It probably doesn’t bear repeating that 2023 was a roller coaster of a year. The highs were very high, the lows were very low, and we spent a lot of time rapidly oscillating between the two points. Was 2023 the “best year” for videogames? Only if you look at the number of hot releases that came out this year. But as always, if you broaden the scope of your view, deeper, more complex narratives emerge. For instance, several certified bangers came out in 2023, but those tentpole releases were punctuated by mass layoffs across the industry, with the total number of people fired inching closer and closer to 10,000 even as December was coming to a close. Not even games media was spared from this sudden industrial contraction, as at least two major outlets – The Washington Post’s Launcher and Vice’s Waypoint verticals – shut down, and independent site Uppercut Crit dramatically scaled its output back this fall.
This year also saw numerous examples of games and the world intermingling in messy and complicated ways. Multiple film and television adaptations of popular games hit screens, from The Super Mario Bros. Movie to The Last of Us, giving critics cause to question the presence of these works in relation to their ludic predecessors. Prominent game developers spoke out on issues ranging from established genres and their knock-on effects to development sustainability and investor reluctance to greenlight new projects. We watched the last of the major mergers-and-acquisitions from 2021 and 2022, Microsoft’s absorption of Activision-Blizzard, finalize despite government pushback. Game developers around the world continued the years-long push to unionize the industry, with some successes and some setbacks.
The industry also once again found itself having to contend with social issues around colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and most notably, a rapidly-unfolding genocide in Gaza. If the silence on any of these issues, especially at prominent fall and winter industry events like the Golden Joysticks and the Game Awards, is any indication, that response has been sorely lacking, to say the least.
All of this is to say: there are many, many justifiable reasons to not want to celebrate this year. It would be extremely easy for us to say, “let’s take a raincheck, maybe come back next year if the vibes improve at all.” But something we discovered while writing this caused us to push back against that impulse.
Where is all the good writing about games? It’s everywhere.
In 2023, 589 articles by 292 writers at 140 different websites were included in Critical Distance’s weekly and monthly roundups. Yes, the big sites like IGN and GameSpot all made appearances, but overwhelmingly we heard from small and midsize independent outlets, researchers specializing in particular areas of game studies and videogame history, and dozens upon dozens of individual bloggers whose desire to engage critically with games on their own terms shone through extremely brightly. Even as things seem like they’re at their darkest, hundreds of flowers have bloomed in that twilight.
Since 2009, Critical Distance’s mission has been to “facilitate dialogue,” “build a foundation for ongoing conversations between developers, critics, educators and enthusiasts about critical issues in games culture,” and create “a compendium of the most incisive, thought-provoking, and remarkable discussion in and around games.” With the way social media has fragmented over the past year, it can sometimes be hard to see these ongoing conversations. But reading the works our Senior Curator Chris Lawrence collects each week with the help of attentive Critical Distance readers and community members, seeing the unexpected and interesting ways they connect with each other, and then being able to zoom out to see hundreds of writers in spirited dialogue with each other… this is worth celebrating.
Without further ado, here is a list of some of the best, funniest, most tear-jerking, claim-staking, and rabble-rousing pieces of videogame blogging from 2023.
Calling Out Crisis
It would be remiss of us to start this year’s roundup without talking about the situation in Gaza ourselves. Unequivocally, the actions the state and military of Israel are taking and have been taking against millions of innocent Gazans since early October constitute genocide. There is no way to handwave the murders-by-airstrike of 20,000 Palestinians – the wide majority of whom have no connection whatsoever to Hamas, and have invariably included journalists, academics, artists, musicians and thousands of regular people trying to simply exist – to refer to it as anything but a genocide. We must not be silent about what is still happening every hour of every day.
When this has been mentioned by certain members of the games industry – whether on the dev side by folks like Rami Ismail and Younès Rabii, or on the media side by folks like GameSpot Managing Editor Tamoor Hussain – the response back is usually some vulgar variation of “what does this have to do with videogames?” This further erases Palestinian gamers and game developers, who struggle to make and enjoy media in this industry despite living every day under fire, but it also exacerbates a broader, longer-standing issue in the industry: the tendency to aggressively pretend the world has no effect on what we do, and vice versa.
Here are two essential pieces that go to great lengths to explain what’s going on.
- The Games Industry Must Not Stay Silent on Palestine | People Make Games (38:55)
A half-hour explainer at People Make Games on the situation in Palestine by Tamoor Hussain, featuring interviews from Rami Ismail, Executive Director at Gamedev.world, and Rasheed Abueideh, Palestinian developer of Liyla and the Shadows of War.
