activision Blizzard, whose workers are organizing walkouts and taking steps toward unionization.

This Year’s Format

For several years now, The Game Awards have been an overproduced deluge of out-of-touch, cringe-reel-worthy nonsense, buoyed only by genuine excitement for the announcements and trailers they so proudly tout, and moments of sincere joy from developers accepting awards. But this year it felt like even more of a farce than ever before. I may be overly fixating on a stupid awards show, but to me, it feels emblematic of the way the industry frequently evades important criticism by cranking up the hype machine.

So for my wrap up this year, I think I’m going to repurpose one of TGAs bits for my own ends: a set of wildly arbitrary award categories that convey a very specific perspective on what video games are and how they should be categorized (in this case, specifically around games I played this year). Here are my categories:

  • Biggest Oversight
  • Best Attention Grabber
  • Most Interesting Nostalgic Experience
  • Most Breathtaking Vistas
  • Best Mechanical Gimmick
  • Best Game of The Year

Are these categories completely arbitrary and stupid? Yes. Are their actual meanings unclear? Sure, don’t worry, I’ll explain them as I go. Is that last one kind of a boring cop-out? Well, yeah, kinda. Look, these categories are just good excuses to talk about the games that I found compelling this year. If I did this gimmick in a different year, the set of categories would be completely different.

So that’s the format. Over the next several days, I’ll crown a bunch of games as the winners of these silly categories. But of course, what would a vague parody of The Game Awards be without giving out awards in the pre-show? Let’s give out the first award…

Biggest Oversight

The first category is the award for the biggest oversight; the games that I most wanted or intended to play, but missed or never got around to. This award goes to the game in my queue that, by my estimation, was most likely to have been a favorite of mine… if I had actually gotten around to playing it.

I like to think of this category as only slightly less stupid than TGA’s “Most Anticipated” category. So, I guess it’s not really an award for a game being good, but a game seeming good to me — or at least, aligned with my sensibilities.

The Runner Up

Life is Strange: True Colors

Life is Strange is a deeply fraught series, filled with twists and turns running the gamut from incredibly poignant character moments to painful use of distasteful tropes. It’s a deservedly divisive series that often tackles weightier issues than it feels qualified to handle. But despite its fumbles, it has a throughline of deep sincerity and heart that fills all of its titles and makes all of its characters memorable.

True Colors has been well-received in general and I have a strong suspicion that, like with previous entries, it’ll be overwhelmingly likeable despite whatever critiques I have. I would argue that I’ve had trouble focusing fully on games lately, but I think I’ve always found Life is Strange games to be emotionally grueling (I even rather liked Life is Strange 2’s episodic release schedule). But I’m hoping to get to it soon, and maybe have something to write about it.

The Winner

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Here’s the thing. I have started Kena (I’m maybe halfway through), and I do really like it! But I don’t feel like I’ve quite played enough to have a fully informed opinion. Suffice it to say that, if my final impression is similar to my current one, it likely would have made it onto a hypothetical Top Whatever list for me.

Kena has been a good reflection of how complicated my relationship with games has gotten. Lately I’ve found myself struggling to give my full attention to games, and it’s made it more difficult to get into any that I have on console (where comforting distractions like podcasts and discord are farther away). Only when I had a break from work did I find the right headspace to sit down and sink some hours into Kena, even though I briefly started it when it released in September.

I’m hoping to finish it before the end of the year, but I’d also like to use it to help me re-contextualize my gaming habits. Playing it over the holiday break has reminded me how badly I missed being able to just sit on the couch and sink into an experience, and it’s something I hope to hold onto beyond the holiday break.

All of this is to say that Kena has been quite good so far, now that I’ve been in the right mood to enjoy it properly. It’s a love letter to the old-school PS2-era platformer format and it exemplifies how strong that school of design can still be. I’m excited to finish it! Maybe I’ll write more about it soon.

❄️ That’s it for the Day 1 of my annual holiday GOTY-posting tradition! Hope you’re having a good holiday season. If you can, consider donating to the ABK Strike Fund!