Well, we’re back.
After skipping a celebratory recap in 2020 (it didn’t deserve one) to shed light on Bigger Issues™, I’m thrilled to tell you that 2021 was a much better boy. Mental health took center stage at the Tokyo Olympics, justice was served in the murder of George Floyd, and—lest we forget—we gained access to a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine.
It wasn’t all great. Remember the U.S. capitol riots? That happened this year. Oh, and people won’t take the vaccine. Kinda nuts. (You can get vaccinated here. It won’t bite.) Also, are we just going to ignore this whole climate crisis thing?
The gaming industry also fell into its typical patterns. Activision Blizzard turned out to be hot garbage. So did Ubisoft. Riot reached a settlement in its gender discrimination case, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll spark meaningful change… On second thought, maybe this year wasn’t so stellar.
But, there were bright spots! Below, I’ve curated a few of my favorite things to come out of this past year. Some entries are video games. Others are gaming-adjacent books or TV shows. Others still are just things that sparked joy during a crazy time.
Regardless, I hope my favorite things can bring you even the tiniest bit of solace. Life’s too short to dwell on what went wrong. Let’s focus on what went right.
On to the list:
Favorite TV Shows of 2021
“I never expected to like Arcane as much as I did.” That’s what I imagine every non-League of Legends player said after watching season one of Netflix’s surprise hit. It’s certainly what I said.
It’s not hard to see why Arcane is catching so many off guard. The show’s a spin-off property of a MOBA game that, despite its massive popularity, isn’t exactly known for its storytelling or lore. People play League because it’s fun—not because they want to be emotionally moved.
And yet, Arcane emotionally moved me. Serving as an origin story for several League champions—most notably, sisters Vi and Jinx—Arcane hooked me with its captivating characters, sharp writing, and stellar performances. It helps that the show’s absolutely stunning, with crisp CG visuals that give the folks at Pixar a run for their money.
It didn’t matter that I was unfamiliar with the characters prior to watching. Arcane succeeds by telling a powerful, self-contained tale of sisterhood, progress, and compromise—one where morals and actions are never black or white, and the line between friend and enemy is forever blurred. It all makes for seriously good television.
At a lean nine episodes, Arcane is an easy binge for anyone interested in the world of Runeterra—or simply looking for their newest obsession.
(Note: I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that Arcane is a property of Riot Games. I was torn on whether to include it in my list, in solidarity with the women of Riot and any other minorities who have been victims of discrimination and harassment within the company’s walls.
Ultimately, I decided to include it, as its focus on women characters—Vi and Jinx, but also Caitlyn, Mel, and others—stands out at a time when these stories are all too frequently sidelined or diminished.)
Queer Eye (Season Six)
What a surprise to end the year! Queer Eye’s newest season hit Netflix on New Year’s Eve, making it a late addition to this “Best of” list. And while I’m only watching it now in 2022, it’s already making my year so much brighter.
Queer Eye has always been progressive in how it amplifies LGBTQ+ voices and raises awareness about their struggles. More than that, the show’s succeeded by making those hardships relatable to a wide audience. Everyone deserves happiness; everyone deserves to live their best life. Those are universal truths, and Queer Eye makes sure to spread the love equally, regardless of one’s background, orientation, creed, or politics.
Season six continues to deliver on all of the above, while also somehow going above and beyond. The “Fab Five” spend most of their time in Texas, helping to transform everyone from a conservative, rough-and-tumble cowboy to a grandmother who’s failed to accept her age. The show doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics, from a father grappling with the transition of his AMAB daughter, to the devastating loss of life suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As always, Queer Eye navigates these moments with grace, and does so while reminding everyone watching that there’s power in loving ourselves and loving our neighbors. Goodness, I hope this show never ends.
Favorite Book of 2021
Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry
Given how much we gush about games on this site, it’s fitting that my favorite book this year was one that took a critical lens to our favorite pastime.
In Press Reset, Jason Schreier of Bloomberg tells an intersecting story of various programmers, artists, and visionaries as they navigate the stressful, chaotic, often merciless world of game development. From a look into the rise and fall of famed director Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey) to a deep-dive into the catastrophic failure of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, Press Reset examines what happens when a game company flops.
