Authors in Isolation: Interview with Aaron Cross
Previous Gamedev Interview: Hero's Hour
As we all readjust our outlooks in the face of another year already being upon us, a tried and true event occurs once more; It’s that time of year again where everybody joins together in harmony and pits their favourite games against each other in a bloodthirsty battle to claim that most treasured of titles: “Game of the Year.” I’ll admit that I didn’t have high expectations for gaming in 2021 as —with the global pandemic still thriving— I anticipated so many projects beginning the year with particularly turbulent development cycles, which could only lead them on distinctly negative trajectories…
Yet here I am, welcoming a new year whilst lovingly looking back upon a phenomenal mix of AAA and indie titles, many of which absolutely blew me away with their exceptional quality! Still, it’s not all been good… I’d be very remiss if I failed to mention the alarming number of abuse cases that have reared their ugly heads within the gaming industry this past year.
A two-year investigation into workplace conduct at Activision Blizzard has exposed countless cases of employment discrimination and sexual harassment within the company. Meanwhile, Quantic Dreams continue to be uncritically platformed despite the (as yet unresolved) issues of severe homophobia and racism allegations within the company. Furthermore, employees report that Ubisoft has yet to make any substantial changes to their own toxic work environment, despite plentiful evidence and several admissions of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and general mistreatment within their ranks.
There are many additional instances of wrongdoing from AAA gaming companies in 2021, of course; Inhumanely overworked staff at CD Projekt Red, employees allegedly going underpaid at Ember Labs, the sexual misconduct litigation against Riot Games… But regardless of what type of abuse has occurred or which companies it has happened in, simply put: It’s wrong. It’s utterly unacceptable and it’s safe to say that it’s an extremely difficult time to be an individual without power within the gaming industry right now.
I’m sure I could also list dozens of examples of positive gaming news stories from this past year, but positive stories don’t negate these horrible events, and they simply don’t need to be addressed with the same kind of urgency right now. So before we take a look back over some of the best and brightest games that this past year had to offer, I want to give a big thank you to those in the industry who are risking their jobs by reporting and fighting against the misconduct of those with power over them. Acknowledging this mistreatment that occurs behind the scenes is so very important, so remember; Be vocal, be critical, and ensure that those responsible are held accountable for their actions as soon as possible.
Now without further ado, let’s move on to what you’re all here for: Praising some of the wonderful games that have come out over the course of this past year. Ideally, I’d like to keep these honourable mentions brief; They may not have made it into my actual top ten list but they are all still excellent games that captivated me throughout all of their twists and turns. It simply wouldn’t feel right not to give them the applause they deserve.
With no particular order to these three honourable mentions, let’s talk briefly about Twelve Minutes. This intelligent little point and click enthralled me from the moment that I saw its announcement trailer. It’s safe to say that my interest was completely piqued by its mysterious story and painted aesthetic, with its all-star cast wowing me from the second one. Whilst there was a lot to love about the gameplay experience as soon as I hit play, the bountiful levels of misery within its multifaceted narrative were what really sealed the deal for me.
Twelve Minutes’ tangled web of love, loss, and deception absolutely oozes with despair, meaning that —as you grow to care more and more about each character— you’ll find yourself sick to your stomach by some of the decisions you must consider making in the name of progress. With many disturbing consequences to each and every action, the game certainly isn’t for everybody, but I’m happy to say that Twelve Minutes was released at just the right time to scratch my desperate itch for some Danganronpa-esque brutality, despite how dissimilar the gameplay style was.
Whilst the complexity of the game’s countless interactions truly does shine amidst its traditional point and click inspirations, the performances of Twelve Minutes’ primary voice actors, (James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe), are absolutely outstanding and are the truly defining feature of what made the game work so well. It is nigh impossible to avoid being gripped by each and every word that any of the trio speak, and the experience simply wouldn’t be the same without them.
Moving on: Deathloop. It’s gotten quite hard to say much about Deathloop that hasn’t been said before. This gem stole the spotlight at several awards shows over the past couple of months and just about everybody that I’ve spoken to or heard from is already well aware of Colt Vahn (Jason E. Kelley) and Julianna Blake (Ozioma Akagha), both for their powerful portrayals as black main characters and for the enjoyability of their general time looping antics. So, in lieu of anything unique to say, I’d rather tell you about a brief spoiler-free story from my personal gameplay experience.
