With a challenging year in the rear view mirror, 2021 will hopefully be transformative in a lot of ways – and video games will reflect that. The first full year of the new console generation should see developers flexing their creative muscles a little, with new ideas emerging to take advantage of technical advances.
Here are 10 video game trends to look out for 2021, from those we have already seen emerging to a few more speculative possibilities...
The retro hardware revival continues
We've already seen mini consoles from Sega, Nintendo and Sony, but 2021 is bringing a few leftfield contenders to the retro hardware scene. The intriguing Atari VCS is a PC/console hybrid recalling the glory days of the video game legend, while the Intellivision Amico, a spiritual successor to the early 1980s Intellivision console, is due in April, offering new as well as classic 2D titles.
Then we have the beautiful Analogue Pocket, which faithfully runs original Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and GBA titles, while arcade stalwart SNK recently revealed that it would be releasing a new console in 2021, though stopped short of offering any further details. Finally, we should see the launch of the super intriguing Playdate handheld, an indie-focused mini console complete with... a winding arm.
The next generation of open worlds
Open world adventures are currently based around a familiar structure: landscapes split into small regions, which players progressively unlock to uncover new side-quests and easter eggs in addition to overarching story quests. That format will surely be updated in 2021 as we encounter Horizon Forbidden West, Hogwarts Legacy, Far Cry 6, and at least *something* from Bethesda, whether that's The Elder Scrolls 6 or Starfield.
Expect more emphasis on emergent narratives, perhaps involving NPCs with advanced AI capabilities, giving players more control over how stories play out. We'll also no doubt explore larger, more seamless environments with few obstructions thanks to faster in-game loading times enabled by next-gen SSDs. No need to check Twitter in between fast-travel points, basically.
A resurgence of true horror gaming
When times are bleak, horror fiction tends to get a boost – look at all the irradiated monster movies in the nuclear war-fearing 1950s, and the post-apocalyptic epics of the recession-hit 1970s.
So after a global pandemic, we're starting 2021 with psychological horror The Medium, before dragging ourselves through Resident Evil Village, H.R. Giger-inspired romp Scorn, Housemarque's arcade-shooter Returnal, and even a co-op movie tie-in to Evil Dead. Traditional horror monsters are also being revived via Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 and shapeshifting adventure Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Sunny escapism is sooo 2020.
The age of anti-realism
Often, when a new console generation arrives offering unparalleled graphical realism, there's a counter movement of games that take a highly subjective and creative approach to new visual technologies.
This year, that means the gorgeously fluid, painterly adventure Dordogne, the crisply cell-shaded sci-fi exploration game Sable, and Arkane's hyper kinetic Deathloop, among many others. Look out for games that use contemporary effects such as HDR and real-time ray-tracing to provide something a little more interesting than highly reflective puddles.
Extended reality gaming finally takes off
Virtual reality games have had increasing success over the past couple of years thanks to the PlayStation VR, Valve Index, and Oculus headsets, while augmented reality has blossomed on smartphones in the wake of Pokemon Go. But 2021 could finally propel XR gaming into the mainstream. Hitman 3 will ship with an intriguing PSVR mode allowing you to take on missions in a disturbingly physical manner.
There's also a mini retro gaming wave on VR, with Myst, Panzer Dragoon, and Sam & Max all getting virtual reality remakes or sequels. As for augmented reality, Facebook is expected to launch its Project Aria technology this year, which builds AR technology into a pair of cool Tony Stark-style glasses. If you're happy trusting your sense of reality to Mark Zuckerberg, it's certainly something to look forward to!
The return of co-op
Games based around co-operating with a friend or group of friends have been overrun by the squad-based battle royale genre over the past two years, but 2021 will see a revival of proper objective-based co-op adventures, both local and online. Hazelight's delightful-looking It Takes Two arrives in March with beautiful visuals and two-player puzzles, while post-Batman super hero brawler Gotham Knights allows co-op play through its entire story.
Then we're getting a Left 4 Dead successor in the shape of Back 4 Blood, and Evil Dead: The Game will also support co-op play. We're also getting the return of the ultimate local multiplayer series, in the shape of Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. Might be worth picking up a cheap second controller in the January sales...
The revenge of FMV
Okay, we've seen this coming via games such as Erica, Telling Lies, and The Complex, as well as Netflix interactive projects Black Mirror and Kimmy Schmidt – but we can expect this trend to accelerate next year as television and film makers look for new revenue strands in the aftermath of COVID-19. We already know about Dr Who: The Edge of Reality and the next chapter in The Dark Pictures anthology, House of Ashes, while Netflix has a bunch of new interactive titles this year, including the animated We Lost Our Human and self-help experiment Headspace Guide to Meditation.
I think we'll see the announcement of at least one collaboration between a games publisher and streaming service to create a big interactive TV adventure. A Life is Strange teen drama? A Twin Peaks-style mystery series directed by Swery? It can't be any worse than most video game tie-in movies we've seen so far.
The dawn of pervasive gaming
Imagine a survival horror game that uses all your smart devices to turn your home into the setting, with ghostly whispers from Alexa and your Philips Hue smart lights flickering spookily. The idea of pervasive games, which use your environment as a major component, has been around for years, but the arrival of superfast 5G connectivity, the huge success of Amazon Echo, and the slow creep of smarthomes will perhaps lead to a big breakthrough this year. It's something the major publishers are preparing for.
In an interview with Verge (opens in new tab), Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson said, "From the minute I get up in the morning, everything I do [could have] an impact on my gaming life. The amount of eggs I have in my internet-enabled fridge might mean my Sims are better off in my game. That length of distance I drive in my Tesla on the way to work might mean that I get more juice in Need for Speed. If I go to soccer practice in the afternoon, by virtue of internet-enabled soccer boots, that might give me juice or new cards in my FIFA product." The concept of video game grind may be about to take on entirely new connotations…
The new wave of cyberpunk
There's no doubt Cyberpunk 2077 has revived interest in the subgenre of its title, and this year will see a host of smaller, independent games exploring similar themes from a more radical perspective. Stray, from French studio BlueTwelve, follows a cat traipsing around a neon-lit future city, and it looks gorgeous. There are two intriguing pixel art titles on the way, too: Death Trash, an old-school looter shooter set in a Mad Max-style wasteland, and Eastward, an RPG-unfused adventure with a 1990s anime feel.
This year also promises The Ascent, a co-op action RPG set in a corporate-run metropolis, and we may even see troubled cinematic platformer The Last Night. CD Projekt RED has also promised DLC and multiplayer content for Cyberpunk 2077, but given the state of the game, don't press pause on your computer-enhanced breathing apparatus just yet.
Games as road movies
Perhaps it's mere coincidence but the year after 2020's global travel lockdown features a fair number of soul-searching journey games on the horizon. The next game from Gone Home creator Fullbright, for instance, is Open Roads, a nostalgic road trip shared by a mother and daughter, while Forever Ago has an old man embarking on a journey of redemption with his campervan and loyal dog.
For a slightly different slant on the theme, there's Endling, a post-apocalyptic quest where you play as a fox ushering her cubs through a scarred wilderness. For many of us, the images of travel – the open road, the train track, the airport departure lounge – have been entirely absent from our lives for months. Games, I think, will offer a way back into the idea of long journeys, and all that they bring.
Big in 2021 is GamesRadar's exploration of the most anticipated games on the near horizon. Check back in throughout January for brand new previews, hands-on impressions, and exclusive developer interviews of the games that will define 2021.