Folks, we come to the end of 2023 at long last. Today’s our last official day on site for the year, so it’s time I got my GOTY list for 2023 out the door.
I have not numbered the games that follow. Any attempt to rank the games below could have resulted in irrevocable brain damage. Rather, I have listed my favourite games of 2023 entirely according to my vibes. These are the games that pleased me, surprised me, thrilled me, or otherwise tickled me throughout the year.
As many others have noted in this year’s collection of 2023 GOTY guest lists, it’s been a horrible year for video game developers. It’s been a horrible year for developers while simultaneously being one of the largest and most impressive release calendars in the history of the medium.
But the games industry appeared to reach a kind of economic line in the sand this year, the first time that the bar graph of infinite corporate growth faltered in god knows how long. Years of unsustainable business practices that had collided with a pandemic-driven boom began to creak in the wind. In 2023, businesses only know one way to respond to such a situation.
Carnage followed, and thousands of jobs around the world were lost. The redundancies all seemed timed for the same periods, happening in horrifying batches across days and weeks. Some devs were let go right after shipping massively successful games, others before they’d even got their titles out the door.
Many of the bigger games on my list this year are the products of teams and publishers prepared to meet halfway. There are so many games on this list that don’t exist without a great deal of trust and latitude between stakeholders and studios. There are also examples of publishers like Nintendo, that invest in their talent over many, many years, institutional knowledge prized above a short-term bump for the shareholders.
That kind of understanding is gold in an industry increasingly comfortable with bloodletting, stuck in an infinite loop of downsizing and staffing back up project-to-project, regardless of the human cost. The industry marches blindly down this path, but it plainly leads to madness — it leaves everyone itinerant, afraid to put their whole hearts and souls into their work for fear of losing it. Add to this an epidemic of piss-poor management, a growing willingness to ship unfinished games, and a bit of blatant trend-chasing for good measure … it feels as though the horrible, horrible wheel of video game business can spin no faster.
May 2024 be easier on the heart for all of us.
I didn’t mean for that assessment to be quite so … gloomy. Thank you for indulging me in that little rant. Regular readers know I prefer to be a little more positive than that, so to lift the spirits a little, let’s now talk about some video games that rocked and celebrate the people who worked so hard to make them for us.
I still cannot believe that Hi-Fi Rush came out of a major studio owned by a major publisher. Its heart and soul are that of a game from the PS2 era, a different time and industry paradigm, when arcade brawlers like this were everywhere. In 2023, filled as it is with open world genre soup and live service treadmills, Hi-Fi Rush feels like a wild creative swing. It hangs everything on the rhythm game design that is its beating heart, and is a better, more tactile action game for doing so. Its story is simple, but silly and strangely arresting, immediately lunging for the player’s collar in a manner that recalls FLCL.
This is the last game I expected from a studio best known for The Evil Within and Ghostwire Tokyo. It’s a beautiful, spritely, energetic piece of video game sugar that produced a high from which I’m yet to descend. It is remarkable gear, and it’s a thrill to see Xbox and Bethesda giving Tango Gameworks the latitude to make something like this and then shadowdrop it without any hype or marketing.
Hi-Fi Rush is proof that the old ways have never lost their power — games don’t have to be complicated to be fun. They don’t have to be stuffed with mechanics or giant open-world maps or ultra technical cinematic sequences to be a great game. Sometimes, a great video game is an anime dum dum smacking a boss with a guitar while Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Perfect Drug’ blares in your ears.
One of the finest boomer shooters of the year, Prodeus blends the mesmeric game feel of Doom 2016 with visuals that recall a blend of Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. The weapons, they are beefy. The action, it is relentless. The blood, it is everywhere.
I have played hours of Prodeus this year, and I know that I will play much more of it. Playing Prodeus feels like someone using one of those wirey orgasmatron things on my skull. It feels good. You can play it for hours, and it never stops feeling good. I recommend it to everyone now, as though it has become some kind of sensory bible. Real “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” stuff.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
I don’t like Souls games; they’ve just never clicked for me. But I like the Star Wars Jedi games, which are functionally Souls games, and that’s how I know I’m a huge baby. If you whack a Star Wars logo on it, I’ll apparently acquiesce to anything.
Luckily, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is a very good game in its own right. It’s less ragged around the edges than its predecessor and more interested in exploration of the Metroid-like interconnected map design of a Souls game. You could barely explore at all in Jedi: Fallen Order due to that game’s heinous, inscrutable map. Changes to the Jedi: Survivor map turns the scouring all of the game’s worlds for collectibles and powerups into an earned treat rather than a chore.
Great stuff, on every level. A sequel that ticks every box.
