As someone who is terminally online, I watch a lot of internet video, and I do so especially on YouTube. For years I’ve watched all kinds of content there, from movie and game reviews to vine compilations and music videos to even a video podcast every now and then. But this year is the year I got really into video essays. Now, I’ve watched video essay-like content for a few years already. Channels like GVMERS and Game Makers Toolkit have given me some of my favorite documentaries and game analysis on YouTube.

But this year I broke out and tasted more video essays of all types. Some of which are from channels I’ve followed for years, some are from creators I didn’t know existed until this year, and many aren’t even about video games. But before we end the year, I wanted to share some of my favorites that have come out this year. You might have heard of many of these creators, but I’m hoping that I get to put you all on to at least one of these creators. So, without further ado, here are my 21 favorite video essays of 2021, because I just loved too many videos to restrict this list to just 10. Oh, and no rankings here, I’m just listing them out in random order.

For Real Though, Bring Back EA Sports Big – The Blessing Show (Kinda Funny Games)

(Edit: Video embeds seem to no longer work for videos that premiered with a live stream, so I’ll be linking those in the titles instead. Apologies for the inconvenience.)

Starting off with something more games-focused, this one from Blessing Adeoye Jr. was really special to me. My love of classic EA titles like Burnout is no secret, but I don’t often talk about how heavily I fucked with games like NBA Street and SSX. So, seeing Bless discuss and fawn over these games with this video about EA Sports Big was really nice to see. But this isn’t just a video about looking back, as he also makes a compelling argument about how the Big branding could return and how it already has returned in a sense with games like my beloved Knockout City. Of course, every episode of the Blessing Show is expertly edited and incredibly well written, but this one, in particular, is the one I’ve thought about the most often after watching, and therefore it’s the one I recommend to all of you most. But really, you all should be watching every episode, it’s a great show!

Kids’ Choice Awards Part One: 1988-2001 – Nick Knacks Episode #076 (poparena)

This one is a bit different from most video essays. Where most of the ones I’ve seen and will be sharing here are sharing opinions on a topic from a certain point of view, this one is more of a documentary. But its subject is still super fascinating to me. The Kids Choice Awards is a loud and expensive party that is expressly aimed directly at children, and when I watched it as a kid, I felt so seen by the award show. The Oscars, The Grammys, The Emmys, and many more shows never seemed to focus on the media I cared about growing up, but the KCA’s were all about it. But I only really cared about the show for the 5-10 years between me switching from PBS to Nickelodeon and Nickelodeon to G4.

So, this video from poparena helps to fill the gaps I have with my history with the show from before and after I was a regular watcher. And if you care about obscure celebrities and loads of 90s and 2000s nostalgia, you might find that history as fascinating as I do. I didn’t know just how long the show had been running for, just how desperate some of its productions were, what the show did once Covid hit, or even that the show hasn’t actually run for every single year since its conception. But this and its follow-up video get into all of that and more. So, if you wanna ride on some nostalgic children’s media, you should definitely check out this video and the rest of the channel, as it’s a great place for content about long-forgotten children’s media.

Why Halo 3: ODST Is The Best Halo Game (GameSpot/Jessie Gender)

Despite getting obsessed with the Gears franchise back in 2019, I never quite had the same obsession with Halo. I attempted to catch up on every game in the lead-up to the recently released Halo Infinite, but as of writing, I’ve only beaten up to Halo 3. But this video right here, from Jessie Gender by way of GameSpot, probably did the most to sell me on any specific game in the franchise. Even as I’ve played the series, I still have this perception of the series as little more than a big, dumb, yet fun and grandiose shooter. And I even knew ODST was different from the other games, but I didn’t really know why until watching this. She does a great job of highlighting the unique aspects of ODST without spoiling too much of the story as well. Plus, she does so while inserting humor without being annoying about it and wraps up the video with a deeper, more personal revelation that comes off as genuinely sincere. It’s a great video, and I’m glad that GameSpot linked up with Jessie because I don’t know if I would have come across her content otherwise. In fact, after running into her again in a different video, I’ve subscribed. I really dig the way she illustrates her perspective and look forward to checking out more from her.

