It was another year filled with many woes, and 2021 sometimes felt like it was the unnecessary sequel to 2020 that no one wanted. But despite the shadow of a pandemic that is not quite over and a continuing avalanche of numerous harrowing developments since, 2021 manages to grovel out from the rubble and carve out its own identity.

I had more time to be isolated within my own thoughts—for both better and for worse—and I can honestly say I learned a lot from it! There’s still a whole lot of good in the bad, reflected in the consistent deluge of quality titles and progressive milestones being made in the industry against all odds.

This Game of the Year with Video Game Choo Choo, once again, I intentionally limited what stood out to me the most through a tightly picked “Top 5” list of games. Continuing my personal goal of trying to focus on indies while also being faithful to my own interests, my Game of the Year list of 2021 also happens to be a curation of titles that all thematically tie an artistic tradition to a greater purpose—such as whether it’d be seeking answers to internal questions or outright using performance to save the universe.

5. OPUS: Echo of Starsong

Animated GIF from OPUS: Echo of Starsong. A female figure is surrounded by various machinery and wires. Her face and torso is framed by a circular, lighted apparatus. She moves into a pose about to sing, and the camera dramatically zooms out, centered from her to a view of outer space.

OPUS: Echo of Starsong sits nicely in the wider catalog of visual novels and text-heavy games I enjoy, even leading me into discovering other games of a totally different ilk by Taiwanese studio SIGONO. Echo of Starsong takes place in a universe where corporate greed has fueled war over a valuable resource called Lumen. Although this intergalactic conflict seemingly resolves itself in time, it has sparked the birth of a vicious, cutthroat economy where now many adventurers are seeking to stake their claim and find their own riches. You control one of said adventurers, following his journey and transformation after a fateful encounter with a nearly-lost, innate ability to find harmony with echoes of the past through the power of song.

There is very little active gameplay in Echo of Starsong, but much of its heart resides in its writing and beautiful, but simple, visuals. While they all revolve around different stories and are all only loosely unified through their science fiction themes, adversity and a sense of hope in spite of dire, apocalyptic settings are recurring stays across all of SIGONO’s games in their OPUS series. And a future that still sees a silver lining despite how dire things get Is certainly a future I want to embrace.


Screenshot from TOEM. A bird's eye view of camping grounds with a wooden lodge in a forest clearing, as small figures stand around the scene. The scene is rendered in black and white.

Back in E3 2021 (yeah gee, that did happen), no one was even sure what a “TOEM” even was, yet TOEM is now one of those things that I can’t stop thinking about! There’s been more than a handful of games with photography-taking elements as of recent, and TOEM is another title that reinterprets the mechanic its own special way. TOEM is not only fun for its quirky visuals and goofy writing, but it forces you to rethink how you shoot photos within an isometric map and 2.5 visuals. It is far from anything complex, but it’s a small enough reinterpretation of how photography should be approached in games that makes it refreshing. All of this and more is framed within a very feel-good, motivational journey of learning to try new things all while spreading simple acts of kindness within your community. So what’s a “TOEM”, you ask? Go play this game and find out!

3. Kraken Academy

An animated GIF loop from Kraken Academy. A figure stands in the middle of a lot, in front of a broken fountain leaking to the side while it is raining. A tent with an elderly woman and goods is propped to left, while a delapitated trailer is propped to the right.
Kraken Academy made me completely inconsolable. This game broke me. It spurned similar feelings I had over Yuppie Psycho with its similar humor that awakened something both juvenile and primordial. But despite the connotations its name carries, Kraken Academy is far from a horror game, lampooning the grisliness of eldritch fiction by being one of the funniest games I have played all year. You play a student enrolled in a dilapidated boarding school, and despite immediately being mistreated by your classmates and alienated all the more, you carry the burden to save it upon learning it’s going to be destroyed in a few days. You also learn this from a giant kraken in the nearby lake who claims he is the school chancellor, granting you time-looping powers to fix this mess. No big deal!

