After becoming some combination of too busy and too lazy to publish any sort of Game of the Year list for 2021, I’m back! My 2020 video was both a format I really liked and a complete pain in the ass to make, so I’m back to the good ol’ written word this year. There were a ton of great games this year, and some I really didn’t like at all. To try to focus more time and effort on the games I actually liked, I started with the bottom entry (#41) with only five words to talk about it. For each subsequent entry, I added five more words to my limit for that game, ending with 205 words to talk about my #1 game of the year. It’s long, it’s self-indulgent, and I loved writing it. Thanks for reading!
And yes, each entry is EXACTLY that many words, feel free to check the word counts, nerds.
41. Diablo Immortal
Dollars Spent: $0
Fine enough, until the paywall.
40. V Rising
Best Ability: Turning Into A Bear
The combat isn’t exciting enough to overcome my crafting distaste.
39 Overwatch 2
Worst Rework: Orisa
Every decision made in the transition from Overwatch 1 was a step backwards. Baffling product.
38. Omega Strikers
The sales pitch of “League of Legends meets Rocket League” is much better on paper than it feels in practice.
37. Hyper Demon
Best Score: Like 12 Seconds
I’m glad this game exists, but it’s either too hard or I don’t understand it. It gave me a headache immediately, but that feels intentional.
36. Vampire Survivors
Best Weapon: Magic Wand
I think this game is totally fine, but the universal praise it’s received for its “genius” has turned me into a hater. Mindless fun, it’s the McDonald’s of video games.
Best Reveal: Praying At Statues
The game starts well with great exploration and “aha” moments, but by the end the time commitment that both the retreading of areas and the busy work of the puzzles require is tedious and annoying.
34. Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition
Best Party Member: Mojo
JRPGs are not my genre, despite my favorite thing in games being large, diverse casts of characters. The character variety and constant trickle of new party members throughout propelled me to finish, but the gameplay never did it for me.
33. DNF Duel
This game occupies a really strange space in the gap between a serious technical fighting game and a goofy fun time party game. If you take it too seriously it says “lmao, it’s not balanced though,” which leaves me wondering what their intended audience was.
32. Gotham Knights
Best Ability: Cameras Can’t See Batgirl
If you use the Men In Black memory eraser to forget about the Arkham series, then this is a decent enough Batman game. The Bat-family and relationships between Bruce Wayne’s many proteges has always been my favorite part of the mythos, and that’s… present here. The whole game is… present.
Best Animation: Cat Rolling Around
There are some neat things about this game, but it never made me feel anything more than a monotone “oh, that’s kind of neat.” It doesn’t have any glaring flaws, it looks nice, the music is pretty good, but in five years I’ll barely remember if I played it or not. The definition of “mid.”
30. Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
Best Unlockable Character: Nien Nunb
The Lego games have been quietly taking bigger swings with their gameplay and systems over the last couple entries, but with twice the pride comes double the fall. There’s still enough jankiness present that it feels like you need a more hardcore gamer to guide a younger co-op partner along. The absurd amount of characters and unlocks are the highlight.
29. High On Life
Best Gun: Tim Robinson
I was 4 or 5 hours into this game when the Justin Roiland indictment news dropped, and to be clear: fuck that guy. I stopped playing then and didn’t feel too broken up about it. The main reason I was playing it was, of course, to unlock the Tim Robinson talking gun, which I have now looked up on Youtube instead. Probably better off, honestly.
28. Salt and Sacrifice
Best Weapon Type: Spear
Just like Salt and Sanctuary, I don’t really have a good reason for why I stopped playing Salt and Sacrifice. I wasn’t in love with the leveling or gear systems, the art style and animation weren’t my favorite, but I didn’t actively dislike any of it. All told, it added up to a game that I had a good time with for a while, but didn’t need any more of.
27. Horizon: Forbidden West
Best New Character: Kotallo
I have a brain worm that compels me to play every new game I can every year (see: this list). This problem also has a side effect- when I finished my 50+ hours with Horizon all I could think was “how many great smaller games did this replace?” There’s a world where I like a 10-20 hour version of this game, but after 50 hours of it I resented it too much to get invested.
Best Weapon: Rockets
Rollerdrome is a good game with a great concept (what if Tony Hawk had a gun) that layers too many systems and increases the difficulty too much and too quickly for its own good. Doing a slow motion backflip off a halfpipe while shooting a dude in the head with dual pistols is unimaginably cool, just let me do that and I’m happy. Instead, it ramps up the difficulty and introduces too many enemies that are more annoying than fun.