- We Have To Talk (Again) About How War Games Depict The Middle East | Kotaku
Alyssa Mercante talks to Muslim & Arab developers and critics about the distorted ludic narratives of a caricatured Middle East that normalize real-world atrocities.
“For as long as I can remember, video games have used Middle-Eastern settings for first-person shooting…that has significantly impacted how the world sees that region and the people from there,” GameSpot managing editor Tamoor Hussain said via email. “[Games and other forms of media and entertainment] present the region as places to be blown up and as having populations that are all evil cave-dwelling terrorists, whether that’s Call of Duty soldiers mounting Spec Ops missions to kill dangerous militants or Tony Stark proudly standing in front of a backdrop that is immediately recognizable as the Middle East…When you see those same settings in real-world news reports for long enough, the line between truth and fiction can blur.”
The 9,000-lb Elephant In The Room
According to third-party tracking site Game Industry Layoffs, over 9000 people have been fired in the games industry through layoffs in 2023 alone. These pieces attempt to track and make sense of this rash of terminations.
- They Print Pink Slips, Not Paychecks: The Rash of Videogame Layoffs | Paste Magazine
Mik Deitz recaps another banner year for videogames.
- Bungie Devs Say Atmosphere Is ‘Soul-Crushing’ Amid Layoffs, Cuts and Fear of Total Sony Takeover | IGN
Rebekah Valentine speaks with Bungie employees about the deteriorating conditions and atmosphere within the studio.
- The Videogame Crash of 1983 Helped Turn Games Into A Boys’ Club. Could It Happen Again? | Paste Magazine
Maddie Agne compares the contemporary layoffs crisis in games to the crash of ’83 and wonders what the industry will learn this time in the aftermath.
- Video game company layoffs are creating an industry crisis | Polygon
Nicole Carpenter talks to developers and industry workers about the human cost of gaming’s layoffs epidemic.
“Though the game industry is a relatively young one, the systems in place have a deep chokehold, and change isn’t going to happen overnight. Change is coming — there are many more unions in the industry now, and even more incoming as workers organize themselves. That may not be much help to the people already laid off, but it brings hope for the future.”
Several occasions in games this year gave cause for the media to look inward and examine itself critically. These pieces represent the scope of these examinations.
- The Writer Will Do Criticism | Unwinnable
Ruth Cassidy meditates on how observation of games-as-product and speculation on games-as-process inform and contextualize the work of the critic.
- Crowbcat, The Kuleshov Effect, and Insincere Games Criticism | The Tax Collector Man
The Tax Collector Man deciphers a rhetorical playbook for outrage farming.
- Why do games media layoffs keep happening? | Games Industry
Khee Hoon Chan delves into an abundance of opacity and a dearth of accountability in a games press more beseiged by precarity than ever (curator’s note: Critical Distance alumnus Kris Lorischild is an interview subject for this piece).
- Unravelling the magic and alchemy of Metacritic | Rock Paper Shotgun
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell de(re?)mystifies the statistical and cultural divination behind review score aggregation at Metacritic.
- Overthinking What It Means to Make Things on The Internet Again | Cohost
Chris Franklin weighs the oppositional needs of criticism and curation in how we talk about small games.
- The New Games Journalism, Same as The Old Games Journalism | Aftermath
Gita Jackson and two decades’ worth of New Games Journalism would like a word with the latest first anthology of literary-minded game essays.
- In praise of the 7/10 | Eurogamer
Oisin Kuhnke reflects on the state of game reviews and their attendant culture of expectations and one-upmanship, and looks to the games that only got their due with the passage of time.
- Why Me? A Narrative Feature About Games Media Layoffs | Unwinnable
Jess Reyes offers a personal account of layoffs across the games media landscape.
“So, why me? You never really know. Even if HR says they picked people because they worked the least hours or they didn’t get enough hits on their articles, many will still back their laid off colleague, saying that’s barely an excuse to lay someone off. They will say you deserved to stay.”
This year was officially the hottest year on record, according to international climate monitoring organizations like Copernicus and NOAA. Climate change has never been a situation we can ignore, but this year especially felt like the elephant was rampaging around the room. This was reflected in quite a few of the games that came out this year, as well as these excellent pieces of criticism.
- Sephonie: Diving Into the Body of the Earth | Uppercut Crit
Grace Benfell examines the allegories of Sephonie as it bridges the human and natural worlds.
- The Humans Are Dead | Unwinnable
Ruth Cassidy wonders if Terra Nil sidesteps the question of how humans might fit into the work of undoing the ravages of climate change.
