Hell-year 2021 is almost over. It’s been a terrible year for more reasons than I can count. Pondering all the bad, disappointing, or just plain sad news that transpired within the video game industry alone is enough to make you want to jump into bed, hide under the covers, and binge on TikTok, candy, and/or Animal Crossing until you pass out.
But instead of running and hiding, let’s take a moment to look back at just how awful 2021 really was, examining some of the biggest disappointments, worst trends, and just plain not-great news this monster of a year threw at us. If you then wanna crash and sleep until New Year’s Eve, well, no one will blame you. But for now, let us turn and cast our analytical, steely eyed gazes back over the year that was. It was really something else.
Activision Blizzard’s terrible treatment of women, seemingly endemic problems with sexual harassment, and generally toxic workplace comprised the biggest story of 2021. The year saw multiple ongoing lawsuits, numerous investigations, and a procession of executives leaving, apologizing, or both. And through it all, longtime CEO Bobby Kotick has remained.
Even after it came to light that Kotick was reportedly an active participant in some of the toxic bullshit happening at the Call of Duty mega-publisher, multiple industry leaders spoke against his leadership, and staff walked out in protest, Kotick still remains, like a leech lodged in a hard-to-reach spot. And knowing how the world works, the odious, unfathomably well-compensated executive, who laid off hundreds of employees in 2021, will likely continue to be safely employed next year.
Sure, historically, Battlefield games always launch in rough shape. But that’s not a very good excuse, and this time around folks didn’t seem so keen on paying to beta test EA’s latest big, online shooter. BF2042 suffered through a bad launch, losing a lot of players in the process, and now continues to struggle in finding its place while competing online shooters like Fortnite and the new Halo Infinite prosper and grow. Seems that even a brand as mighty as Battlefield isn’t “too big to fail.”
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On paper, remastering the classic PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games sounds like a great plan. They haven’t aged very well, and could benefit from updated controls, improved visuals, and a bevy of other tweaks. Sadly, the long-rumored GTA The Trilogy: Definitive Edition that landed in November was a terrible mess. Sometimes it managed to look nice, but mostly it was filled with broken features, bugs, terrible-looking rain, and newly ugly character models. Following a rare apology from Rockstar, the collection is in a better place thanks to several large updates that have started to fix the shitton of problems. But this fiasco is still far from where it needs to be for anyone to call it “definitive.”
Sure, we got a new Nintendo Switch model this year. And sure, the OLED Switch looks nice, with a fancy, bigger screen, and a couple of other appreciated improvements. But what many folks wanted, myself included, was a more powerful Switch. Playing Switch games on a 4K TV sucks because while upscaling tech is better than ever, it ain’t a miracle worker. Plus, so many Switch ports today feel inferior and clunky compared to their counterparts on other platforms, which often feature higher, more stable framerates and higher-quality visuals. But while many rumors and reports claimed a Switch Pro was coming, its existence has yet to prove anything but a rumor.
2021 continued the trend of proving that the future will suck. No cool flying cars or amazing spaceships; instead, our future is filled with celebs and tech bros destroying the planet via the selling and buying of hyperlinks to crappy cartoon apes. I truly wish that sentence made no sense. But sadly, this is the future in which we now live. And worse, NFT assholes are digging up graves and using dead folks like Bob Ross to hawk their scammy tokens. Even video game publishers and devs are jumping onboard the awful trend, with Ubisoft releasing helmets and guns for Ghost Recon Breakpoint that are tied into an NFT ecosystem. Thankfully, nobody seems to care about those. But with folks like Will Wright and Peter Molyneux running to mint money from the NFT bubble, it’s a sure, sad bet that ever more blockchain bullshit will pop up on your timeline in 2022.
Before Rockstar and parent company Take-Two Interactive released the disappointing GTA Trilogy remaster, they whittled down the competition by issuing legal takedowns to tons of classic Grand Theft Auto mods. Years of work from talented and passionate modders was ripped from the internet with little warning. And even after the remaster’s release, Take-Two has continued to target GTA mods. It even got salty about EA’s wonderful co-op game It Takes Two because the name was too similar to its own. Overall, Take-Two was just a big corporate dick in 2021.