The Cultural Significance of Taina (Yhara Zayd)

This year I discovered Yhara Zayd through another YouTuber that I’ll mention later, and I quickly fell in love with her content. She not only has a critical eye on the lack of gender and race diversity in media, but she has an affectionate and nostalgic tone in most of her videos. To show that, I wanted to show her video about Taina, an obscure teenage sitcom from the early 2000s. Yes, I know I just got done talking about Nickelodeon nostalgia, but trust me this one is different. Tiana is a show that I only had faint memories of, and it only pops into my mind today when I randomly find myself singling lines from its catchy theme song. This video not only reintroduces me to this show I was so fond of growing up but also explains why it was culturally important at the time. Plus she talks about why the show is still so obscure to this day, which is especially odd for the nostalgia-obsessed Nickelodeon. I loved this video, but I easily could have mentioned her other videos, like her defense of Not Another Teen Movie or her massively popular video on when Rue of The Hunger Games “became” black. But no matter what video you start with, you should really check her out.

Apparently, I’m An Xbox Bro Now (GameSpot/Kurt Indovina)

Another entry from GameSpot on the list might be a bit surprising, but I gotta get at least one from Kurt Indovina. Now I love a lot of folks over at GameSpot, I mean I love their After Dark podcast and I keep up with a lot of the site’s content in general. But Kurt has a really great eye and voice for video essays like this. Not only do his videos look great, as he has a more than a decent grasp of cinematography, but he also injects so much personality into his writing and editing as well. Now I’ll admit, his take in this video isn’t necessarily the hottest take since we’ve all grown fonder of the Xbox ecosystem as they’ve introduced Game Pass, FPS Boost, and many other initiatives. But his story reflects my own history with Xbox, so I found the video as relatable as I did fun to watch. So, I say check it out, as all of his videos are really well made.

Gaming In the Quarantine Years (Errant Signal)

Errant Signal has been making excellent breakdowns of all kinds of games for years now. From his thoughts on GTA V to his thoughts on indie horror game Pamali, he always manages to give a unique take on what’s popular while also highlighting the strengths of the more obscure games he covers. The video I’m sharing today is his video on playing games during the pandemic, which is something I feel most people reading this will relate to. What I like about it is how he perfectly portrays the feeling of emptiness that has come with existing in this time while also speaking to a relatable aspect of playing games for content. But even if you don’t relate to that part, he does speak to that headspace that all of us get in when we don’t wanna consume any new content that might potentially challenge us and instead retreat to familiar and comforting media. It’s a great video and if you like this one, he totally deserves your sub.

Pokémon Unite is a Mesmerising Mess (Sophie from Mars)

Sophie from Mars is a creator who has made some of my favorite videos on YouTube, like her videos on Nier Automata and Horizon Zero Dawn. She really has a knack for extracting the themes and politics out of games and their stories, but she also can also do a great job of breaking down the gameplay structure of games and how they interact with the player. In this video about Pokémon Unite, she does more of the latter. She lowkey roasts the game for using aspects of gambling to flesh out its progression and gameplay hooks, but she backs up all of her criticism with direct examples from the game. She even calls out how such a gameplay structure conflicts with the themes of the original Pokémon games. I’m not the biggest fan of the series in general, so this video doesn’t affect my view of the franchise, but what she talks about here could be applied to free-to-play games that even I play, so I found it massively informative. And if you dig this video, you should check out her series on Resident Evil that she’s in the middle of right now.

The Style of Bayonetta (eurothug4000)

Eurothug4000 is a creator I love for her grasp on the aesthetics and vibes of different games. And for those of you following me on Twitter, then you’ll know that I fell head over heels for the Bayonetta series this past year. Well, once I rolled credits on Bayonetta 2, I was delighted to see that she made a video on the franchise. This video really opened my eyes to why I love the game’s over-the-top nature, and how that tone extends to way more than just the narrative and characters. She breaks down the creative choices in fashion, animations, color choices, and so much more. It really had me thinking back to other pieces of media I’ve enjoyed in the past, like America’s Next Top Model, and how I fell in love with elements of them in Bayonetta. If you like this video, then you might love other videos from her about games like Animal Crossing and Death Stranding.

can they understand the cat in Stuart Little? (Leo Vader)

I wish every day that I was as funny as Leo Vader. He’s one of those people who just effortlessly delivers completely normal phrases in the funniest ways, and he has a uniquely odd perspective on pop culture. I knew him first from his work at Game Informer, but I’ve been reintroduced to him now that he’s at MinnMax and through his personal channel. On that channel, he makes videos primarily not about games at all, and my favorite videos from him are ones where he does unnecessary deep breakdowns of obscure pieces of fiction. This video is exactly that. He spends way more time than he should trying to find out if humans can understand the cat in Stuart Little, and the journey he goes on to answer that question is hilarious, absurd, and always entertaining. If you end up loving this video, then you might also be one of the millions of people who would also like to know if the magicians from Now You See Me are wizards.