Kraken Academy hits in all the right ways with both its jokes and the sleek feel of its gameplay overall. Stuffing a bunch of horrible, feral teenagers in a loosely defined space that one calls a school is already a nightmare on its own, but doing so with various otherworldly elements in the mix no one questions is primed for comedy. There’s also an anthropomorphic broccoli girl and you just need to know she’s the best girl.

2. Wildermyth

Screenshot from a combat sequence in Wildermyth.
I cannot exaggerate enough how getting really into tabletop games around my time at college was one of several benchmarks in my life that were very formative to me. So when something like Wildermyth came rolling along as a video game that is essentially trying to recreate the essence of tabletop roleplaying games, my interest was piqued. And where Wildermyth recreates all of the epic, memorable moments you have had with your friends playing something like Dungeons & Dragons, it manages to make you confront all the cringe too.

On the surface, Wildermyth honestly still needs some polish, and it especially may not stand out so much compared to many other games with similar systems with procedural generation. But harnessing it with all these other components, such as an interesting character builder and a wide net of many interwoven stories written from a place of clear passion for roleplaying games wraps it all up in neat, little love letter to both tabletop players and self-titled game masters alike. It just makes a very specific lobe of my brain go brrr.

1. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Animated GIF from Chicory. A montage of various gameplay scenes stylized in a black and white cartoon artstyle.
Chicory is a perfect, personal game. Well, I may be hyperbolizing here—but I know for a fact that Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game I needed to and deserved to experience in the time that I did and in all the manners that I saw myself in it.

You quickly learn that the fantastical, charmful setting of Chicory is not just a world of art, but it is a world that is specifically dependent on the tangibility of art in order to function. As much as Chicory depicts a world where art is probably better respected compared to our current reality, it does not shy away from the fact that there is still baggage that comes with art’s creation at the price of needing to constantly make something beautiful.

I am not special in saying that at some point in 2021 I felt extremely unhappy, but I had to take further steps to have this realization that I was going through artistic burnout. I was steadily hating the job I had at that point in time, and I kept second guessing myself because I thought I was regressing in my artistic abilities. It took numerous steps to admit to myself that I had a problem, and that denying it because I felt bad about all the other far worse problems in the world was not conducive.

Animated GIF from Chicory. A stylized, black and white cartoon representation of a squirrel aggressively asking an anthropomorphic dog, holding a giant paint brush, to paint their house.

In Chicory, you quickly gain an understanding that the titular character herself is undergoing these similar issues, and on your own journey of taking on her mantle, you inevitably meet her in the middle to help her on a path to recovery. Although I wish I had an adorable cartoon dog to pep talk me in a climatic boss battle to tell me everything was going to be okay, Chicory’s ability to portray a very specific type of a pain that can be difficult to describe that I and many others saw ourselves was reassuring.

Just like they did with the universality of song in Wandersong, Greg Lobanov, Lena Raine, Finji, and team have done it all again: In every aspect that the game succeeds—it’s freeform paintbrush mechanic, solid writing, and general cuteness—its portrait of imposter syndrome and the various insecurities that come coupled with it are respectfully portrayed in a heartwarming story that I think anyone can find themselves in.

Perhaps it is reductive to paint (ha) Chicory in such a grim light, but to merely praise the game for its colorful, poppy surface misses all the layers behind the work that it truly is. But even in the worst hours of our self-loathing while an unfinished canvas collects dust in our rooms, Chicory reminds us that you do not have to endure it alone.

Jahy, from the anime The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!, a young girl with mid-length purple hair and tan skin, wears a smug expresion while holding a bottle of mayonnaise towards the viewer. An edit of an aanthropomorphic broccoli girl is added on top of a plate in front of her.

About Elvie Mae

Elvie was conjured out of recycled materials sourced from New Jersey. She is the designated czar of the Gamesline socials, and is probably subtweeting about you.

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