And so it begins. Sanctioned daytime drinking. A shit secret Santa present that you know is a re-gift from 2019 (your Santa couldn’t even be arsed to dust it). Festive jumpers straining over swollen bellies, outfits topped off with aggressively cheery earrings that warble “Wonderful Christmastime” if you get too close. Yep, it’s Christmas, folks!
We dove head-first into 2021, didn’t we? Convinced it couldn’t possibly be as bad as 2020 – the year of isolation, herd immunity, furlough, and dark, empty pubs that ached to vibrate with the sounds of live music. We ran toward 2021 giggly and confident that – in the words of a D:Ream track that will forever be paired with Tony Blair in my head – things could only get better.
Not for me, they didn’t. 2020 was an unmitigated shitfest, but 2021 has been the very worst year of my life, boasting a double bill of bereavements that almost broke me. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t find joy in my favourite books or shows. Funnily enough, though, I was still able to escape into fictional worlds. I could still lose myself in the gentle rhythm of pointless fetch quests and endless collectibles. Just like those special songs and scents that are endlessly entwined with memories – the good and the bad – I suspect Far Cry 6‘s Yarrah will forever be tainted by grief for me now. But my god, did it provide a much-needed reprieve as I hid from real life and stomped around that make-believe playground instead.
It’s that time of year when people like me compile their Best Games of the Year lists. Lots of things may shock you about them – Resident Evil Village came out this year? Are you serious?! – but the biggest shock for me this year was realising that when I glance over my list, nearly half of them are horror games. Do you have any idea how unusual that is?
There’s no shortage of horror games churned out every year, of course, particularly – predictably – around October. Plenty of lacklustre shovelware with rubbish jumpscares and thoroughly uninspired storytelling. To find a good horror game, then, is a treat; to find a great one is glorious. And 2021 has delivered great horror in spades.
For starters, we had Bloober Team‘s The Medium. Though I don’t think it quite delivered what it teased – I never did quite come to terms with the game’s split-screen presentation, however novel – I don’t think there were many other games released this year that matched Bloober’s painstaking environmental storytelling, both in its “true” reality and it’s dark, dank otherworldly one. Yes, it was a tad slow, and its pacing a touch inelegant, but the curious juxtaposition between light and dark, real and imaginary, and life and death saw it shoot right to the top of my favourite Bloober Team games list… and there it’ll stay, maybe until we get sight of that Silent Hill game they may or may not be making (for the record, I think they are).
Then there was Resident Evil Village. I’m still not convinced by that final hour or so – Village morphs from a tense action-horror into a hardcore military wet-dream that detracts from the slow-burn terror it so successfully crafts up until that point – but your visits to Castle Demitrescu and House Beneviento, a sequence I’ve lovingly discussed on this column before, were nothing short of triumphant. Like a lot of people, I lost my footing with Resident Evil 6 (and loved Resident Evil 5 for its pulpy action, not its horror) but fell – hard – for Ethan and his dallies with the Bakers in the seventh instalment. Village didn’t quite scratch that itch, no, but at times it was bloody spectacular – pun very much intended, of course.
But I think my favourite horror of 2021 is Little Nightmares 2, a Brother Grimm-esque adventure that oh-so-perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to feel invisible, weak, and alone. I don’t think many – hell, maybe any – other series has so skilfully captured what it’s like to feel small, frightened of the harsh, angular faces of your terrifying teachers, or the fear of being gobbled up by fairytale monsters who seemingly exist only to prey on little boys and girls. It weaves a world where you feel impossibly out of place, a carnival world where door handles are too high and limp bodies hang from nooses and the inky darkness of an open doorway looks more like a mouth than an entryway. Even though there’s two of you here – how can we feel scared when we have a best friend built right in? – it’s not enough, is it? Not enough to dampen the loneliness. The fear. The burning conviction that one of you just may die here.
Yes, 2021 was a horror story of a year for many of us. But 2021 also delivered great horror stories, too. I can’t wait to find out what’s lurking in the shadows of 2022…
Vikki Blake is a video games journalist and regular contributor to NME. You can check out our best games of 2021 to see which horror titles were our favourite.