As I take a look back at my top ten games of 2023, I’m struck by the variety on display. Not just in genre or platform, but in how they made their way to our screens. From kickstarted indie projects to corporate-mandated remakes, from two-person teams with only a single project under their belt to enormous teams of hundreds if not thousands of people.
2023 was a year of absurd highs and crushing lows for the gaming industry. Undeniable heavy-hitters like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur’s Gate III, and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 were released to critical acclaim and broke sales records, but the industry also suffered a massive amount of layoffs, with an estimated 7000 people losing their jobs in 2023.
I can’t offer any real solutions myself, but I can do my best to spread awareness of some of the less healthy aspects of the industry. So, as I celebrate my top ten games of the year I’ll also be listing ten separate spates of layoffs (or other anti-worker/consumer behaviour). Where possible I’ve made these as relevant to the game/company in question, but this won’t always be the case. Anyway, let’s get started!
10. Dead Space
Developed by Motive Studio, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, which made a profit of 5.75 billion USD in 2023. Electronic Arts also laid off 6% of its workforce, 800 people, in 2023.
The second-best survival horror remake on this list! Dead Space as a series always deserved better, and this remake of the first game in the trilogy feels like a step toward correcting this. With completely revamped visuals, new story elements, and a voiced protagonist; it’s not quite like playing Dead Space for the first time all over again, but it comes pretty damn close.
My fingers are crossed that Motive goes on to give Dead Space 2 the same treatment, and then completely rework the misfire that was Dead Space 3.
9. Resident Evil 4
Developed by CAPCOM, which in 2023 celebrated its 11th consecutive year of operating profit growth. CAPCOM avoided layoffs last year but in the past has chosen not to rehire union voice actors.
With Resident Evil 4, in addition to a faithful and heartfelt recreation of the original, CAPCOM delicately added new quests, items, enemies, set pieces, and more, ensuring a fresh experience for those who have played it on ten different platforms since 2005.
While undoubtedly a phenomenal remake, it feels like Resident Evil 4 moved out of the zeitgeist far quicker than the likes of Resident Evil: Village or even the remake of Resident Evil 2. I think this is in large part due to its release towards the start of a year as busy as 2023 was, but I do wonder if CAPCOM’s strategy of new releases alongside remakes might have peaked.
8. Sea of Stars
Developed by Sabotage Studio, a small independent team based in Quebec. A similarly small team, the Melbourne-based studio League of Geeks, cut half of its workforce late last year.
One look at a screenshot from Sea of Stars and you get an idea of what they’re going for: capturing the essence of a SNES-era RPG with modern controls, fun gameplay twists, and cutting-edge effects. The game is not without its flaws; the pace can drag and the two main characters are paper-thin, but by the time I hit the credits I couldn’t imagine what more I could ask of Sea of Stars.
As I said in my review: “For anyone who has fond memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor, cabled controller in hand, staring at a chunky CRT TV playing the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, or, in my case, Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, you owe it to yourself to check out Sea of Stars.”
7. Octopath Traveler II
Developed by Square Enix and Acquire. In 2022 Square Enix sold its western studios Crystal Dynamics, Eidos-Montréal, and Square Enix Montréal to Embracer Group for just 300 million USD. In 2023, Embracer Group laid off at least 904 people.
A sequel that improves upon the original in every way, Octopath Traveler II offers a cast of characters and a fleshed-out world that are an absolute joy to spend time with. Featuring highly strategic combat, an intricate job system, and a compelling narrative, Octopath Traveller II is a wonderful companion piece to Sea of Stars.
Both titles go hard on nostalgia, but whereas Sea of Stars is lighthearted, colourful, and not super difficult, Octopath Traveller II is more grounded, challenging, and grim.
6. Super Mario Bros. Wonder
Developed by Nintendo. Nintendo also avoided layoffs last year and in fact, raised its employee’s wages by 10%. Less impressive, however, are the reports of poor treatment of contractors that came out in 2022.
I’ve always bounced off 2D Mario games, preferring the far greater sense of exploration featured in the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and Odyssey. Super Mario Bros. Wonder changed all that, living up to its name this game is just pure, unadulterated fun. Every single level is jam-packed with creativity and, well, wonder.
Getting 100% completion in this game was an absolute blast, even if that one invisibility section of the final, final level almost drove me insane.