The Tragic Fall of Kanye West (Pt1) (F.D Signifier)

The YouTuber I’m most glad I discovered this year is F.D. Signifier. I watch a lot of YouTube, as you can tell by the fact that I’m writing this article, but I know so few creators on the site that look like me. Watching Signifier reminded me what I was missing from creators like him. He has a voice and writing style that expresses a deep enough love and understanding of black media and topics that he’s able to effectively critique them and speak to why he and millions of others are moved by them. The best example of him doing both is with his two-part series on Kanye West’s legacy. Most people already have an opinion on the artist, but even if you don’t, he does a great job in both videos explaining why he’s considered a legend in both black music and black culture and why his recent actions have tarnished his name to many and been overlooked by some. Above I have his first video linked, but you should really watch the sequel as well for a full understanding of the topic. And if you dig that series and wanna learn more about pieces of media that are beloved in black circles, you should check out his breakdown of one of my favorite movies, Love and Basketball.

Why Jak and Daxter Is the Perfect Trilogy (BREADSWORD)

As someone who backed Ratchet & Clank when it, Sly Cooper, and Jak & Daxter were all fighting for the mascot platformer crown on the PS2, I don’t have much history with the ottsel and his friend. In fact, the most I’ve played of Jak and Daxter is Daxter on the PSP back in 2007. I knew people loved the games, but I didn’t really understand why beyond blind nostalgia. Well, enter Breadword with a genre of video essay that I absolutely adore: one where I’m told the importance and appeal of a thing that I am aware of but don’t care about. The writing and line delivery in this one has a tone that expresses the overwhelming love and warmth he feels about this franchise. But even beyond that, the editing in this one is unreal. I’ve edited videos for years at a pretty low level, but even I can recognize just how much work an edit like this takes. It seems like he cuts to relevant footage for each and every phrase he says, which is absolutely insane considering the length of this project. Plus, he manages to maintain a consistent vibe throughout the essay that is specific to his channel aesthetic overall despite the topic of each video, and I find that equally impressive to pull off. I highly recommend this one, and if you manage to make it through this epic, I also recommend his video about another topic I don’t care about but was fascinated to learn about: The Adventures of Tintin.

we need to talk about Call Me By Your Name | Lola Sebastian

I saw Call Me By Your Name a long time ago, back when I legitimately looked to the Academy Awards for recommendations of which movies I should go out of my way to see. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, but I haven’t thought of the movie much in the years since, so I was happy to think about it again after watching Lola Sebastian’s epic video on the film. Her perspective as a queer woman definitely shed light on aspects of the movie I never would have considered as a straight cis dude, and many of those insights helped me appreciate the movie even more. Plus, as she loves to discuss controversial media, she digs into some of the problematic aspects of the movie and how it detracts a bit from the goals of the movie. This video really does feel like a comprehensive look at everything about the film, from the original book it was adapted from, to the controversies relating to actors from the film later on, to how the film was both shot and written. And if you enjoy this video, and wanna hear more about controversial fiction, then check out her equally comprehensive video on the infamous novel, Lolita.

Time Loop Nihilism (Jacob Geller)

Jacob Geller is one of the GOATs at this video essay thing. For years now, he’s made really personal videos about video game narratives and how gameplay and other features reinforce their themes. And he also connects these themes from games to real word concepts incredibly effectively. However, this video does more of the former than the latter. In this video on Time Loop Nihilism, he talks about the more depressing aspects of Deathloop’s lore. Deathloop, for as fun as it is, is a pretty dark world when you really think about it, and Jacob really thinks about it. And he uses other forms of media to talk about the depths of depravity possible when stuck in a time loop. It’s a fascinating concept discussed in a fascinating video by a fascinating writer, so I think you should check it out. And if you like this one, you should check out one of my favorite videos from him, or from YouTube in general, this video about Modern Art and Fascism. Fun!