- Planetary Play: Games and the Environment | Uppercut Crit
Reiji Nagaoka examines the potential and capacity of games as representative simulations to convey meaningful ideas about climate change and its impacts.
- WASTE EATER and the (Worthwhile) Collective Consequence | Gamesline
Franny thinks about who foots the bill for revolutionary transformation when its benefits will be left to future generations.
- Grounding the Games Industry | Unwinnable
Phoenix Simms takes stock of the inadequate and counter-productive half-measures the industry takes in the name of sustainability, and looks forward to clearer-sighted and Indigenous-led examples and initiatives that the industry might learn from.
- An interview with Just Stop Oil about protest, playfulness and invading EGX | Rock Paper Shotgun
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell chats with Just Stop Oil activist Oliver Clegg about the intersections between protest and play.
- A Review of the Dubai Police COP28 mobile game (normal) | Every Frame Per Second
Foxbox never finds a human presence in a serious (?) game about a human problem.
- Saltsea Chronicles Beautifully Finds A Way Forward | Paste Magazine
Emily Price plays a game that dreams of an imperfect, messy, and beautiful collective.
“I never found Le Guin in Saltsea Chronicles, though maybe she’s in there somewhere. But throughout it echoed the philosophies of anarchist and socialist thinkers, as well as existing and pre existing collectivist societies. In linking the Saltsea archipelago to our world while also making it meaningfully distinct, the game resists becoming an allegory and becomes a story in and of itself. It extends beyond being a mirror for contemporary society and instead becomes an illustration of an alternate path forward, another way we could approach the same issues of climate change and environmental devastation that make up the characters’ pasts and presents.”
Videogame history is vitally important to preserve for our collective understanding of the medium as well as for our ability to put games in a broader sociohistorical context. Yet at the same time, it seems that more and more of this history slips through our fingers on a daily basis, thanks to forces of physical decay and corporate negligence. Games media, itself perennially at risk of that same entropy and negligence, nevertheless tries mightily to preserve as much of that history as they can. These pieces stand out as exemplars of critical and journalistic work in this vein.
- The Game Availability Study, Explained | The Video Game History Foundation
Phil Salvador sums up the dire state of classic games availability and preservation.
- The Strange History of Photo CD Games | CD-ROM Journal
Misty De Méo navigates the technical and artistic history of a long-forgotten branch on the tree of interactive multimedia.
- A Mind Forever Voyaging: The Good Ending | Gold Machine
Drew Cook closes the book on Perry Simm and AMFV.
- #iplayed Worm Game | Cohost
andi plays a game which lived but for a few days, and not its best life.
- NetHack [1987-2023] | Arcade Idea
Art Maybury turns to one of the Ur-Roguelikes, its debts to earlier adventure games already well known, and instead positions it as a progenitor text to a metagenre with contemporary salience: the Forever Game.
- Dandy: Zeuon no Fukkatsu | Ephemeral Enigmas
Ephemeral Enigmas plays a condensed, streamlined, and mostly-forgotten Hydlide-like (a. . . Hydlike?) that could hit just right for a certain kind of player.
- Building Digital Dream Houses | ROMchip
Sara Simon, Carly A. Kocurek, and Leilasadat Mirghaderi chat with producer Jesyca Durchin about the challenges of bringing about Barbie Fashion Designer, making creative computing accessible for young girls, and more.
- Lara Croft: The Art of Virtual Seduction is the ultimate cringey relic of late 90s game advertising | PC Gamer
Jess Morrissette thumbs through a fascinating print relic from the 90s that brings together all the cultural and discursive contradictions of Lara Croft.
- The Making Of Karateka Is One Of The Year’s Best Games | Kotaku
Carolyn Petit shines a film history lens on Digital Eclipse’s curatorial, documentary-style approach to re-releasing old games.
- A Look Back at the Invasion: Martin Amis’ Critiques the Filthy World of Arcade Games | Aguas’ Points
Luis Aguasvivas peers into a cynical and unruly volume of early (though not earliest!) games criticism (content notification for the quotation of homophobic slurs).
“In 1982 arcade games were trendy and seen as the future of entertainment. Nevertheless, this was also an unusual topic for a writer of Amis’ renown to write about, let alone write an entire book about. In 2023, forty-one years later, Invasion of the Space Invaders is now a relic, a nostalgia-inducing concoction. It is fitting that the book ends with pages of lines of code as video games are code, the essence of video games. Yet, the talk and mystique around this book are based solely on Amis’ reputation as a writer. Let’s not forget that on Mother Earth others were also writing about games in 1982.”