It’s the afternoon and I’m in Updaam, crouched on a ledge above a trio of enemies whilst snow gently starts to fall around us. I leap down on top of one of them and quickly dispatch him with my trusty machete, before hastily taking another out with a deafening shot from my Fourpounder revolver. Before the third can react, I’ve already flung him off the nearby cliff with my Karnesis ability, but an unexpected sniper shot pierces through the air from the ledge above me where I sat just moments before, killing me instantly. It’s Julianna… Or rather: It’s another online player taking on Julianna’s role. Luckily I still have a charge in my Reprise ability, which revives me and rewinds my final movements just a little. Suddenly I’m standing right behind Julianna, Strelak shotgun in hand… Bang. Checkmate.
That moment, in and of itself, took up maybe twenty seconds of my thirty-hour playtime. It was certainly an incredibly memorable event, but it was just one enemy encounter, playing out just as uniquely as any other does in this superb game. With easy to learn but hard to master controls, an awesome range of abilities and weaponry to play with, and an intricate puzzle at its heart, Deathloop is just such a consistently enjoyable experience. It’s hard to think of a single bad thing to say about it!
Last but not least, let’s round out my honourable mentions with Road 96. Taking on the role of several on-the-run teenagers, each trying to cross the border and escape from the dangerous authoritarian nation of Petria; Road 96 is a highly political game that isn’t afraid to punch up with its hard-hitting emotional narrative. Yet, despite the serious nature of its story framework, Road 96 never shies away from vast amounts of positivity amidst its unexpected humour, silly situations, hopeful musings, and mid-nineties style.
Every step of your cross-country road trip is filled to the brim with intense electro music, a wide variety of deeply entertaining mini-games, and enough wacky situations to make a 90s sitcom blush. With a small cast of deeply fleshed-out characters, ranging from deranged cab driver turned murderer Jarod, to highly incapable criminal duo Stan and Mitch, Road 96’s long and isolated journeys never feel lonely, and always have a lot of personality.
I really can’t recommend this game enough as both a generally entertaining experience and a thought-provoking journey. Some of the basic gameplay may rely upon the usual mechanics of decision-based games and resource management systems, but I truly cannot think of another game that’s quite like this. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s worth experiencing just for its unique nature alone because you most certainly won’t regret it!
#10 – Returnal
Now that the great honourable mentions are finally out of the way, let’s properly sink our teeth into my top ten games of 2021. Returnal blessed my PS5 quite early on in 2021, but no matter how much time passed throughout the year I simply couldn’t get this unforgettable experience out of my head. Between its eldritch inspirations and the abyssal depths of its expansive lore, Housemarque managed to craft a legitimately horrifying world for this game in the form of Atropos.
Setting aside the central gameplay conceit of protagonist Selene’s inability to die, I’d love to first talk about Atropos itself. This is a planet where every single example of alien architecture, every mythological item description, and every evolution of the monstrosities you must fight, all compliment and bolster the game’s core theming and storytelling in remarkably effective ways.
Selene may be the only significant character to have a consistent and tangible presence throughout Returnal, but you never feel alone whilst playing as her, thanks to just how prevalent Atropos is. By using numerous subtle details, (from plant life lurching towards Selene wherever she stands, to how the otherworldly music waxes and wanes), alongside using some more substantial mechanics, (such as how the planet seemingly uses Selene’s own memories against her), Atropos ends up feeling like a character in and of itself, mercilessly working against you every step of the way. If anything, you don’t feel alone in Returnal: You feel hunted.
In regards to gameplay, everything feels good in one way or another. Weapons feel incredibly responsive thanks to the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, but they also feel exceptionally varied on account of how different each weapon in Selene’s arsenal can be. The Roguelike world exploration is rather challenging at times but feels very rewarding, particularly due to the almost MetroidVania-esque mechanics of unlocking new gear, which helps you explore additional areas in each subsequent Atropos escape attempt.
Whether it’s the exceptionally difficult boss battles, the perplexing yet immersive storyline, or the gratifying sense of progression, Returnal does everything right. I personally cannot recommend it enough if you’re interested in challenging games or if you’ve gotten lucky enough to get a PS5. So try not to crash your spaceship, try not to fear the reaper, and be sure to pick up your copy of Returnal as soon as you can!
