After months of anticipation, The Game Awards 2023 nominees were all revealed on Monday. While there will always be debates over what should and shouldn’t have made the cut, there is one pretty glaring omission for me. This year’s show snubbed one of the best indie games of the year: Strange Scaffold’s El Paso, Elsewhere.
Released for PC and Xbox on September 26, this indie is a narrative-focused action game inspired by games like Max Payne. While it looks like a thrilling shooter that’ll make you feel like a badass on the surface, it also tells a more compelling story about relationships and abuse. It’s one of the best games of the year and now something that might go very overlooked by general audiences as it’s not nominated at The Game Awards 2023. If you haven’t given it a shot yet, I urge you to check it out before the end of the year.
El Paso, Elsewhere’s old-school third-person shooter gameplay might seem derivative at first glance, but it actually takes the formula those classic Max Payne games established and executes it better than it ever has been. The game intuitively makes me feel like a badass whenever I walk into a room and take some enemies down during a slow-motion dive. Still, players can’t ever go in completely guns-blazing, as each weapon has limited ammo. That makes each level a delicate ballet of dodging enemies and switching between guns, and that only intensifies with each new level.
That gunplay remains engaging throughout because I always care about why it’s happening. El Paso, Elsewhere features one of the year’s best narratives and performances. It tells the story of James Savage, a man who has to go to a remote motel in El Paso, Texas, slowly descending through increasingly otherworldly levels in an attempt to stop his ex-girlfriend Draculae, who’s tearing a hole in reality that could destroy the world.
While he might seem and look as badass as Blade, James is a tragic hero. Over the course of the story, his history with Draculae, the scars of that relationship, and his history with substance abuse that players are enhancing by constantly feeding James pills to restore health. A lot of pressure is put on the performance behind James to deliver, and Xalavier Nelson Jr. does exactly that.
One of the primary developers behind Strange Scaffold, and this entire game, Xalavier Nelson Jr., delivers an extraordinarily personal and emotionally raw performance that makes El Paso, Elsewhere’s story one that has stuck with me in the weeks since I played it. It also features an earworm of a hip-hop soundtrack — also made by Xalavier Nelson Jr. — and I’m a bit disappointed that we won’t see any of this game’s songs performed on The Game Awards’ stage (who wouldn’t want to see Nelson Jr. chant “break shit, kill people” on stage next to Hozier?).
While it’s disappointing that the shooter isn’t getting its flowers, there are a few fair reasons. Most obviously, this has been a phenomenal year for games. When titles like Baldur’s Gate 3, Alan Wake 2, and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom all also had compelling stories, soundtracks, performances, and overall direction, their popularity tends to overshadow smaller indies like El Paso, Elsewhere. Then, within the indie categories, it looks like Cocoon seems to be the Xbox-exclusive indie from September that more people focused on and nominated. And because this is neither Strange Scaffold’s first title nor something traditionally categorized as a “game for impact’ in the way something like Terra Nil is, it didn’t manage to eek into either of those categories.
For all it does to recognize the games industry on a grand scale, The Game Awards is still a bit of a popularity contest, and that makes it easy for indies like El Paso, Elsewhere to fall through the cracks if they don’t make it into one of three indie-focused categories. But while it might not be nominated in categories like Best Action Game, Best Narrative, or Best Performance, don’t let that convince you that El Paso, Elsewhere isn’t one of the best of 2023 in all those categories.
El Paso, Elsewhere is available now for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
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