DDNet Game of the Year Awards 2021! Small game of the year

9 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!

Far too often games that are short get criticised for it. Even when they’re complete, and well-designed experienced, that relate everything that they need to over the course of a few hours, there are people that will insist that the games should have been longer or cheaper. Never mind that this would likely ruin them by bloating them pointlessly and making them commercially unviable. This award is our little effort to push back and highlight that short games don’t need to be longer to be worth your time and money.


Bunhouse doesn’t try and be too much, and that works in the game’s favour. There’s no narrative. There are no complex mechanics to deal with, and what little by way of unlocks and progression exist happen fast. In theory you could be done with Bunhouse very quickly indeed… except that you’ll keep coming back for short bursts. Not because you still have a game to finish, but because it’s so warm, wholesome, and uplifting.

Bunhouse is a rare treat in that it’s a simple indulgence: be a cute little rabbit and just chill in the little space the game offers you. We spend so long playing games that try – hard – to “engage” with us, promising deep and thought-provoking narratives or challenging gameplay. Strip those things out and, at first, a game like Bunhouse might feel empty. Devoid of content. But play it with an open mind and you’ll come to realise that this warming and joyful experience stays with you, and is always there for when you need a little cheering up. We need more games like Bunhouse.
Essays on Empathy

Essays on Empathy is to-the-point and gleefully experimental. Each of the games is a short story – a vignette, really – that reflects in some way on life. You’ll do everything from play a game about a hitman working at a flower shop, to the story of two-bit comedians that are trying to make it big (don’t worry, this isn’t a Joker story). In total the collection can be completed in about five hours, and were it even a second longer it would lose so much of its thrust.

Essays on Empathy isn’t religious, but it works a little like an Aesops Fables, where it wants you to learn little lessons and be put in a reflective mood by what you seen and experience in each little story. They need to be short to retain their focus, but each story in this game is complete and leaves just the right impression when you get to the other end. It would be good to see more games that, like Essays on Empathy, refocus their energies towards impact and meaning rather than keep throwing new shiny things at players to temporarily hold their attention.

Unpacking caused quite the stir when its length became the subject of discussion. With a run-time of around 6-8 hours, many people felt that this game was either too short or too expensive for what it was. The thing is, though, that Unpacking is exactly as long as it needed to be to convey the strong emotions and thought that went into this warm and universal experience.

In Unpacking, the concept is as simple as they come; you play as a person that moves from place to place in their lives, and with each move they need to find a home for their possessions. The idea running behind the game is to explore how nostalgic we can be for our possessions, and how we identify ourselves through them in so many different ways. This is an experience we all have – we all have that treasured item that was given to us from someone special, or reminds us of our youth in a powerful way. Even when the item doesn’t really fit into the location we’ve just moved, we go out of our way to make it work somehow, and that’s what Unpacking captures in its memorable, evocative couple of hours’ run time.

You can play and finish Sumire in about four hours (and that’s being generous). But since you’ll also be bawling your eyes out and have a new level of appreciation for everything and everyone important in your life, the four hours of Sumire is more valuable time spent than a thousand hours in any other game would offer. 

The crux of Sumire is that of a story of regrets – it’s analogous to how short life is on this here planet, and how taking that time for granted can lead us to do all kinds of things that we would wish that we could undo, given the chance. In the game you have a single day to achieve a number of objectives, with one of the core ones being “feel loved”, and while these objectives are rooted in the mundane, they also highlight the kind of fleeting, rare things that we should make sure that we achieve within our proverbial “day” if we can, to have the “perfect day.” One thing we probably won’t have on those lists is “play a video game for many, many hours of bloated content,” and well done on Sumire for having its game design suit its core message. Play the game, sure, but then make sure you’re hitting the checklist to happiness every so often too. 

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