Games and the People Who Make Them
To categorize the conversation in and around the videogame industry as only being about layoffs would be reductive. There were other manmade (discursive) horrors beyond our comprehension to talk about this year, like Unity almost destroying smaller game developers for a few extra bucks, and the strange notion that every dev studio should be like Larian Studios, makers of Baldur’s Gate 3. But beyond even all that, 2023 saw a large number of developers speaking candidly about their works in informative and thought-provoking ways.
- The Cantonese language (or the lack of it) in games | Eurogamer
Alan Wen traces the outlines of a langauge broadly absent from games localization.
- Stagger and “Paradigm Shift” in FFXIII and GITCL | Cohost
Christine Love offers a developer’s perspective on inspiration, iteration, and the design legacy of Active Time Battle and Stagger mechanics.
- How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West | Washington Post – Launcher
Aidan Moher explores the work practices and personalities of the early years of Western localization.
- How To Make Good Small Games | Far Away Times
John Thyer asks aspiring developers to find value in art beyond the five-year dream project.
- The California Problem | Ellaguro
Liz Ryerson discusses cycles and lenses of art, authorship, and exploitation in the games industry.
- What We Make From The Ruins | Unwinnable
Phoenix Simms chats with narrative designer Kaelan Doyle-Myersough about worldbuilding, player agency, and a speculative future canon of post-pandemic games.
- Into the Myst: The Oral History of America’s Oldest Surviving Indie Game Studio | Inverse
Adam Morgan talks to Cyan Worlds about Myst and the Ages beyond.
- 3/22 5:00 PM (GDC #3) | Deep-Hell
Skeleton reports from the IGF.
- Translator Spotlight: Taylor McCue and Fuglekongerige on He F-cked The Girl Out Of Me | Indie Tsushin
Indie Tsushin sits down with both the designer and Japanese localizer of He Fucked The Girl Out Of Me.
- Design review of Redfall by Arkane Studios Austin | Radiator Blog
Robert Yang sits down to find out what can be learned from a discourse magnet of a game that so many have already written off altogether.
- Changing The Landscape: The Future Of Games And First Nations Storytelling | Kotaku AU
Cat Benstead chats with developers and storytellers about the growing influence of Indigenous storytelling in the Australian games industry.
- What Does It Mean to be Wholesome in 2023: An Analysis of the 2023 Wholesome Direct | Unwinnable
Hilver runs the numbers on Wholesomeness in 2023, noting a creeping conservatism in the brand.
- The death of unity | Insert Credit
Brandon Sheffield offers a developer’s perspective on Unity’s plan to retroactively nickle-and-dime studios that use their tech.
- El Paso, Elsewhere Wears Its Bloodstained Heartbreak on Its Sleeve | IGN
Rebekah Valentine chats with Xalavier Nelson Jr. about heart and humanity on the knife’s edge of game dev precarity.
- ¿Fue 2023 el PEOR año para los videojuegos? | GamerFocus
Julián Ramírez digs into the hows and whys of what has made this year such a terrible one for the industry.
- The Game Worker, Labor Organizer, Reality TV Review of “PsychOdyssey” | Medium
Game dev and labor organizer Robin LoBuglio reacts to and reflects on 23 hours of strategic communications from Double Fine that took the form of a reality TV show.
- The Elephants in the (Meeting) Room: PsychOdyssey and Eight Uncomfortable Truths About Game Development | Fungus Zone
Mike Horowitz derives eight conclusions from his viewing of “PsychOdyssey.”
In which case we have to wonder: would we have had the same tolerance for people’s behaviour, management styles, or creative processes observed in the documentary if we knew the game wasn’t destined to be a success? What do we permit in our own day-to-day? And at point do we finally agree that a game is “good enough” to be released?
Genre! What is it Good For?
We tend to use genre as a convenient shorthand when describing the ways certain games are like other games. But how these genres come to be formed doesn’t happen in a vacuum and the effects they can have on the industry can sometimes be quite profound.
- Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty and the long shadow of Dark Souls | canon fire
Amr Al-Aaser contemplates Team Ninja’s distinct refinement of the souls formula across four games.
- Idle Threat: What Incremental Games Say About Our Relationship To Work | Paste Magazine
Emily Price pokes at the contradictions of the ironically named idle genre and its recent mutuations.
- Drawing the Line: The Sublime Horror of Getting Stuck in a Puzzle Game | Cohost
kasiski presents a longform theory of the pleasures (?) of the puzzle genre.
- The ‘JRPG’ label has always been othering | Polygon
Kazuma Hashimoto examines the history of a fraught and contentious label, always mediated through its ups and downs by a narrow and fickle western lens.
