Obviously, the crux of what makes a video game a video game is what it’s like to play the game, what makes it interactive. Gameplay often exists for its own sake, but in many cases it’s also a storytelling device just like music, art, sound design, writing, etc. Gameplay design can also play off of genre conventions and expectations, finding ways to surprise or intrigue players by altering or subverting popular mechanical tropes.
I don’t think I played anything this year that I’d consider genre-defining, but I did play a number of games that were designed very carefully around interesting mechanical gimmicks (a word that I don’t use derogatorily). It’s easy to think of other games from 2021 that could have been winners here: notably, Inscryption and Deathloop, which both use cool metamechanics to build their overall structure.
In fact, there are myriad ways in which mechanics, major or minor, can heighten or even define a game’s identity. This award is for games whose mechanical ideas were surprising, compelling, deeply woven into the stories they help tell.
The Runner Up
Axiom Verge 2
The original Axiom Verge released in 2015 and is regarded as an indie darling in the Metroidvania genre (though it might be more accurate to call it a Metroid-like). I found it interesting not because I thought it played particularly well, but because it had cool twists on genre expectations around traversal mechanics.
The Metroidvania subgenre always includes a series of escalating upgrades that unlock access to new areas of the game world, often by granting new or modified traversal and movement abilities. Games in this subgenre often live and die by how unique or interesting those power ups are. Axiom Verge may have been unremarkable to play, but it’s twists on traversal were both surprising and fun to use.
Much like the original, Axiom Verge 2 is not particularly interesting to play at its most basic level. But as it progresses, it delivers and iterates on its mechanical ideas in a way that both intersect interestingly with the story and serve as interesting twists and surprises.
One of Axiom Verge 2’s early upgrades is a spider-like robot drone that can be deployed and controlled remotely. The drone has numerous abilities of its own that diverge interestingly from the main character’s own capabilities. As the game progresses, it delivers new abilities to both the human (ish?) main character and her remote-controlled robot.
Late in the game, however, a series of events causes these two sets of abilities to converge in a very interesting way. It’s difficult to talk too much about this without spoiling these cool ideas, but I think it’s sufficient to say that it surprised and delighted me despite my experience playing a couple dozen games in the same genre space.
In general, Axiom Verge 2 seems to thinking very carefully about how each new upgrade will intersect with player expectations and curiosity. While I think the specific interactions between the protagonist and her robot are the most unique, every upgrade feels weighty and interesting.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is as unrelentingly cute as it is thematically rich. It tells the story of a little dog who becomes the Wielder of a magic paintbrush that can paint the world around her, reshaping reality. Its story revolves around the relationship between artists and their creations, the reasons we create art, and the responsibility artists have to their fans and to themselves. It also contends with how we handle responsibility and work in general, and how we might find healthy ways of exploring our passions.
Before I even realized that Chicory was created by Greg Lobanov, I couldn’t help but recognize the writing as similar to his previous game Wandersong. Common to both games is a profound sense of kindness, tempered by a clear-eyed understanding of its limits and complexities. A few years ago, Wandersong stole my heart not only with its warmth but also with it’s dorkiness (you can sing and dance even during dialogue with NPCs, a source of endless comedy and charm). Chicory delivers a similar tone in different packaging.
More concretely, though, Chicory is an adventure game inside a coloring book. It provides a robust painting mechanic to fill the world with color in all sorts of patterns and palettes and it provides numerous reasons and ways to do so. Most crucially, the painting mechanics that actually affect the traversal and puzzle solving in the game are only a small part of the wider set of tools. The rest is to be used however the player likes. This comes into play when coloring in the world itself and is also used when NPCs ask you to draw a design for them (which will then be placed in the world on a t-shirt or a sign or whatever else).
Chicory feels unique because it not only encourages players to express themselves through art, but also to consider the relationship they have with art and with creative output. Its painting tools help tell its story but they also give the player a lot of space to complete objectives in their own way. Having a core mechanic that’s as much about expression as it is about progression is a wonderful way to add emphasis to the story and themes that the conveys.