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Highs and lows, to begin the year. January whisked us to the cloud-lapped summit of a skyscraper, in Dubai, where Agent 47 was hard at work. Despite diving from a passing plane and creeping in via the scaffolding, he saw no reason not to undertake his task in an ashen suit, with a black tie pouring down a pale-white shirt. Some time later, he would depart the premises cradled under a parachute. This was not, you sensed, the method of a daredevil so much as that of a gentleman, who, though dispensing death, sees no reason to break a dress code or a sweat. It was the last word in high style.
That same month, in the rainy backwoods of Poland, a woman was lured, by highly spurious claims, to an abandoned hotel, which turned out to be occupied by highly furious ghosts. The game was The Medium, and if you think it sounds familiar it’s because the same setup was used in Luigi’s Mansion 3—which turned out to be scarier, gooier, and entirely more spirited. The Medium centred on Marianne, a psychic, able to shift between the physical world and the wraithlike purgatory that rasps alongside it. The trouble was, the game didn’t really centre at all. It kept cracking and slipping, crowding its narrative with doomy ideas; and poor old Marianne, the colour shocked from her hair, couldn’t marshal the forces around her. Frankly, she could have done with Luigi’s vacuum cleaner.
Hitman III and The Medium released a week apart and somehow signalled the opposing possibilities of 2021. On the one hand, we have fresh air, travel, and a life gilded with unobtainable panache. In other words, the old Bondian dream—barcoded, repackaged, and sold to us yet again. After a year of lockdowns, it was an enticing proposition. On the other hand, we have air that is anything but fresh, fouled by heavy-breathing phantoms; we are mired in a single, sad location; and we get not life, still less death, but the microwaved meal in-between. As the latter months of 2021 wore on, The Medium felt increasingly clairvoyant.
The year would throw up more of these odd dualities: pairs of games that were happy to haunt each other, sharing the same space but belonging to different planes. Deathloop tells the story of Colt Vahn, a man whose main problem is that his story keeps restarting. He is trapped in a temporal knot and pursued by a woman whom we first see, through Colt’s eyes, as she plunges a blade into his belly. But the mood of Deathloop, which has you working out a way to murder eight people in a single day, is anything but grim. I was enamoured not only of our hero’s jacket—a dream of coffee-coloured leather—but of the unjammed humour of his personality; there was little about him, despite the stoppage of his days, that didn’t flow. Even in extremis, Colt seemed to have all the time in the world.
In the other, frostier corner, we have Selene, the heroine of Returnal. She is an astronaut by trade, who crashes on an alien rock. And not just her ship, either: she crashes, like a defective computer programme; every time she dies she is rebooted afresh. Whereas Colt, stripped of his memory, strove to figure out his place in a tightly wound mechanism, Selene, who sports neither a jacket nor a winning joie de mourir, feels engulfed from within. For her, the loops are a private conundrum, and her life is adrift in deathlessness; her days may be numbered, but she has long since lost count. If Marianne were sniffing around, she would doubtless consider Selene a spectre in need of a pep talk—to be consoled and cajoled into moving on up.
If only someone could deliver a similar dose of pep to Ethan Winters, who will surely go down as the dullest of the year’s protagonists (the repeat of a feat he performed admirably back in 2017). We find him in a village, in Resident Evil Village, whither he has gone to look for his kidnapped wife and infant daughter. Although, you wouldn’t know it from his line readings, which lumber through emotional states as if with a dead leg. Fair enough, the poor guy is set upon by vampires, but does he have to react to the direst and most alarming news as though it were merely a pain in the neck? Long after 2021 has disappeared from view, I will remember the scene in which, told that his daughter has been mashed into a jar like marmalade, he reacts like someone who has received unexpected data-roaming charges on his monthly phone bill: “What are you saying?” he says, followed by a bewildered “No… Wh-Wha—?” We’ve all been there.
For those players who like their sleep destroyed, 2021 will not go down as a banner year. Resident Evil Village was, for me, one of the bigger disappointments, deeply unscary, though it did come alive in glimpses: a pack of former farmers turned howling and hairy, squatting on the rooftops and staring; or a castle hall, furnished with firelight and thrumming with the drone of insects. A couple of months before, however, developer Hidden Fields supplied us with far superior rural chills. Mundaun, too, featured a creepy village and a rusticated young man who went in search of family, but it appeared truer to its subject. Capcom’s village was like a film set, dusted with phony snow, and its vampires, all witchy giggles and mouths caked in ketchup, were straight-to-video. But Hidden Fields, led by director Michel Ziegler, used a visual style that paid homage to the raw and roughened way in which ideas, like fears, take root.
Mundaun looks to be sketched in lead and graphite, and it is; the fraught contents of Ziegler’s notebooks were digitised and papered onto its setting. As our hero, Curdin, fends off all manner of ghoul—from floating beekeepers to abominable straw men—I kept thinking that what he could really use, rather than a pitchfork or a rifle, was a rubber. The frights of Mundaun feast on Swiss folklore, and, like Selene, the villagers are preyed on not only by powers of great antiquity but by themselves—by the stories that are passed down, like a pact, to entrap them.
