The Pits: Best in Video Games 2021

Editor’s Note: Feel free to post as big or as small of a list as you would like below but please keep your lists contained to these posts and do not make your own post or fill up the OT with them. The winners will be announced alongside the other winners of The Pits the week of 12/20 and will be calculated by adding up your lists (10 points for first, 9 for second, etc. with 5 per awarded for unranked Top 10 lists). Ranked lists with under 10 contenders are totally fine as well. The preference is for ranked lists to aid in determining a winner, but you are not required to rank them.

Welcome to the voting thread for the 2021 Pits’ best in video games! Like last year, you’ll be voting on two awards: the Baer Award, for the best video game released this year, i.e. between January 1st, 2021 and now; and the Higinbotham Award, for the best video game released last year, i.e. between January 1st, 2020 and December 31st, 2020. I’m not going to be ultra-strict about this, but as a general rule, you should go by release date in whichever country you live in. For instance, that would make Persona 5 Strikers eligible for the Baer Award for our North American ‘Cados, but eligible for the Higinbotham Award for our Japanese Guacs. You can vote for remasters or re-releases; just be aware that those have historically not garnered a lot of votes.

Feel free to get creative with your submissions. You can merely post your top 10 lists, you can pen a little blurb for each entry, or you can post a screenshot and an essay for each one. It’s really up to you. Whatever you choose, just make sure to get it done by 9 AM EST on December 20th so I have time to count it.

Below, I’ve included my own submissions for the Baer and Higinbotham Awards. I should emphasize: this is not The Avocado’s official top 10. The Avocado’s official game of the year is chosen by you, the community, through this voting process. Consider my post inspiration for your submissions, an invitation for discussion, and a celebration of some of the best the industry had to offer in 2021.

The Baer Award: Top 10 of 2021

All screenshots are my own.

10. Scarlet Nexus

Every frame of Bandai Namco and Tose’s Scarlet Nexus positively oozes style, from the visual novel-inspired character splashes that appear when you activate a teammate’s special ability, to the outfits those teammates wear during battle, having an aesthetic that I’m going to dub “Christmas ninja yoga-retreat techwear.” After all, if you’re going to be fighting freakish mutant monsters from the sky, you might as well look damn good while doing it. And of course, the emphasis on style extends to the monster designs, faceless beings that blend Victorian grandiosity with mundane objects such as flowers and faucets. Combine all that style with a butter-smooth action-combat system and a big dollop of shōnen anime shenanigans, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the best RPGs of the year.

9. Deathloop

Time loop games are having a moment this year. Deathloop joins titles like Housemarque’s Returnal and Luis Antonio’s 12 Minutes in having the player character repeat the same period of time over and over and over again. But while those games are tense, harrowing affairs, Deathloop uses its time loop to explore a world without consequences, and in doing so, it revitalizes the immersive sim genre. So what if you end up severely injured or even dead? Everything resets tomorrow; you’ll be fine. It’s positively liberating compared to Arkane Studios’ other recent efforts, like Dishonored or Prey. No longer will the world fill up with rats if you kill too many people or turrets turn against you if you absorb too many alien powers. There’s no morality meter keeping track of how many partygoers you boot off a cliff. (And you’ll be booting people off cliffs a lot, because the game has a dedicated “Kick” button.) It’s just you, your magic powers, and a whole lotta guns. Deathloop is a loud game, layering blaxploitation swagger over a funky ’60s retrofuture aesthetic. Say goodbye to surgically-precise manoeuvres and shadowy corridors; say hello to gratuitous explosions and candy machines made of injection-moulded, pastel-coloured plastic. (That’s not a throwaway mention; you can actually make enemies slip on candies as if they’re banana peels.) You can’t save-scum, so when your best-laid plans go awry, it’s time to pump some chumps full of lead, psychically fling them off buildings, or when all else fails, run like hell. Let’s face it: being a rampaging murder machine is hella fun. It’s ironic, then, that Deathloop‘s ultimate goal is to put an end to that fun and break the time loop, thereby restoring consequence to the world. I wish I could have spent a bit more time in the frigid wastes of Blackreef, stabbing fools and blowing barrels to smithereens.

