Photo via Three Bees

Cameron's Top 10 "Video Games" of 2023

Cameron Kunzelman

Strange things happen as you age. You get more rersponsibilities. You (hopefully) get better at the things you’ve dedicated your time to. Your bones hurt more. And somehow, due to a complete mistake of entropy that has to be corrected at some point during the next universal cycle, you have less time to play video games. 

I normally play something to the tune of a couple hundred games a year. Not to completion, of course, but I sample whatever I can, from the biggest blockbusters to the tiniest free games released on my ever-favorite Some big fluxes in my life this year kept me from doing that. 

(That included learning how to grow and harvest hundreds of bulbs of garlic. I am not complaining about flux.)

So I played less than I wanted to this year and saw less of this great art we all enjoy together than I would’ve liked, but I was astounded by what I did get to play. Video games are such a robust art form, capacious enough to be shitposts, grand epics about the human condition, and everything in between. You can make absolute existential dread hit for three interactive minutes in a game, or you can make someone feel like the keystone of the universe in a hundred-hour RPG. I’m getting older, but my astonishment at what human beings can make with words and images and sounds and clicks and button presses never diminishes. 

We are living in a grand age of video games, but it’s underscored by an absolute nightmare: the abandonment of workers by an industry that, like many other sectors, floated on a macroeconomic system that has proved faulty. My heart goes out to the thousands laid off this year in the games industry. Games are made by the hands of workers, and they’re nothing without the people who make them.

There are so many games I wanted to play this year that I didn’t get around to: Thirsty Suitors, Amarantus, Goodbye Volcano High, The Wreck, Long Gone Days, The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, A Highland Song (I made it an hour in yesterday!), and literally two dozen others. Out of all the games I did get to though, here is what I thought about them

10. Mosa Lina

A screenshot from Mosa Lina with a little trash creature hopping into an orb
Photo via Stuffed Wombat

This immersive sim is an attack on the senses. You’re handed a small set of powers and short, defined puzzle levels. The task is simple: hit some orbs, and touch the gate to leave. The problem is that you control a little trash creature and your impact on the world concerns manipulating the physics of the platforms and obstacles you need to get around. The game is quite upfront with you that some levels are not solvable. If that’s frustrating for you, maybe skip Mosa Lina, but I found the absolute dirty tricks and bad vibes to be apex gaming. 

9. Varney Lake 

A screenshot from Varney Lake with three characters sitting on a log. Doug says "This is nice, isn't it?"
Photo via Chorus Worldwide

A lot of narrative games try to go for the nostalgia hit. They’re often packaged as retro-styled games trying to capture the feeling of wild wonder somebody had when they played Chrono Trigger for the first time. That is nothing to me. I go full Westworld on it. It passes over me like an abyssal wave. My nostalgia buttons are time- and temperature-based; you start pulling out the aesthetics of southern summers and blistering heat waves while the (definitely) cancer-causing mosquito sprayer truck is driving around, and I’m in. 

Varney Lake plays in that zone, with a few teen feelings and a lot of Stand By Me. It asserts that childhood would be very different if the bucolic summers of yore also featured an event where you met a goddamn Dracula. It’s an adventure game that plays in memory and monstrosity, and the complex reality that teenagers have to navigate together, Varney Lake plays at nostalgia but does not end there.

8. An Eye For Optical Theory 1666

A screenshot from An Eye for Optical Theory 1666. It's a closeup of an eye that's red with a blue pupil. The face is pink.
Photo via Perfect Crime Games

In the real world, Isaac Newton was a horrible little goblin. In this game, he’s a horrible little goblin, and you can also help him do experiments. It’s a five-minute frightener that I still can’t shake these many months later.

7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

The four teenage mutant ninja turtles from Mutant Mayhem ready to spring into action.
Photo via Paramount Pictures

This is a movie, but what are they gonna do, fire me? The promise of independently-funded media is that I can completely fuck around here and, at worst, Rob will send me a stern “now what are we doing here” Discord message. Besides, Mutant Mayhem has the precise ups and downs of a video game, so it counts.

What’s truly tragic is that we’re drowning in Kratos’ dad feelings and Spider-Men who are trying to juggle life and villains, and we could be playing games as a chuckling horde of turtle teens. The entire time I was watching the movie, I was just dreaming of dialing into these kids and smacking around some two-bit criminals in a laundromat. Video games discovered adult man feelings about a decade ago, and have slowly accrued a basic familiarity with other varieties since. I’m holding out for ass-kicking teen feelings games to come in the future. 

I’m a child of the 1990s. I was mutated by the words “cowabunga” and “radical” while I was in the womb. I cannot help what I am.

6. Endlight

A screenshot from Endlight with a string of lit-up cubes falling down the side of what looks like a cityscape.
Photo via Bigpants

This game is wild as hell, and you probably shouldn’t play it if you have any kind of sensitivity to flashing images. You just pilot a weird flittering cube through massive worlds of circles and boxes. Complete enough levels and a guy will scream the word “OUTSIDE” at you, in letters just like that, and you’ll feel like you’re lifting off. There’s a lot of weird here, but I kept going back to it session after session. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something in the sauce.

5. Baldur’s Gate 3

A screenshot from Baldur's Gate 3 that shows off the combat. A bunch of goop is spraying everywhere.
Photo via Larian Studios

I have been alive for a while. I have been alive so long that I have really strong opinions about video games from more than 20 years ago. That might also describe you, a fellow person who has also been alive for a long time. We could sit together and have strong opinions about a product that came out so long ago that it’s got some real hours behind the wheel. It’s had its license for four years. There’s been one close call, a fender bender down at the Save ‘n Pay, but it’s overall doing great. That’s us, you and me. 

