So far, 2021 is one of the weirdest years on record for video games. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on every creative industry, but the deeper we get into spring, the more it becomes apparent that the fallout from the global office shutterings and the economic contraction will be felt most acutely in the months ahead. Already, several high-profile games like Hogwarts Legacy and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum have been pushed into 2022. And other franchise megatons that were allegedly right around the corner have been conspicuously MIA. On paper, this makes sense. The games released in 2020 were already at the tail end of their production before COVID broke the supply chain, and they managed to slip into their shipment schedule undeterred. But studios that were counting on 2021 for the final stretch weren’t nearly as lucky, and the ramifications are disorienting. By the end of the year, it’s likely that many gamers will be sitting at home with two brand-new consoles that are mired in a historic dearth of software. What a strange fate.
This reality is reflected in the list below. With triple-A publishers regrouping and recalculating, a rush of indie studios has taken center stage. The pandemic may have afflicted Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, but it’s harder for a virus to stop a team of three wrestling with their own bespoke assets in home offices all over the world. It’s not surprising that the breakout titles of 2021 so far have been predominantly born of small budgets and limited scopes — the sort of gameplay experiences that could reasonably be attainable in a plague-ridden year. So maybe the barren holiday season should be taken as a blessing: Rather than chasing after every massive open world and interminable experience grind out of some grim professional duty, we can instead settle in with the games that actually spark joy.