EGM’s Best of 2021: Michael Goroff’s Picks
It’s hard to imagine that 2021 is already over, or that it even started in the first place. How do we know we aren’t in some Lost-style alternate universe purgatory just waiting to have flashbacks to our real lives where we’re trapped on a deserted island called 2020? We all liked to pretend, by flying on airplanes and eating in restaurants, that COVID-19 was over, but there is one industry—specifically, the one that makes video games—that made the truth as plain as day: Nothing is over.
For the amount of money that it’s still making, the video game industry sure feels like it’s running on COVID-flavored fumes at the moment. Console shortages, delayed release dates, broken launches, workplace abuses, NFTs—everything feels so grim. Miraculously, a handful of titles came out this year that reminded me why I care about video games at all. These games showcased heart, creativity, and a commitment to their players above everything else.
Witch Beam’s zenned-out organizational simulator entered my life at a time when it was filled with (or felt filled with) tumult and chaos. The cheery graphics, surprisingly moving music, and simple mechanics let me create stability out of instability. It was cozy and melancholic, nostalgic and uplifting. Things fall apart. Life goes on. Unpacking tells a story about time and love in a way that only video games can. I wish I never finished Unpacking. Or, more accurately, I wish the game never ended. But it has to end for new and better things to begin. That’s the whole point.
|04||Neo: The World Ends with You|
I don’t know what compelled me to play Neo: The World Ends with You. I never played the original and had no real reason to play it other than I liked the title and the art style. But as I was playing it, I fell in love with Shibuya, and the colorful cast of characters: Rindo, Fret, Nagi, Shoka, and the Reapers, both good and bad. Maybe I’m just a sucker for convoluted, far-out stories that involve the afterlife, fate-determining tournaments, an impending apocalypse, and begrudging friendships, or combat systems that feel like they would be a perfect fit for a real-time Pokémon action-RPG. Whatever it is, Neo: The World Ends with You was my biggest surprise in 2021, and if you gave it a try, it might surprise you, too.
By stripping out all of the normal Arkane stuff that forces you to recognize your own mortality, Deathloop makes you feel invincible. That’s not to say that killing all eight Visionaries in one loop is a walk in the park, but if you die, you can try (and die) again. And again. Each time I died and came back, I did a lot of guiltless killing, knowing that my victims wouldn’t be killed forever. But who knows how much killing Colt did before I started playing, and how much he’ll do after. I’ve killed a lot of video game bad guys in my day; Deathloop is the first game about killing that has felt like a confession. Killing in video games is wrong, but it’s also fun. Just like living forever.
It blows my mind that, after all IO Interactive went through to keep its bread-and-butter series alive, they still found the creativity, energy, and bravado to experiment with their own formula in Hitman 3. While the other two “World of Assassination” games might have the final chapter beat in terms of spectacle, Hitman 3‘s levels are some of the most creative and riskiest in the franchise’s history. Dartmoor, Berlin, and Mendoza all manage to flip the script on Agent 47 in interesting ways, while a train charging through the Carpathian Mountains seems like an audition for IO’s upcoming 007 game. But for me, it’s the Chongqing level that perfectly encapsulates what I love about the series. It doesn’t take long when exploring its dreary, mundane, rain-soaked alleyways to find its sinister, high-tech underbelly, its streak of psychotic greed. Agent 47 might be an assassin, but he’s the people’s assassin, taking on the One Percent, a tabula rasa onto which we can project our fantasies of a more equitable and just world.
I find it hard to be eloquent when talking about Psychonauts 2. I just love it. I love everything about it—the writing, the acting, the art design (especially the art design), the gameplay and level design, the way all of these elements complement one another. It’s a story about intergenerational trauma, grief, and regret, but told with kindness, exuberance, and wonder in a way that assuages any fear or anxiety. 2021 was the year that I finally started therapy in earnest, and my therapist and I sometimes focus on mindfulness techniques. Frankly, as someone that plays games to disassociate, Psychonauts 2 made me feel present, calm, and in control in a way that no other video game does. I was very much aware that what I was seeing was an illusion, but it felt so absolutely real, in the way a great novel feels real, like you’re having an actual conversation with the piece. Seemingly every second, Psychonauts 2 gave me something to marvel at and savor, but more importantly, it made me appreciate that I was there, in that moment, playing it, and I’m just incredibly grateful for that.
|SP||The “Golden Bow” Award
The Forgotten City
It’s always very satisfying when the dam breaks in a game—that moment when all of the hard work you’ve done pays off and you get or become something that makes the rest of the game snap into place. Think: the ending to Inside. Once you get the golden bow in The Forgotten City, the rest of the game gushes out in a waterfall of solved puzzles and Assassin’s Creed–style revelations. It was one of the coolest, most satisfying gaming moments I experienced this year.
|SP||The “Takashi Miike Makes Another Cameo” Award
No More Heroes III
Travis Touchdown, the self-proclaimed otaku assassin, spends much of his glorious return in No More Heroes III pontificating with Bishop all of the ways that legendary director Takashi Miike has impacted cinema. So it’s an awesome payoff when Miike himself appears in the game to bring Travis back from the dead. As funny and shocking as his appearance is, what’s even funnier is that it’s the second time he’s appeared in the series. This time, however, Travis gets to ask him about a live-action NMH movie. Please make it happen, Miike.
|SP||The “Late to the Party” Award
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
It’s becoming a tradition that I play at least one game per year that would have made my top 5 list… if I actually played it in the year that it was eligible. I didn’t have a PC capable of playing games in 2019, when Disco Elysium first launched, but I did have one when The Final Cut came out, so I was finally able to give it a go as an alcoholic, amnesiac detective in Revachol. Like Unpacking, Disco Elysium takes advantage of the medium to tell a story that just can’t be told any other way. The world that Harry and Kim inhabit is so rich with context and consequence, so believably built, so real, that it hurts to live in. I heard a lot about the game over the last couple of years, ringing endorsements, effusive praise. No game can be that good, right? Oh yes, it can.