The top five video games of 2021 selected by the NPR staff
In a world that remains anything but normal, gaming has become a source of companionship and catharsis. The game industry has struggled to keep up as major releases like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarök have once again been delayed by the pandemic. But you'd be hard pressed to find a year with more breadth. Over 11 thousand unique titles were released to the online marketplace Steam, thousands more than any other year. Consoles like the Xbox Series X, PS5, and Nintendo Switch each deepened their catalogs with new franchises and remasters of old classics, and independent games enjoyed heightened visibility at The Game Awards and on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.
We surveyed staffers and contributors for their favorite games this year and below are the top five. They run from the humorous to the horrific (sometimes, both at once!), from tight single-player stories to sprawling online sandboxes. The collection of games that emerged are as diverse as the people who make NPR, and provided plenty of fun and sanity in a time when both were in short supply.
It Takes Two
It Takes Two is the perfect co-op game. As the title suggests, you can only play it with another person. The main characters Cody and May are getting divorced and constantly fighting. Their devastated daughter accidentally does some magic that turns them into bug-sized dolls, which forces Cody and May to work together to turn back to normal. Each chapter is at a different location around their house (the first one has you escape their shed, one has you in the middle of a turf war between wasps and squirrels in a tree), and you constantly acquire new powers that get you through puzzles (like flying with a fidget spinner). With every gorgeous map filled with creative details, funny banter, minigames, and delightful detours, there is never a moment that is not fun.
— Kaity Kline, contributor, NPR's Join The Game
Inscryption is an ode to genre-bending: part roguelike deckbuilder, part escape room, part psychological horror. In this metafictional game-within-a-game, you and your pack of scrappy woodland critters are trapped in a cabin and forced to play a series of card games in exchange for your freedom. The spooky cabin is replete with its own set of puzzles, imbuing the indie game with dark cottagecore surrealism. Let me be clear: I am not a fan of horror. But I easily became obsessed with the atmosphere, gameplay, and velvety black narrative of Daniel Mullins' creation. This game is best entered cold — your character at first knows nothing, and neither should you.
— Margaret Cirino, intern, Short Wave, TED Radio Hour, How I Built This
Valheim is an excellent blend of well-established survival crafting sandbox tropes with unique innovations that make it stand out among its competitors. As a Viking warrior who has died and been brought to the purgatorial realm of Valheim, you'll be tasked with slaying the foes of Odin, improving your skills in combat and around your base, sailing to explore a vast world — and, of course, simply surviving. Iron Gate is a small development team, and the game's development has been slow but steady. Recently, Valheim's Hearth and Home update revamped the food and stamina systems while adding content. Play with up to 10 friends at once on a single server, go it alone, or import your character (with or without their items) and bring them to your friend's world.
— Nina Fill, executive assistant, Digital Media
Resident Evil 8
Resident Evil Village, the eighth main title in the franchise, is the first that I've actually played. Don't get me wrong, I've sat in silent acknowledgement of YouTube plot compilations of earlier games in the franchise that were entirely too scary for me. This game, though, was my perfect ease into the series! Sneaking around Castle Dimitrescu, hunting down Angie in the horrifying House Beneviento, and the final fight with Mother Miranda herself were game highlights for me, and truly fueled some nightmares for a while there. I am happy to report that I am a stupid man-thing who is completely sold on the franchise, and eagerly awaiting the upcoming DLC.
— Louie Micheli, accounts receivable manager, NPM Finance
Life is Strange: True Colors
Life is Strange: True Colors is a fitting name. It's a culmination of everything the emotionally-charged series has worked to achieve in the past, but it's also a beautiful and heartbreaking adventure that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Alex Chen moves to Haven Springs, Colo., where she grapples with brother Gabe's death and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it. Empathy is her superpower, and with it she can manipulate others' emotions, which appear to her as colorful auras.
From its gripping story to its realistic portrayals of trauma and human relationships, True Colors is a masterful exercise in storytelling that you'll not soon forget.
— Brittany Vincent, contributor, NPR's Join The Game
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