When people look back on 2023, it’ll probably be remembered as a landmark year for video games. A year full of games that will probably be regarded as important in the greater canon, games that will prove to be heavily influential in the future. Some are already holding 2023 in the same regard some hold 1998 as an all-time high for the medium, and looking at the spread of games released over the past 12 months, you can see why. A ton of incredible games came out this year! But while it’s been a good year for playing games, it’s been a horrible one for actually working in games.
2023 has been awful for workers in the video game industry. Mass layoffs and studio closures have been a constant. More people are out of a job in this line of work than possibly ever before. Long-time studios have been closed as a result of reckless spending on acquisitions by their owners, choosing to destroy peoples livelihood while executives see no consequences. Funding is becoming harder to obtain, leading to cancellations of projects deep in development and making the possibility of even getting new ones off the ground a difficult prospect. To look at the current state of the industry and proclaim video games have had one of their best years to date is to ignore reality itself.
Nicole Carpenter over at Polygon spoke to a bunch of developers who lost their jobs this year and the current situation sounds bleak. Unofficial tracker Games Industry Layoffs estimates 9,000 jobs have been cut this year. Everyone affected is now fighting for an ever-shrinking pool of jobs. People have been without work for months and still have no leads on work. Many of them are likely ending the year still unemployed as the industry slows down hiring during the holiday season, while others still are cutting jobs just before the holidays.
As we look back on the year and reflect on the games we enjoyed the most, the ones that moved us and continue to stick with us, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the horrid state of the industry, the cruelty imposed upon the people responsible for creating the games we love. To accept the narrative that this year was exceptional for video games when by all accounts it was anything but in the ways that matter feels like a dereliction of the responsibility of our role as journalists and critics. To ignore the current state of affairs is cowardly and crass. It’s some The Game Awards bullshit.
What good is celebrating games if we can’t also make space to talk about the vile and unsustainable practices that uphold so much of the industry? What point is there to honoring the work of developers if we can’t be bothered to talk about the worsening state of affairs? If we’re to reflect on the year that was, to highlight games we loved, it’s only right that we not turn our eyes away from the myriad ways this year has been awful for workers while doing so.
May everyone affected be able to land on their feet quickly, and may things take a turn for the better soon. Wish there were some positive or hopeful note to end on, but… feel like things will get worse before they get better.
A note on the list:
The games listed here are mostly unordered. Our process was to have each of us nominate three games, make our case for them, then put it up to a vote to see which would take the number one spot. Everything up to number one isn’t ranked. The number two spot was a four-way tie (and number three a three-way tie), so it didn’t make sense to try and place them in any particular order. All the games mentioned here are held in equally high regard.
Everyone will be posting their own lists as well with more of their own picks and plenty more to say about them, which may or may not follow a different structure (we all tend to have different approaches for our personal lists: awards, top 10s, etc.), so look forward to that.
Hitman: World of Assassination
This was easily my most played game this year, for good reason. The freelancer mode is simply amazing, adding a nearly infinite amount of possibilities to an already huge game.
Aliens: Dark Descent
Games based on the Aliens license have been a mixed bag, but French outfit Tindalos Interactive got it just right. Dark Descent tells a new and interesting Aliens story through the prism of an exceptionally tense real-time tactics experience. It provides a stern challenge, with players having to carefully manage resources and personnel in order to overcome the xenomorph threat.
System Shock is a masterful remake of the original game which takes all of the great elements of the 1994 classic and modernizes them without sacrificing the atmosphere or complexity. With satisfying but tough gameplay, vast maze-like levels and some excellent voice acting for SHODAN, it allows her to reclaim her rightful place as the best evil supercomputer in video games (which GLaDOS had stolen for a while). Here’s hoping there will be a System Shock 2 remake at some point.
El Paso, Elsewhere
It would be easy to praise El Paso, Elsewhere purely on the strength of its take on Max Payne-style third-person action — because it is very good at that! — but it’s also so much more. Strange Scaffold’s take on neo-noir is slick as hell, combining stylish action and a deeply affecting story of love and toxic relationships that is delivered spectacularly.
Every shot is impeccable. Cinematography isn’t something that gets talked about a lot in games (I suspect it’s partially because most games consistently hit a level of quality that‘s good enough to pass without notice), but El Paso, Elsewhere’s demands notice. Every single scene frames each shot with such precision that it’s hard not to be immediately taken by them. Every scene perfectly blends the surrealism of the void the game’s set in with the introspective monologues of the protagonist, both striking in execution.
The outstanding performances of Xalavier Nelson Jr. and Emme Montgomery as James Savage and Draculae, respectively, deserve special mention. Both inject every scene with the weight of words left unsaid, a sadness that this is how things had to end — in a fight to the death to decide the fate of the world — but also a clear understanding that it had to end this way — could only end this way.
It’s a game that feels like it’s constantly punching above its weight in terms of production values. Few games with far bigger budgets, teams, and resources can compare to the sheer style and craft of El Paso, Elsewhere. Strange Scaffold’s been making cool and unique games for a while now, but El Paso, Elsewhere is something else.
Blasphemous 2 is one of those games whose genre I hate the name of [Editor’s note: *dramatic, booming voice* METROIDVANIA], it takes what was so good about the first one, namely the world and ambiance, and makes it a much more playable and in result, a way more fun game, which I loved playing through a few months ago.
