DDNet Game of the Year Awards 2021! Best Narrative

8 mins read

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!

We like our RPGs and visual novels at DigitallyDownloaded.net, so it should go without saying that we hold narrative very dear to us indeed. A good narrative keeps us playing, and gives us meaning beyond the game itself. Like a good book, a good game narrative can be insightful or philosophical, share thoughts about the world around us, or, simply, educate us about something we hadn’t thought about before. In short, this category is the most important, as far as video games developing as an art form is concerned. 


Boyfriend Dungeon
On the surface, Boyfriend Dungeon is a thirsty game, full of fan service and very little else. Dig a little deeper, though, and there’s a darker story unfolding. The protagonist (entirely created by the player) is new in town, and is set up on a blind date with someone. They leave uninterested in the man, and take up dungeon-plundering and seeing a variety of the weapons they find along the way. All is cutesy and lovey until someone begins stalking the protagonist, scaring them deeply and worrying those around them.

The stalker plot is the reason Boyfriend Dungeon fits beautifully into the best writing/narrative category, as it is the kind of subject matter often avoided because it’s just so difficult to get right. Despite the fantastical situations at hand, the game reflects real-life stalking perfectly while also making it very clear why what happened is wrong. There is balance between the light and the dark, the love and the hate. Characters are as realistic as weapon-people can be, each with their own flaws to help ground them. If the writing is separated from the narrative itself, each still stands strong. The writing: witty, funny, and honest. The narrative: humourous, connected, scary as all hell.

Bustafellows has a bit of it all – it has noirish tones, and heist sub-plots. It has romance and danger. It has a cast of characters that are funny and personable, but also have their darker edge. This game is recognised as one of the all-time great otome, and having finally had a chance to play it in 2021, we can all start to appreciate why. 

Bustafellows is one of the longer examples of the genre – it’ll take you about 30 hours to play through everything (and you’re going to want to, because the “main story” leaves a lot of things that you’re going to need answers to). 30 hours is about the length of time you’ll need for a good book, so it’s just as well that this game is really quite literary in its own right. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but it’s also right up there with the likes of Chandler and Hammett for its ability to take a very pulpy genre, and give it some real substance underneath. 2021 gave us a lot of great visual novels. On the novel side of things, none were better than Bustafellows.

The Caligula Effect 2
We’ve extolled the virtues of The Caligula Effect’s narrative more than a few times over the years at DDNet. The Caligula Effect is genius for the way that it provides a forward-looking and increasingly poignant analysis of our increasingly complex ability to remove ourselves from reality and “paint over it” to best suit us, and what that means for broader society. The Caligula Effect 2 continues that work and builds on it perfectly.
We don’t get all that many games that are philosophy first, everything else second. It has been a tradition in literature and even film for many generations now (read one of Camus or Sartre’s novels to see what I mean). The Caligula Effect and, now, its sequel, offer a tantalising vision of what we might get from the alternative side of the industry in the years ahead, and we are very much here for that.

NieR Replicant: ver.1.22474487139…
NieR is the greatest game of all time because it has the greatest narrative in games of all time. Even in comparison to its (brilliant) sequel, NieR has a depth and intelligence to its narrative that remains powerful and compelling on replaying the remaster. In fact, it’s really quite incredible replaying this and reminding yourself just how smart it really is.

It’s not that NieR lacks personality: the humour and underlying entertainment value of the game is there, but NieR is also introspective and deeply existentialist, asking us probing and sometimes difficult questions that can engage both intellectually and emotionally. That it wraps all of that within a game that is able to surprise from start to finish, and back it up with some of the most well-written and interesting characters that we’ve seen in video games is all the more impressive. The remaster even adds a little more to the overall body of narrative, and while it was absolutely not necessary for the game to be worth the re-play, it’s certainly appreciated nonetheless.

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