- Essential experiences: Scrolling beat ‘em ups | Kimimi the Game-Eating She-Monster
Kimimi embarks on a tour of a beloved genre, past and present.
- How to Play Your First Japanese Dating Sim | Cohost
Thomas James offers practical pointers for engaging with a genre that remains largely misunderstood and underaccessible to western audiences.
- Void Stranger: The Sokoban’s Heart Laid Bare | Minidoshima
Kastel reckons with System Erasure’s latest Madoka-tier genre grenade, an abrasive game that cries out to be heard.
- RE7 as American Folk Horror | Unwinnable
Emma Kostopolus does a little genre theorizing with the Bakers along for the ride.
- Comfort is a weapon | Mokkograd
Eric takes a critical view of cozy games, warning off the good-vibes-only apolitical gatekeeping that clouds both the genre and its attendent definitions.
“There’s value in people seeking and finding comfort and connection in a world that wants to deny both to them, but for that to work, you have to be very precise about who is seeking the comfort and who is being kept out in order to maintain it. You can’t just shut the door behind you and call that an act of radicalism.”
There are questions around film adaptations of videogames that aren’t “So when are we going to get a good one?” These questions typically involve the content of such adaptations, what creative choices film directors made to adapt the game in question, and how the adapted works sit in conversation with each other.
- The Last Of Us Episode 3 Recap: The Ballad of Bill and Frank | Kotaku
Carolyn Petit documents how an adaptation is perhaps at its best when it does what the original could not.
- What Exactly Is the Point of ‘The Last of Us’? | ArtReview
Lewis Gordon finds that in its quest for fidelity to the game, the television adaptation of The Last of Us reveals a thematic hollowness it shares with the original.
- The Last of Us on HBO | Unwinnable
Amanda Hudgins unpacks the narrative of–and the narrative around–The Last of Us‘s narrative, as its weaknesses are passed down and exacerbated from game to show.
- A Conversation about the Conversation about Videogame Adaptations | Paste Magazine
Mik Deitz finds that the current discourse around videogame adaptations is asking the wrong questions.
- The 1993 Super Mario Bros. had the guts that the new Mario movie lacks | Polygon
Maddy Myers re-evaluates the chaotic, critically ambitious 1993 film.
- It’s Super Mario World, We’re Just Living In It | Ben Verschoor
Ben Verschoor takes stock of the entire Mario film canon, which stretches back surprisingly far.
- The New Super Mario Bros. Movie Embraces the Dystopia the 1993 Super Mario Bros. Movie Warned About | Paste Magazine
Madeline Blondeau looks back at the campy 1993 dystopian satire that simultaneously scared Nintendo off films for 30 years while prophesying its eventual turn to corporate media convergence.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie and its accompanying theme park are the very sort of enterprise Joffe, Jankel, and Morton’s Super Mario Bros. tried to warn us of. Easy, recognizable entertainment that services a larger entity. A barren concrete city where natural life is choked to death. Figureheads who we blindly trust to entertain us and do no harm, but represent the further encroach of cultural stagnation.”
There have been a lot of remade videogames in the past handful of years.
These remakes range from simple graphical remasters to fully-rebuilt worlds. Are they labors of love, cynical cash-grabs or something else entirely? These pieces get to the bottom of that question.
- Your Brain is Made of Meat | Bullet Points Monthly
Julie Muncy conceives of the original Dead Space as more fixated on dead bodies than living people, and sees productive dissonances in the remake now that Isaac Clarke has found his voice.
- It Eats Entire Planets | Patreon
Samantha Greer gets to the heart of the true horror of Dead Space.
- One Space Station’s Trash, Another Man’s Treasure | Bullet Points Monthly
Khee Hoon Chan meditates on an accidentally engrossing loot grind abstracted out of System Shock 2023’s scrapping and recycling systems.
- Not Everything Needs To Be Remade | TheGamer
Tessa Kaur sees parallels between the trend of remakes and reboots in both games and film.
- The Resident Evil 4 Remake Totally Failed Ashley Graham | Kotaku
Ashley Bardhan finds Resident Evil 4‘s deuteragonist to be a character in want of, well, character.
- And Then There Are Things We Don’t Remake | Bullet Points Monthly
Ed Smith sees mass-market appeal as the common thread between the more conservative representational politics of games twenty years ago and the more amorphous, noncommittal incarnations we get today.
- Seasonal Changes | Into The Spine
Jess Elizabeth Reed reflects upon how game remakes shift and change in tandem with changes to gaming (and wider) culture.
- Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective review: new life for a DS cult classic | Polygon
Jay Castello takes the occasion of a celebrated niche DS game’s release to reflect on a much wider back catalogue of celebrated niche DS games still bound to an increasingly precarious and inaccessible platform.
“That Ghost Trick was one of the lucky ones feels like a fluke, like some phantom behind the scenes manipulated things just so. Maybe the persistence of the fandom did contribute to the sense that it would be a financial success to re-release it. But in the current ecosystem, being loved isn’t enough to stop art from being erased.”
There’s nothing like a videogame’s “silver anniversary” to remind you of the unceasing passage of time and your own mortality. These pieces do the double duty of remembering the games and the contexts they released in.
- Final Fantasy’s love of Shakespeare is its secret to success | Inverse
Willa Rowe does an all-bard run of the Final Fantasy series.
- 30 Years Ago Myst Introduced Us to an Unforgettable Abandoned World | Paste Magazine
Cameron Kunzelman marks 30 years of Myst less interested in its historical acheivements and more interested in what it remains today: a whole vibe.
- The Eerie, Influential Afterlife of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’ | The Ringer
M.D. Rodrigues chats with designer Ed Annunziata about Ecco the Dolphin‘s enduring and offbeat cultural legacy.
- The BEAddventure: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective | Medium
Vehe Mently peers into a sprawling, unruly, and fascinating world of community-authored pornographic interactive fiction.
- Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic Both Blurs And Upholds The Franchise’s Age-Old Binaries | GameSpot
Grace Benfell celebrates KOTOR‘s 20th by taking the shine off it a bit. Lovingly.
- Final Fantasy 10-2 at 20: how breaking the series’ golden rule changed Final Fantasy forever | TechRadar
Cat Bussell looks back at Final Fantasy X-2‘s productive contradictions.
- 20 Years Ago Final Fantasy XI Messed Me Up Completely | Paste Magazine
Dia Lacina recounts her first forays into Vana’diel, and the liminal dot com world that birthed it.
“I won’t sugar coat it. Final Fantasy XI was kind of a rickety piece of shit. Like our Angelfire pages, and phpBB sites, and the way we ran our IRC channels, Final Fantasy XI was people absolutely on the bleeding edge of their bullshit, creating something that barely held together at the best of times, but deep in its calamity was the spark of a profoundly beautiful pre-Web 2.0 world.”
Ways of Relating
What do games do to our understanding of the world and vice versa? What are games’ possibilities and limitations with regard to presenting different perspectives from our own?
- Sands That Set Planets Apart | Unwinnable
Saniya Ahmed reflects on how Sable offers something a bit different from the Orientalist desert planets that have long dominated western science fiction.
- (Un)learning Completionism | Into The Spine
Aleenah Ansari seeks to balance out the completionist mindset in both play and profession.
- Coffee Talk Brews Up Coziness with a Splash of Discomfort | Sidequest
Madison Butler contemplates the dissonance of Coffee Talk‘s uneven fantasy race allegories and its uncritical approach to police power.
- MY CITY, MY RULES | Deep-Hell
Karin Malady ponders the violence of simulation.
- Why Do Gay People Play Healers In Overwatch? | Kotaku
Alyssa Mercante delves deeper into the long-running affinity of queer players for support characters.
- Transmutations: an owch analysis | Kritiqal
WD traces the theme of transformation–be it personal or public, cathartic or traumatic–across the creative output of independent developer owch.
- Unpapering The Past: Jewish History and the Cast of Pentiment | Uppercut Crit
Marn Silverman considers text and context in evaluating Jewish representation in Pentiment.
- Monster Hunter Rise’s Character Creator Gives Me Gender Euphoria | Sidequest
Harry Schofield finds a lot to like in Monster Hunter Rise‘s flexible character customization options. The big swords get a nod too.
- The Magic Circle (The Magic Is Racism) | Press.exe
Talen Lee asks whether it’s games that are uncreative or just the fundamental whiteness of early game studies theorists.
- Saint Maker Reckons with Religious Trauma, In-Game and In Real Life | Uppercut Crit
Lara Eviota listens to what a visual novel with no meaningful choices has to say about queer autonomy in an environment of religious confinement.
- Now Is The Time For Universal Gaming Accessibility Guidelines | Kotaku
Levi Winslow calls for the industry to knock down the remaining barriers that keep gaming a private, able-bodied party.
“If the industry hopes to cater to everyone, as is often touted, then disabled players need to be considered and heard more consistently, or gaming will remain an elitist club. Now is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to make a universal accessibility standard a reality. So let’s seize it.”
