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Puzzle games ruled 2023. It’s time we showed them the respect they deserve

I play just about every genre of video game, but I especially love a great puzzle game. While I enjoy high-skill experiences that require fast reflexes, I appreciate any cleverly designed game that can test my brain just as much. Titles like The Witness and Portal 2 rank high on my list of all-time favorites, sitting comfortably next to canonical action classics like Mass Effect 2 and The Last of Us.

As someone who follows the genre closely, let me tell you: 2023 was one hell of a year for puzzlers.

That’s thanks in part to the continued broadening of the genre, which has steadily grown in scope over gaming’s history. You can now have something as small and traditional as Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! in the same year that you get The Talos Principle 2, a massive 20-hour adventure packed with narrative. This year proved that the puzzle genre is one of gaming’s most varied, with entirely new concepts that feel inventive next to big-budget genre games cut from the same action-adventure cloth.

And yet, puzzle games are still treated as a niche. The biggest publishers have largely abandoned the genre and there’s no category for it at shows like The Game Awards (which has two separate action honors). If nothing else, 2023’s stellar lineup of puzzle games should remind us to give the proper respect on the genre.

The year in puzzles

This year was so strong for puzzle games that you could craft a strong Game of the Year category out of the highlights. On the more traditional side of the spectrum, we saw strong releases like Station to Station, Rytmos, and Fantavision 20XX. Some of my personal favorites experimented with the classic format in ways I’ve never seen before. Let’s! Revolution! is an entirely fresh mix of Minesweeper and a roguelike, while Storyteller is a clever indie that turns story crafting into a creative gameplay hook.

A photo of a bridge is placed in a 3D world in Viewfinder.
Sad Owl Studios

You didn’t need to look far to find a new experience like that. I was especially blown away by Viewfinder, which contains the best magic trick of the year. Players solve puzzles by taking 2D photos and placing them in the world, instantly turning them into 3D spaces. It’s a mind-bending hook that feels impossible, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I look for in games: experiences that are wholly unique to the medium.

This year also saw the further fusion of the puzzle and adventure genres, with incredible results. The Talos Principle 2 is a highlight, expanding its philosophical predecessor with complex puzzles and a meaty story that we usually don’t get from this kind of game. Cocoon, on the other hand, saw Limbo lead designer Carlsen Jeppe spreading his wings with a sharply designed game filled with bugs, recursive puzzles, and one of the year’s most striking worlds.

A bug carries an orb in Cocoon.
Annapurna Interactive

That’s before even mentioning my two favorites of the bunch, both of which made Digital Trends’ top 10 list this year. First, there’s Humanity, a fascinating game about directing swarms of people that’s especially enthralling in VR. It doesn’t just contain a fun puzzle gimmick; it’s one of the year’s most effective, and often harrowing, reflections on human beings and all the things we’re capable of. Then there’s Chants of Sennaar, an ingenious game about deducing unfamiliar languages using context clues. It’s a sharp deduction game that gives me the same feeling Return of the Obra Dinn left me with years ago.

Even that feels like a woefully incomplete roundup of everything the puzzle genre had to offer this year. American Arcadia turned the Limbo formula into a blockbuster puzzle-platformer, Birth is a delightful point-and-click game about loneliness, and Zach Gage’s newspaper-inspired Puzzmo might be my single-favorite gaming project this year.

A look at a daily Puzzmo page.

Despite so many highlights, games like these have to scrape and claw to get recognition at the end of any given year. With no proper category dedicated to the genre at The Game Awards, a lot of these titles only end up standing a chance in the show’s two indie categories, and occasionally Games for Impact. There’s no space for a game as highly regarded as The Talos Principle 2 to get love, as the “Action-Adventure” category excludes anything that doesn’t feature some form of combat. Just about all of the games I’ve highlighted are smaller indies too, which means they don’t stand much of a chance in categories like Art Direction against technical behemoths like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.

Even if there’s few mechanisms in place to formally recognize their importance, the puzzle genre brought us a wealth of innovation this year. It’s the one space that continues to evolve while so many other styles have settled into repeatable templates. If you want to see more creative games outside of the open-world adventure mold, then support and celebrate the independent developers crafting some of gaming’s most inventive experiences.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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