I wish I could say that 2023 was a fantastic year for video games, but that wouldn’t tell the full story.
On a surface level, yes, this year was one of the best players have seen since 2017 thanks to a seemingly endless list of top-tier releases. The fact that a game like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom wasn’t a shoo-in for Game of the Year honors speaks volumes to just how many unforgettable experiences developers created this year. From the dystopian abyss of Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon to the scenic mountains of A Highland Song, video games transported us to so many incredible worlds that it’s been hard to keep track of them all.
But any discussion of the fantastic games we played this year comes with a sobering caveat. This was also a devastating year for the people who create those games. Mass layoffs at studios like Bungie, Epic Games, and Microsoft have been devastating for the creative forces who make the games we celebrate. According to a user-made tool tracking layoffs, over 7,000 creators have been laid off this year. That list doesn’t include the industry that covers games either, as media has seen similar layoffs, with top-tier sites like Launcher being shuttered.
So while we’re here to celebrate Digital Trends’ favorite games of the year, it’s vital that we take a moment to reflect. The incredible games we’re highlighting this year don’t exist without the passionate humans that create them. They aren’t expendable assets that can be thrown away on a whim to make a company’s financial goals go up. And that level of creative thinking can never be replaced by AI machines sucking up art and regurgitating it as data.
Yes, 2023 was a great year for new video game releases, but enjoy this moment while you can. We’re about to feel what happens when the artists who make these digital worlds possible are undervalued by the cold, clinical corporate world. ~ Giovanni Colantonio, Gaming Section Lead
When human beings come together, we’re capable of some incredible — and horrible — things. That tension is the heart of Humanity, a unique puzzle game that’s best played on PlayStation VR2. At first glance, it seems like a simple game about directing lines of wandering people toward a goal by placing down commands. It’s almost like a modern riff on the classic Lemmings. As that concept evolves, so do the growing crowds of tiny humans in its diorama-like levels. It all takes a dark turn when mankind discovers weapons, which suddenly twists the entire premise into a morbid strategy game. It’s a striking moment that makes Humanity both a heartfelt celebration of human accomplishment and a cautionary tale about the darkness that comes with it. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Capcom truly made the ultimate fighting game with Street Fighter 6. While the genre is popular, there’s typically a limit to how much enjoyment casual players can get from one unless they decide to go competitive. Street Fighter 6 solves that classic problem with World Tour, an expansive single-player RPG mode that also serves as an ambitious tutorial for many of the game’s core systems. The package also boasts a multiplayer Battle Hub where friends can just hang out, and Modern Control options that simplify the inputs needed to pull off moves and combos. For the competitive community, Street Fighter 6’s combat systems are still as deep as ever, making this one of the few fighting games that can truly appeal to any type of player. ~ Tomas Franzese
Have you ever found yourself lost in another country with no knowledge of its primary language? It can be an uncomfortable feeling, but a blessing in disguise too. Those moments can force you to learn something about human communication as you latch on to universal context clues that bridge linguistic gaps. Chants of Sennaar ingeniously captures that experience and places it into the year’s finest puzzle game. Loosely based on the myth of Babel, players wander around a tower where everyone speaks in foreign languages. Through clever deduction and observation, players eventually become multilingual experts as they piece together a handful of languages using basic words and grammar. It’s a brilliant gameplay loop, and one that will better help you understand the complex ways in which we communicate. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Venba is a much simpler and shorter game than everything else on this list, but it contained the most personal experience I had with any game this year. The narrative-indie is about a South Indian mother experiencing the struggles of immigrant life and trying to share her culture with her son, Kavin. Though it’s focused on the Tamil experience, there’s a universality to that story. I saw the experiences of my grandparents, who emigrated from Italy, and my father, their first-born son in America, in Venba and Kavin’s story. That made Venba the most poignant narrative experience of the year for me. It’s an unforgettable story that, at the very least, will leave you hungry for some of the mouth-watering food in its puzzle-like cooking segments. ~ Tomas Franzese
