DDNet Game of the Year Awards 2021! Best Fan Service of 2021

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It’s that time of year again, everyone, where we celebrate the best games of the year. Despite being a heavily disrupted year thanks to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, 2021 produced some incredible games, almost from day one, and as a result, our awards this year has the most variety of games ever – almost 50 different titles got at least one award, and as you’ll see as we announce each category, it really is an endless stream of incredible experiences.

This year we had a special, expanded judging panel, with the entire DDNet team participating, but we also invited some prominent people from independent game publications outside the Website to participate, so we could get a broader range of insights and thoughts into the winners from each category. Our additional judges this year included Pete Davison from Rice Digital, Thomas Knight of Nook Gaming, Robert Allen of Tech-Gaming, Matt Ryan from Shindig, and academic and freelancer, @TsuChanJohnson on Twitter. The total judging pool for the awards was ten people this year around, and there was some heated discussion about the worthiest titles in each category indeed!

This might be a jokey category in some ways (or even in a lot of ways), but here’s the fundamental equation: in all the awards categories we reward games that are in some way “fun”.  They might be fun because they engage with us intellectually. They might be fun because they’re just darned fun to mash buttons. Or, as is the case here, with the fan service award, they’re fun because they entertain us with aesthetics. In an industry that is far too puritan for its own good, these games stand out because they dare to push a boundary that too often gets them pilloried.


Gal*Gun Returns
The epitome of fan service tuned towards humour, Gal*Gun gets away with what it does by being so ridiculously over the top about it. From the ridiculous narrative about finding love when you’ve been cursed so that every girl around you feels the need to mob you, to the even more ridiculous way of dealing with that problem (shoot them with pheromones until they ecstasy away and leave you alone), this ridiculous play on the rails shooter has become both famous and infamous for its heavy use of fan service.

Of course, it’s far too satirical to take seriously as titillation, and one suspects much of the infamy comes from people who haven’t really played it. Those who do will also find that these games happen to be really good. Developed by Inti Creates – one of Japan’s most well-loved small developers – Gal*Gun Returns has some excellent pedigree behind its skirt flipping and anime tropsey characters. And the fan service stops at being silly and playful rather than sleazy and uncomfortable. Those games exist too (though rarely get released in the west), and the difference is like night and day.
Neptunia X Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars

Surely no one doubted that this game would win a medal in this year’s awards. Neptunia X Senran Kagura took two of the most beloved fan service-orientated properties in video games, and mashed them together in a way that ensured the fan service would be dialled up to the max. Let’s just say that this game has a preoccupation with bust sizes (including for the rare – one – character whose bust isn’t that big). The game is backed by decent, smooth action and plenty of non-fan service humour, too, but the developers knew what people were coming to this game for, and made sure that it didn’t miss a beat.

Putting aside the exquisite fan service, what this game also does is amply show the potential for both properties for further collaborations down the track. In both cases, the main series is at a bit of a crossroads, so perhaps the pathway out is for Hyperdimension Vs Dead or Alive or Senran Kagura Plus Oneechanbara. As long as you don’t get too serious with it all, these crossovers will continue to be popular with the fans, since they were always a simple extension of what the base series was always about anyway.

Mary Skelter Finale
Technically we shouldn’t be talking about this game, as it was so fanservicey that it got itself banned here in Australia. But the censors can go stick it. We played the game, we loved it, and a big part of that was the fanservice. Mary Skelter Finale is a little different to the other winners this year in that it’s not fun and playful, or even innocent about how it handles that fan service. That stuff is deliberately in there for adult reasons, and the game pulls no punches and does not flinch about it. 
But we need these kinds of games. One of the great frustrations that I have with this industry is that, far too often, it misses the boat when it comes to horror and sex themes. The typical horror game is all about ugly monsters and lots of blood, but Mary Skelter has a more fetishistic, grindhouse tone to it. To summarise, it’s about licking blood (no, really) rather than spraying blood, and the sublime, exquisite atmosphere that the game sets, while also fiddling around with fairy tale and literary traditions, makes it one of the most interesting, unique, and unsettling (but in a good way) dungeon crawlers out there.

Blue Reflection: Second Light
We very nearly put Blue Reflection: Second Light to a side for this category, because it defies the normal expectations of fan service so much, to the point that the “fan service” stuff really doesn’t feel like it’s there for the literal definition of fan + service. In the end, we have included it because it does feature swimsuits and school uniforms, and magical girl transformation sequences, so it ticks the boxes (and of course it wins gold because it does so that effectively), but we still believe that unlike a Gal*Gun or Dead or Alive, this game’s fan service is there for “legitimate” reasons. A bit like there’s a difference between an art film and smut.

Blue Reflection tells a coming of age parable (hence the school uniforms) between girls that are intimate with one another (off-screen but not so much implied as verbalised). And it’s not sleazy about any of that. It’s sweet, meaningful, romantic, warm and so, so wholesome. I know wholesome isn’t necessarily a word you expect in relation to this particular category, but then Blue Reflection: Second Light is an elevated bit of art in so many ways, it stands to reason that its approach to fan service would, too, be elevated in a way that other games could only ever aspire to be.

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