Why Idle games make good satire, and how it was ruined. (Thought Slime)

This year I was reintroduced to Cookie Clicker, and it nearly ruined my life. For nearly a month, I left my PC on continuously just to keep Cookie Clicker running in the background. But I was too busy drowning in sweets to notice the thematic elements of the game. This video here from Thought Slime highlights the themes in not only Cokie Clicker but many other idle games. It’s a genre that, in concept, sounds incredibly dull, but in practice, is actually pretty addictive, and this video shows why that is. They clearly have an appreciation for the genre by how detailed they talk about it, but they are not afraid to show how certain games in the genre exploit the player. You can tell that they’ve been making videos for a while thanks to the quality of the overall production and the ease with which they deliver jokes and lines in the script. Can’t recommend this video enough and if you dig this one, and want to hear about something even less serious, check out their video about Die Hard and its status as a “Christmas” movie.

A Thorough Look At Resident Evil (Noah Caldwell-Gervais)

Noah Caldwell-Gervais is the video essayist that most directly lead to my obsession with the art form today. If not for me getting into his videos, I don’t think I’d be here writing this list. The way he balances personal anecdotes, commentary on narrative themes, analysis of game design, connections to non-gaming media, and satisfyingly academic writing is unlike any other creator of this platform, in my humble opinion. So, you have to understand how much of a blessing and miracle it is that he managed to put out a video this year that is nearly the length of an entire shift at my job. It genuinely felt like the greatest gift I received all year.

Resident Evil is a franchise that I have a surprising amount of experience with, but even I didn’t know just how deep the rabbit hole went with the series. This 7.5-hour epic does a great job of showing the connecting threads between every entry and which aspects of its many spin-offs were carried over into future mainline entries. He doesn’t quite talk about every game in the Resident Evil series, but considering he goes over 17 games without his writing dropping in quality at all the entire time is nothing less than a massive achievement. I think this is the definitive video on the series, but if that massive runtime is too daunting, let me point you to his video on what he calls “asshole simulators”, like Postal 2.

Modern Military Shooters BEFORE Modern Warfare (Raycevick)

Raycevick has been on YouTube making great content for years, and this year was no different. He’s got a bunch of videos I love, but from this year I most adored his video on modern military shooters before the dominance of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I love the Call of Duty series, despite the fact it often stagnates instead of innovates. But its popularity has led to the FPS genre feeling a bit standardized. So, it was fascinating to look at a time when that wasn’t the case. As a fan of obscure shooters and action games, it was fun looking at these games, many of which I had never heard of before this video. Seeing the potential futures that the FPS genre could have had is fascinating to think about, so I highly recommend this video. And again, if you dig this one, let me also recommend what I consider to be the definitive video on Alpha Protocol, Obsidian’s forgotten spy RPG.

The Nostalgia Critic and The Wall (Folding Ideas)

If you are or were a massive fan of Channel Awesome, you might already have heard a lot about Nostalgia Critic’s The Wall Review. I am not, so I hadn’t heard of it until I saw Folding Ideas’ video about it. I was aware of the Nostalgia Critic, but not enough to know what type of content he’s known for. But now that I’ve seen this video, I have that question, and several more answered for me. But I like this video not because it familiarizes me with Nostalgia Critic, but for how it shows how much his reading of The Wall lays bear his personal views and tendencies. I went from not caring about his review of an album I’ve never heard from a band I only barely know to being fascinated by it. By the end of it, I was convinced that this parody of The Wall had equal amounts of accidentally autobiographical detail to something like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. I don’t want to spoil it all here, but Dan Olsin expertly breaks down why this obscure passion project has managed to polarize so many people and spark so much conversation. And if you dig this video, I even more strongly recommend his video about flat earthers.

A Brief History of Homestuck (Sarah Z)

I mentioned earlier how my favorite kind of video essay is one about a topic I was aware of but had no understanding about. Homestuck is probably the best example of a topic like this. I’ve heard of Homestuck, and I even knew some of the iconography from it, but I had absolutely no idea what it actually was. Turns out, what I assumed was some obscure anime or comic series was so much more complex than that. Sarah Z’s video about the topic feels as comprehensive as possible in the medium of YouTube, and I was captivated by her recounting of this strange corner of internet fandom. What I love about Sarah’s videos is how she clearly puts hours of research into every video, but she reads her scripts with a relaxed passion similar to that of a best friend telling you about their favorite hobby. It makes for a video so comforting that its two-hour runtime flies by, and that’s a quality found in most of her videos. I cant’ recommend this look back at Homestuck enough, and if you dig this one, let me also point to her much shorter video about the bizarre fandom that formed around The Onceler from The Lorax animated film.

