TFW You’re Juicin’ Your Game Hard Award For When It Feels Good to Play a Game, Presented by Balan Wonderworld from Balan Wonderworld: Hot Wheels Unleashed
Runners-up: Monster Hunter Rise, Chivalry 2
Hot Wheels: Unleashed has been such a joyful surprise this year, managing to combine the fun aesthetic and scale of Hot Wheels with the blistering pace and limited design of an arcade racing game. We haven’t seen a Hot Wheels game of this quality since the one developed for Windows 98 and while it isn’t as feature rich as larger, more established games like Forza Horizon or Trackmania, Hot Wheels: Unleashed is laser focused on the essentials: boosting out of sick drifts, maneuvering your car in mid-air, doing loops, and extending the gameplay by creating your own tracks, liveries, and racing online with your friends. The way the Italian team at Milestone put this all together and continues to update it with new tracks, cars, and tools makes for a game that is nigh endlessly enjoyable!
Every day that I’ve played HW:U this year I’ve seen players finding new imaginative and creative ways to put the pieces together to make for fun, chaotic, or just plain goofy laugh-out-loud race tracks. If you are looking for me next year, you’ll probably find me juicin’ my Delorean in the Batcave trying to jump through a dinopult from the top of the bat computer or maybe you can catch me juicin’ with friends on Engineer Insane… This track was made by some kind of engineer clearly suffering from insanity.
Best Character: Nagi Usui (NEO: The World Ends With You)
Runners-up: Queen (Deltarune Chapter 2), Leshy (Inscryption)
It’s rare to come across a character that manages to poke fun at a subculture while simultaneously showcasing an immaculate sense of growth from beginning to end, but Nagi Usui from NEO: The World Ends With You manages to get the job done and more. Nagi, to put it bluntly, is the best foil to everything surrounding her game not just in character but also in aesthetics. Her large glasses, oversized graphic tee, and itabag decorated with handmade pins of her favorite character from a gacha game clash perfectly with the hypebeast-approved outfits of the protagonists you’ve encountered so far. Her dialogue is expansive and sesquipedalian, she lacks any sense of cool that most of the cast exude near effortlessly, and her English-language voice actor Miranda Parkin has mentioned that “[They] played her as the most awkward lesbian [they] possibly [can].”
In a sense, she’s the most human character out of the whole cast, and by the end of the game this becomes her biggest leverage. It’s hard not to fall in love with the way Nagi interacts with the world. She’ll glare at you flatly if you mess up her food order but then emit a beam of light from her mouth when something is, to use her own words, “Positively ambrosial!” You’ll hear as many battle quotes from her as you will screams of terror, and the phrase, “Pardon the intrusion!” becomes an internal psych-up of sorts as you use her Dive ability to enter demanding gauntlet battles with formidable Noise. In a way, Nagi acts as a surrogate for the player that recognizes this might not be their first Reapers’ Game. She is someone who understands the relationships between people, who strives to learn about others and make sure everyone feels heard and accepted.
Nagi knows that she defines how big or small her world can be and chooses to use that strength to support others who are just coming to realize that, much like many of us are now beginning to give more advice than simply receive it. In a year that felt tumultuous due to the uncertainty of everything, Nagi’s resilience and fervent passion were infectious and outright inspiring. Maybe I’ll go ahead and check out what Fate/Gra– I mean “Elegant Strategy” is all about.
Worst Character: The Weapon (Halo Infinite)
Runners-up: The Husband (Twelve Minutes), James Vendetti (The Artful Escape)
Halo Infinite, perhaps in some alternate world, could have featured all sorts of interesting characters new and old to make another game about Master Chief into a compelling work worthy of the “next-generation of Halo”, branding Microsoft has been pushing for the last couple years. Instead, what we got is The Weapon.
The Weapon is a clone of Cortana, developed with the express function of killing the old Cortana who has become evil and done some pretty messed up stuff (off-screen). With the creation of a new Cortana in the modern era of AAA games, coming up with a new premise that doesn’t completely revolve around sexualized mommy girlfriends taking care of their soldier husbands, there was a tentative level of hope in my heart. You know, maybe Halo will finally have a cool or funny woman to make amends for the various women that both Bungie and 343 have had very little interest in elevating over the years. Instead, what we got was a bevy of tropes and Whedonisms wrapped up in an extremely embarrassing relitigation of games writing past.
With Master Chief being fairly soft-spoken, and the only other character involved in the main story spending most of his time off-screen, you end up hearing a lot of The Weapon and good lord, does it wear you down! As you navigate through the open-world of this new Halo ring, The Weapon is sure to have a “””funny””” little bit to announce each new fun activity you find yourself wandering into. Whether it’s making jokes about the various aliens you’re straight up killing along the way, or just the most generic “AMAZING MISSION COMPLETE THAT RIGHT THERE IS WHY YOU’RE THE BEST CHIEF”s you’ve ever heard, The Weapon always has something to say.