Halo Infinite is a very good game, but it could have been even better. The newest entry in Microsoft’s sci-fi franchise launched in December with only a handful of multiplayer maps, modes, no Forge, no Firefight, and maybe saddest of all, no way to (officially, at least) play a co-op campaign with friends. Oh, and its battle pass sucks. While all of this is and more is coming in the future, launching without was a big disappointment.
Nobody should make a movie adaptation of Super Mario Bros. But even if you’re forced to, why would you ever decide to cast Chris Pratt as Mario? Let’s ignore the dude’s history for a moment and just focus on the fact that Mario already has a super famous and talented voice actor, Charles Martinet, who probably would have been great in a film. Instead, Chris Pratt is voicing the iconic plumber for reasons which I don’t fully understand or care about. At least Garfield is safe, right? Oh…
How much money would you want to pay for terrible emulation, a small library of games, and not much else? Probably not very much. In fact, you might just not want to pay for that at all. Yet, Nintendo decided that’s exactly what people wanted when it launched its Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack earlier this year. For $50 a year you get access to a very small library of N64 and Sega Genesis games, an Animal Crossing expansion that can be bought separately, and, uh…that’s it! And to top it off the emulation quality isn’t great, especially compared to fan-made offerings. This whole package was a bad deal.
I never expected to care much about who would end up hosting Jeopardy! following the death of beloved host Alex Trebek, but the folks running the show over at Sony made it impossible to ignore. From odd guest judges, letting the person who was running it all hire himself, anti-vaxxers getting the job, firings, and more, it’s been one depressing trainwreck that makes me even more disappointed we lost someone as cool and sweet as Alex Trebek.
2021 has been a rough year, and we’ve seen more and more talk of unionization as game devs share stores of harassment, toxic workplaces, unsustainable crunch, and burnout. Add in the ongoing shitstorm around Activision Blizzard and you have the makings of an important moment in video game history. It might have been the perfect time to use one of the biggest stages of the year to talk seriously about these issues, elevating voices that need to be heard and helping people who make our games live better, safer lives.
Instead, The Game Awards opened with a terribly toothless speech by the Dorito-lord of exclusives himself, Geoff Keighley. It promptly went on to ignore all that and shoved ads in front of viewers from some of the very companies in hot water, like Riot Games, Quantic Dream, and Ubisoft, offering zero context to viewers. This wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing. Speaking of which…
After that hollow commentary by Kojima super-fan Keighley, viewers were treated to a trailer for a cool-looking Star Wars game developed by, oops, Quantic Dream, a French studio that is reportedly a horrible, toxic place to work at, with claims of homophobia, racist jokes, and sexual harassment. And don’t forget plenty of brutal crunch, too. And while the studio behind Detroit recently won a French libel case over past reporting on its terrible workplace, the lawsuit didn’t actually disprove any of the claims made against the studio. So including it at The Game Awards, in 2021, following that milquetoast opening commentary, was a bad choice all around that highlighted the hypocrisy of the show’s producers.
If you live on this Earth and watch or read any news, you already know that covid-19 continues to cause all sorts of problems around the world. And with new variants spreading just as many countries are relaxing their safety protocols, it seems likely that 2022 will be another year filled with covid-related pain and deaths. Of course, while not as important as its high death toll, the pandemic also continues to exacerbate the problems facing an already-strained global supply chain. This negatively impacted console manufacturing and game production, leading to hardware shortages and multiple game delays throughout the year.
I thought the days of bad PC ports of console games were mostly over, but this year saw some really awful port jobs. Our own Luke Plunkett called Ninja Gaiden one of the worst PC ports he’s ever played. That got patched and improved, somewhat, but more recently another big-name game hit PC in a terrible state. The Windows version of Final Fantasy VII Remake is a performance fiasco, with numerous players reporting all sorts of issues while trying to play the Square Enix mega-RPG. Hopefully the publisher will fix it soon, but why did it think releasing it in such a state was fine to begin with?
2021 was already trending badly in June, when we got word that the German shepherd Fallout 4’s Dogmeat was based on, River, had died. Say what you will about Fallout 4 and its many flaws, but Dogmeat was always the best companion, looking out for you no matter how many times you accidentally shot him. According to River’s owner, former Bethesda dev Joel Burgess, it sounds like the real-life dog was also loyal, loving, and sweet. Damn, I’m crying again. RIP, River. You were a good dog.
While Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop might have made for a passable sitcom or theatrical melodrama, its interpretation of its source material left a lot to be desired. Netflix’s anime ambition was admittedly an uphill battle from the jump, given that any live-action adaptation instantly loses maybe 50 percent of the selling point of its source material. But to Netflix’s credit, it did commit to conjuring up something new, ostensibly giving its show reasons to exist beyond just aping famous moments from the anime.
Sadly, its numerous missteps included bloated episode runtimes, the Marvelization of Faye Valentine, cringe-inducing dialogue, whatever the hell Vicious was doing, and a bold commitment to try to recreate radical Edward’s oddball mannerisms IRL. Suffice it to say, the live-action Cowboy Bebop was anything but easy come, easy go, but at least it left many folks with a strong desire to check out or revisit the iconic anime instead. — Isaiah Colbert
Have you heard about the new game from Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS Into Dreams creator Yuji Naka? It’s bright, colorful, and whimsical! It’s also boring, poorly executed, and nonsensical, with a dozen cool ideas mashed together in a way that makes them utterly uncompelling. Balan Wonderworld looked like such an amazing time in its early trailers. Then the game’s demo came out and everyone hated it, except for me. I held out hope that the demo’s disconnected experience would come together into something better in the full game, but alas, it did not. Shortly after Balan Wonderworld was released, Yuji Naka quit Square Enix. He recently released a self-programmed Android game via an announcement on Twitter. It’s not great, but it is better than Balan Wonderworld. — Mike Fahey
E3, the biggest video game event of the year, came back in 2021 after a year away due to covid-19. Well, “came back” is probably a bit of an overstatement, because everything was online with zero in-person presentations. E3 2021 was the perfect example of the convention’s waning importance, with many studios choosing to host separate, E3-adjacent live streams rather than take part under the official umbrella.
And thanks to the numerous game dev obstacles presented by the ongoing pandemic, the show ultimately devolved into a buffet of games you might get to play someday. Let’s be real: Do we seriously need everyone in the gaming industry to hold all their best commercials every year until a single event in the summer? No. “Hype” is so 2015. — Ian Walker
While some of us at Kotaku, particularly smooth Newtaku operator Jeremy Winslow, managed to score both a PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S, many folks are still waiting for their chance at getting a “next-gen” console. It was perhaps a little easier to snag a system this year, but the ongoing pandemic and related semiconductor shortage still made 2021 a pain in the ass for hopeful console buyers. And oh dear, in 2022 Sony will be producing one million fewer PlayStation 5s, and Microsoft’s Phil Spencer admits Xbox console shortages will extend into next year. Good luck. — Jeremy Winslow
The number of games killed this year was rather substantial. We recently wrote about some of the biggest games to either get delisted or shut down in 2021, but while those were perhaps the most notable, it wasn’t just Skate 2 and Titanfall disappearing. Tons of games were put six feet under this year, as logged by the tracking site Delisted Games. Both those you’ve heard of and many more obscure games will no longer be legally obtainable, or sometimes even playable in any capacity. This is a bummer. Preservation efforts will only grow more vital if this pattern of release, briefly support, and delist gets to continue in this (very young, really) industry. — Jeremy Winslow
Roblox is less a game than a platform on which players make and play games starring blocky avatars that look just off-brand enough to not get sued into oblivion by Lego. And 2021 was the year the company behind the game finally went public, for over $45 billion. Unfortunately, it was also the year Roblox was revealed again and again to be putting profits over those who hang out in it, which includes a ton of kids. The game can be a recruiting playground for fascists, struggles to moderate sexual roleplay, and is built on a model of invisible labor in which players create the game’s value with promises of big payouts that rarely materialize. There’s even gambling. Most disappointing of all? Some companies can’t wait to copy it. – Ethan Gach
If after reading all that, you’d also like to read some good news, you can also check out The Best Video Game Surprises of 2021. I promise that article is cheerier. It’s also shorter, but such is life in this nightmare we call the future.