Cat's 2021 GOTY List
Sliding in a tiny bit late, here’s my Top 10 Games of 2021 list, in alphabetical order. This is incomplete and inconsistent: I decided updates and reissues didn’t count, leaving off ME:LE and Disco Elysium, but then there’s a game here that was released in 2020. There’s a lot I didn’t get to this year that I would have liked to: most notably Deathloop, Psychonauts 2, and Griftlands.
Before we get into it, some disclosures around conflict of interest. You're here because you're interested in a professional narrative designer's thoughts, and that comes with a number of connections across the industry. Candy Emberley, the composer on Wildermyth, is a friend and colleague. I've hung out at GDC with Rayna Anderson, who worked on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. I've previously worked with Joe Blackburn, the current Game Director of Destiny 2. I'm leaving out social media connections because I probably follow some of these people on twitter, but I don't fully know.
Now: onto the games.
1) Destiny 2
I refuse to be one of those “500 hours played - do not recommend” people, so Destiny earns a spot on my list. Far and away the game I spent most time with, I picked it up because its live service storytelling is best in class. I’ve spoken about elements I appreciate from a design perspective on twitter, and Eden has a
solid breakdown of the game's overall pleasure here, so now I'll talk about why it's on my list this year.
Season of the Lost was my first full-time, start-to-finish seasonal experience, but Season of the Splicer is where Destiny shone brightest. Continuing a plot thread from the Beyond Light expansion, the writers got the space to show the nuances and culture of a faction that’s often appeared as enemies players slaughter across the solar system. Inter-faction conflict and a tentative alliance with the Eliksni (who we're reminded don't like the pejorative term "Fallen" they're often referred to as) allowed Bungie to tell a story about refugees, xenophobia, and wary trust building to tentative peace. And it didn’t pull punches; one of the most affecting moments is when Mithrax, leader of the Eliksni House of Light, confronts fan-favorite Titan Saint-14 and tells him that Saint-14 is seen as threatening harbinger of murder by the Eliksni. And you know what, fair! We’ve spent years killing Eliksni—and we continue to if they aren’t on our side.
But Bungie is willing to dig into the difficulty here and not shy away from the ugly consequences of this sort of thinking, as detailed in the most brutal gutpunch lore entries I’ve ever seen.
2) Going Under
Okay, I’m gonna be real here: I only discovered that this game was released in 2020 when finalizing this list. So we’re just going with it.
Going Under is a smart satirical roguelike about being disposable labor in a white collar job funded by bubble money. As an unpaid intern you get to explore the ruins of previous failed startups that your company is built on. (Hey, I never said it was subtle.) The combat is really solid, especially in its improvisational weapons, but it really shines in the writing which made me laugh on multiple occasions.
It’s this humor that cuts through the frustration of failure during runs, and staunches the bite of a game where the player fantasy is “I might get health insurance”.
This got its English localization in 2021, but otherwise hasn’t been on as many people’s radars as I’d expect. Developed very late for the PS Vita, it fell into an interstitial space, and maybe has again. But it deserves a close look.
Gnosia is a roguelike Werewolf-style detective game, where you can only progress the meta loop by experiencing enough interactions with your crew, some of whom are possessed by the Gnosia virus each run. A dramatically over-the-top world that feels tonally similar to Paradise Killer, it’s packed with idiosyncratic characters like Raqio, whose gender is “fuck off”, and the helmet-wearing beluga Otome (who I would die for). And their particular personalities influence how they act when you’re all piling on each other and accusing each other of infiltration. Gnosia opens up in its mid game, where you’ve died and leveled up enough times to make a solid build and rely on its strategies for persuasion, and you know your crewmates well enough to spot when a telltale tic is missing. It's a social deduction game for people who are bad at real-time social deduction: Gnosia handles all those rolls for you.
The game lets you change whatever parameters you’d like to for the Werewolf setup, but it also has an option to spin up a scenario that will allow you to get to the next plot beat. That kind of sifting is interesting and something I’d like to see more of.
4) Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
Yeah, it’s a AAA open world video game. But within that space, the GotG game does some delightful, innovative work on dialogue. First, these characters aren’t the Peter Quill or Gamora of the MCU, which lets the Eidos team explore characterizations I personally find much more interesting. As Peter, you’re playing a piece of shit disaster person whose job it is to keep the other self-interested disaster people in his crew on track. And Peter is absolutely the worst of them all. It’s a refreshing inversion of “you are the best, you are the chosen one” protagonist syndrome.
Also, your team never shuts up. They’re always talking with cross chatter and opinions about your location and each other; they’ll mock you relentlessly when you fuck up. It’s honestly a pretty staggering feat, I am terrified of what their pipeline must have looked like, and I am anticipating the GDC talk.
Finally, the game gets surprisingly emotional and earnest for a AAA game. I don’t expect our most complicated and meaningful art to be made in multimillion dollar IPs from teams of hundreds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to say something coherent within the constraints of the project. There’s a scene where you help a surly raccoon overcome his PTSD via game mechanics, and that sounds like a ridiculous sentence, but the treatment of trauma and the difficulty of healing and moving on is something the game tries to treat thoughtfully. It was fun to play, the dialogue was an impressive achievement—probably best in class at party chatter, and it didn’t blow the landing of its more serious elements.
Is there a list this isn’t on? I’ll try to avoid spoilers here. You’re dropped into a roguelike deckbuilder with some meta elements, and it only gets weirder from there. The card balance is pretty good, as is the way it treats power level increases subsequent runs, and I am aware that I am discussing the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.
I enjoyed the initial part of the game more than the latter, but it’s difficult for anyone to talk about that without massive spoilers, so I’ll simply note that here. Nonetheless, what it does up front felt fresh and surprising enough for it to make this list.
6) Loop Hero
Loop Hero is a game that some people get fully immersed in, while others are left cold. I’m in the former category. Another roguelike deckbuilder, you’re literally remaking the world after ontological apocalypse. The game’s setup is interesting; what does it mean to be the only persistent element in a roguelike is put at the center. But it’s the actual loops of the game that are where people fall in love or fall off, slowly remaking the terrain to shape the encounters you want to have, making guesses about what your build can stand up to. Combat is automated, because it’s driven by where you placed terrain and enemies.
It’s hard to put my finger on what I found so moreish about Loop Hero. It’s drawing on a lot of well-trod ground: deckbuilder combat, amnesiac protagonist, retro graphics. But it puts all these elements together to create something more than the sum of its parts: a moody world that you’re tasked with building up, for your benefit and your detriment.
Let me begin by saying that, as far as I know, you cannot currently play NORCO. There was a demo available for download earlier this year, which has now been retired in anticipation of the game's actual release. The demo that I played was not the full game. And yet it is still on my GOTY list.
That's because NORCO feels deeply exciting and fresh: I can see influences of Kentucky Route Zero and Pathologic 2 (in its mindmap, but maybe I just want more games to have mindmaps), but it's more than just a unique synthesis. NORCO is a point and click adventure game set in a neo-noir rural Louisiana, and it refuses to compromise its vision of cyberpunk, Southern Gothic, its own tone, its player character POV, you name it. This game has a perspective, and it's willing to mechanically innovate to bring you along for the ride, but it won't compromise on the story it's trying to tell. Plus, the writing is sharp and gorgeous. This is a must-wishlist for everyone who hasn't played it.
8) Time Bandit
It wouldn't be a Cat Manning GOTY list without a pick from left field. Time Bandit, currently just out in prologue, is described on its itch.io page as:
Time Bandit is a dark life sim where everything takes time. Place down a robot to push a box for you, for example, and it will take an actual half an hour to finish. By saving the game and coming back periodically to make progress, you are invited to explore your habits, rituals, and experience of time in general, particularly as it relates to work and exploitation.
This is about accurate. You're buying gas to fill your robot so you can push a box and collect time crystals so you can get money to buy more gas. It's janky and low-poly and the writing is searingly funny. I didn't end up spending much time in the game itself, but over the course of the week or so I spent "playing", I did in fact have my own relationship to time and labor brought into harsh relief. At one point I scheduled a meeting with a game character, but it clashed with a professional commitment (that I wasn't, if I'm being honest, strictly committed to) and I missed it. When I logged back in, the character chastised me for standing him up and insisted that this meeting was more important than the grind. I suddenly felt deeply aware of–and disquieted by–how I had instinctively chosen to structure my time. This game isn't for everyone, but anything that causes me to reevaluate how I live has to go on my list.
