Games of the Year — 2023

Mike Kelly
7 min readDec 20, 2023

In a year filled with big releases, I found myself a bit listless — AAA games this year mostly played it safe, which is why I found refuge in the weird, the small, and the obscure. I love a game that has something to say, and this year I found them (mostly) in the indie space.

10. Neon White

Neon White is the game that made me understand the joy of speedrunning. You careen through meticulously-crafted puzzle levels in search of tiny optimizations to shave off a fraction of a second. The design evokes a Mario-like ethos, as every stage finds new depths to plumb on its mechanics. With a delightful narrative backdrop and some excellent character interaction, it’s a gem of an experience.

9. Chants of Sennaar

Language is a strange invention of humanity. We try to relate to each other with imperfect words and writings, convey ideas through symbol and sound. Chants of Sennaar explores how cultures who might otherwise be brothers are kept distant by their inability to communicate with each other. As an outsider, you navigate the languages of these societies, trying to understand how they intersect — where a common humanity is able to shine through.

8. Hi-Fi Rush

Every year there’s a game that explodes onto the scene, utterly confident in its style and swagger. This year that game was Hi-Fi Rush. It’s a rhythm brawler, where you attack corporate robot bodies to the beat of songs that everyone had on their first iPod. It’s a joyous celebration of early-2000s attitude, with tunes from Zwan and Nine Inch Nails, upbeat and full of riotous color. Hell, it even has a goddamn Xenogears reference! What a joy to play.

7. Against the Storm

I am an absolute mark for city builders. No other genre puts me into a bubble of immersion where time loses all meaning. Against The Storm is a city builder roguelike — instead of one large metropolis, you develop a string of small outposts in a hostile land. Each town becomes a link in that chain, pushing out to the boundaries of the kingdom before the Blightstorm washes them all away. The systems interlock elegantly as you seek to balance your economy with the settlers’ resolve. It’s a remarkable harmony of genre, and the cause of many late night gameplay sessions.

6. VideoVerse

There was a golden age to the internet. There was a time where social media, ad revenue, data mining, and the stench of corporate money had not yet intruded. The internet could be used for its original promise — creating connections between people. It was a time lived on forums, BBSes, and pixellated chat software. VideoVerse is an expertly written visual novel that evokes the feeling of seeing familiar names in digital text, the anticipation of waiting for a chat response, and the smile of acceptance when you come across a community that welcomes you. For all the digital hell we now find ourselves in, VideoVerse wants to remind you that there was once a better way.

5. Super Mario Wonder

Mario is bound by tradition. Nintendo has not changed the core verbs of their flagship franchise for decades — run, jump, stomp. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is at once a psychedelic new coat of paint around the core ideas that made the franchise great. It’s a 2D platformer that evokes the SNES classics, but picks its moments to shatter its conventions in the service of delighting the player. It feels like all the stranger ideas from Mario’s history have been rescued from the cutting room floor and rewoven into a something that truly tries to push Mario forward.

4. Roadwarden

Roadwarden is a text-based graphical RPG that evokes the mood of early interactive fiction like Zork. You are a lone warden set to patrol the roads of the northern peninsula, traveling through village, vale, and gully, to deal with the travails of the people who inhabit the land. It almost feels like a storybook, impeccably written and evocative of even the smallest details. You can approach it almost like a tabletop RPG campaign — there is an amazing amount of freedom to either serve the downtrodden or exploit them. Most high-budget games aren’t able to get this degree of immersion with an army of artists, but Roadwarden paints a full world with only a few lines on the page.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Breath of the Wild was a sea change in not only the Zelda franchise, but games in general. The sheer audacity of its design opened new possibilities for play and adventure. When it was announced that Tears of the Kingdom would return to that same world, I was both excited and trepidatious. Could lightning strike twice, or would the magic be gone?

As it turns out, the magic has changed. Breath of the Wild showed the aftermath of a world destroyed by calamity, but Tears of the Kingdom shows the world healing in fits and starts, reclaiming the world that has been laid to waste. It is more lively, with travelers on the road, towns being rebuilt, and light brought to dark places. Old areas where you once feared to tread have become safe idylls to linger in and feel a serene beauty.

On top of this, Tears of the Kingdom brings new ways to interact with the world— you can build vehicles that can soar through the air or ride on the water (or both!). You can fuse weapons together with which to fight your foes. Or you can reverse time, sending a careening boulder back to whence it came.

Tears of the Kingdom was never going to recapture the singular magic of Breath of the Wild, but it has continued its heritage of pushing forward what is possible in games.

2. Marvel’s Midnight Suns

The MCU has been so ubiquitous for the past decade that it seems that all superhero stories must tie in to it in some way. But occasionally something comes along that draws from the comics that inspired the MCU, and boldly plants its own flag on what superhero media can be.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns is an oddity — one half tactical battler mixed with card-based abilities, and the other half third-person exploration and social sim. It’s a weird fusion of disparate mechanics, but it works — the two halves feed off each other effortlessly to create a whole experience that immerses you in what feels like a true comic book world.

Where it excels is in the deep texture of all the interactions. There’s the overarching plot of the world in danger, of course, but I found myself looking forward to attending a book club with Blade and Captain Marvel, navigating the rifts that developed between the Avengers and the original Midnight Suns, and lending an ear to the personal struggles of companions like Illyana Rasputin and Agatha Harkness. Every plotline and character arc is crafted with care, making sure that you understand what it is to be comrades with those whose abilities bless and curse them in equal measure.

Many developers are forced into narrow paths for the games they make nowadays — what will be popular, what will be profitable, what fits into a larger corporate plan. Midnight Suns is an audacious product that dares to stand on its own, embody its own identity, and be a beacon of what games can be.

1. Baldurs Gate 3

When Baldur’s Gate 3 was announced, it seemed a risky bet. Everything seemed stacked against it — Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are arguably the most iconic CRPGs ever made, and to revisit the franchise over 20 years since the last installment was to set an impossibly high bar. Even Larian, who had made their name developing excellent games that evolved the ideas of early CRPGs, had to feel the weight of expectations on them. But Baldur’s Gate 3 overcame these impossible odds to become one of the finest RPGs ever made.

RPGs have been chasing the tabletop space almost since their inception, but BG3 actually evokes the mood of an epic D&D campaign in the digital space. A long, sprawling campaign with fantastical monsters, magical intrigue, and a world-ending Sword of Damocles over your head.

For all of this, the soul of Baldur’s Gate has always been its characters, and BG3 continues that tradition. You are joined by some of the most captivating characters I’ve ever seen. The formal and severe githyanki Lae’zel, torn between competing duty and tradition. The dark priestess Shadowheart, who seeks to literally find herself. The doomed tiefling Karlach, whose pure joy for living burns as brightly as her mechanical heart. The characters grow and change in unexpected ways, but feel utterly authentic with every interaction.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is a triumph. Nothing more needs to be said.

--

--

Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.