#9 – Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars
For anybody who caught my review of Voice of Cards in December 2021, (found here), you may be wondering why I consider a 7.5 out of 10 game to be worthy of my top ten list. Well, it’s hard to say why! I know that it’s a rather slow game, (albeit a faster one now thanks to its December 21st update adding a high-speed mode), and I know that its art style is misleading despite its gorgeous intricacies. I know that it repeats NPC character art far too regularly and I know that its story isn’t the most innovative in the world. I even know that the lore isn’t all that deep and that it’s a bit short on content for a fully-fledged JRPG…
Yet there’s something about it that I personally can’t get enough of! With such fleshed-out and unusual personalities, the characters are all loveable from start to finish. The music sucked me in and granted me so much immersion every step of the way, between the traditional fantasy tones of Oliver Good and the iconic stylings of Keiichi Okabe, clearly borrowing inspiration from his own outstanding work on the soundtrack for the Nier franchise. Plus the fighting, though simplistic for the most part, really satisfied my yearning for some traditional turn-based combat.
And oh… How could I forget the voice acting. As I mentioned in my original review, whether you’re using the Japanese or English language options; the voice acting is just so completely enthralling that I can’t think of a single bad thing that could be said about it. It rounds out Voice of Cards’ one-shot D&D theming so wonderfully and really helped the game become a far more captivating experience than it ever could’ve been without it. So to summarize: I’m well aware that Voice of Cards is a flawed game in a number of ways, but the way in which each of the positives culminated made it a perfect experience for me personally; One which I keep looking back to. Give me a sequel, dang it!
#8 – Psychonauts 2
It’s sad to say, but the original Psychonauts from 2005 was a game that completely passed me by. At the age of 8, I was a little younger than the target audience and, although I was already playing some R-rated games far above my age bracket, something about Psychonauts just didn’t appeal to me. I was too busy to care, playing Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within and Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 over and over again on my Nintendo GameCube. Thankfully, when Psychonauts 2 was still some distance from releasing back in 2019, PrincessLilyMTG insisted that I finally give the original game a try, and I am so glad that I did. I loved every second of it!
Another issue arose however in the form of “Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin”, a VR exclusive game set between the original Psychonauts and its direct sequel. Whilst I was lucky enough to receive an Oculus Quest 2 headset this past Christmas, (thanks dad!), I had absolutely no way of playing the Rhombus of Ruin prior to the release of Psychonauts 2. Sadly, it was a huge chunk of the series that I simply had no way of experiencing.
All in all: This meant that Psychonauts 2 had everything stacked against it. I was missing most of the context due to having missed a full game, I didn’t have any real nostalgia for the series given that it’d been under two years since I first experienced the original, (as opposed to the sixteen years that some others had been waiting), and furthermore, I was very worried about its quality in general given the development hell I assumed it had been in; First announced six whole years before its release…
Surprisingly though, Psychonauts 2 was a masterpiece. It featured concise summaries of every event that occurred in the Rhombus of Ruin and it made intelligent self-aware jokes about the nostalgia factor, all of which worked no matter how long ago you played the original. Atop of all that; development hell or not, the game had been intensely polished. This may be one of the only games I’ve ever played where it’s clear that every single idea that the development team had, made it into the finished product in some capacity; All designed with so much passion that the entire journey positively glows from it!
It doesn’t end there though, as many of the game’s features excelled on a technological level too, from portal tech that made for some incredible special effects, to a large number of accessibility options that meant just about anybody could pick up and play the game. Psychonauts 2 isn’t just a re-hash of an old experience; Be it upgrades, combat, movement, story, environments, graphics, or technology, Psychonauts 2 is an evolution for the series whichever aspect you’re looking at. If you enjoyed the original then this couldn’t be more worth your time, but if you didn’t? There’s probably still something special to be found here for you.
#7 – Cozy Grove
I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at my computer, mulling over doing a full review of Cozy Grove. It’s a wholesome adventure, to say the least, but it shares so much in common with Animal Crossing: New Horizons that I really wasn’t sure how to explain what makes this journey so special, at least not by comparison. Please don’t misinterpret me: New Horizons is a wonderful experience, but I —like most people I know— got into the craze of it for about three months straight, did everything there was to really experience in it, then just gradually stopped playing…
From time to time I do feel the urge to revisit my Animal Crossing home, but the anxiety I feel over how much my island neighbours would chastise me, angry over how long I’ve been gone for, is a tad overwhelming when the thought crosses my mind. Thankfully, Cozy Grove on the other hand is a place completely free from that form of judgment, where each of its spirit citizens are just grateful to see you again, no matter how long it’s been.
