This Year in Videogame Blogging: 2021

An entire epoch of games criticism has come and gone in the time since this site first came into existence nearly 13 years ago. It’s difficult, now, to even access the emotional state we had back then, the optimism of unfettered possibilities stretching out before us.

Though Critical Distance emerged in the wake of the 2008-2009 housing crisis, games criticism wouldn’t fully experience the economic crunch for another few years — except then came the “pivot to video” curse, the repeated, compounding economic setbacks, Gamergate and the ensuing rise of far-right authoritarianism, and as if to drive the last nail in the coffin, Covid-19 came around and shattered what few surviving structures remained.

But Critical Distance is still here. Thanks to our supporters on Patreon, and the passionate journalists, critics, streamers, and scholars who continue to give us something to post about, we have outlived nearly all of our contemporaries to create one of the longest-running, lasting records not just of sites and pages related to games criticism but the contexts in which those conversations happened.

That last part is the most important, to me. The world in which we make our work, be it art or criticism or anything else, bears upon the contents in ways only posterity will fully reveal to us — something I suspect has become abundantly clear to everyone now finding their work fundamentally changed by these interesting times we’re in.

I approached this roundup as I like to imagine a historian would, picking out snapshots to create a composite image for anyone looking back at this document in a year’s or five years’ or 100 years’ time. What was on everyone’s minds in 2021? What signals can we pick out through the noise?

Despair, of course. Anger, frustration, exhaustion. But little spots of hope, too. And I have to focus on that feeling most of all. Because we, and you, are still here.

Zoyander Street and I worked together with Chris Lawrence to sift through a year’s worth of roundups and dozens of reader submissions, to compile roughly 100 of the best games criticism from 2021. It’s not exhaustive (no curated roundup could be!) but it’s my hope that you, too, will see the patterns through the noise, the little hints of a brighter tomorrow.

Wholesome Games

Let’s just get this one out of the way. Much digital ink was spilled this year on the subject of “wholesomeness” as either a genre or aesthetic, but two writers cut closest to the quick:

  • Bugsnax & Ooblets: Cute is What They Aim For – Uppercut
    Ty Galiz-Rowe reflects on the distracting power of cuteness and wholesomeness in games, and warns against letting surface-level aesthetics obscure deeper critical tensions in how these games are written and who they are written for.
    Matteo Lupetti examines what wholesome games as a discourse erases and leaves out by situating them in a larger framework of meme apolitics, social algorithms, and pol(wh)ite liberal society:

The “apoliticism” of wholesome memes (like every “apoliticism”) and the pursuit of happiness and of concepts and institutions popularly connected with happiness (like the marriage) reinforces the status quo and convey conservative and traditional values supported by hegemonic capitalist cultures. “Happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods. We might even say that [black, queer and feminist] political movements have struggled against rather than for happiness” Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness. […] This kind of “Hang in there!” optimism is so anti-radical that it’s even explicitly promoted by capitalist corporate systems.

Exorcise Machine

2021 was also a year haunted by ghosts, real and metaphorical.

Discussions solely framed around profit motives can’t retrace why people outside these communal walls cheered, chose to contribute, or even decided to become part of the community. Why do so many relate? One way to see it: our own groups are threatened or have already been destroyed by those recognizable voices. One group, in response, mounted counter-narratives. They turned digital, memetic formations and lost futures into weapons pointed outward. There is no joke here, regardless of the memes and shitposts involved: the material damage is as real as ghosts, or the stock market.

As much as FFX is about faith’s sacrifice, the things systems and people do to maintain belief, it is also about the point when faith shatters. Refreshingly, FFX’s pace is slow in this regard. There is not a single moment where Yuna’s belief breaks. […] Ultimately, that is what gives FFX its ferocious, echoing power. It knows that faith and its communities are malleable, that they can grow and shrink. It is when Yuna and her friends believe in each other, rather than Yevon, that the world begins to change.

On Trend

As 2021 continued many of 2020’s sudden shifts to working and studying from home, and as wider industry trends take shape (for good and ill, as is the case of NFTs), several authors scented where the wind is going.


It comes as no surprise that one of the most hotly-discussed releases of December 2020 would bleed over into the next year, and bleed Cyberpunk 2077 did. Beyond the titular hot mess, authors also took a look at the wider genre of cyberpunk and responses thereon.

[A] postmortem of Cyberpunk 2077’s moment can reveal what the hype cycle’s momentum works in part to disguise: how the symbiotic relationships between the bosses of game studios, the games press, and organized right-wing gamers shape the general orientation of the video-game economy — that is, how outside mobs of “fans” and “gamers” act as volunteer Pinkertons and scabs, goon squads disciplining both game developers and critics into keeping certain kinds of games at the center of the industry and the conversation.