8. Golf Club Wasteland

Earth has fallen victim to environmental collapse, and humanity has retreated to Mars in order to survive. Rich tourists return to their home planet to play rounds of golf in the dilapidated terrestrial ruins, insulated by their spacesuits from the dangers they had left behind. An audio broadcast of dubious legality, “Radio Nostalgia from Mars,” plays in the background, intermixing club beats, folksy tunes, and monologues from survivors of the environmental apocalypse. This is the setting of Serbian studio Demagog’s latest game, Golf Club Wasteland, a new entry in the shockingly plentiful and ever-expanding genre of “weird golf.” But unlike most of its genre brethren, Golf Club Wasteland is a 2D game, playing less like an arcade sports title and more like a turn-based Super Mario Bros., with obstacles and hazards aplenty. It’s a bizarre and occasionally maddeningly difficult game, but it never loses its appeal, even as it shifts from biting satire to earnest sincerity. Golf Club Wasteland is unapologetically anti-consumerist, and with its quiet desolation and mostly silent protagonist (mute except for grunts of frustration when you miss an easy putt), it feels almost like a twisted Balkan WALL·E. As “Radio Nostalgia from Mars” plays in the background, the player enters a sort of hypnotic trance, laser-focused on getting that little orange ball into its hole, numb to the devastation all around them. Broken windowsills and abandoned cargo containers become mere surfaces off which to bank shots. Subway tunnels with crashed trains and public parks with pools of toxic sludge begin to feel like playgrounds. And in a moment of clarity, it becomes apparent to the player how easy it is to maintain emotional distance from all the ruin, to dehumanize what humanity built and let rot. Lots of games have a message, but few can make you feel it as acutely as Golf Club Wasteland.

7. The Forgotten City

Australian studio Modern Storyteller’s The Forgotten City, the second time loop game on this list, surprised me. What appeared at first glance to be a simple ancient Roman whodunit was in actuality much, much more. Sure, there’s a mystery to be solved, and there are even a few combat sequences, but the core of the experience is really a series of Socratic dialogues with the game’s characters (one even explicitly billing itself as such), escalating to philosophical arguments with ancient deities. Now, those of us who play a lot of video games are no strangers to attacking and dethroning God — Atlus would have you believe that that’s just a regular Tuesday for Tokyo teenagers — but rarely does a video game give you the chance to debate a god face-to-face, as an intellectual equal. In the end, The Forgotten City answers a question posed by one of our foremost contemporary philosophers, Joan Osborne: “What if God was one of us?”1

6. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Up until now, most superhero games have focused on the fantasy of actually being your favourite comic book characters, whether that be by beating up thugs as Batman in Rocksteady’s Arkham games, or by swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper as Spider-Man in Insomniac’s recent outings. Eidos Montréal’s latest effort takes a different approach: rather than being a power fantasy, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy strives to recreate the feeling of reading a comic book. Each chapter of the game feels like an issue in a comic series, full of pulse-pounding action, witty dialogue, and of course, gorgeous art. (Seriously, this game’s photo mode is a treat.) Playing the game instilled in me the same sense of wonder I felt as a kid when I would sit in bed propped up on a pile of pillows, soaking in the globetrotting adventures of Tintin and his companions. No other game this year did as good a job of putting the “adventure” in the action-adventure genre.

5. It Takes Two

Swedish studio Hazelight’s second effort, It Takes Two, continues with the co-op model established by its predecessor, A Way Out, but this time, instead of a cinematic action-adventure game, Josef “Fuck The Oscars” Fares and his team have built a 3D platformer, and it might be the most inventive entry in the genre in years, rivalling the output of platforming kings Nintendo and Insomniac. Every half-hour or so, this surprisingly lengthy adventure throws a new, highly-polished gameplay idea at its players that both cleverly incorporates cooperative play and is just a blast to toy around with. There’s always something novel around the corner to fill you with childlike wonder and give your neural receptors a big ol’ hit of dopamine. Playing through this game with a friend was a pure joy, and that it boasted some of the wildest imagination and most refined game design of the year — all while being a fully co-op experience! — made it all the more impressive.

4. Psychonauts 2

I recently started relistening to old episodes of the AVoCADo GamesCast, just to have something to listen to while walking through the neighbourhood, and I noticed that we mentioned how excited we were for Psychonauts 2 all the way back on our first episode, in the summer of 2016. Five years and nearly 80 episodes later, the game was finally released to the public. Between then and now, developers Double Fine signed a publishing agreement with Starbreeze, got scooped up by Microsoft, and repeatedly pushed back the release date of their much-anticipated game. Expectations were sky-high: this was, after all, the sequel to a beloved cult classic, crowdfunded by its fans. It couldn’t just be good; it had to be great. Well I can confirm that Psychonauts 2 is indeed great. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a sequel to Psychonauts: a series of wonderfully imaginative platforming challenges set in the brains of a wacky cast of characters. One level is pure dental horror, all tongues and teeth and surgical implements. Another is a psychedelic jaunt through a music festival, coloured with a vivid rainbow palette and backed by a soundtrack of blues riffs and raga rock. But Psychonauts 2 is also a more mature and carefully-considered experience than its predecessor: whereas Psychonauts could be a bit simplistic in its depiction of mental illness, its sequel is both nuanced and brutally honest. Psychonauts 2 is an emotionally complex game, one that refuses to provide easy answers to the questions it poses. It can leave you laughing with joy one minute and then squirming in discomfort the next. It delves into the deepest recesses of its characters’ psyches and reflects the full spectrum of human experience back at us, warts and all. It’s weird, wonderful, and even a little wistful, and I can say that it was well worth the wait.