This year saw a tidal wave of incredible indie games come out, and these critics were there to capture as many of the experiences they had to offer.
- Waste Eater | Gamers with Glasses
Don Everhart takes a peek into an unglamorous technocapitalist future.
- A Space for the Unbound’s Triumphant Last Act Depicts Mental Health Issues with Care | Uppercut Crit
Elijah Gonzalez documents how A Space for the Unbound sidesteps the tropey trappings of “it was all a dream”-type storytelling to treat its protagonist with dignity and care.
- 2023’s Best Indie Reveals the Power of Video Game Storytelling | Inverse
Willa Rowe connects with He Fucked the Girl out of Me‘s raw and unflinching vulnerability.
- Venba and Papers, Please Flex the Same Emotional Muscle | Paste Magazine
Yousif Kassab brings together two games which use labour systems to abstract their storytelling about people in transit.
- Is there an indie games bubble? | Roadmap Mag
Gita Jackson chats with developers and creators about the state of indie games in a time of increased precarity.
- Stray Gods’ story about moving forward leaves Medusa behind | Uppercut Crit
Ty Galiz-Rowe finds something very off in the arc Stray Gods sets for one of its key characters.
- Venba — A Poem To Cooking | Pizza’s Letter
Nicanor Gordon juxtaposes Venba‘s messaging about food and family against influencer-driven food-as-content culture.
- Thirsty Suitors Review | IGN
Saniya Ahmed finds a lot to like in Thirsty Suitors‘ relationship-writing and authentic portrayals, outweighing at-times chaotic pacing and tone.
- Using Your Words to Make Friends and Meet God in Chants of Sennaar | Gamesline
Franny thinks about communication, and community, and Wittgenstein in Chants of Sennaar.
- Indie Side — An Interview With The Developer of Madotsuki’s Closet | Medium
Mira Lazine chats with developer Kate Bagenzo about Yume Nikki fangames, autobiographical games, trans representation, and more.
- Citizen Sleeper And The Decline Of Digital Town Squares | Paste Magazine
Moises Taveras eulogizes Twitter by highlighting the inextinguishible warmth of community that comprises Citizen Sleeper‘s core thesis.
The biggest releases of the year tend to be discourse magnets. In this penultimate section we’ve collected a lightning round of critical works: 16 pieces from all aspects of games media that celebrate and critically examine the newest blockbusters of the day.
- The Callisto Protocol Is Expensive and Empty – The Callisto Protocol Review | Gamesline
Rose did not like The Callisto Protocol.
- Imprisoned Fantasy | Bullet Points Monthly
Yussef Cole concludes that The Callisto Protocol‘s sci-fi prison setting offers no critical reflection on the contemporary carceral state.
Tears of the Kingdom
- Her Only Weapons Were Her Tears | Dreamcastaway
Harper Jay asks whether Tears of the Kingdom is a story of our time.
- Tears of the Kingdom’s ending is its own kind of tragedy | Polygon
Jay Castello links TOTK‘s status quo-resetting resolution back to an overall series maintaining a thematic holding pattern.
Final Fantasy XVI
- ‘Final Fantasy XVI’ Has An Identity Crisis | Epilogue Gaming
Flora Merigold sums up Final Fantasy XVI as bifurcated between brief peaks of brilliant spectacle and vast chasms of agonizing filler.
- Final Fantasy 16’s Benedikta Deserved Better | GameSpot
Jess Howard unpacks a character that might have been more.
Baldur’s Gate 3
- I broke Baldur’s Gate 3 by playing as a party of bears | PC Gamer
Christopher Livingston causes problems.
- DON’T YOU WANT TO? | Deep-Hell
The most challenging part of reading Skeleton’s work is deciding where to end the pullquote so here’s a whole damn paragraph on the banality of hotness in BG3.
“who am I baldur’s gate 3? with this endless parade of hunks, twinks, rude-girls and doe eyed cultists who begin and end every night with a rigorous facial programme. there is no space for me to be ugly or weird or misshapen, I need to be handsome I need to be hot and most of all I need to be ready to fuck or kill at a moments notice. that’s really what we’re getting at when we talk about what it means to be an adventurer in one of these broadly colonialist fantasies where everything is solved at the tip of a sword except for statecraft, politics, the shape of the world or anything we want to change. there’s scarce room for changing the world, but lots of room for saving it. exactly as it is, forever. save-scumming is built right into the fabric of faerun. if I fuck up or die I roll back to the last save. whenever I am done with faerun it is still faerun for all of the R.A. Salvatore’s of the world to fuck around in. their tools, my playset, just as cardboard backedd and clam-shelled as it needs to be for the price tag.”