5. Chants of Sennaar
Developed by a two-person team based in France, Rundisc. Ubisoft, the French company behind the likes of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, laid off 124 people in 2023.
This game slaps and I’m concerned not enough people know about it. In any other year, this would likely be in my top 3. You awake in a massive tower and have to slowly piece together a written language based entirely on the environment and the inhabitant’s gestures. As you fill out your journal with your guesses of what different symbols mean, the game will ‘lock in’ the correct ones. The feeling of triumph when you make a correct guess after struggling for half an hour is unparalleled.
4. Blasphemous II
Developed by The Game Kitchen and published by Team17. Team17 is currently going through a restructure which could lead to up to 91 people losing their jobs. According to Tom Phillips at Eurogamer, developers found out about the layoffs when they saw their Team17 contacts posting on LinkedIn in search of new work.
There’s nothing out there quite like Blasphemous II. Sure it belongs firmly within the Metroidvania genre, and has clearly been influenced by FromSoftware’s catalogue, but at its core, it has a vibe entirely its own.
Blasphemous II is a fantastic sequel offering fun platforming, interesting traversal abilities, challenging combat, and a morbidly fascinating art design. The Game Kitchen solidified its voice with the original, but with Blasphemous II that voice has grown into a choir.
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2
Developed by Insomniac Games and is now the fastest-selling PlayStation Studios game ever, with 2.5 million copies sold in 24 hours. Documents that were released as a result of a ransomware attack on Insomniac suggest Sony has been pressuring them to reduce their headcount by 50-75 people.
A rollercoaster from start to finish and overall just an extremely satisfying game to play. The middling elements of the first game: repetitive side activities and simple combat, are improved upon here. Side stories have surprising payoffs and swapping between Peter and Miles keeps things fresh. They even managed to improve the MJ sections!
The narrative weaves Harry Osborn’s return, the introduction of Kraven and the Symbiote, and two already established Spideys together wonderfully. Insomniac may not have taken any real risks with the story, but just like the first game, it remains a joy to see how they manage to tie it all together.
2. Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon
FromSoftware’s extremely successful Elden Ring led their parent company, Kadokawa, to report profits of 7.592 billion yen in 2022. In the same year, there were reports of FromSoftware employees being required to do long hours with low pay.
There is simply no way in hell I ever would’ve guessed this game would make it so high on this list, but in FromSoftware we trust. As you spend more time on Rubicon 3 the byzantine menus eventually become parsable, and the seemingly insurmountable bosses will, in time, fall to your fine-tuned Armored Core.
As with all FromSoftware’s games, the responsive, challenging, and deeply rewarding combat I had come to expect. What I was more surprised to find in an Armored Core game was a fascinating world, intriguing characters, and stunning art design. Let’s see how far you can fly on borrowed wings.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Developed by Nintendo. As I’ve been drafting this list, two more stories have broken about mass layoffs: Twitch is cutting 35% of its staff, 500 people, and game engine company Unity is cutting 25% of its employees, around 1800 people. The Unity situation is particularly egregious given in September 2023 they announced that developers would be charged every time a new person installed their game if it uses Unity. An understandably controversial decision that backfired immediately and led to Unity CEO John Ricetello’s resignation (he had also sold shares in the company in the lead-up to the announcement).
In the lead-up to the release of Tears of the Kingdom, I had managed to whip myself up into quite a state. My anticipation for the game was so extreme that it bordered on obsession. I found my day-to-day routine suddenly influenced by the imminent release of a video game.
Needless to say, I was excited to play this game. And those first few days were indeed bliss. Taking my first steps onto the Sky Islands with their chill music, descending below the surface to explore the pitch-black unknown, and beginning to get comfortable with the Ultrahand and Fuse abilities. My biggest issues with Breath of the Wild: the lackluster characterisation, disconnected narrative structure, and samey dungeons, were all improved upon (although not perfected) in this sequel.
The Zelda series has always been close to my heart, and revisiting this changed version of Hyrule consumed my life for at least a few weeks. I emerged from my stupor content with what the game had been, but very curious as to what direction the series will take next. If Breath of the Wild was the sketch, then Tears of the Kingdom is the completed work, using up every inch of the canvas and every drop of paint.
But this is perhaps a conversation for another time.
For now, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a phenomenal technical and artistic achievement, and it is my 2023 Game of the Year.