[…] That’s how a Game Informer reviewer could get a life-threatening grand mal seizure from flashing lights in Cyberpunk, still give it a 9/10, and get mass harassed by fans anyway simply for talking about having the seizure.

Very Disco

Though initially published in 2019, Disco Elysium‘s Final Cut release in 2021 again brought ZA/UM’s alt-history masterpiece into the critical spotlight. Although could you even say it ever really left?

Trauma forever marks the body. PTSD rewires the brain and permanently elevates stress hormones. These elevated stress hormones can be passed to a child through the womb. We call this generational trauma.

Now, imagine what happens when a city bleeds.

Nierly There

With 2021’s release of Nier: Replicant ver 1.22, many were eager to take another look at the original game as well as Automata and the larger series in which Yoko Taro’s memorable characters find themselves.

To the Metal

We here at Critical Distance are a motley crew of academics (current and lapsed) who believe games criticism is enhanced by understanding the material and interpersonal realities of gamescraft. So we’re thrilled to bring you this great assortment of historical deep dives and developer perspectives released in the past year.

“I had this little voice outside of myself again say, ‘But you can’t do this. You’re Black, you’re familiar with the reality of AAA games. Even if you did have the option to write it, to direct, design it, you wouldn’t also be starring in it. You wouldn’t also have the opportunity to express yourself in these other ways. You wouldn’t be able to do it the way you wanted to. There are these people you’d have to answer to and these things you would have to do’.

“And this time I told the voice to go fuck itself.”

“I wish it were darker and more ominous than that, but the scaldingly dopey truth is that I wanted to see if I could do it. Create a computer game better than anyone else had created a computer game. I’d never done it, and I was desirous of testing my mettle. It’s a great flaw with me. My only flaw, as those who have known me longest will casually attest.”

Sex and Sensibility

Y’all got horny this year.

While this might seem like an open-and-shut case of lockdown lust finding a convenient outlet, before pre-emptively ruining this Pride Week take-over by consigning the world’s queer gamers to Horny Jail, I want to explore the possibility that there is something deeper at stake in their reaction, something intimately bound-up with the aesthetics and politics of both queerness and the Gothic as genre. In doing so, I want to explore what the fan reaction to characters like Lady Dimitrescu and games like Resident Evil Village more generally can tell us about the ways in which queer people relate and respond to (notionally) cis- and heteronormative media.


With the sunsetting of Adobe’s Flash Player in the final hours of 2020, some spent part of their early 2021 paying respects to a real one.

Living World

There is more to videogames, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. From marginalized developers to history teachers, these articles tackle what it is to bring the wider world into the context of games.

There’s no case to be made that that is irrelevant to Sable because it takes place on another world, in another time, because that’s where the tribespeople and Arabs are supposed to live to the western audience. They are supposed to not have history, to keep worship and tradition, either in ruins or in lavishness (indeed both), not because that is representative, but because dozens, hundreds of cultural products have created this ideal imagined truth about certain types of people. That they are outside of time.

The result is a game that plays as a love letter to state power. More state power is always better. And while that does fit with a particular vision of how states work […] the opportunity to stress the real and sometimes enormous human cost that attitude can cause is mostly lost here.

Morality System

How do we navigate our participation in games when their very existence harms the planet? When they prop up dangerous ideologies and ruin the people who make them? When their stories showcase humanity at its worse? These aren’t easily-answered questions, but we asked them quite a bit in 2021. This section has a blanket content warning for discussion of racism, sexism, harassment, assault, and trauma.

The night has dragged on, and there are still so many people here. Suddenly, you hear a scream. You turn around, and there is the partygoer you saw crying alone outside earlier. They are sitting on the floor in the middle of the party space, and they scream again. Nobody from the main group, in fact, nobody at all, comes to check on them, to see if they’re okay. They scream again. And a fourth time. By scream number five, you see their eyes searching the room. They lock eyes with yours, expectant. You panic. Should you help them? Nobody else seems particularly bothered. You really just got here, is it really your business? Then, they are looking elsewhere. You hear yourself exhaling. A new friend from the main group tells you not to worry about it. Drama.

There aren’t that many differences between ‘buying a lottery ticket’ and ‘working with some journalist on a #metoo story calling out your very-famous abuser’. Yet here’s one important difference: Lotto companies print the odds of winning, while journalists simply lie.

The fact that this cultural territory is so contested speaks to its value. It is important to resist the colonisation of video games BECAUSE of the increasing cultural dominance of the video game and SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE of how effective video games are as tools of cultural imperialism. We must not cede this space to dominant culture.

