The year is wrapping up, so it’s time to uphold my annual tradition of only blogging at the very end of it. I got a late start, so that means that my #1 post will not be till the 2nd of January. 2023 has been a busy year for me personally, but a complicated one for video games. Despite a number of smash hits, the industry has responded with substantial layoffs and a growing reticence towards funding new projects.
Year after year, these contradictions stack atop one another and squeeze an art form that I love into different shapes. In addition to just the game development industry, the games media industry (and in fact, huge swaths of internet news media) have been subjected to similar belt-tightening. New worker-owned publications (Remap, Aftermath) are aiming to fill the games criticism voids left behind by dramatic cuts to huge media conglomerates.
This annual exercise is always a way for me to engage critically with the things that I played this year. But it’s ever more crucial to take stock of the circumstances and human costs of their creation. Including, of course, the ever-changing landscape of media criticism that informs the conversations we have about them. With that in mind, it’s time to kickoff my countdown with a few up-front notes about this year.
The Ones I Missed
There’s never enough time to play everything that catches my eye, so there are inevitably promising titles that I miss. Here’s a few I’m excited about.
An over-the-top mishmash of skating game, RPG, and cooking game. It looks so charming and pretty, so full of personality. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get to it, but it’s on my shortlist for next year.
At a glance, Ghostrunner 2 isn’t so different from anything else I missed this year. However, 2020’s Ghostrunner — a first-person parkour action game in a cyberpunk city — was one that I wished I’d made time for sooner. And despite that, I’ve gone and missed the sequel during its release year…
Immortals of Aveum
From a studio led by the creative director of Dead Space and Call of Duty, Immortals of Aveum essentially pitches itself as a Call of Duty single player campaign but with wizards. It looks profoundly goofy (in an endearing way). Frustratingly, the studio behind the game laid off nearly half of their team in the months following its lackluster release. I can’t help but feel a strange sense of guilt for having left it for later.
The Ones I Returned To
Hollow Knight Randomizer
This year, for the first time in my life, I installed a randomizer for a video game. I did not expect to get so far as completing a full randomized playthrough of 2017 metroidvania masterpiece Hollow Knight. It’s a very special game to me, and while I’ve rarely revisited games in recent years, this randomizer run sucked me in completely. The tooling to configure it is excellent and easy to use (as is the assistive tooling for when you’re stuck). Revisiting Hallownest in this way brought me a deeper appreciation of the game’s interlocking pieces, and the incredible fan work that goes into assembling a coherent randomizer.
Hitman 3 / Hitman: World of Assassination
I had never played a Hitman game prior to the modern trilogy that started with Hitman 2016. It’s an unusual format for a game. What are ostensibly a collection of highly-detailed sandboxes manage to unfold into spy-thriller-style grand conspiracies. Agent 47 is given an incredibly expressive set of tools to engineer the demise of the most obviously shitty people, always toeing the line between dark comedy and serious (if melodramatic) storytelling. The series is full of incredible writing, well-honed sandbox gameplay, and a mastery of macabre humor and catharsis. It’s become an intermittent but undeniable obsession of mine, and I will keep picking at it in the new year.
A game that spilled over from 2022 into the new year as I wrapped up my GOTY list. It’s heavily Metroid-inspired but with many of its own twists (some of which are admittedly a little clumsy). While it can be an uneven experience, it provides some interesting combat and exploration tools to experiment with. One clever little push-and-pull mechanic really stands out: when your gun arm approaches overheating, you briefly do more melee damage when you swing it at enemies! What really struck me, though, was the excellent character-driven storytelling filled with heart and mystery, melancholy and hope.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
It feels strange not to put this game in my list. It’s very good! It’s great, even! Tears of the Kingdom is irrefutable evidence that the team building the Legend of Zelda games — a series known for its stalwart adherence to core formulas — are more than capable of refining modern gaming trends. What they did for “open world” games, they do now for physics sandbox games. The building mechanics expand on the physics of Breath of the Wild to make something that’s as expressive as it is approachable. When it’s functioning at its best, it lends a healthy degree of creativity and ingenuity to solving problems. Beyond this, though, the game feels broadly like a refinement of 2017’s spectacular Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Though Tears of the Kingdom brings an underworld and sky islands, nothing quite compares to discovering the overworld for the first time in Breath of the Wild. I truly look forward to the next new world they build.
Remnant 2 is an ambitious sequel to 2019’s also-ambitious Remnant: From the Ashes, a world-hopping third-person shooter. Its numerous worlds are denser than its predecessor, filled with cool aesthetic and narrative ideas. Its core characters are interesting and its class and combat systems are expanded from its predecessor. I found that by the end, the game felt too much oriented towards its co-op mode for me to really get the most out of it on my own. And while its worlds had scaled up, they were a little too empty of life to make their procedurally-generated labyrinths exciting to keep exploring. I still greatly enjoyed it, and am excited to see where they go next.
Jusant is an adventure game focused around rock climbing. It’s an enjoyable experience all the way through, but I feel that it’s noteworthy for one specific reason: I think it represents a shift in a certain “art game” style. Though the climbing mechanics are not quite as interesting as I’d have hoped, they’re used as an exploration, traversal, and pacing tool in the same way that Journey or Gris uses running, jumping, gliding, etc. If Jusant could be described as a “climbing sim”, it would be in a way that mirrors “walking sim” more than it does “racing sim”. It’s not really about simulation; it’s about use traversal to pace, inform, and deliver storytelling. It’s not the first to do these things, but it does them in a way I’ve never seen before. The way you move through the world is fundamentally tethered to the way its story unfolds and the sort of place that it means to convey.
And that’s it for the kickoff. Stick around for my top 10, painstakingly counted down day by day. Or, stop by early next year to see the summarized list. That’s fine too!