The moment I played Dredge at PAX Aus in 2022, I knew it was special. Dredge casts you as the captain of a little fishing boat. By day, you go about your work — fishing, dredging up old or useful items from the sea floor, selling it all for cash to upgrade your boat. As the sun sets, the world begins to change and grow more dangerous. The longer you remain awake and out at sea, the more your captain will start to hallucinate strange creatures or objects. But are they hallucinations? What’s more, every port town you visit is filled with people in possession of dark secrets — secrets you are (physically and literally) beginning to dredge up.
Masterful stuff. A game of creeping, subtle horror from a studio to watch. Bravo Black Salt Games.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
I can’t believe the sad Zelda guy ad was right.
Tears of the Kingdom is Aonuma’s masterpiece, a game that gives and gives and gives of itself so that the player can make the most of every moment. It’s a game that proves what we all know innately but that the industry so often rejects: experienced developers armed with time, resources, and the trust of a publisher not wringing its hands about the next investor call, can produce magnificence. It’s also the #3 highest selling game of the year, proving this approach is not only wise, it’s profitable.
Much has been made of TotK‘s crafting system, and that’s because it’s one of the best ever created. The systems that bind it all together are so simple on the surface and so complex behind the scenes that it’s a wonder any of it works at all. But it does, perfectly. The adventure is informed by it at every turn — both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are games that are about discovery. In BotW, the act of discovery came through the exploration of the world itself. Tears of the Kingdom still does this too — the moment you realise exactly how big The Depths are is an all-timer — but there’s another layer: there’s mechanical discovery too. Solving a problem with a bespoke solution you concocted, no matter how absurd, feels incredible every time.
And the game never tells you no. It watches on, smiling and nodding. It wants this for you. In these little moments of victory, you will remember joy.
Metroid Prime Remastered
Someone once joked that “You can’t spell Metroid Prime without ‘Retired IP’.” For a long time, I feared it was true. Nintendo seemed to have no interest in Metroid Prime, or the Metroid series at all after the drubbing Metroid: Other M received on release. But then, sparks of hope — Metroid Prime 4 was confirmed back in 2017, and then dropped off the face of the planet again. Metroid Dread returned the series to its 2D roots, as the sidescrolling genre the series built exploded in popularity. But Prime remained dormant.
And then, out of nowhere, Nintendo confirmed Metroid Prime Remastered. MPR is a reminder of exactly how great this series was, and it makes several substantial improvements on the original. The updated controls are a godsend, and the game looks a million bucks running on the now-obviously lacklustre Switch hardware. It allows for greater freedom of movement, ditching the original’s propensity for having to you stop to squint at every object you wanted to scan for information, or enemy you wanted to shoot at more precisely.
A remaster par excellence. May Prime 2 and 3 get the same loving treatment. I would love to play them again.
Street Fighter 6
Might be too niche a joke for anyone outside of Australia, but I’m doing it anyway: Capcom has successfully brought back the biff.
Super Mario Bros Wonder
I don’t know how Nintendo is still able to churn out new Super Mario Bros games that are as interesting, tactile and vital as they were 40 years ago on the NES. Super Mario Bros. Wonder has been called the best new 2D Mario game since the original Super Mario World, and I think that’s a fair assessment. The entire game is suffused with a sense of playfulness. The designers lay traps for the player, and blow cheeky raspberries when you walk right into them. It’s wonderful stuff.
The difficulty curve starts extremely low, and it may cause your devotion to falter. Push forward into the mid-game where the challenge graph starts to climb rapidly. As you enter the game’s final regions, the challenge leaps in tandem with the enjoyment. Having taught you the skills required to beat it on a slow curve, Super Mario Bros. Wonder turns the dial, asks you to use it all, and it’s thrilling.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
How nice to have the game CDPR promised back in 2020 finally arrive. It’s still a little scuffed here and there — Cyberpunk 2077 will bear certain scars of its premature birth forever — but the game is finally in the best shape of its life. At last, the grand scale of what CDPR was trying to accomplish isn’t to the game’s detriment. You can finally sink into Night City and experience it the way you’d hoped before launch.
The Phantom Liberty DLC might be some of CDPR’s best storytelling yet, and sends V off with a new and much more interesting ending than they originally got. If you’ve been one of the patient few holding out for someone to tell you that you can finally play Cyberpunk 2077, this is it. This is the moment that happens. You can now play it and know you’re getting the best version of the game we’re ever going to get.
May the sequel avoid the same fate.
Dave the Diver
In a year of giant releases, Dave the Diver was a little game by a little developer funded by a big company. The controversy around its nomination for Best Indie Game slot at The Game Awards despite not technically being an indie at all has recently overshadowed the fact that it’s a delightful little game and one of the year’s great surprises.
Part exploration, part fishing game, and part business management, Dave the Diver is about a big, happy fellow doing favours for people and getting way in over his head in the process. By day, Dave dives from his boat to catch fish. He then takes the day’s catches to his friend’s sushi restaurant, where he works as a waiter in the evenings. The money Dave makes at the restaurant is tipped back into his equipment and his boat, allowing him to dive to greater depths and catch more troublesome, dangerous and expensive fish. To tell you more would be to spoil some of this game’s wild twists, so I’ll leave it there. It’s currently $24 on Steam and you should play it.