Vaccines: A Measured Response (hbomberguy)

For obvious reasons, vaccines have been on my and everyone else’s mind a whole lot over the last year. Despite the obvious risks to themselves and those close to them and how easy it is to get one, millions of people haven’t gotten vaccinated against Covid by choice. I’ve been frustrated by this fact, but I haven’t really considered where that anti-vax mindset originated from. This video from another YouTube GOAT, hbomberguy, goes into those origins, and the rabbit hole not only goes deeper than I thought, but it has many depressingly greedy and depraved twists and turns. This video not only details how anti-vaccine concepts are not based on any scientific facts but are also built on the backs of a handful of medical frauds and corrupt people looking to make a quick buck, morality be damned. The way Harris Brewis injects jokes and humorous bits while also showcasing the impressive amount of research he and his team did for this video is incredible on its own. But I also appreciate how Harris empathizes a bit with victims of anti-vax ideology because, at the end of the day, many of these people will die as a direct result of a few con men and the indirect actions of a few others. Everyone should watch this video, but if you dig this one, and somehow haven’t heard of hbomberguy already, then you should also check out his video on Pathologic, an obscure game I think is incredible but will probably never play.

Envy | ContraPoints

If you haven’t noticed, we’re getting into content creators that you probably have heard about before. Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints is probably the most widely known leftist content creator on YouTube, and for good reason. Not only does she have a hilarious style of writing packed with a load of personal perspective and research from several sources, but the visuals and editing of these videos are also top-notch. She uses elaborate makeup, set design, and musical choices to give her videos a polish unlike anything on Youtube, and her willingness to joke about all kinds of topics makes her videos especially effective at creating new leftists from other sides of the political spectrum.

As for this video here, she talks about the concept of Envy, and how much of the vitriol on social media, especially on Twitter, can be chalked up to it. But the video is way more nuanced than that, and I’d even say exhaustively so. She sorta gives a history of the concept while also using examples from pop culture to really hammer home the topic further. I still don’t know if I agree with all of her points in this video, but I agree with enough of them that I think it’s very much so worth watching. And if you end up enjoying this video, let me also recommend this video about the much darker topic of incels.

Disney’s FastPass: A Complicated History (Defunctland)

This is probably the most well-known creator I’ll talk about in this list, and therefore I saved it for last. Defucntland is a channel I’ve followed for years, but I admit that I don’t actually watch much of their content. But this is the first video I’ve seen from them since their video on Nick Hotels, and turns out, learning about lines is sufficiently more fascinating. This feature-length documentary on Disney’s Fastpass was destined to earn the massive view count it has now. It takes a topic millions are familiar with but don’t fully understand and both gives an exhaustive history of that topic and also goes in on what’s wrong with it. It’s not only meticulously researched, but it’s also incredibly entertaining and well-paced narratively, which is wild to say about a mostly research-based video essay. Unlike most of the videos on this list, there’s little in the way of personal anecdotes, but it still has a good bit of personality. Overall, the video is incredible and I think anyone with even a passing familiarity with Disney Theme parks will enjoy it. And if you wanna see that Nickelodeon Hotel video, or just want to watch something from them that’s way shorter, check it out right here.

And thats’ about all I have to share with you all today. Well, there are a bunch of other excellent video essays I’ve seen this year, but I think leaving it at over 12 hours of video is more than enough. But I do wanna take this time to thank any and all video essayists who may or may not be reading this. The past year hasn’t been the massive rebound from tragedy like we all hoped it would at the end of 2020, and things may even be getting a bit worse. But video essays have been a consistent refuge from the stresses of real life throughout the year for me. When I lack the mental energy to play a new video game or watch a new movie or, god forbid, a TV show, video essays were my go-to stress reliever, or at least suppressant. But in many cases, these videos have been more engaging than most games, movies, and TV shows. Just because these projects are free on YouTube (unless you’re a real one w/ a Nebula subscription (😉), doesn’t mean they lack the production quality, writing, or entertainment value of anything else. I just want anyone making video essays, or online content in general, to know that millions of people like me do genuinely find immense value in your work. I know it’s a difficult line of work sometimes, and I’m writing this the same week another one of my favorite video essayists, Lindsay Ellis, quit YouTube. So, just know, you are appreciated, and here’s hoping next year is better for all of us.

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