It’s day 2 of my Game of The Year series! Today’s award goes to the game that best kept my attention when it launched. What, you might ask, the hell does that mean?

Well, it turns out that video games release all the time throughout the year. And sometimes I find that the moment that a new game comes out, I’m either busy or tired or simply not in the mood to play it, even if I was excited for it to begin with.

It’s pretty rare that a game lands at just the right time to grab my attention and keep it. Of the fifty or so games I put any amount of time into this year, only maybe half a dozen drew me in within days of release and continued to grip me afterwards. This category is for those few games that arrived just when I was most ready for them.

Now, I’m sure this seems like a deeply subjective category that would be relevant only to me. Yes. That’s what it is. As I mentioned in the kickoff yesterday, 2021 has been a year of not just appreciating games, but also examining our relationships with them. So let’s lean in!

The Runner Up

Halo: Infinite

With a couple of exceptions, I really don’t like playing competitive multiplayer games. They get under my skin and they bring out the worst parts of my personality. And I’ll be honest: I should work on those things, I should practice being a better sport and having a healthier relationship with competition. But those are not the goals I typically have in mind when I sit down to play games after a workday.

So for all intents and purposes, I was ready to ignore Halo. I knew I was coming in at a deficit against people who had spent their youth playing hundreds of hours of Halo multiplayer. I knew that competitive shooters very rarely clicked with me in a social sense, even if they might be fun in a twitchy mechanical sense. I knew that, for whatever stupid reason, just the thought of playing a video game with and against actual other people gives me a weird sort of social anxiety.

Yet, for some reason, I picked up Halo and started poking at it when the multiplayer open beta launched in mid-November. Maybe it’s because it was free on Xbox Game Pass. Maybe it’s because I wanted a high-energy distraction from stressors. Maybe it’s because I was hoping to finally be part of the club and play Halo with my friends, a phenomenon I largely missed in high school.

I can’t really say what drove me to play it, but I did. And it turns out, I’ve had a lot more fun with it than I expected. I have sort of mixed feelings about the campaign (which I have not yet finished), and there is certainly valid criticism circulating about the monetization, customization, and event mechanics in the multiplayer. But by and large, those things don’t matter that much to me.

Halo gameplay has a very specific and unique feel to it. The floaty jumps, the long time-to-kill, and the tactile and varied weapons make for a sort of straightforward, faintly nostalgic comfort food. The game is very fun and it’s helped me remember that competitive multiplayer can be a casual thing, and that I can have a healthy relationship with it. And that’s a nice reminder to have.

The Winner

Death’s Door

Death’s Door draws a lot of its appeal from time-tested formulas. On its face, it’s something of a Zelda-like with odd characters, solid action combat, and heaps and heaps of atmosphere. I’m not sure I ever really bought into the setting and story of the game, but there was something very aesthetically engrossing about its world.

When it released, my first instinct was “that looks cool, I’ll put it on my wishlist and pick it up later”. But I kept looking at it. There was something that seemed inviting about it, seemed like the perfect next thing to pick up. I watched a friend play a bit of it and ultimately decided that, no, I was not going to wait to pick it up later. I wanted to play it right away.

So I did, and I really adored it! The music is somber and lonely but has a lush grandiosity to it, especially in the boss themes. The movement and combat are simple and fluid. The level design is elaborate, making the world feel interwoven, delightful to explore and scour for secrets. And it’s all dressed in level art that uses light and color to great effect, and has a satisfying isometric angularity to it.

Maybe I’m just using a lot of description to avoid reductive clichés, but what I really mean is that the vibes are immaculate. It was exactly the sort of game that I was in the mood to play mechanically, and it was delivered in the form of a world that was pleasant to just soak in while I scouted, fought, and secret-hunted my way through it.

Overall, I think it’s just a really solid game overall: fun to play, and with a healthy degree of whimsy hidden among its gloomy overtones. But the quality of the atmosphere is what drew me in so strongly, and that makes it stand out clearly in my memory despite a year of other great games.