DDNet Game of the Year Awards 2021! Best “Non-Game” Game

7 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!

The games industry has diversified a great deal in recent years, and these days we have such a range of games and experiences that defy the common definition of a “game.” Often people look down on these experiences as being somehow inferior because they don’t fit the nice, neat checklist and don’t settle into an easy genre. Of course, it’s this little corner of game development where some of the most creative and artful ideas flourish, and that’s what we’re celebrating with this awards category!


Cross The Moon
Cross The Moon is one of THOSE visual novels that feature no choices, no mini-games, and no interactivity beyond pressing a button and watching the text scroll on. It’s also one of the most artful experiences of 2021, with a visual aesthetic that makes use of real photography to drive an incredible “new wave” aesthetic, and a vampire-filled noir narrative that is nuanced and interesting from “page” 1.

These days it’s quite easy to create visual novels (we would know, we make them ourselves, and we have no game development skills), so what makes the best ones, like Cross The Moon, stand out from the rest is the concept and artistry behind them. Until Cross The Moon I hadn’t played a visual novel that used real photography for the settings. Cross The Moon is also one of the rare few to get the neo-noir aesthetic and tone just right. It’s an indie masterpiece, and this developer is one to watch into the future.
Essays On Empathy

It’s quite clear that right from the outset Essays On Empathy isn’t designed to be a game in the traditional sense of the term. For one thing, it’s structured as a series of half-hour vignettes, when conventional wisdom is that a video game needs to be hours long before it has any worth, and secondly, once you start playing you realise that the gameplay bits play a distant secondary role to the themes and narrative. Essays On Empathy has more in common with Aesops Fables than Call of Duty, Fortnite or Smash Bros.

It helps that each vignette is constructed marvellously, of course, and each is an audio-visual mini-masterpiece in its own right. As a collection, Essays On Empathy also does the “anthology” concept better justice than the more gamey Dark Pictures Anthology that gets a new release every couple of years, and that’s precisely because each individual game contributes to a broader vision that, on playing through them all, you will find to be profound.

Game Builder Garage
What a brilliant thing Nintendo’s game making toy is. There are many game makers that are available, both on PC and, increasingly, on devices. RPG Maker itself landed on Nintendo Switch this year. Nintendo itself has Mario Maker out there. Game Builder Garage is something a bit different, though. This is a more earnest attempt to make the logic that powers real game design palatable to the broadest possible audience. 
It’s a delight to toy around with, and you can actually make some pretty impressive games in Game Builder Garage. But at the same time, it’s a genuine learning tool. Once you’ve gone through all the lessons and tutorials in this thing, you’ll be ready to start learning some coding and game design, and at no stage will you feel like any of this is work.

Unpacking does have gamey elements, to be sure. It’s all about finding space for stuff when you might not have much space for anything, and that’s a puzzle that has stood the test of time. But it’s also not the point of Unpacking, and Unpacking is at its best when people simply toy around with it. 

From creating little video clips of the toys moving around, to creating memes by mistaking the Nintendo GameCube for a kitchen appliance (kids these days just don’t know what a good game console is), Unpacking is one of those rare experiences that is able to appeal to the hardcore gamer and those that never play games, from all walks of life. And it’s able to do that because it’s not hung up about being a “game”, but rather it just wants to give players a strong hit of nostalgia and relate the experience to something that we all, on some level or another, share. Unpacking truly transcends what we generally think of as a “game.”

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