In the core missions of Halo Infinite, The Weapon fluctuates between an ignorant child, an omniscient supercomputer, and the type of strawman woman that the guys who go on and on about the old ball and chain love to invent. There could have been interrogations into Cortana’s motives and beliefs through The Weapon, and there could have been some sort of genuine actual acknowledgement that the relationship between Master Chief and his AI is kind of messed up! Instead, at the end of the game, The Weapon announces that her new name will be Cortana, perpetuating a cycle she should have been the end of.
Best Moment: Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
Runners-up: Psychonauts 2, Sable
We went back and forth so many times on what single moment could be the best moment from Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, a game that is nigh endless for dramatic and emotional high spots, but we know you want something that goes hard and won’t settle for second-best, so here you go:
When Endwalker begins, our character the Warrior of Light is a little bit pissed off that this Light we’re a Warrior of? Our mothercrystal? The person who got us into this mess a decade ago telling us to kill every primal we can? Yeah, she’s also a primal. She wants to be the last primal. It’s a little rude to have omitted that from our discussions over these last four expansions as we’ve taken down empires in her name (albeit not surprising) so we’re pissed. But that’s not the weird part. The weird part is that she’s also literally a woman from our long-ancient past, and we know that when women inhabit primals it’s basically at the sacrifice of their soul. So now our question is, what drives someone to such a brink of cataclysm that their only solution is to turn on their own people, shatter reality into fourteen parts, and put all their hope that a civilization with 1/14th the strength of her own can save the entire sundered world 10,000 years down the line while somehow maintaining a primal form that entire time? Wanna see what a miracle looks like? Here’s a single hail mary moment.
One moment that contains inside of it an entire universe, the creed of a whole MMO’s history, a will to keep living even well after it would be so much easier to give up and die. And yeah it goes hard as hell. Not to say nothing about how much this references and retroactively legitimizes the entire history of this game as a metanarrative, it suffices to say: We will keep walking until the end.
What the Fuck: Activision-Blizzard
Runners-up: Quantic Dream v. Le Monde and Mediapart, Final Fantasy XIV’s success breaking the game
Activision Blizzard dominated the news cycle for much of the latter half of 2021 for all of the wrong reasons. It began with a lawsuit by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in that very summer: As a result of a two-year investigation of the company instituted by the state, a damning investigative report and various legal documents were publicly released that detailed years of sexual harassment and workplace abuse at the company.
Things continued to go south, and an avalanche of bad press continued to befall Activision Blizzard, from various executive and leadership resignations, awkward responses from various other members of the industry, and being subjected to even more suits from both the moral and financial fallout of the situation. The hammer had really hit the nail on the coffin with the total cancellation of their annual BlizzCon for the year.
Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard workers reached the tipping point with their employer, striking back with various labor organization efforts; they have also been calling for the resignation of CEO Bobby Kotick. Kotick may have been aware and complacent to the misconduct that has been going on at the company for a while and despite his claims there are intentions for change otherwise, there is still little to show if there has been any impact. As of this date, he currently remains at the company with a hefty paycheck regardless of his actions.
These developments will continue to take shape and change, but it is easy to frame these circumstances as a single company’s fall from grace. In actuality, what has happened and continues to culminate around Activision Blizzard is not an isolated incident, and it encompasses everything that continues to be wrong with the games industry at large.
For the Win: The workers v. Activision-Blizzard, The first North American video games union at Vodeo Games, Final Fantasy XIV’s success breaking the game
Although the revelations of misconduct that have occurred behind Activision Blizzard’s closed doors have created discord in the industry, the company’s workers acted promptly: There have been multiple labor actions since public knowledge has been made of the company’s ills, such as employee walkouts, work stoppages, and ongoing efforts all hopefully leading up to complete unionization.
Employees have not only also continued to openly sign off on demands to see changes at the company, including continuing calls for CEO Bobby Kotick’s resignation for his complacency, but a strike fund has also been established. Employees at Raven Software—a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard—also walked out and protested in solidarity with several quality assurance workers who were laid off in early December. Raven Software employees have since moved forward in unionizing.
There has been a surge of unionization and various work stoppages across many industries, particularly in the media sector, likely further precipitated by the elevation of preexisting workplace issues that have worsened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Raven Software’s Game Workers Alliance is currently waiting on the legal recognition of their shop, the indie games scene offered Vodeo Games as officially the first legally recognized union shop in North America.
These teases of more unionization sweeping across the games industry have received generally positive reception across the masses, and it is reassuring to see that at least some gamers recognize what is good for their game makers.
But sometimes what gamers recognize as good comes at a cost, and that fate temporarily befell widely acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV for being a little too widely acclaimed. In the wake of its latest Endwalker storyline update, the game’s server congestion worsened at astronomical levels. There also are observations that the game’s population suddenly increased to unprecedented numbers sourced from a huge migration of former players of Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft due to teeming disappointment with the latest iterations of the game and the recent events that officially broke the straw on the camel’s back.
Final Fantasy’s developers decided that the best possible option to remedy these issues—for both players and their own team’s sakes—was to temporarily halt the creation of new accounts and pause the game’s advertising. Having garnered years of players’ faith and trust in the team behind it, Final Fantasy XIV was so successful that all new sales and marketing for it had to be halted. And quite honestly, what other game can say they had such bizarre (mis)fortune bestowed upon it for the same reasons?