25. Rogue Legacy 2
Best Class: Chef
The reason that roguelikes tend to appeal to me so much is their variety- each run you have different weapons and explore different layouts. I also tend to prefer roguelites over the more hardcore roguelikes, with the distinction being that there is some sort of overall progression you make on a meta level outside of each run. Rogue Legacy hit both of these criteria (variety and progression) well for the first half or so, but ran out of both before I actually reached the end.
24. Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course
Best Weapon: Chaser
I never want to look at the stats of how many people have beaten Cuphead and its DLC, because it would ruin the mystique I’ve built up in my own head that it’s the hardest game I’ve ever finished. It doesn’t matter that I know there’s a harder difficulty than the one I played on, or that I know that people have beaten the game without getting hit. When I beat one of those taunting assholes after over a dozen attempts? In that one moment I’m the greatest gamer alive.
23. Destiny 2: The Witch Queen
Best Weapon: Still Suros Regime, After All These Years
These days, it feels like every game wants to be the only game in your life. They all want you to check in, do your dailies, do your weeklies, and complete the monthly battle pass. At one point Destiny was that game for me, but I eventually had to throw in the towel. If Destiny was my main game, this list would be about 15 games shorter, which is obviously unacceptable. Learning to be a once-a-year Destiny player has been an exercise in getting over FOMO. Luckily, this year’s content was some of its best.
22. Pokemon Legends: Arceus
Best Animation: Mantine Doing An Orbital Laser
Describing what made Legends: Arceus so special to an outsider sounds ridiculous. “No, you don’t understand, you can actually throw a pokeball now! You can see the Pokemon walking around before you fight them!” The changes Arceus made seem like no-brainers, and most of them were, but Game Freak still deserves credit for finally moving the stagnant franchise forward. Despite having most of the same Pokemon and basically the same battling mechanics, they managed to make a game that felt exciting and fresh. For the first time in at least a decade I’m excited about the future of the franchise.
21. Pokemon Violet
Best New Pokemon: Tinkaton
The state of the Pokemon franchise this year is bizarre. Two giant open world entries came out, and each one was seemingly made by a completely separate team within Game Freak that had no communication with the other. Neither made all the changes necessary to reach the series’ full potential, but both left me with a feeling I haven’t had with Pokemon in at least a decade- hope. Violet gets the edge over Arceus for me solely because Arceus was missing the excitement of a new collection of little guys. All they have to do now is combine the best parts of both games! Easy!
20. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope
Best Party Member: Luigi
I tend to separate games I’m playing into two categories, what I like to call Brain-On games and Brain-Off games. A game is Brain-On when it requires focus, either because of difficult gameplay, dense story, or complicated strategy. A game is Brain-Off when it doesn’t require any of those, and Mario + Rabbids is one of the best Brain-Off games of the year. This isn’t meant in a disparaging way- I love Brain-Off games, they’re perfect for the last hour of the night, curled up in bed while watching sitcom reruns. The tactics in Mario + Rabbids are simple and satisfying, and sometimes it’s nice to not be challenged all that much.
19. Nobody Saves the World
Best Class: Monk
Nobody Saves the World is a game that succeeds on its ability to trick the player into thinking they’re a creative genius, when they’re really being guided down a path by the developers. It gives you the freedom to mix and match your own characters and abilities, which leads you to try to break the game by combining abilities in unfair or over-powered ways. The trick, of course, is that the abilities were designed with these combinations in mind. EVERY combination is broken, just like the developers intended. I rarely thought of this while playing, though, because I was too busy cackling while mowing through enemies with the most recent “busted” build I had crafted.
18. Metal: Hellsinger
Best Song: Stygia
When I see games like Metal: Hellsinger pre-release, my pessimism tries to tell me not to get too excited for it. When a smaller studio so directly emulates a well-known AAA game (in this case DOOM (2016)), it’s hard to believe that it’ll have the same level of polish to its gameplay. I’m happy to report that in this case, they nailed it. They recognized how important the soundtrack was to DOOM’s success, and leaned even more heavily into it by timing the combat to the beat. The thumping, primal nature of metal music works perfectly to put your whole body into the rhythm and get fully immersed. Possibly the most “HELL YEAH”s per minute of any 2022 release.
17. The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe
Best Ending: Endless Hole
It’s both incredibly hard to write good comedy and incredibly hard to write a work that is meta-textually commenting on its own artistic medium- The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe succeeds at both. Unfortunately, to talk about how it succeeds, a secret of the update needs to be spoiled: this is actually The Stanley Parable 2. There are hours of new content, and it’s all a commentary on the nature of sequels, reviews, critical response, and audience feedback. Some of the funniest jokes in this update are subtle, hidden in posters and background art, but others are much more elaborate, with gameplay and setting shifts. The final product ends up falling somewhere between director’s commentary and sketch comedy, and it has far more hits than misses.
