The 50 best video games of 2021

The 50 best video games of 2021

In some ways, this year felt like more of the same. 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues and supply chains remain choked. Isolation may not be the norm, but for many, it is still the default. The release schedule felt altogether calm, as an increasing number of blockbuster video games moved out of this year and into the next. 

But in trying to find a unifying thread for the games that defined the last 12 months, I’m struck by the fact that this year wasn’t really calm at all. In fact, it was a weird, wonderful, disorienting labyrinth of dazzling titles. With fewer AAA attention magnets, and a renewed collective appreciation for the escapist and social benefits of the medium, it felt like we were all more willing to try something that fell outside of our comfort zone.

Some games were about combating self-doubt. Another was about crushing rich people in Argentine wineries. My personal favorite was about storytelling itself, and our ability to weave our own personal narratives out of emergent fantasy adventures.

I’m hard-pressed to describe so many of 2021’s best games because, well, so many of them are hard to describe. It became what felt like a weekly occurrence here at Polygon for someone to unmute their microphone during a Zoom meeting and say something along the lines of: “So, I played this game called Inscryption this weekend. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. But you all need to play it.”

As I see them all laid out on this page, I also recognize that many of the year’s best titles were about hope. Unpacking explored humans’ talent for making a home, even as we grieve. Unsighted posed that age-old question: If we’re all going to die, then why care about anything at all? In one way or another, a slew of our favorite games were about the ways we deal with catastrophe, and move forward in its wake.  

Video games are a towering monument to our collective imagination — they’re part haunted castle, part Freudian psychoscape, part interactive museum whose exhibits each bleed into the next. Genres are helpful in the brochure, but they can only get you so far — at a certain point, you need a bit of patience, a lot of curiosity, and maybe a tour guide or two.

That’s where we come in. Whether you’ve been following along with each new release throughout the year, or you’re popping in now to see what you missed, the following is a collection of games that we think encapsulated 2021. Some had something to say about our cultural landscape, and some were just really damn fun. And while many might fit cleanly into a single genre, many more defy a basic label. And that’s exciting.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the good part.

—Mike Mahardy, senior editor, reviews

How the Polygon top 50 list works

Over the past month, the Polygon staff voted, debated, re-debated, and resigned itself to the series of compromises that is our top 50 games of 2021. Any video games that were released in 2021, received major updates in 2021, or achieved renewed cultural relevance in 2021 are eligible for this list. Any hidden gems we stumble upon over the next few weeks will be eligible for next year’s list.

Next week, we’ll also begin rolling out in-depth essays about the top 10 games on this list, along with trend pieces, opinion articles, and retrospectives about the year as a whole.