In Alan Wake 2, the only way to escape the darkness is to go through it. The long-simmering sequel picks up 13 years after its predecessor’s massive cliffhanger, which saw the titular Wake trapped in the ominous Dark Place. Rather than delivering a straightforward story about the writer heroically returning to reality, developer Remedy traps players in that prison with him. The result is an unpredictable survival-horror odyssey that only a studio as boldly creative as Remedy could make. One moment it’s an FBI procedural about an agent dealing with family trauma, the next it’s delivering a full-on musical scene that’s among the most memorable moments in any video game. It’s an eerie epic that invites players to sink deeper into the unknown, not turn and run the other way. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
It ain’t easy being Spider-Man. Once you put aside the superheroic power fantasy, you’re left to consider just how difficult the webslinger’s life must be. Imagine juggling school, friends, family, a mortgage, and your job all while fighting off a bloodthirsty clan of hunters and an alien parasite intent on devouring your identity. Rather than ignoring that stress, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 makes it part of the experience. The usual open-world map design is placed into an entirely new context as players’ attention is diverted to a constantly expanding to-do list. Sure, it’s still an incredibly fun superhero romp with slick combat and incredibly smooth traversal, but developer Insomniac doesn’t shy away from really placing players into Spider-Man’s spandex in a spectacularly subversive fashion. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Super Mario Bros. Wonder makes anyone who questioned whether Nintendo had any more ideas left to explore in the 2D Mario format look like a fool. Yes, the classic platforming ideas established in the 1980s are present in Mario’s latest, but Nintendo went above and beyond to craft lots of new level concepts, creative enemies, and transformative Wonder Seed twists for every new level. Super Mario Bros. Wonder lives up to its name, creating a pure sense of joy and awe that’s rare in an industry where big-budget games can often feel like they’re too scared to innovate proven formulas. The fact that a new 2D Mario game is great isn’t that surprising, but for Super Mario Bros. Wonder to feel as fresh as it does cements the title as one of the long-running series’ best games. ~ Tomas Franzese
I’ll be honest: I usually suck at rhythm games and don’t have a very refined taste in music. Even then, Hi-Fi Rush is still one of my favorite games of the year. For years, developers have tried to find clever ways to mesh rhythm mechanics with those of other genres, but none have nailed the concept as well as Hi-Fi Rush. Developer Tango Gameworks ties everything to the beat of music, from combat to character animations to world design. It does that while delivering an excellent 2000s alt-rock soundtrack that rivals the excellent Sunset Overdrive. It’s a more fun, approachable music game that even someone like me could get the hang of without problem. I still find myself unintentionally tapping my foot to the beat while playing to keep the beat. ~ Tomas Franzese
I played 95 hours of The Legend of Zelda: Tears in the Kingdom in two weeks — and I barely even noticed. Link’s latest adventure builds off of the genre-defining The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the best ways possible, putting a greater emphasis on player agency within Hyrule. A focus on freeform crafting nearly turns the adventure into the world’s largest immersive sim; there’s seemingly no limit to what players can accomplish in a bottomless toy box. So when I nearly hit that 100-hour mark in no time flat, it barely even registered that I’d been playing so much. It still felt like I’d barely scratched the surface of a mesmerizing adventure that begged me to turn it on its head. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Baldur’s Gate 3 is so good that I had to stop myself from playing it. For a couple of weeks in early August, the massive CRPG completely dominated my life to the point where it became a problem. I was far from the only person that this happened to because Baldur’s Gate 3 is a truly engrossing experience. It captures the essence of what makes Dungeons & Dragons enjoyable, and it feels like there are near-infinite permutations for every choice I have to make as a player. By finding a way to distill that tabletop essence down into a compelling RPG, Baldur’s Gate 3 asserts itself as the best game in what was already a fantastic year for games, and it highlights what makes single-player story-driven games so special. We gave it a rare perfect score early this year to reflect that accomplishment, so we’d be remiss to choose any other title for our best game of 2023. ~ Tomas Franzese
Honorable mentions: A Highland Song, Cocoon, Diablo 4, Dredge, Jusant, Laya’s Horizon, Lies of P, Octopath Traveler 2, Resident Evil 4, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Tchia, The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, The Making of Karateka, Videoverse, and El Paso, Elsewhere
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