We’ve made it to 2023! As usual, looking back through the year during the past couple weeks has been more work than I really intended it to be… but also a valuable and rewarding exercise.
I’ve written over 10,000 words about my favorite games this year, even more if you include the kickoff post, and that’s obviously far too much for any reasonable person to want to read. So to ring in the new year, I’m sticking with my usual tradition and boiling my list down into a quick*, punchy*, top 10 one-pager*. I hope this list inspires you to check out something you wouldn’t have!
*Look, I did my best…
10. Marvel Snap
Marvel Snap is an expertly-crafted game that distils an incredible amount of the dynamism and drama of the CCG format into 12-card decks and 5-minute matches. I’ve gravitated towards it despite an overall disinterest in both competitive CCGs and mobile games in general, and I’ve stuck with it since its full release in mid-October.
The game is a testament to the precision and talent of its development team; it consistently delivers excitement and tension in an extremely focused package, one that’s both friendly to newcomers and rewarding to continual players. While I’ll never be able to fully get past the gacha-lite mechanics and mobile game monetization tactics, Marvel Snap has very much earned my attention and praise in spite of all of that.
Sephonie is a game about connection and shared history, about the ways that social structures and borders both bind us and alienate us from one another. It follows the adventure of three biologists who hail from different nations but share some cultural history through their Taiwanese heritage and their varied relationships to Taiwan itself.
It’s also just an oddball platformer that rewards players who approach its unusual movement paradigm with an open mind.
Tinykin is a warm hug of a game, a light-hearted and colorful adventure through a gigantic house inhabited by a number of insect civilizations. It may resemble Pikmin (the eponymous Tinykin follow you around and help with traversal and light puzzle solving), but it plays more like a collect-a-thon 3D platformer. It’s all about big, detailed spaces to explore, nooks and crannies to dig through, and quirky characters to find and help along the way.
Tinykin’s world is where its whole heart is, and it feels no need to include combat or elaborate puzzles or anything like that. Its brilliant level design demonstrates a deep understanding of what makes traversal and exploration fun all on their own.
Tunic draws many obvious comparisons to classics from The Legend of Zelda series, and for good reason. It has a cute, squat little character who wields a sword and shield and fights their way through an odd assortment of enemies while exploring a big world. But I think that Tunic is one of the only Zelda-inspired games I’ve played that evokes the sense of childlike wonder that Miyamoto has described in relation to *The Legend of Zelda.* It’s jam-packed with secrets and mysteries to discover, and uses an in-game instruction manual to dole these out and inspire curiosity.
The manual is an adorable gimmick that introduces answers alongside more questions, all while evoking the nostalgia of poring over game manuals in the 90s and early aughts. The game’s art and sound are evocative even when they’re inscrutable, and every corner hides secrets. While indie games famously leverage art, sound, and design ideas from older classics, Tunic is a rare recreation of the true magic of playing games as a child.
6. Last Call BBS
Last Call BBS is a minigame anthology wrapped in a metanarrative about the early internet and the joys of both creating unique things and sharing those creations with others. It’s the final title from studio Zachtronics, and each of its various minigames imparts a thinly-veiled piece of pseudohistory about the studio’s own prior output. Its a quirky, heartfelt farewell letter from a team that’s spent the last decade building cult classics designed for silly nerds who love engineering.
As a silly nerd who loves engineering, there’s not much else I could ask for from Last Call BBS, and though I’ll miss the studio’s odd games, I now have more reason than ever to revisit its prior output and seek out other games that Zachtronics has inspired.
Norco is a point-and-click adventure game about a company town on the outskirts of New Orleans. It’s equal parts grim and darkly hilarious, providing a sharp southern gothic twist on classic wacky adventure game humor. It’s also deeply concerned with places and the people who live there, and the ways in which their home and their circumstances shapes their identity.
Norco is strange and surreal and plays in narrative spaces that aren’t commonly encountered in games, using the medium to set up and pay off a lot of excellent storytelling conceits. It’s an unexpectedly strong debut from studio Geography of Robots and its one that I really hope will be revisited by folks who passed it up this past year.
Teardown is a sort of action/puzzle/sandbox game about manipulating a big physically-simulated level in order to pull off the perfect heist. It delivers a taste of the joys of speedrunning without quite so much time investment, letting players craft their own unique route through a space and hone it into something they can execute in time to escape with the goods.
It’s also a game about breaking, smashing, and exploding things, particularly the excessive luxuries of petty rich assholes. Though the crime drama story it tells is unremarkable overall, it provides the perfect context for tense smash-and-grabs and makes the experience all the more memorable.
Signalis is a survival-horror game about an android exploring an abandoned mining facility in search of her lost copilot. It’s a stark and terrifying game that blends reality with nightmares, descending ever deeper into the strange and the metaphorical.
Its execution of the survival-horror format is extremely solid, but it was the sci-fi setting and remarkable aesthetics that drew me into the game — and into a genre that I don’t normally care for. I loved Signalis’ sense of mystery, uncertainty, and tragedy, and I’m so glad that it found a way to get its hooks in me and pull me in.
2. Elden Ring
There’s really nothing to say about Elden Ring that hasn’t already been said. It’s an absolute triumph for From Software and a culmination of all of the innovative and precise design work they’ve been building on for many years. Its expansive world is matched by the elaborate histories of its characters and factions, as well as the breadth of playstyles that it encourages through its variety of combat tools.
Personally, I was already predisposed to love Elden Ring. But I was also lucky enough to watch other people fall in love with it and see newcomers find their way into a style of game that’s near and dear to me. The success of Elden Ring speaks volumes about how far From Software has come in both reputation and skill, and I’m excited to see what what they do next in this space.
1. Citizen Sleeper
Citizen Sleeper was my number 1 game of the year. It’s a narrative-heavy adventure game about an escaped android who finds themself on a lawless space station with a chance to start a new life — once they figure out how to even survive. It tells a story of the struggle of chronic illness and disability, the exploitation and cruelty of corporations, and the ways that communities form to survive these forces. Its writing is incisive, efficient, and empathetic.
Citizen Sleeper borrows some ideas from tabletop RPGs to help it shape a story that’s freely explorable, but marches ever forward as time passes. It creates a sense of building relationships with very little explicit mechanization within the game’s systems, and its dramatic moments deliver profound hope and solidarity in the face of grim circumstances.
2022 was a year of variety for me, one in which the most interesting games I played spanned a wide genre space and one in which I was really fixated on the ways that games tell stories. Whether it be the stories I tell my friends about my multiplayer matches (Marvel Snap), the stories of sociopolitical systems and the people who live under them (Norco, Signalis, Citizen Sleeper), or stories of history and memory and passing the torch (Tunic, Last Call BBS, Sephonie, Elden Ring), I couldn’t help but look closely at the narrative ideas in everything I played.
Part of this might have to do with it being a year in which I spent a lot less time prepping tabletop RPG adventures, but still did a lot of passive idea-gathering. Part of it might be related to starting a monthly indie game club at my office and engaging with games that other people picked to play. Either way, it’s something that I want to focus more on as a writer and critic, and I hope it’s also a reason to broaden my horizons and play more games outside my comfort zone.
If you followed along to this point, thank you! Let me know what games you enjoyed this year and why you liked them, and let’s all find more to love in 2023 and in our ever-growing backlogs.