The gaming industry was perfectly positioned to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. With each new variant of the coronavirus, many of us are stuck inside, often alone. Why not use the time to explore other worlds?
But in 2021, pure escapism through gaming has proven impossible. While the video game industry is no stranger to controversy—from gamergaters harassing female video game creators to gaming companies forcing their programmers to work endless, unpaid overtime—pandemic-related delays, widespread worker burnout and sexual harassment accusations across many major developers have forced a reckoning over the last year, among both game consumers and creators.
In July, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit that alleged video game company Activision Blizzard (best known for the Call of Duty games) encouraged a “frat boy” culture in their offices. Employees claim that Activision executives enabled gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment, including rape. The Wall Street Journal then reported that C.E.O. Bobby Kotick not only worked to cover up these allegations but also threatened to have a former assistant killed. (The company board released a statement of support for Kotick, who remains in his position.) Activision employees staged a walkout and signed a petition calling for Kotick to resign in November. Other major video game producers, including the French company Ubisoft (known for the Assassin’s Creed series) and Riot Games (League of Legends), have faced similar allegations of sexual harassment in their workplaces this year.
Of course, we can still enjoy video games. But doing so, especially in 2021, demands reflection, consideration and research about how the consumer can best support safe, sustainable practices at video game companies.
If 2021 was a breaking point for the big companies, it was a year of innovation for smaller indie developers. Fewer AAA releases this year allowed TIME’s staff a chance to explore a few more independently-produced games, like Chicory: A Colorful Tale, a surprisingly moving adventure starring an adorable dog and its magical paintbrush, or Inscrytpion, an atmospheric puzzle game with horror elements. Innovative storytelling about time loops (perhaps inspired by our mutual, increasingly hazy sense of time during the pandemic) and couple’s counseling also caught our attention. And of course, we returned to some nostalgic favorite franchises, like Halo and Metroid.
Here are TIME’s favorite games of the year.
10. It Takes Two
Perhaps the first video game ever created that could double as relationship therapy, It Takes Two centers on a couple on the brink of divorce who suddenly find themselves trapped inside the bodies of their daughters’ toys. They must work together to traverse their home and return to their bodies. The game must be played cooperatively: If one character is given the hammer, the other must hold the nails. There are dozens of different games within this Mario-like adventure. And while the metaphors about fixing a marriage can be a bit ham-fisted in the creators’ efforts to achieve Pixar-level poignancy, there’s always some new and exciting challenge around the corner to suck you back into the game.—Eliana Dockterman
Available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Playstation 5, Playstation 4, PC
A desert landscape that stretches for miles. Beautiful sunsets over craggy mountains and cliffs. A really sick speeder bike. In Sable, the vibes are as important as the mission. The charming story follows a young woman, the titular Sable, as she begins a rite of passage that sets her out to explore the world on her own. If you’re looking for an open world full of monsters to slay and enemies to shoot, look elsewhere. Sable‘s stress-free story is a breath of fresh air when every other game’s attempt to raise the stakes usually means an even bigger gun. Its charming comic-like visuals influenced by artists like Moebius allow Sable to craft a world all its own, one full of life and depth in the not-so-empty sandy seas.—Patrick Lucas Austin
Available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
This elegant and bloody game centers on Colt Vann, an assassin tasked with eliminating eight targets on an island. As the name might suggest, every time Colt fails his mission, he’s sent back to the beginning of his day. Return to different parts of the island at different times of day, and a window that was previously closed might be open. You might overhear a piece of gossip essential to your mission in the afternoon that you couldn’t hear in the morning. Deathloop is a game that rewards careful exploration and observation—the final chapter of the story is rather thin if you haven’t ransacked the island for diaries and audio recordings to fill in the story. But the stunning and stylish art direction makes up for any small lapses on plotting.—Eliana Dockterman
Available on Playstation 5, PC
7. Halo Infinite
The Master Chief is back. Halo Infinite adds yet another chapter to the iconic character’s storyline, setting him on a new ring world in this sci-fi shooter. The stakes, high as ever, now take place in an open-world setting, where you can run, drive, fly or swing through enemy lines and help your fellow marines turn the tide of war. A new grappling hook, along with a plethora of weapons to choose from, make every enemy encounter feel different, new and exciting. And that’s just the story. The return of Halo’s nearly perfect multiplayer mode brings it in line with other live service games like Fortnite or Apex Legends. With the purchase of an optional season pass, you can earn visual accessories like new character colors and patterns and swappable armor parts, along with cool visual effects, if you’re committed to winning every season pass item.—Patrick Lucas Austin
Available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