Over the past 268 days (at the time of writing) since it launched on Steam, I’ve played Cozy Grove on 168 separate days. It became something of a morning routine: Get up, brush my teeth, take my HRT tablets, shower, get dressed, and load up Cozy Grove. I’d harvest my plants, check in with my neighbours, feed my pets, do whatever tasks were available, fish for a while, then call it a day. It never took me long outside of the first few times I played it, just a ten-minute session here and a half-hour session there, but it brought me a lot of peace over this past year. Sure I couldn’t play it every day, sometimes things came up or I simply didn’t feel in the mood, (occasionally for weeks at a time), but whenever I came back my neighbours were always waiting with open arms.
Looking back on my stay in Cozy Grove, I’d say that ultimately, the story was the thing that set it apart from Animal Crossing. Sure it has a lovely drawn aesthetic and endless daily quests to partake in, but the story was what defined it. You play as a Spirit Scout who becomes stranded on the island of Cozy Grove and begins the kind-hearted work of helping each of the island’s citizens —all of whom are ghosts— cross over to the other side. There are seventeen spirits to help in total, each of whom possesses a fully developed personality that you’ll grow to love and cherish across each of their lengthy individual storylines.
Some of these stories are hopeful, others are humorous, whilst many are tragic. The game never gets too dark by any means, but a number of the game’s most special moments are punctuated with poignant messages about love, life, loss, grief, and death, hitting your emotions hard on occasion, but always holding a positive outlook that retains the feel-good nature of the adventure you’re on. It may be a lot like Animal Crossing, but Animal Crossing will never be quite like Cozy Grove.
#6 – Boyfriend Dungeon
Who here likes consensually groping swords that can also transform into deeply attractive boyfriends, girlfriends, or partners? I sure do! Moving away from the serious topic of death, let’s talk about the surreal, funny, positive, and romantic dungeon-crawling dating simulator that is Boyfriend Dungeon.
The concept alone was enough to sell me on the idea of Boyfriend Dungeon. You have a city overworld with different stores and locations to visit where you’ll meet a variety of different men, women, and non-binary folk, (and even a cat!), all of whom you can date. To what end this goes to is your choice: It could simply be for friendship, a Summer romance, a purely physical bout, or a long-term commitment. Except for the cat of course; His name is Pocket and he’s just there for some adorable companionship!
Whatever your decisions lead to, these dates and hang-outs occur in wonderfully written visual novel sections that exude charm with the depth of their characterization. When it’s time to really connect with them though? Well, that’s when it’s time for your companions to shapeshift into a selection of weaponry, (one weapon type per character), in order for you to wield them in dungeons, defeating monsters and grinding for XP and crafting materials in order to overcome your character’s fears and strengthen you and your partner’s bond.
It’s silly. Like, I really can’t stress enough: It’s really silly. But it’s so, so much fun! With satisfying combat, lots of upgrades to be unlocked, a gorgeous chilled-out soundtrack to listen to and plenty of great dialogue to be enjoyed, what’s not to love? The game does tackle some serious topics from time to time including conversations about consent and boundaries, alongside situations that deal with the heavy topic of stalking, but even when the game does get serious it never fails to be meaningful.
One thing to add is that this game definitely gets bonus points for its LGBTQ+ inclusivity. However you identify, whether you’re a lesbian or are bisexual, gay, asexual, pansexual, or if you happen to be transgender, (regardless of whether you’re a trans man, trans woman, or are non-binary); Boyfriend Dungeon does a great job of allowing you to be yourself, in your own personal way.
Plus: Boyfriend Dungeon’s two non-binary characters are written in very respectful and well-portrayed ways, which is a real treat to experience given how underrepresented and negatively portrayed non-binary folk often are in modern media. Seriously, you try playing this game and not falling head over heels for Rowan; They’re just so dang endearing! To say I’m excited for the DLC of this game would be a huge understatement, but I’ll keep waiting patiently because I know the pay-off will be worthwhile!
Wow… that was a lot of games. It’s time to take a break here, but I’ll be back very soon with the second part of my top ten games of 2021, finally covering the *big* ones: From number five all the way through to my definitive Game of the Year… So stay tuned, stay hydrated, take care of yourself, and thank you very much for reading!