The underlying thesis? The way companies approach games is fundamentally flawed, not to mention unsustainable. Until we see sweeping change to how game studios operate, “crunch culture” will continue, and creatives will continue to burn out and exit the industry at disheartening rates.
It’s not exactly a light read, but it sure is an important (and fascinating) one. Pick it up if you haven’t already, and learn just what goes into your favorite video game.
Favorite Anime of 2021
Odd Taxi’s nothing if not true to its name. A noir-inspired crime tale, Odd Taxi tells the story of a taxi driver named Odokawa, a middle-aged walrus who drives other anthropomorphic humans around a fictional Tokyo. When a passenger of his winds up dead, Odokawa finds himself at the center of a massive conspiracy—and must get crafty if he’s to make it out unscathed.
That short synopsis hardly does justice to how good Odd Taxi is. (You can read more about it over on MyAnimeList.) In lieu of delving into spoilery waters, I’ll offer up a bit of advice: Pay attention. Every morsel of dialogue is important; every character, no matter how minute, plays a role. And when all the pieces of the puzzle click together, you’ll find yourself shocked at just how much sense the whole caper makes.
Odd Taxi doesn’t hold your hand as you unravel its secrets, and that’s what makes it so incredible.
Attack on Titan: The Final Season (Part One)
If you’re at all familiar with anime, you’ve heard of Attack on Titan. And while the series has come under fire recently for its handling of particularly sensitive issues, it’s remained a fixture of anime culture, for better or worse.
The manga came to an end in 2021, and the anime’s set to follow suit in 2022. In the meantime, viewers have been left reeling following the first cours of the show’s two-part final season. Although it’s impossible to fully separate the show’s strengths from its uglier points, I found myself saying something I never thought I would about Attack on Titan this season:
“Damn, this actually kinda slaps.”
These 16 episodes didn’t pull any punches. We saw fragile alliances made and friendships discarded; we saw a new, scarier side to Eren Jaeger; and most important of all, we saw how history can perpetuate violence in terrifying ways. Throw in excellent animation work from Mappa (who inherited the series from Wit Studio), and Attack on Titan is positioned for an explosive (and absolutely divisive) ending.
Favorite Albums of 2021
Planet Her (Doja Cat)
Doja sure blew up, huh? I remember listening to her debut album, Amala, as I strolled the halls of PAX East 2019. By then, she was already on the rise, having released a new single, “Juicy,” and performing it live for COLORS. Fast forward two years, however, and it’s mind-boggling just how far she’s come.
Planet Her is Doja Cat’s third album, following 2019’s Hot Pink. Despite already putting out hits like “Say So” and “Streets,” she’s upped the ante with her latest effort. At 14 tracks (19 for the deluxe version), Planet Her is the biggest, most ambitious Doja album to date.
For many of today’s top albums, a long tracklist tends to bog down the listening experience and undercut the artist’s best work. Planet Her avoids this problem by featuring tracks that hit hard, flow seamlessly, and just generally slap. From the sultry opener, “Woman,” to the more upbeat, breathy “Payday,” to the tender ballad “Love to Dream,” each track reveals a different side of the singer/rapper. Sprinkle in some extra star power, with features from SZA, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, and Young Thug, and it’s clear Doja came to play.
It’s an absolute banger of an album. And the crazy part is, Doja’s only getting started.
An Evening With Silk Sonic (Silk Sonic)
If Doja Cat’s the queen of contemporary music, then Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak—aka the R&B duo Silk Sonic—are its funky uncles.
Inspired by classic Motown, An Evening With Silk Sonic is a lean, mean project from two of the biggest names in the business. Clocking in at just about 30 minutes, the album’s decidedly brief. But it makes that short runtime count with eight tracks (and one intro) that absolutely bring the house down.
Mars and .Paak are wonderful partners in crime—Bruno with his incredible range and elegant runs, Anderson with his soulful timbre and eccentric flair. From the suave serenade “Leave The Door Open,” to the bluesy belt-fest “Put On A Smile,” An Evening With Silk Sonic is a labor of love, and an utter joy to listen to.
Oh, and the live performances are boss, too.