16. The Quarry
Best Character: Kaitlyn
It’s a fine line to walk when creating genre work that’s intentionally schlocky or campy, and that’s doubly true for horror. There’s an earnestness required that can only come from a place of love for the genre, and fans will spot outsiders trying to cash in on their fandom from a mile away. From the cheesy dialogue, the twisting and pastiching of tropes, the cast, and the 90s VHS tape art in the menus, it’s easy to tell that Supermassive are real fans. The tone strikes the perfect balance between comedic, tense, and intriguing.They make these types of games because they love them, not because they think it’ll make them truckloads of money. The ending we got on our playthrough kind of sucked, but whose fault is that really?
15. Cult of the Lamb
Best Follower Form: Turtle
There’s a concept in UX design that is also applicable to games called modality- a non-modal game has every action take place in the same “mode” of play, and a modal game has separate “modes” of interaction, e.g. walking around in a JRPG and zooming into a separate battle mode when you touch an enemy. The best modal games have their disparate parts complement each other, and that is where this game succeeds. A standard loop consists of going out into a dungeon to defeat enemies and stockpile resources, then returning to your cult to use those resources to build structures and make sure your followers still love you unconditionally. Neither mode would be an exceptional game on its own, but the way the modes feed back into each other keep it engaging throughout.
14. God of War: Ragnarok
Best Boss Fight: Heimdall
It’s weird to think of a game that lands just outside of my top 10 for the year as a disappointment, but that’s where I find myself with God of War: Ragnarok (the first game was my #4 game of 2018, for reference). I think on the whole I actually like the story and characters even more than the first game here, but found myself frustrated with pretty much all aspects of the gameplay. Not having any sort of fast travel discouraged me from going back to previous areas and exploring. The enemy and encounter design opted for specific puzzle-like solutions to fighting enemies over the build freedom I enjoyed in the first game. And yet, I was compelled enough to see what would happen next to play 40+ hours of the game, and I can’t really argue with that.
13. Marvel’s Midnight Suns
Best Party Member: Nico Minoru
When Firaxis announced Midnight Suns, it was easy to assume that it would just be XCOM but with Marvel characters (which would already be great). But having played it, it’s actually more like Fire Emblem: Three Houses with Marvel characters. The game puts just as much of a focus on hanging out in between missions, with the likes of Peter Parker and Carol Danvers sitting around in hoodies playing video games and working out. This is a great choice for the long-form medium of video games. Movies, tv shows, and even the source comics don’t often make time for the downtime and humanity of the characters, and they’re presented here with an earnestness that feels fresh and light. The loop of doing a mission, hanging out after, and training and upgrading before the next mission often kept me playing for much longer than I intended.
12. Marvel Snap
Best Deck: Quinjet/Collector/Shield card gen
When a big property like a Marvel or Star Wars enters an established genre that already has multiple major players on the market, it’s usually a quick, cheap cash grab attempt. Fortunately, Marvel Snap is anything but. If anything, I would be surprised if we didn’t see clones and copycats of Marvel Snap in the coming years. It simplifies and expedites traditional CCG gameplay into bite-sized 3 minute games and boils everything down to one stat- a card’s power. When you first start out this can seem overly simplistic, but over the course of unlocking new cards with increasingly unique abilities and synergies, it’s easy for your mind to race thinking up new decks and combos to try. I can’t say that this will be true forever, but for now Marvel Snap has joined my regular rotation of weekly staple games with the likes of League, Valorant, and Apex Legends.
Best Item: Flashlight Module
When making a nostalgia play, it can be hard to know in which ways to stay true to the inspiration and in which ways to try to move the genre forward. Signalis does a great job with this- it sticks with some genre staples like extremely limited inventory, vague story told through collectible notes, and even PS1-styled graphics. At the same time, it forgoes the “tank controls” of those games in favor of a very smartly done dual-stick control scheme. It also replaces Resident Evil’s hokey amulet and colored jewel-based puzzles with far more diegetic and logical puzzles, involving actually reading and understanding the notes you find to progress. Its biggest evolution, though, is in the serious tone and subtlety of its storytelling. At its core it’s a robot love story, and the way it communicates more through evocation of emotions than direct exposition works very well to enhance the moody atmosphere and moment-to-moment tension.
