It’s finally time for a one-pager(-ish) game-of-the-year list. As usual, this simple annual critical writing exercise has ballooned into a whole operation that sucks up half my holiday break. As taxing as it’s been, it feels good to make it to the end. I’m fairly happy with the breadth of games I played this year; helping to operate the Indie Game Club at my workplace put a more interesting spread of games on my radar, both the ones we actually played, and many nominees that weren’t selected.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve written nearly 1000 words about each of my top 10 games. That’s probably more than anyone needs to read, so without further ado, here’s a much more condensed version of that list. Without further ado, my top 10 games of 2023!
I don’t think that Cocoon is a perfect game, but it might be a perfectly crafted one. Its attention to detail is impeccable, its soundscape is eerie and alien, its visual design is consistently striking. This precision extends to its puzzle design; even though its world is continuous, the individual puzzles are hemmed in carefully to help the player understand what they’re working with. While I wish it had gone farther with some of its ideas, I appreciated the incredible focus and clarity in all aspects of its design. Also, it’s got some great creepy crawlies.
9. The Talos Principle II
The Talos Principle 2 is an unexpected and ambitious sequel, but not in the ways I expected. It further refines the puzzle gameplay of its original, but more importantly, it provides a compelling cast of characters with real problems to solve. These characters and their beliefs ground what would otherwise be myopic philosophizing and lead to interesting questions and choices. Even if it still breaks down to cleanly into a few big ideologies, its cast brings a real gravity and humanity to the storytelling, helping build a compelling mystery and difficult choices.
8. Metroid Prime Remastered
Metroid Prime Remastered brings a landmark game into much sharper focus by adapting modern control schemes. Similar to how the Wii remake made Metroid Prime newly approachable, this remaster adds classic dual-stick first person movement. Moreover, the world of Tallon IV has been carefully upscaled without ever losing a degree of uncanny, low-poly smoothness. The visual and audio identity of the game feels fully intact despite the upscaling. While some minor design details still feel archaic, Metroid Prime is a truly remarkable accomplishment, and it’s still a joy to experience it today.
7. Infinite Guitars
Infinite Guitars is admittedly a rough game. It has serious pacing issues and an unfocused jumble of gameplay mechanics. But it also has the soul of a particular sort of mecha anime, with storytelling that sticks the landing in a genuinely affecting way. On top of that, it has moments of incredible style. Special attack animations are exaggerated and joyous. The soundtrack packs a lot of variety into a short runtime, and all of its tunes are too catchy to overstay their welcome. It’s overlong and clumsy, but it was undeniably worth my time.
6. Chants of Sennaar
Chants of Sennaar is a clever puzzle adventure game about language, interpretation, and translation. It’s a spin-off?? of the tale of the Tower of Babel in which the player ascends the tower and interacts with linguistic enclaves on each level, interpreting each language and solving point’n’click-style puzzles. It involves some tricky deduction challenges, but gives the player a lot of room to them work out. Like Cocoon, I wish it went farther with some ideas. But I can’t deny the fact that it’s carefully tuned to provide a fun and engaging experience.
5. Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2 is a game about a writer trapped in a strange dream dimension, where his art rewrites the real world outside. It’s completely absurd and over-the-top, probably one of the most on-its-bullshit games I’ve ever played. It weaves a love of genre storytelling into a ridiculous metafictional powerhouse, and it does so with an astounding flair for visual and audio design. Everything I’ve loved about prior Remedy games is here in full force, cohering into something complete and wonderful. Middling survival horror gameplay aside, it’s a truly unique experience.
4. Hi-Fi Rush
Hi-Fi Rush is the latest in a trend of rhythm-gamifying other genres, in this case, a character action game like Bayonetta. It’s bright, colorful, cartoony fun, bursting with catchy tunes. It cleverly layers character action combat ideas an into a stylish brawler with an upbeat rock’n’roll coat of paint with the energy and heart of a superhero cartoon. If you’ve ever wanted to combine the feeling of a Devil May Cry S rank completion with a guitar hero song full combo, this game is probably the best way to chase that high.
Wildfrost is a dense and satisfying roguelike deckbuilder with an interesting layer of tactical position management between its two combat lanes. It has a steep difficulty curve that it justifies with compelling variety and relatively brief and punchy runs. The quick ramp up means fewer rote fights and more time spent pushing against real challenges. It’s certainly not flawlessly balanced, but it’s tuned to feel brutal, rewarding, and fair. Meaningful decisions are frequent, and an amazing run can go up in smoke from one wrong move. All that, plus some very cute, cartoony art and a jaunty soundtrack.
Venba is a narrative cooking game about the lives of a South Indian family who moves to Canada in the 80s. It’s heartbreaking, warm, and full of love and sorrow alike. It uses a deeply specific cultural depiction that invites players into its specificity, wants them to learn about its people and culture and recipes. But it also sees the shared threads of immigrant experience and tells a story that resonates across cultures. Venba has a lot of hope in its heart, but it knows that there will be regret and heartbreak along the way.
1. Lies of P
Lies of P is a well-oiled machine of a soulslike, brimming with carefully honed ideas from its inspirations as well as thoughtful and creative innovations. So many of its minor mechanical details lead to interesting decision making, exciting risk/reward management, and unexpectedly deft storytelling. It gave me a series of challenging fights that were all an absolute joy to slowly dismantle. At a time when my work was ill-defined and frustrating, Lies of P gave me the most incredible feelings of triumph, mastery, and progress that I’ve had from video games since Sekiro.
There are a great many games that I didn’t find time for in 2023, and I always enjoy adjusting my queue as I read the end-of-year articles from my favorite critics. I hope that my list convinces you to try something you might not have planned to.
I also hope that the next year leads to movements for sustainability and stability in the video game industry. Games may be made with mountains of multi-disciplinary creativity, but they’re fundamentally made with labor. I hope there are meaningful labor organizing opportunities for games workers at both large studios and indie outfits.
This year, I’d like to cap off my list with a few resolutions about how I want to play, think critically about, and write about games in the coming year. Here are my goals for 2024:
- Post something on this blog each month throughout the year
- Relatedly, I want my eventual top 10 list to be only a distilled list at the end of 2024 like this post (not a 12-post odyssey); I’ll feel justified if I write more throughout the year
- Start a backloggd account and begin writing brief reviews of games that I play as I complete them (or drop them)
- Branch out a bit from video games and do some critical writing about tabletop RPGs
Happy new year!