Tom Chick's top ten games of 2021

Nailed it!

Death of the Author isn’t "After Return of the Jedi, Luke got a magic unicorn and rode to Las Vegas for a space-party!!! :D :D "

Death of the Author is “The original Star Wars trilogy is about the fraught relationships between parents and their children.”

Yes but I want to sound academic and cool when I dismissively sniff at my friends’ Archive of Our Own accounts :P

Per usual great list regardless of my feelings towards a game. It’s the writing and reasoning behind Tom’s choices that make this list so readable…and re-readable. But I would like to know how much more fun Old World is than A-Train, so are the scores going to be given in a different article?

Regarding emergent storytelling. I see stories built even with my wargames. And often I don’t do the ‘smart’ move, but do the ‘interesting’ or ‘best storyline’ move. Maybe it comes from playing GEV by myself as a kid and the various chits were characters as much as they were GEV mk IIIs? Now, if I’m playing against someone I’m much less likely to go rogue into storytelling land. But solo, the game is a much a toy for creating stories as it is a game for testing tactics.

Exactly! Very well put. I may have to steal that as a go-to example.

Have we arrived?

Sure, a game story will provide context and purpose to a player’s actions and in that sense I really need some pre-scripted narrative elements to make a game engaging to me at all. A purely abstract situation does nothing for me whatsoever. But you can tell really great mostly linear stories in games, and still take advantage of the medium’s multimedia aspects, the immersion of being in the world that’s portrayed, do a lot of environmental storytelling for the player to seek out and interpret themselves, have narration or codex entries pop up when you encounter certain things for the more dedicated players to dig into, etc.

And I hard disagree that having an XCOM soldier who’s never been characterized mechanically go into a panic and kill the alien that killed another soldier is a better story than having a named NPC who’s had an established relationship with the dead soldier do the same thing in a cutscene. The former is just game mechanics firing off. The latter has narrative and emotional weight. I care about these fictional people because I have been introduced to them as something other than a class and a level and a gun and a morale rating. Now, you could potentially split the difference - having game mechanics like that kick in when established, named, characterized soldiers have game things happen to them could potentially be nearly as powerful as a scripted beat. But it’s tough to offer that level of narrative around units that can actually be permanently killed as you progress. (There’s a bit of this in Fire Emblem, at least.)

Those characters were pre-created NPCs and had backstories and stuff, in the manual anyway. (I also have strong memories of The Magic Candle even though I never got that far in it. My grandma got it for me to play on her computer when I visited because she knew I liked videogames and otherwise all I would have were a couple demos, a golf simulator, and Sopwith. It does a lot of interesting stuff and is widely regarded as a classic.)

And I’m with @ArmandoPenblade, I think. Maybe not quite to the same degree. But where I’m coming from is similar to how Tom feels about design things. Tom says “you’re the designer, it’s your job to make design decisions, not mine”. I say, “you’re the people making the game, it’s your job to tell the stories, not mine.”

Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy stuff that people cite as producing emergent narrative. But it’s not remotely as compelling to me so I generally am either more there for the stuff that is authored narrative, if it’s there, or I need a lot of interlocking systems that are responsive to what I’m doing, like your classic roguelikes might have. (The ur-example would be Dwarf Fortress, though I’ve never played that for UI reasons.) And I don’t see those as story engines, I just find that they have a better ability to continue to generate interesting situational challenges.

My brain responds a lot to variety and novelty as far as mechanics go, I think. With both boardgames and videogames, if all you’re giving me is pieces to mash against each other, that can be fun, but the moment I feel like I’ve seen the way each piece interacts with the larger game, I’m done, even if there’s potentially a much vaster field of possible strategy and counterstrategy and theoretically infinite replay. I’m not a chess master, not even close. But I’ve seen enough of chess to be bored with it. Did that back in grade school. RTS skirmishes, there’s more going on but I still run out of interest very quickly. Wrap stuff in an authored story and I have a lot more patience and stamina.

I guess this is where we differ, I find nothing nothing objectively better about such a thing happening in my game, but then I guess I find nothing objectively worse about it either. It’s looking for meaning in the roll of the dice, a primitive person walking along the beach and finding a coconut has fallen at his feet and deciding it must be because god loves him. If my sniper misses ten 80% likelihood shots in a row, I don’t imagine it’s because she’s an absolute asshole and someone on the team tampered with their gun in the hopes they won’t come back. But I can’t really begrudge someone for dreaming up their own story so they don’t throw their keyboard out the window.

The only story telling I find interesting in games is emergent.

But then I don’t go looking for narrative or character development in games, for me it’s the wrong wrong medium, I turn to literature and cinema.

In any case this feels like it’s own thread and kind of hijacking this one.

To get back to the actual list, I have played none of these games but I guess I will buy this month’s Humble Choice after all because it contains Midnight Protocol which I hadn’t heard of previously but if it’s top ten material, yeah okay.

Away with discussing the list, l love reading all those different personal ways to relate to a game - which is exactly what Tom loves to write about for whole article series!
I never felt so much that a whole pan of gaming was closed to me. I often thought it was due to morale considerations (a whole other topic), but I sense it’s different. Maybe I’ll change while aging and then, in so many years, I’ll be able to get real enjoyment out of the games that used to bother me.

Great list! Thanks, Tom.

I installed one, wishlisted two, and had my curiosity piqued on a few others.

And the story debate is interesting… I welcome both good, semi-linear game narratives or strong emergent gameplay. The former is more of a shared experience with other players while the latter makes for some excellent imagination encouragement. One lets you talk about stories with your friends and the other lets you tell stories to your friends.