This condition was felt most keenly by the Master Chief. Indeed, much of Halo Infinite was devoted to the tuning and polishing of his legend. We even got to know, courtesy of his A.I. pal, how he smells—“fine,” apparently, which is a letdown for anyone like me, who had their fingers crossed for “pine forest” or “new car.” Thankfully, the developer, 343 Industries, dropped the nasty habit, rife in the previous game, of having characters call him John; granted, that is his real name, but every time someone said it the armour of his mystique took another dent. The latest is the best yet from 343, a studio that has inherited a legacy as heavy, green, and prone to powersliding off course as a UNSC Warthog. Where the new game goes astray is in its attempt to peek behind the visor. “He’s more of what you might call a man of action,” someone says, but you could have fooled me; here he’s positively chatty. True, he treats sentences like assault rifles, favouring short, controlled bursts: “We do our duty. Protect Humanity. Whatever the cost.” I’m just not sure that he’s hitting the target.
He could learn a thing or two from Samus Aran. Like the Chief, she is recognisable by her suit alone—an exoskeleton of unbreakable bronze, with chic highlights of yellow and red. But the developer of Metroid Dread, MercurySteam, understands that the armour offers protection not just from toxins, and the scything claws of beasts, but from the demands of backstory, and the need to be fleshed out. No one asks Samus, fresh from trouncing another alien blob, “Why do you do this, again and again?” as someone does the Chief, because (a) the answer is bound not to be terribly interesting, as he demonstrates with his mini-screed on duty, and (b) everything she stands for is right there in the way she stands. Shoulders thrown back, one fist bunched, the other sheathed in a cannon, legs apart, gaze locked to the camera’s: rarely is defiance as impassive and stylish. She does speak, in Metroid Dread, but only once, in an alien tongue, and it told us little. She is more of what you might call a woman of action.
If you are the sort to tire of action, or to turn wearily to games as an escape from the action of the day, then 2021 was a fruitful year. Two games, in particular, should be noted for their powers of tranquilisation. Both star women whose faces are shielded by curious masks, and whose preferred method of transportation is a kind of lazy, low-slung flight. First, we have Sable, whose eponymous heroine rode a hoverbike, resembling a large syringe, across a dream-bright desert. The other was Solar Ash, whose star, Rei, opted for hover skates, jewelled with glowing nozzles, and cruised through a procession of broken worlds. The principal difference between the two games is time. Despite the speed of the hoverbike, it didn’t inject Sable with a rush; likewise, though the pulse of Solar Ash was quickened by the prospect of impending catastrophe, its mood remained unhurried. Sable and Rei could happily swap places and tend to the eternities of each other’s hours.
Then, there were those games for whom time, particularly that which had already elapsed, was like a suitcase—to be packed, lugged, and, after a long haul, set down. Psychonauts 2 was one of the year’s highlights, and its hero, the budding psychic Raz—redly goggled, one hand gripped to his temple—may be the year’s most hopeful figure. Being the follow-up to a sixteen-year-old cult favourite, Psychonauts 2 was loaded with the emotional baggage of expectation, and the game’s writer, Tim Schafer, was wise to it. “It’s been”—pause—“days,” says Raz, mentioning the events of the original, and thus waving off the weight of the past.
For Greg Lobanov, the director of Chicory: A Colorful Tale, that weight is worthy not only of celebration but of examination. The game was an original, but it was freighted by Lobanov’s love for The Legend of Zelda—and tinged by the bittersweet need to pick such love apart. Chicory was ostensibly about a magic paintbrush, and about the person destined to wield it, but far more compelling was its interest in those who might bristle against such responsibility, or feel their spirit darkened by the burden. Its coup was in how naturally, and messily, such a task might be taken up by someone whom the fates hadn’t deemed worthy. In so doing, the game invited you to reconsider the rituals of a glorious tradition. I like to imagine a weak Link, shrugging off his chain mail and striding boldly back to bed, leaving the dwindling fate of Hyrule for someone else to dwell on.
And so to the year’s end, and to the unlikely game that holds me helplessly in its grasp. To my great shame, I’m talking about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—specifically, the “Definitive Edition,” as supplied to us by Grove Street Games. Despite being blighted, broken, and sonically scarred, San Andreas isn’t difficult to love. Could it be because I had already played No More Heroes III, whose setting—a fictional California town called Santa Destroy—was already held in such detached quote marks, like a falsely aged guitar, that a guttering frame rate only heightened the illusion of the road-worn? It should be noted that I’m playing San Andreas after some careful patching has been administered; the game’s cities, viewed from the peak of Mount Chiliad, are now choked by a rolling fog. And I’m pleased to report that the rain has been fixed; Eddie Rabbitt, whose ardour for a nightly downpour is a matter of record, can now be listened to without the bitter irony. The vast game lurking underneath is still one that reduces me to a nostalgic puddle, but, more important, its wax-winged ambition is as unmatched now as it was in 2004. Perhaps that is the lesson of 2021, a far from definitive year, in games and outside them: to relish that which didn’t go to plan.