Favorite Miscellaneous Moments of 2021
The Return of Bleach
My relationship with Bleach is a complicated one. On the one hand, the series provided an all-time great shonen arc in the form of the Soul Society saga. On the other hand, the anime was stuffed with sluggish fights, grating music, and incredibly inopportune filler arcs. The manga managed to avoid many of these issues, but Tite Kubo’s work remains exceptionally flawed.
While I enjoyed Bleach for what it was, I ended up dropping off after the final Ichigo/Aizen fight. I just didn’t have it in me to watch the subsequent Fullbringer Arc, knowing the show had been cancelled and wouldn’t be animated to see the manga’s conclusion.
So, imagine my surprise when, eight years after its cancellation, Bleach was greenlit to return for a final season. That announcement came in March 2020, but it would take until December 2021 for us to see our first glimpse of the Thousand-Year Blood War in motion. And wow, oh wow, what a glorious return to form it is.
I mean, just watch the trailer:
Sick, right? There’s so much I could geek out about, from the trailer’s stylish transitions, to its movie-caliber visuals (OK, Studio Pierrot! We see you). But mainly, I just want to give props to that remix of Ichigo’s theme, “Number One.” Song goes hard, yo.
These characters have drip. This song kicks ass. Not much else to say.
The Delay of Final Fantasy XVI
Hear me out here.
Like anyone looking forward to Final Fantasy XVI, I was crushed we didn’t see any new footage of the game in 2021. But, I have immense appreciation and respect for Yoshi-P for the way in which he broke the (lack of) news.
For those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy XVI was announced in September 2020 alongside the reveal of the PlayStation 5. It was an impressive trailer, made even more impressive by the name in the producer role: Naoki Yoshida, best known for helping turn Final Fantasy XIV from a failed MMO into the most profitable game in the series.
“Yoshi-P,” as he’s called by his team at Square Enix, is highly regarded by developers and players alike. This is due in large part to his authentic leadership within the company, and his surprising candor when communicating externally with fans. So, when Final Fantasy XVI was shown off with relatively unpolished visuals, fans largely admired the producer’s decision to show raw gameplay instead of a CG trailer.
Fast forward to December 2021, and Yoshi-P showed once again why he’s so well respected. In a simple, no-frills letter shared over social media, the FFXVI producer explained that the game’s development has been hindered significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He estimated that the release timeline was set back by approximately six months, and offered an apology for the delay, along with a promise to share more info about the game in spring 2022.
Game delays aren’t rare—certainly not in a COVID era. But Yoshi-P’s update rings especially true when you consider he could have said nothing at all. It’s a simple, sincere gesture that means a lot to people around the world, and I commend him for it.
Favorite Video Games of 2021
We made it—the best games of the year.
Five titles made my shortlist this year (including one I’ll crown Game of the Year). But before we dive in, I’d like to recognize some standouts that didn’t quite make the cut:
- Forza Horizon 5: an exceedingly well-crafted game, but I’m just not a racing diehard
- It Takes Two: a co-op experience I’ll never forget, hampered by a weak narrative
- Kena: Bridge of Spirits: a gorgeous, heartwarming indie held back by repetitive beats
- Tales of Arise: excellent so far, but I’m only ~10 hours into a 40-60+ hour story
Give the above some love, and join me in celebrating the following fab five:
Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade: Episode INTERmission
Hell of a title, eh? Classic Square Enix…
We’re only on my first pick, and I’m already cheating. In theory, Episode INTERmission shouldn’t be eligible for the list. It’s a piece of DLC that launched as part of Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade, a visually updated PS5 port of 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, which itself is a reimagining of the classic 1997 role-playing game Final Fantasy VII… Still with me?
Basically, it’s an epilogue to a game I loved dearly in 2020. And while the DLC may not be its own game, I enjoyed Episode INTERmission immensely when I played through it back in June. The new chapter (two chapters, technically) centers around Yuffie Kisaragi, a Wutaian ninja and fan-favorite character from the original FFVII. Over the course of roughly eight to 12 hours, you’ll explore Midgar through Yuffie’s eyes, fight enemies with a refreshed combat system, and even play Fort Condor, a tabletop mini-game that’ll have you battling kids and adults around town (think Gwent from The Witcher).