I’m also really enjoying the discussion about emergent vs authored narratives. Keep that going please!

I’ve literally never heard of Rift Wizard until I read this list. The only reason I’ve heard of Wildermyth and have been following it is because it was on Tom’s list for the first half of 2021. The only reason I’ve heard of Midnight Protocol before is because it was announced for this month’s Humble Choice bundle. The only reason I’ve heard of Beast Breaker is because we have a forum member who had a hand in making it. Ditto for Remnants of the Precursors.

Honestly, I am kind of miffed that Tom was playing some of these games and never told us about them until now. Why didn’t he create a Midnight Protocol thread and tell us to check it out?

Has he reviewed that one?

Negative. He kept it a secret from us until now!

I find the emergent vs handcrafted narrative conversation fascinating.

I understand both points of view (games are so multifaceted that they are enjoyed a myriad different ways), but personally I fall squarely into the “authored content is more impactful” camp. I’ve thought about this many times, and in my case I think it comes down to my inability to separate story and storytelling in the way I experience and enjoy narrative. That is, no matter how good a story is, I need it to be well told (for my tastes), and that includes both presentation and structure, which, so far as I’ve played (and I have not played Wildermyth, but am certainly looking forward to), emergent narratives are not very good at. In very basic terms, when an Xcom squaddie dies, you do not get a lingering shot of the corpse and a cut to her friend getting ready for her return. You get the next turn.

It is very hard for an emergent narrative to get stuff like foreshadowing, escalation, motivation, and, most of all coherence and organicity of action and theme. Sometime I get particular emergent moments that work, but they are drowned in a sea of meaningless other beats.

Finally, it has been said above, but I also differentiate between purely emergent narrative and procedural scripted systems (where many authored story snippets are stitched together following somewhat emergent rules). The later do work for me quite well (say, Fallen London vs the emergent narrative of a traditional rogue-like). I don’t really know what Wyldermyth really is.

I am loving the direction this thread went. You guys are awesome!

If I can be a bit reductionist, this strikes me as a good example of the debate in three easy comments:

Neither of you is wrong, of course. The universe – and all games, incidentally – is comprised of systems. We use stories to interpret, communicate, and sometimes understand those systems. But “story” doesn’t have to mean something that leads with “Once upon a time…” and ends with credits. Religions are stories, mythologies are stories, interpretations and parables and allegories are stories. Crime and Punishment and @ArtVandelay’s X-com anecdote are stories.

This doesn’t mean all stories are equal, and they don’t need to be. I’m not pretending my interpretation of the systems in State of Decay, Massive Chalice, or Planetfall are equivalent to Dostoevsky, but they’re ultimately the same thing: an interpretation of systems*. @Juan_Raigada is absolutely correct to point out that Dostoevsky has the advantage of literary devices like “foreshadowing, escalation, motivation, and, most of all coherence and organicity of action and theme”. But those are tools for storytelling and not prerequisites.

And this is an intriguing comment:

You do if you bring your imagination to bear! Which is what I’ve been doing all my life, and I don’t just mean reading. I mean actively providing my own elaborate visuals: whether it’s playing D&D in junior high, learning to write in high school, discovering opera in graduate school, acting in theater after graduate school, or making a living writing about the fantasies we build up around gaming systems. With a certain kind of imagination, not only am I capable of providing those kinds of cutscenes in my mind, I’m eager to do it, which is why games like X-com, Massive Chalice, State of Decay, Planetfall, and now Wildermyth are so effective for me. I’m driven to impose stories over systems. It’s how human beings look at the world, so naturally it’s how I’m going to experience videogames, and especially the videogames that encourage this approach.


* Crime and Punishment is an interpretation of guilt, which is either a psychological system that keeps human beings from killing each other, the fallout of Original Sin, or a lie we all share. I won’t spoil the ending!

I agree with everything in your post. My issue, and thus preference, is that I enjoy experiencing other’s interpretations (and expanding my worldview) than imagining my own (which I also enjoy but find less fulfilling). As you, I impose stories over systems (it’s impossible to not do so) but I enjoy the systems and not as much the stories in those cases.

It’s also why I mostly enjoy narratives that take me somewhat out of my comfort zone, I guess?

Also I enjoy storytelling craft tremendously when enjoying a story. So the absence of overt storytelling (of that specific authored craftsmanship) also disengages that part of my brain somewhat.

You know, now you have me wondering if part of the issue is that some of us are natural dungeonmasters and some of us are natural players, and never the twain shall meet? :)


Mmm, there might be something to this. Alternatively, I might just be a crappy storyteller.

Here’s the way I think of it (which is largely stolen from other people, though I am too lazy at the moment to look up who exactly.) In ordinary conversation we often mix up plot - i.e. the author-determined sequence of events serving as a skeleton in a story - with story as a whole. But when thinking about it in more detail, plot is just one part of a story, which actually made up of several different components: characters (with their backstories), a setting (with its backstory), themes, a tone or mood, and plot.

A combat-focused game like Dark Souls has (generalizing wildly) a very simple plot, consisting of “kill a bunch of things, possibly because reasons.” And the Souls games in particular have very little in the way of characters in the traditional sense. So those elements of story are weaker.

But those games do have strong settings, themes, and moods. If those elements are strong enough, and, as folks in this thread are saying, the emergent events from gameplay are compelling and memorable enough, it’s perfectly valid to say those games have compelling stories, even if the plot works out to, “Kill a bunch of bosses, the end.”