  • Tom Nook, Capitalist or Comrade? | Loading…
    Emma Vossen searches out what is really going on in the online discourse that alternately lionizes or vilifies Animal Crossing‘s Tom Nook, and finds that the true takeaway might be the game’s raw power to bring people together to discuss radical economic reform.
  • The Games Industry Is Truly Repellent | TheGamer
    Stacey Henley speaks without pretension or obfuscation about the state of the industry, the abuse and rot it shelters at all levels, and the role that games press sites can play in pushing back against that rot.
  • Passion Play — Real Life
    Josh Tucker looks at how big brands–Nintendo among them–have transmuted promotion into product and their fans into a radicalized faithful, all in perpetual pursuit of profit.

While these communities have undoubtedly enhanced the monetary and entertainment value of various franchises, they have also sustained a disturbing new emotional climate that extends beyond fortifying the power and profitability of corporations. In conflating consumption with politics, the passion of fandom has been stoked into a reservoir of entitlement and, at its extremes, incipient violence.

A Better World is Possible

A rallying cry or a prayer, depending on your mood, but nevertheless there were plenty of writers this year who, far from giving into despair, see 2021 as a potential turning point toward a kinder, gentler world of games.

Malindy Hetfeld kicked off the year by asking whether 2020’s surge of support in Black Lives Matter has translated to material changes at studios. It’ll be interesting to see their 2021 report card. But we’re just getting started:

The fundamental principle of organizing is creating a “culture of care” — a network of structured bonds between employees where sharing experiences is no longer taboo. In my time as an organizer I’ve seen workers coordinate to build a culture of speaking out, to counsel survivors of harassment, and to get abusive employees fired. An injury to one is an injury to all, and with a little bit of organization workers can build their own systems to protect each other.

It was at this point that my carefully laid plans of merely observing and following instructions broke down. Intrigued by these two Lizalfos, I decided to watch them. I was not directly instructed to do this, but their odd behaviour prompted me to investigate. In my game, the two creatures never stopped dancing, regardless of whether it was day or night. After three day-night cycles they had not stopped to rest. This was different to all the other monsters in the game — Bokoblins and Moblins sleep at night, and the Lizalfos I had encountered so far took quick rests by lying down and blending into the background. The only time these two Lizalfos stopped dancing was when I paraglided down to the area. Directly approaching them, they ran to get their weapons and attacked. Running away, I noticed that the Lizalfos returned to the Durian fruit, put down their weapons and resumed dancing. […] [T]he environment in Faron tells us that the Lizalfos are not only sentient, but they practice religion, complete with statues and ritual offerings. This realization challenges the whole system of instruction that the game has emphasized up to this point.

I want to hear about the unique struggles, successes, and discoveries that happen for Miles Morales, a Black boy who has been given incredible power. I want to know how Miles navigates being raised by a cop in a world where police brutality is ever-present but seldom commented upon. I want to know how Miles deals with the loss of his father, a Black man. I want to know how Miles works through being near-invincible in a world that obliterates Black bodies every day on an endless loop.

I want Miles to be able to say nigga.

I want Black stories to feel whole, to feel uncompromising and to take risks.

Queering the Discourse

We’re here, we’re queer, we’re hyperfixating on your minor characters. Did you know fully three-fourths of Critical Distance’s curators are queer? We just keep Ben around for appearances.

Without abandoning our positionality – and while maintaining that even our privileged identities can be our most salient ones – we have to write beyond the personal to write about the industry, because no matter who we are, the industry is made up of people who don’t look like us. Moreover, we are in need of critics that can navigate the fraught aims of seemingly progressive efforts to normalize us via assimilation. We are in need of a queer politic.

White Elephant

Try as we might, there are always some articles that don’t fit neatly into any other category. And that’s how it should be! Let’s cap off our 2021 retrospective with some singularly delightful pieces.

That’s All, Folks

What use are games at a time like this, much less games criticism, or a site about games criticism? It’s easy to believe that we are firing our words off into the ether to disappear, unheard and unheeded, into the dark maw of lost history.

But as I said at the top of this post: we are still here. It’s a small thing, but sometimes it’s the only thing. I give the last word to Squinky, from their Freeplay keynote shared above:

So the world’s gone through this very traumatic event, and we’re not even completely out of it yet, and how can anyone think about videogames at a time like this? But then I thought about you, and all your excitement and energy and hope, and I remember what it felt like to know that you’re doing exactly the thing you’re meant to be doing with your life, and even getting paid to do it. I’m not gonna lie, I miss that feeling a lot. But I can’t go back to it – not in the same way, at least. I’m older now, and I’ve seen too much behind the metaphorical curtain. But I see glimpses of you in some of the young people I see getting started in games today, so I figured, maybe some of what I want to tell you will also be useful to them, and whoever else happens to be listening.

Thank you for accompanying us all throughout the year — thank you for your submissions, your comments, and your insights.

And here’s to a brighter 2022… for all of us.

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