Baldur’s Gate 3
I’m sure people are sick of seeing Baldur’s Gate 3 appear on GOTY lists already, but it deserves to be there. A 300-hour RPG that refuses to indulge the worst monetisation habits of the modern games industry, that successfully translates the 5th Edition D&D experience into digital form, and which makes a 25-year-old CRPG franchise relevant again in one fell swoop?
BG3 is an achievement on so many levels, it makes you wonder what other studios are doing with their time. The quality of the character work is fantastic and remarkably consistent across the entirety of any given playthrough. The game has contingencies upon contingencies hidden from the player, revealed only when you pick a path to travel. It’s remarkable enough to ship a game of this size and scale at all. That it is a spectacular success on every level from start to finish puts it in Instant Classic territory.
Alan Wake 2
Sam Lake can do anything he wants, and I will probably enjoy it. I wasn’t even a big fan of the original Alan Wake — I found it a little clunky for my taste — but Alan Wake 2 made me a fan. I’m already interested in the assembled universe of games that Remedy has been piecing together in recent years, from Control to Quantum Break — to see them all tied together so neatly by a story in which Alan quite literally asks to be excluded from the narrative is really, really special.
That it manages to be a ripping detective yarn on top of that takes the whole production to another level. It’s gorgeous, it’s tremendously scary, and it presents one of the most enjoyable and methodical depictions of police work in any AAA game I’ve ever played. Great stuff.
Armored Core 6
If the stompy bots have one fan, that fan is me. If the stompy bots have zero fans, it’s because I have died.
Forza Motorsport rocked the boat a bit when it launched in October. Neither the arcadey fun of the Horizon franchise, nor the slightly-more-forgiving-than-average racer of previous Motorsport entries — FM was a hard racing sim. I mean that in every way — this is a game that throws players in the deep end to the extent that it almost requires a prior understanding of general motorsport rules to get started. You’d also better know how vehicle tuning works because it isn’t about to give you so much as a hint.
And here’s the thing: I loved it.
I think Forza Motorsport still leans on the more forgiving side of the hard racing sim line than contemporaries like iRacing. I think it gives Gran Turismo 7 a run for its money in terms of visuals, but I also think its driving model has some odd quirks that could be ironed out with a bit of fine-tuning. But it’s also easier to jump into than GT7, and it isn’t constantly asking me to buy more cars. Rather, it makes (I think) the very wise decision to help you select a specific car for each discipline and then upgrade it thoroughly over time. This lets you learn each car’s personality and behaviour in different situations, making you a better driver. That’s how real race driving works — you have to build confidence in the car if you’re going to drive it on the limit, and learning to do that is baked right into the Forza Motorsport design. Love it.
Can I even put a game that may never actually launch on my Game of the Year list? (Yes, it’s my list; I can do what I want, even if what I want is entirely sentimental.)
Jumplight Odyssey is a sci-fi colony sim made by Melbourne’s League of Geeks. It entered early access earlier this year and was bound for (probably) a mid-year release in 2024 until LoG made business-saving personnel cuts earlier this month. The game now exists frozen in time, probably destined to never launch. But what’s there is very, very good.
It’s a softer, sweeter kind of management sim, one that puts hope and people right at the core of its model. These aren’t minions you’re bossing around — they’re people with names and connections and traits, all working toward a common goal and looking to you for leadership. I’ve believed in this little game from the moment I first laid eyes on it, and I’m sad that it may never be completed.
For it, and for the many other little games that never made it out the door this year, it goes on the list.
Perhaps it’s a desire to avoid recency bias, but I haven’t seen Spider-Man 2 on many GOTY lists this year. I think that’s wild — Spider-Man 2 is one of the most polished, stylish modern action games ever made. Insomniac has gotten exciting, big-budget superhero play down to a fine art. They are the masters of this domain in the way that Naughty Dog became the masters of the Indiana Jones-style action adventure game in Uncharted.
While a touch long, the story is one of the better modern Spidey yarns going. Its trophies aren’t a chore to unlock, and it grants one of the most reasonable Platinums in any first-party PlayStation release. It’s also a glorious show pony for your PS5 when combined with a screen that can really do it justice. Spectacular. A standout in a year of strong single-player action-adventure titles.
Fuck Connections. This is it. Gubbins is the best word game of the year, and it’s not even close. A beautiful collision of pure whimsy and a willingness to indulge the kind of filthy language that Scrabble abhors would be enough to put it over the line on their own. That you can take the impossibly crude library of words and create howlingly funny postcards with them after each round is the icing on the cake.
Marvellous work from Aussies Studio Folly. I can’t stop playing it.
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