3. Adios

While most mainstream games look to Hollywood for inspiration, Mischief’s debut title, Adios, could very well have been a stage play. It centres on two characters, a player-controlled farmer who uses his pigs to dispose of bodies for the mob but wants out, and an NPC hitman who tries to convince him to change his mind, portrayed by Rick Zieff and D.C. Douglas, respectively, giving career-best performances. As they chat, you can feel the weight of their relationship — a genuine friendship, albeit a tense one — and a sense of dread builds. There are decisions to be made, but they’re effectively acting choices: you can choose how to play your part, but you are still a character in a play, at the mercy of another’s direction, and you can’t avoid the inevitable conclusion. Adios is a veritable pressure cooker of a game, and no other title in recent memory has been so adept at building tension.

2. Hitman 3

If all goes according to plan, the first game in a trilogy establishes the series’ mechanics and conventions, the second game polishes them to a diamond sheen, and the third pokes and prods and twists them into something familiar yet unfamiliar. Danish studio IO Interactive’s Hitman 3, the conclusion to the goofily named “World of Assassination” trilogy, does exactly that. In many ways, this is the Hitman you know and love: there might be a little less slapstick and pitch-black comedy this time around, but if you want to drown a guard in a vat of fermenting grapes, no one’s going to stop you. However, there are also some ideas that change up the series’ formula in exciting ways. A level set in an old English manor is a classic British whodunit, complete with a cast of quirky suspects. Another level amplifies Hitman‘s immersive sim bona fides and transports series protagonist Agent 47 to the rain-soaked, neon-lit streets of Chongqing. It’s the series’ biggest level yet, filled with secret passages, scattered diary entries, and cyberpunk goodness; it’s practically more Deus Ex than Deus Ex. Hitman 3 executes all of this brilliantly. It isn’t the product of a studio desperately flailing to find unique ideas for the sake of novelty, but rather a confident bending of series convention by a studio at the peak of their powers. I can’t wait to see what IO has up their sleeve for their upcoming James Bond game.

1. OPUS: Echo of Starsong

Taiwanese studio SIGONO’s OPUS: Echo of Starsong is many things: a romantic drama told in visual novel form; a 2.5D adventure game with music-based puzzles; a space survival sim that marries the Mass Effect galaxy map to old-school tabletop random encounters; and even, briefly, a bullet hell game. If there’s a common thread woven throughout the experience, it’s a pervasive sense of melancholy, of longing for precious possessions lost, glories briefly tasted, or white whales best left unpursued. Echo of Starsong plays something like a sequel to a grand but non-existent space opera. It is set in a period of rebuilding and relative peace following a galactic war — a war in which the game’s main characters, adventurers Jun, Edalune, and Remi, did not fight, but whose effects nonetheless radiated out towards them. They are battle-scarred in the way that anyone who has lived through a war is battle-scarred — weary in some ways, emotionally stunted in others, and perpetually reaching for some nebulous thing that’s just out of reach. This feeling of saudade colours every interaction these characters have, and who could blame them? Records of the war they lived through are visible everywhere they go — in the ruins they explore searching for supplies; in the refugee camps that still haven’t shuttered, twenty years on; heck, even in the fact that their very profession of hunting down lumen, the precious resource over which the war was fought, wouldn’t exist were it not for the United Mining megacorporation’s overwhelming victory and consequent control of mining rights. The game’s prose, evocative though it is, leaves most of these things unspoken, but the player can feel them. To paraphrase a common adage about jazz, Echo of Starsong is about the words you don’t say. Sure, there are tense Mexican standoffs, thrilling escape sequences, and even an emotional finale with a sweeping orchestral score. But for me, the most memorable moment of the game happens after Jun and Edalune comb through a derelict mining facility and then sit on a piece of the wreckage, staring out at the floating fragments of lumen. Edalune tells Jun that the shimmering blue rocks remind her of the fields of blooming flowers in her homeworld and promises to take him back there to see them. Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s a promise that is filled with hope but that also portends tragedy, its poignancy reverberating throughout the rest of the game as the narrative unfolds. That poignancy has stuck with me long after the credits rolled, cementing OPUS: Echo of Starsong as my favourite game of 2021.

Honourable mentions: Gnosia; Bright Memory: Infinite; Genesis Noir; Persona 5 Strikers; KID A MNESIA Exhibition; Root Film

The Higinbotham Award: Revisiting 2020

I didn’t catch up on many 2020 games in 2021, so my list is mostly unchanged from last year’s. However, Deep Rock Galactic became a co-op staple with my friend group, so it merits a place on the list.

  1. Ghost of Tsushima
  2. Golf With Your Friends
  3. Timelie
  4. Wide Ocean Big Jacket
  5. Necrobarista
  6. Deep Rock Galactic
  7. A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986
  8. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
  9. Paradise Killer
  10. Ori and the Will of the Wisps

And now it’s your turn: share your favourite games of 2021 and 2020 with us!