In this roguelike game, you play as Selene, an obstinate interstellar scout who crash lands on a gorgeously-rendered planet. As she makes her way across the planet—shooting at many-tentacled monsters as she goes—Selene will inevitably die, die and die again. She even discovers old corpses of herself. Returnal can be an arduous experience. A single run can take several hours. When the game was first released, it had no checkpoint system, which made it impossible for anyone with a child or even, really, a job to stay up til 2 a.m. to reach a save point. (I may still feel guilty for ruining my husband’s playthrough by absentmindedly turning off the PlayStation instead of setting it to rest mode.) But innovations in the gameplay, like the controller rattling as the rain hits Selene’s helmet, are unsettlingly, delightfully realistic. Small, smart design touches and the mystery at the story’s center compelled me forward. And the designers have thankfully remedied the checkpoint problem, which means anyone can play this eerie game filled with intriguing horrors, both real and existential.—Eliana Dockterman
Available on Playstation 5
5. Hitman III
The final game in the “World of Assassination” trilogy is perhaps its best yet. As Agent 47 you once again infiltrate the hallowed halls of the 1% to take out your targets. The game rewards inventiveness: You aim to stage any kill as an accident rather than a murder, a mandate that challenges your patience and creativity. The creators strike the right tone with gallows humor and some fun, bizarre scenarios. (You could, if you really wanted to, murder someone by hitting them with a fish.) The story is a bit flimsy, but the game succeeds as a surprisingly smart satire of the secret agent genre, which tends to revel in the accoutrements of capitalism. In this game you begin at the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai skyscraper and descends into an underground rave fittingly named Club Hell. Hitman developer IO is working on a James Bond video game, and after Hitman 3, I’m excited to see what they do with 007.—Eliana Dockterman
Available on Nintendo Switch, Stadia, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Playstation 5, Playstation 4, PC
4. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
On its surface, Chicory is an adorable game about a little dog with a paintbrush. You name the dog after a favorite food—though consider this choice carefully, lest you wind up with a cumbersome name like Lemon Bar. The pup is the #1 fan of a rabbit named Chicory, an artist who wields a magic paintbrush. When Chicory vanishes, so does all the color from the world. It’s up to you to restore pigment and joy to this game. The world is your coloring book: render trees magenta, houses aqua, and solve puzzles with your brushstrokes. Chicory might become too saccharine if not for its poignant story about artistic anxiety. In conversations with other woodland creatures, you find every character struggles with imposter syndrome, anxiety and other various mental health issues. Through these conversations and encouragements to express yourself artistically, no matter what others may think, the story gently teaches you to be kind to yourself and others.—Eliana Dockterman
Available on Playstation 5, Playstation 4, PC
3. Forza Horizon 5
Forza’s Horizon series of open-world racing games have been refining the genre for years, and with Forza Horizon 5, they may have finally nailed it. Set in Mexico, Forza Horizon 5 puts you in the driver seat at the Horizon Festival, which spans the entirety of the game’s expansive open world. Its vibrant landscapes and arcade racing sensibilities, combined with the Forza series’ expertise in the racing simulator genre, make it one of the most enjoyable games on the Xbox, hands down. Modern day supercars, vintage classics and experimental vehicles are all up for grabs, ready to be driven through all manner of terrain. Tweaking your car and its specs with new shocks, aero parts, brake pads and more makes you feel like a gearhead who knows what they’re doing (mostly). Whether you’ve got a controller or a racing wheel, customizing your car can make it feel all your own, even before you add a custom paint job made by yourself or the Forza Horizon community of players you can race against. Racing against friends along winding highways, muddy roads, lush forests and ashen trails turn Forza Horizon 5 into an enjoyable experience as well as a visual masterpiece, no matter how fast you’re going.—Patrick Lucas Austin
Available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Can I interest you in a life-or-death game that’s probably rigged against you? No? Well Inscryption doesn’t care. Half deck-building card game, half point and click adventure, Inscryption puts you at the mercy of a cabin-dwelling, mask-wearing weirdo shrouded in darkness. The only thing you have to keep you alive is a rulebook, your wits, and…a talking playing card. A decidedly 90s aesthetic, haunting imagery and turn-based gameplay imbue it with a certain nostalgic charm that plays with the story itself. As you play, you can explore both the map narrating your journey as well as the cabin in which you’re trapped, and hopefully find a way out before your eventual demise.—Patrick Lucas Austin
Available on PC
1. Metroid Dread
When most people think of Nintendo, they conjure up images of kid-friendly characters like Mario and Pikachu. But Samus Aran, badass intergalatic bounty hunter of Metroid fame, has long earned her place on the Mount Rushmore of the company’s characters. And after more than a decade without a proper Metroid game, Samus returned in a big way with this year’s Metroid: Dread, a 2D side-scroller for the Nintendo Switch that sees our hero stalked by artifically intelligent killer robots on the mysterious planet ZDR. Dread, which longtime Metroid producer Yoshio Sakamoto has been cooking up on and off for nearly two decades, is often legit scary—thought not quite on the level as something like an Alien: Isolation—and a delightful return to form for a classic and beloved franchise.—Alex Fitzpatrick
Available on Nintendo Switch
Correction, Dec. 16
The original version of this story misstated the Metroid star character’s first name. It is Samus, not Samas.
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