Unpacking’s strength is its seeming simplicity, which belies the tremendous amount of design craft it takes to make a game feel that seamless. The premise is simple; the protagonist goes through many moves as she grows up, and you unpack her boxes for her: you start in her college dorm room, and go from there. Where it excels is in environmental storytelling: what does each space's constraints make you compromise on? The 2010 level was especially brutal in this regard; there’s one object I just couldn’t place no matter where I looked, and finally had to shove it under the bed.
Every object makes a distinct sound when you put it down on a different surface. Items of the same kind can often be stacked and turned, and then picked up from anywhere in the stack to separate them. Once all objects are unpacked, the ones that don’t “fit” where they’ve been placed gain a glowing red outline. (This is the only way I ever placed that red rectangular object—I think it might have been a scale? Never figured it out.)
Unpacking isn’t the game I spent the most time with this year, or which affected me the most. But the time I did spend with it was spent marveling over the thousand tiny UX choices the designers made to pull this off.
I feel a lot of self-imposed pressure to do right by Wildermyth, because it’s one of the more successful emergent narrative games recently, and that's at the core of what I'm interested in as a narrative designer. For those of you living under a rock, it’s a generic fantasy party-based RPG where your procedural characters have adventures and are changed by those experiences via storylets that arise based on the current game state.
Wildermyth's method for surfacing storylets isn't immediately apparent, nor would I expect it to be, but the cadence and relevance of the events that emerge feel satisfyingly responsive to the game. Within a storylet, the player has several choices that have a further mechanical effect on the world state. For instance, if a hero is downed, do they retreat maimed, or fight on to their death, giving the party a boost from their sacrifice? The game has structured story campaigns and free play, and both single and multiplayer; co-op multiplayer mode is way better than I expected.
Party and character evolution is produced in flat 2D comic panels; this is what lets them offer as much character customization as they do. (I love a height slider. I also can hear everyone in rigging shouting “CAT NO” at once.) Point being: Wildermyth knows what its paper doll aesthetic can and can’t do, and leans hard into the benefits. These comic panels are flexible: even when you get the same storylet in another run, you may end up seeing dialogue that feels different based on the traits of your party members. This procedural text isn’t incredibly obvious: you can't see the seams unless you go digging for them. Which is the point: the dialogue integration is designed to feel natural enough, like it emerges from the characters you’re playing facing this sudden world-shattering event. (Every character in Wildermyth speaks the same very specific clipped-casual dialect, which therefore makes the same "natural" voice feel weirdly flat. It would be harder to do dialect variance in procedural text: you'd have to build affordances on top of the existing systems, which is an intimidating amount of scope creep for diminishing returns when you've got an indie team. So all the characters in Wildermyth talk a bit Like That. Fine.)
There are a handful of places where the storylets don’t live up to their promise of customizability and listening to the player, but I only notice because it’s my job to. It’s a tremendous accomplishment, even more so because of the team’s size. I think Wildermyth is at the forefront of a wave of interest in games with an emergent story component, and I have two big wishes for what that means.
First, that the Wildermyth team gets to reap this success, from sales on this game to publishing contracts on whatever they choose next. This isn’t an easy genre to pull off, and I’m not saying this is the first time to have done it—but the way this game caught on and sparked something for so many is down to good design.
Second, that other, bigger studios don’t look at Wildermyth’s success and go “we’re going to do that”. There are some teams I think can and will have success in this space, but those are studios and talent who already have some experience in procedural or dynamically generated narrative. You can’t just do this because Wildermyth makes it look easy. This sounds like gatekeeping. It isn’t gatekeeping. I’ve seen the resources that these projects require, how easy it is to burn money and years and leave team members with nothing to show at the end. Comparing more traditional game narrative with emergent storytelling is like comparing apples and geese: neither of them are minerals, you can technically eat both, and one of them is going to bite you.