Best Plot Point: Questionable Hot Dog
Dystopian fiction tends to be set dozens or hundreds of years in the future, with unrecognizably different infrastructure and government systems metaphorically representing and exaggerating problems we see in society today. An underrepresented subgenre of dystopian sci-fi fiction is a very-near-future grounded dystopia, and this is where Norco operates. Norco posits that dystopia isn’t 50 or 100 years away, it’s like 5. The groundedness of the setting and story and relatability of the characters make the extraordinary and otherworldly aspects all the more unsettling, and the sci-fi backdrop is used to extend and extrapolate on the issues we already face regarding corporations’ roles in perpetuating class struggle. The tone runs the gamut from hilarious (a cult of polo-clad tech bros all named Garrett), to heartbreaking (a mother with a cancer diagnosis trying to pay for a consciousness transfer through gig work), to terrifying (a sentient AI duck demon thing?), and each helps paint a broader picture of humanity under capitalism.
Best Move: Leg Sweep
The last couple years have given us a decent collection of new 2D brawlers like Streets of Rage 4, Shredder’s Revenge, and River City Girls, but when these games come out they succeed as interesting reminders of a bygone era more than they feel like new innovations on the formula. To me, Sifu is the game that carries the spirit of that lineage and successfully elevates it into 3D space. You’re still managing crowds, dodging and parrying, and picking up whatever pipe or wood plank will help you pummel the next closest enemy, but the freedom of movement and open 3D areas are much more exciting and memorable to me than the 2D planes of the genre’s past. I’m not sure that I’ve ever played a game with melee combat that feels as good as it does here, and It’s not by accident that the most common characters people mention when talking about this game are John Wick, Daredevil, and the guys from The Raid.
8. Trombone Champ
Favorite Song: Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing
I’m sure this happens to every creative, but every year there are a couple games that almost make me mad with how clever their design is. “God, why didn’t I come up with that? That’s genius.” This year, that game is Trombone Champ. I’m not sure whether the design started with “let’s make a trombone-based rhythm game” which led to them coming up with a continuous sliding note system as the main mechanic or vice versa, but the result is sublimely funny in its simplicity. When the game came out, it’s no surprise that clips of it immediately went viral on twitter. It’s inarguably funny within 10 seconds of seeing it. It’s the kind of game you play and then immediately want to show to everyone. The best part is the game doesn’t end when you finish the base songs- there’s a community spreadsheet with 1500+ fan-made songs to keep you tromboning forever. It also ends with a battle against TRAZOM, the evil backwards counterpart of Mozart, so there’s that.
7. Case of the Golden Idol
Best Case: Secret Society Meeting
One of my favorite emerging genres of the last 5 years or so is the so-called “information” game, or logical deduction mystery games. Games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, and this list’s upcoming #3 game ask the player to pay attention to every little detail and think creatively to solve their puzzles, and the “a-ha” moments their solutions provide are unmatched. The Case of the Golden Idol was one of the primary torch-bearers for the genre this year. The game presents itself in a series of static scenes, usually where a murder has occurred, and tasks you with figuring out every detail of what happened. Poking around the scenes provides you with a list of keywords, which you then slot into the solution report Mad Libs-style. This process makes you actually feel like a detective in a way that more linear games can’t. Each piece of information you confirm cascades into others in a Sudoku-like way, and there are few better feelings in games this year than when everything clicks into place.
6. Strange Horticulture
Best Plant: Elderphinium
The award for ‘Quiet Coffee Shop On A Rainy Day’ Vibes Of The Year unquestionably goes to Strange Horticulture, a game about running a plant store and solving peoples’ problems through puzzle-like plant identification. Each day new people will come into the shop and ring the bell before describing their problem. They’ll give you vague descriptions like “I need that plant with red thorns that helps with headaches” and you have to flip through your index of plant names and descriptions to find the correct plant from your shelves. Smart little touches (like being able to assign labels to each plant manually as you correctly identify them and being able to sort the plants on their shelves in whatever organization system you see fit) help evoke the small-business feeling of running your own store and lend a sense of agency to the “gameplay.” With certain customers, you also have agency in how you choose to help them (or not), which branches the story and endings. Rude to me in my own plant store? I’m going to make your headaches WORSE.
5. Neon White
Best Card: Godspeed
I’m noticing as I write these entries in increasing order that the higher ranked games tend to be the ones that are harder to describe on a conceptual level. I tend to highly value games that can’t be simply described using established genres, but are trying completely new things that I didn’t know I wanted. Neon White is one such game, in that it’s a stylish card-based first-person shooter speedrunning platformer. Through dozens of levels, you’re picking up cards that let you shoot, jump, dash, and grapple-hook to defeat all the enemies and get to the finish as fast as possible. The smartest design decision made is that the levels are rarely longer than a minute or so, meaning when you inevitably whiff a shot or miss a platform and want to restart, you’ve lost less than a minute of time. I found myself replaying some more difficult levels 10 or more times to try to improve my time enough to get the Platinum medal rating on each, but the quick restart and bite sized levels meant that this was (usually) more fun than frustrating.