Look, I’m a Baldur’s Gate guy. Those are the facts and, well, there’s a new one. It’s nothing like the old ones, even if it plays in the same sandbox, but god damn it, I like that sandbox. I like Ed Greenwood’s goofy-ass fantasy Europe, and its even more terrifying fantasy everywhere else. Stapling a tactical game on top of that with some familiar video game flavors just works for me, period, without much reflection. I put a hundred hours into it at launch, and I’m putting another hundred in for the new season of Mages & Murderdads. In 2024, you’ll be able to listen to me talk for 30 hours about this game at the minimum; I think that’ll serve better than these paragraphs, so like and subscribe, Remap readers. [Wait, is this just an ad? Let's talk before this runs. Rob]

4. Mars First Logistics

A rover driving towards a rocket in Mars First Logistics.
Photo via Shape Shop

Developer Ian MacLarty has gone the hell off with this one. He’s taken us from the Catacombs of Solaris to tinker toys on Mars, and it’s the real deal. You take things from one place to another, and you can use a series of hydraulics, rotators, rocket engines, and all kinds of other stuff to do it. Get the ladder from here to there, but make sure it’s vertical. Take an umbrella literally more than 10 feet. Design a little vehicle to help you out. It’s shockingly simple as a premise, and it just absolutely eats up your time. 

The most elegant thing about it, and I really do mean elegant, is that you can surprise yourself. Discovery is cheap in the game – you can always trash and rebuild without penalty – and sometimes you just stumble on an answer that works, against all odds. The jolt of accomplishment must be what the first person to store fire in a horn for safekeeping felt. Mars First Logistics connects us to our deep ancestral past, or whatever.

3. Against the Storm

An interaction with a Giant Stormbird's Nest in Against the Storm.
Photo via Eremite Games

Well how about this; we have a city builder strategy game. It’d be a shame if somebody went and spilled a little bit of roguelike sensibility into it. Whoops. It looks like I’ve made Against the Storm.

All joking aside, Storm is this bizarre concoction of deckbuilder randomness, run-based roguelikes, and early 2000s strategy game sensibility. I’ve put a chunk of hours into the 1.0 release, and I cannot tell you with 100% confidence that it all works as a coherent video game. But I can tell you that I didn’t want to stop playing it. I would internally think about how I had other shit to do while I slowly cranked through the forest and its many mysteries on my way to breaking the first seal. The game has a way to go to be fully for me, but some of the elements are just right. A Cobb salad with the ratios slightly off is still a damn good salad, after all. 

I’ll also admit to finding the entire conceit delightful. You play the viceroy for the ruler of an eternal city that chews up and spits out all the resources that go into it as the world churns and resets every few years. Everybody is chipper and happy about it while complete and total misery spins up over and over again as you Warcraft your way through random events in several unique biomes. It’s just a great series of experiences, over and over, in a framework that I get a big kick out of.

2. Perfect Tides

A screenshot from Perfect Tides with a character standing outside looking at a patio stacked with chairs and tables.
Photo via Three Bees

It’s only now dawned on me that this is my third “teen feelings” entry on this list. Maybe it’s that my specific slice of millennial is finally getting what my forebears in Gen X have been getting for the last decade: pure, uncut, specific feelings from my youth being beamed directly into my brain through the magic of aesthetic experience. As the great icon of my youth would say, “. . . whatever.”

Perfect Tides released in 2022, but I only got around to it this year. You need to make time for it. It brings unfettered ripping emotions from the end of history aiming at anybody who ever had extensive social relations mediated by AIM, and it plays in the (sometimes frustrating) adventure game frameworks of the 90s era. Perfect Tides follows the always-spiraling Mara through a year of friend estrangement, boy interest, and the general experience of being a teen girl in a world unrelentingly hostile to them. It also features one of the greatest moments of game design I’ve seen. When someone starts asking you about your favorite song, you really want to put the right audio file in the right place. I think it is worth it.

This is my only must-play on this list. I cannot do this game justice with just a few words, and I'm eagerly awaiting the upcoming sequel. Play the game; you won't regret it.

1. Alan Wake 2

Alan Wake shining his flashlight forward with the Dark Place in the background.
Photo via Remedy Entertainment

During the 2012 holiday season, I purchased and played Alan Wake for PC, and I immediately became a convert to its weird world birthed from pop culture references and filtered through the peculiar Remedy Entertainment sensibility. I proceeded to evangelize about this game for a decade until, finally, Control breadcrumbed that Alan was still alive somewhere in Remedy canon and Alan Wake 2 burst onto the scene to confirm it.

You’ve probably seen the musical number memes and the references to metatexts. You’ve maybe seen Ilkka Villi running around and looking beleaguered either in the real world or in fiction. There’s not much I can say here to encompass what the hell is going on with Alan Wake 2. To put it bluntly, I just think it does the damn thing, and it does it well. It keeps the heart of the fire-and-flee gameplay from the first one and crams it into the visual frameworks of other less interesting games. It gives us some perfectly confusing bosses and some enemies from beyond nightmares. A band plays by a lake at night after driving a bus through the woods. A dreamland expands and contracts with the waning and waxing powers of a writer too foolish to know what he wrote and what he didn’t. It all just rolls, over and over again, minute after minute. 

I’m a sucker for when stories take over the world; what is the world but a bunch of competing stories mostly made by the desperate and the cruel? Remedy powers through, bowling over the gates of what video games normally do, producing some other thing that I would never have predicted. I put high value into the new. I put higher value into my own prophecies fulfilled. Alan Wake 2 gave me both.

Cameron Kunzelman writes about video games and culture. His first book, The World is Born From Zero, is about science fiction games. He podcasts about books and collective imagination at Ranged Touch.

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