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun
Made in the UK by Auroch Digital, this game successfully fuses retro shooter gameplay with the Warhammer 40,000 license. Crucially, Boltgun makes players feel like a space marine and it captures the dark, brooding atmosphere of the Games Workshop fiction. Easily one of the best games to use the 40K license, and a superb retro shooter in its own right.
Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon
Armored Core fucking rules. After a decade-long absence, From Software’s long-running mecha series is an outstanding return, clearly taking lessons they’ve learned in the time since and applying them to Armored Core. The result is one of the best action games around and easily FromSoft’s best work to date.
Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon is classic Armored Core through and through. It’s a collection of short self-contained missions. Every mission is only a few minutes at most on average, a series of quick bursts of action that are all killer, no filler. Every other mission is some of the coolest mech action you’ve ever seen. One moment you’re assaulting a heavily fortified base dodging all manner of artillery as you cut through the front line defenses, the next you’re single-handedly taking on a gargantuan walking mining platform that makes you look like an ant by comparison. There’s so many moments that could be the set-piece in any other game, but here, they’re just another mission.
The same applies to most of the fights as well. You know those boss fights where your opponent has the same abilities as you, so you’re both on even footing? Armored Core VI is full of these and they’re always exciting. Being pit against a fellow mech pilot is Armored Core at some of its best. Each and every one could easily be a proper boss fight with how intense and thrilling they are, almost always ending in a flash due to how quick and lethal these duels are. The titular mechs are frighteningly powerful, something Fires of Rubicon isn’t shy about showing every chance it gets, and engaging with another in combat is definitely a strong illustration of their power. It’s one thing to feel it through how easily you mow down your targets: it’s another to feel it because you’re on the receiving end for a change.
From Software has been honing their action game chops for years — over the past decade especially — and Armored Core VI feels like the pinnacle of that work. I played through most of the Armored Core series in the lead-up to Fires of Rubicon, and to see this series make such a strong comeback is so very exciting. I’ve no idea what’s next for From Software, but I can only hope more Armored Core is in the cards.
Dredge is an unassuming fishing game with a very dark twist that makes a good case for getting through to the end.
The Talos Principle 2
A masterclass in how to make a sequel, The Talos Principle 2 is MORE; more of everything the original did, taken to 11. More puzzles! More locations! More philosophy! More story! More characters! It’s gorgeous, has great writing and good voice acting, and some excellent puzzles which are the perfect balance of challenging but fair. The puzzles have also been greatly expanded, introducing a slew of new mechanics and ideas. If you enjoyed the original game back in 2014, the sequel is going to blow you away.
Goodbye Volcano High
Goodbye Volcano High utterly destroyed me. It’s not difficult for a story to make me emotional or move me to tears, but this game still absolutely wrecked me. It’s quite possibly the game I’ve thought about the most this year. Few days have passed since finishing the game where I haven’t thought about it, almost always recalling how I felt throughout its runtime.
Goodbye Volcano High is a classic coming of age story that follows a bunch of teenage dinosaurs in their last year of high school, with all the messy relationships and questions around identity and the future that everyone goes through. (It’s also pretty darn queer, which, you know — always a plus.) Except the end of the world is also fast approaching via a meteor that’s hurtling toward the planet.
It’s a tragedy, then, but not one that wallows in despair or nihilism. It doesn’t look away from the horror of facing the literal end of the world and being powerless to do anything about it, either. It walks a fine line between fun slice-of-life beats and the existential dread of living through an impending apocalypse and everything in between. It avoids just going through the motions of a typical high school drama, ensuring that characters are complex and fully formed rather than filling a set of roles or archetypes. It uses the setting more as a potent backdrop for the tragedy to come.
Knowing how the story is going to end should make it less powerful, but it doesn’t rob the plot of its efficacy and poignancy. It doesn’t make the characters’ journeys any less resonant nor their ultimate fates any less devastating. It’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching game, but also hopeful and life-affirming in the face of total disaster.
Viewfinder is a delightful puzzle game which is carried by the strength of its central mechanic: The ability to place photographs in the world and then go inside them as they become 3D environments. In screenshots, it’s impossible to see how amazing this is, without actually doing it for yourself. Every single time it happens it’s incredibly cool, and it never gets old. While the story/characters didn’t do a lot for me, I still had a great time with the relaxed atmosphere and inventive puzzles themselves.
Game of the Year
Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew
The worst and best of 2023 are intermixed in the development of Shadow Gambit. German developer Mimimi Games sadly announced their closure just weeks after the game’s release, citing exhaustion and financial difficulties. It is another entry in a long list of painful studio losses over the last twelve months.
Shadow Gambit is, however, a fantastic swansong for the studio. It is a bold and inventive continuation of their revival of the real-time stealth tactics genre. This time, the player commands a crew of undead pirates waging a clandestine war with the totalitarian Inquisition. The various islands of the Timeless Shores are the perfect setting for the numerous challenging missions.
Here, Mimimi successfully experiment with a number of risky mechanics which could easily have gone wrong in less capable hands. These include a non-linear mission structure, crewmates that are unlocked in a non-linear order, and a choice of which pirates to take into each mission. Together, they result in the most flexible stealth tactics experience yet.
Mimimi’s output since 2016 has been stellar. Shadow Tactics, Desperados III, and Shadow Gambit represent a superb run of games. The audience for this genre may be limited, but richly deserves to grow. Mimimi Games may be gone, but they leave behind an enviable legacy – including our game of the year.