In short, there’s a lot to love in Episode INTERmission—including some surprising scenes that build upon the original ending to Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s an excellent example of DLC done right, and a must-play for fans of the base game.
Ender Lilies: Knights of the Quietus
Ender Lilies: Knights of the Quietus went relatively under the radar this past year—and that’s a shame. It’s a 2D Metroidvania that takes the moody aesthetic of Hollow Knight but mixes in gothic art, gorgeous piano tracks, and surprisingly inventive combat.
The game centers around a young priestess named Lily and her sworn protector, the spirit of a nameless knight. Together, the duo traverse a dilapidated kingdom to reverse a deadly plague and restore the world to its former glory. It’s a run of the mill plot, but one that’s supported by an intricate setting and captivating lore.
Exploring the world of Ender Lilies was an absolute delight, with secrets at every corner and boss fights that had me grinning with glee. In a year when Hollow Knight: Silksong was a total no-show, I’m astonished so few people stumbled upon this gem. Check it out while you’re still (relatively) early to the party.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is the wholesome game we needed in 2021. Set in a world of adorable talking animals, Chicory is a 2D Zelda-like that takes the traditional overworld experience (a scrolling map, puzzles, etc.) and adds a dazzle of flair.
The hook: You traverse the world by painting it in real time. By drawing over bushes, trees, and the like, you’ll uncover paths that were previously inaccessible, and secrets that were hidden in plain sight. You’ll also find pieces of clothing you can use to customize your character as you play.
It’s an incredibly charming experience that manages to be accessible to all ages, yet surprisingly poignant for those looking for a deep, hard-hitting story. I can’t recommend it enough.
Halo Infinite has taken my world by storm. Not only has 343’s latest managed to exceed my somewhat lofty expectations, but it’s made me rethink my appreciation for the studio.
There was a time when I considered 343 Industries a middling Xbox studio at best. To this day, I revere Halo 4 for its campaign and revile it for its multiplayer. Halo 5: Guardians improved the latter, while compromising on the former. It seemed like the studio was in over its head, and I couldn’t imagine Halo ever returning to its former greatness under Bungie.
That changes with Halo Infinite. While the campaign is totally different from what I’ve come to expect from the series (and its story isn’t exactly gripping), it’s a refreshing take on Halo, and that’s all I can ask for. On its own, it probably wouldn’t be enough to catapult Infinite into the echelon of all-time Halo greats.
Enter Halo Infinite’s multiplayer. Matches are frenetic, supported by tight controls, satisfying movement, and responsive gunplay. The maps look great, and are even greater playgrounds for chaos. Yes, the battle pass needs improvement, but 343 has already made welcome tweaks in less than a month’s time.
Halo Infinite’s being described by 343 as a long-term play for the Xbox ecosystem, and a game that will exist for years to come. By all measures, it’s off to a breakneck start—and I’m happy to be along for the ride.
2021 Game of the Year: Deltarune Chapter 2
I played some great games this year, from sprawling RPGs to genre-bending shooters. Still, the game that stayed with me most was something smaller—and yet so much more than the sum of its parts.
Deltarune Chapter 2 is a triumph. Not just because it builds on the gameplay and narrative of 2018’s Chapter 1, or because the music smacks. Developer Toby Fox’s latest effort is so superb because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. This is a short, sweet, moving tale of friendship, “trucies,” double trucies, triple trucies, and so much more.
It’s hilarious. It’s heart-wrenching. But most of all, it’s a whole lot of fun.
Based on quality of experience alone, Deltarune Chapter 2 was already my pick for Game of the Year. And yet, something made the choice even easier for me—and that was Toby Fox’s decision to release it for free. In his own words: “The world has been really tough for everybody recently. So I decided to release Deltarune Chapter 2 for free.”
There was no added context. He went on to provide a status update for Deltarune’s remaining five chapters (which will in fact be paid). But the gesture said more than words ever could. Some may see it as clever marketing, but I see it as an act of kindness at a time when we need kindness more than ever.
Kudos to Fox and his team, for making a sublime experience, but also for spreading love in the spirit of paying it forward. It’s time we all do the same.