4. Citizen Sleeper
Best Character: Bliss the Ship Mechanic
Narrative-based games are so much more special when they use the interactivity of the medium to enhance their stories and themes. Citizen Sleeper does this to great effect, adapting tabletop-like dice mechanics interwoven into the story in a way that complements its themes. Each day that you wake up in the game, you’re given a number of dice to expend on the game’s various actions based on your previous Energy level. Being represented by dice, though, there is also an element of chance- sometimes you just wake up and roll all 1s. It’s a game about doing the best with what you’re given, and the tough decisions caused by the scarcity of resources in the early game are strengthened by the meter management and dice mechanics. By the end of the game, you’re able to build up relationships with other members of the community and rely on them for support, and you feel the strain of scarcity less as you build your relationships. It ends up being a beautifully written story about community and compassion in a compelling sci-fi setting, and one that will stick with me for a while.
Best Movie: Minsky
I was already a fairly big fan of Sam Barlow’s previous work (Her Story and Telling Lies), but my enthusiasm for both had almost everything to do with the novelty and cleverness of the gameplay. The connective tissue between those games and Immortality is that they’re all non-linear narratives explored by the player through discovery of live-action video clips, which can be pieced together to tell an entire story. A criticism of the previous two works that I can understand if not outright agree with is that they felt like rote/unremarkable stories that are only made interesting by the interesting structure. The difference here is that Immortality is also using those unique mechanics to tell a story that would be interesting on its own, and is even enhanced by the non-linearity. It’s an extremely ambitious game, featuring three near-full-length movies to dig through to piece together its mysteries. I’m hesitant to say too much about the story because unraveling it isn’t just an aspect of the game, it is the game. The feelings of discovery that the non-linearity provides throughout can’t be replicated by any other medium, which is what makes Immortality so special.
Best Character: Ursula
The latest game from RPG legends Obsidian Entertainment (known best for critically acclaimed games like Fallout: New Vegas and the Pillars of Eternity series) is about an artist who paints accompanying illustrations for elaborate religious texts in 1500s Germany. No, don’t stop reading, please, it’s really good! Pentiment is a role-playing game in the purest sense of the term. There isn’t a Persuasion stat for you to min/max, there aren’t Dexterity checks to see if you succeed- there are only actions. Your ability to persuade someone is based on what that person thinks of you. If you fail a persuasion check, it’s because you made fun of that person’s sister once, not because an invisible dice roll went poorly. This system of actions and consequences is extrapolated across decades of interactions with the town and its inhabitants. All of this is used to make a game in which you constantly “fail forward,” meaning you can’t hit a fail state through your decisions. Instead, you have to live with them. It’s a game about history, mistakes, and consequences, and it took me completely by surprise how much attachment I had to the characters and world by the end of it.
1. Elden Ring
Weapon Used: Star Fists
From Software makes it very easy to root for them. In a landscape where it can feel like every other AAA game is becoming a homogenized RPG-lite action game with the same icon-riddled open world maps, From Software continues to make their weird, uncompromised, difficult RPGs. Elden Ring feels like it dropped out of a portal to some other dimension where games have evolved differently over the last 20 years. It’s a game that asks a lot of its players, but also one that respects them. It trusts you to dig in and figure things out. It trusts you to experiment and explore, to fail and learn. This has always been true of From’s games, but some key changes to Elden Ring’s structure make it the smoothest of their experiences by far, and it’s no wonder this is the one that finally saw them seeing the industry-wide acclaim they’ve been deserving of for so long. The freedom to explore somewhere else when you get stuck, the unlimited discovery and wonder around every corner, and the same measured, fair combat their games have always had combine to make From’s best game yet, and the best game of 2023. Sometimes the popular choice is the right one.
Games I Would Have Liked To Have Gotten To, and I’m Sure Are Neat
I Was A Teenage Exocolonist
Fire Emblem: Three Hopes
Return to Monkey Island
Super Kiwi 64
Warhammer 40k: Darktide
Need for Speed: Unbound
Games I Did Not Want to Play But Someone Might Ask “What About This?” About
Xenoblade Chronicles 3
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
Live A Live
A Plague Tale: Requiem
The Callisto Protocol
Games I Forgot I Played This Year Until I Was Almost Done Writing the List, But Were Fine:
Nintendo Switch Sports
Thanks for reading!