Armored Core 6
- She Had A Body | Bullet Points Monthly
Autumn Wright is on NG+++ with this one.
- Nobody Lives On Rubicon | Medium
Vehe Mently dwells on the disembodied, brutalist architectural landscapes of Armored Core VI.
Lies of P
- Say something, Pinocchio, please | A weapon to surpass blaming yourself or god while knee-deep in the dead
Chuck Sebian-Lander pulls at some thematic tensions in Lies of P‘s borrowed approach to telling a story without the protagonist’s voice.
- Artificiality Be Damned, My Boy Can Cook – Lies of P Review | Gamesline
No lies detected in Maverick’s glowing review of the sleeper soulslike-like hit.
Cyberpunk 2077/Phantom Liberty
- Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t just redeem itself—it pushed open worlds further | Polygon
Bianca Ryckert makes the case that time and polish have allowed Cyberpunk 2077 to tell the stories it meant to tell from the start.
- Hitting a Wall | Bullet Points Monthly
Yussef Cole sums up Cyberpunk 2077–countless bugfixes, heaps of patches and polish, and one full expansion later–as a thematically promising game that still never stops getting in its own way.
Alan Wake II
- Alan Wake 2 review – incredible style, overbearing writing | Eurogamer
Alexis Ong sums up Remedy’s latest as well-made but self-reflexive to a fault, sure to please many but overly committed to its own bit.
- The Weirdest Blockbuster Game Ever | Vulture
Lewis Gordon clicks with Alan Wake 2‘s meditations on genre and metafiction.
At the end of each weekly roundup, Senior Curator Chris Lawrence chooses a “Critical Chaser,” a funny, informative or creative work (or all three) that punctuates the week’s discourse. These digestifs are worth celebrating in their own right, so we asked Chris for the chasers they thought would best round out the year. They provided us with the following list, in no particular order. Enjoy!
- 50 of the RPGs | DEEP-HELL
The Most List of the year, which I’ll credit to the DEEP-HELL community as a whole.
- My car-free Cities: Skylines 2 dream inevitably devolved into a cruel endurance test | Rock Paper Shotgun
I wonder what horrors Sin Vega built in RollerCoaster Tycoon back in the day.
- For Mr. Kendrick | Videodame
Rachel Atchley reflects on new beginnings after playing Dordogne.
- Have You Danced with Devil Daggers in the Pale Moonlight? | Unwinnable
Hayes Geldmacher puts play and performance in dialogue in Devil Daggers.
- Petty Godhood | Into The Spine
Adam Wescott makes a strong case for SaGa, where even the gods are Posters.
- Tender Normalcy | Into The Spine
Evan Ahearne dwells on everyday nonbinary existence on The Eye.
- Outer Wilds and Waypoint | May the Sunflower
May the Sunflower eulogizes Waypoint via a game they helped put on all of our radars.
- The Orbital Game Became My Blood | GlitchOut
Oma Keeling glimpses a future history of games and play.
- Popeye (2021) | Bad Game Hall of Fame
Cassidy chronicles a history of play with the venerable Sailor Man culminating in this improbable and unfortunate remake of Nintendo’s 1982 arcade staple.
- The One Who Pulls the Sword Out Will Be Crowned King: An Allegory for My Issues With MMOs and Why I Liked it Anyways | Uppercut
Emma Shannon thinks through the neverending grind of MMOs via a simple and silly game about becoming king.
“There is no playing catch-up in the world of The One Who Pulls the Sword Out Will Be Crowned King. There are no skills to grind, no rare or limited items to find, no worries that if you log out for a week you’ll miss something crucial. You won’t fall behind by taking a break, there won’t be old unfinished missions that disappear with updates, there won’t be a layout overhaul that undoes your favorite NPC. No matter when you wander up to the stone, it will always be you, the sword, and the players who came before and are on exactly the same field as you.”
One Year Down, Many More To Go
And with that, 2023 is over. With hundreds of articles curated into our weekly roundups this year, this list can only hope to be a glimpse of the totality of games criticism. But as always, we hope this annual roundup has captured the essence of the year, warts and all.
Thank you for reading and supporting Critical Distance this year and every year since 2009. Your support truly means a lot to us. If you want to see what we’ve got going on in 2024, come join us on Discord! It’s the best place to interface directly with the Critical Distance team as well as submit your own recommendations for our weekly roundups. We’re also on X/Twitter, Facebook, Mastodon, Cohost and Bluesky! Come say hi there as well.