Brittany (the pink haired adventurer) facing a
Best of 2023 (Final Update)
First Published: March 5, 2024

The best of the best.

Janet Garcia

2023 had so many incredible releases that I spent most of January 2024 finishing up my favorites. A few credits still need to be seen but I made some good progress. Normally I would’ve left what was unfinished unfinished, choosing instead to go full force into the current year but damn… these titles are too good not to get through. 

And while Best of 2024 Quarter 1 is right around the corner I didn’t want to give up on this list either. This year I’m trying to post on time but I’m also trying to keep in mind that posting late is better than not posting at all. I’m tired of getting bullied into quitting on things over made-up deadlines I have in my own head. So here is my list of the best games of 2023.

I know reading a listicle often means scrolling quickly to see what made the cut and calling it a day but whenever you’re looking to unpack 2023 with me, take your time to give this a full read. It took me months to finish writing these 3,000 words so read it at your own pace, whether it’s all in one go or something you bookmark and come back to.

10. Cocoon

A puzzle game for people who struggle with puzzle games but still want to feel smart. You’re just a little guy, a beetle to be specific, progressing through the world by moving orbs around and interacting with different mechanisms to solve environmental puzzles. But the twist is each orb has a world inside it. This eventually culminates into a series of challenges that involve traveling in and out of different orbs to manipulate how the worlds interact with each other, yet solving these puzzles isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds. 

The main character (a small beetle) looking at a contraption. This is an artsy looking shot that has a green glow to it.

Some may see Cocoon’s ease as a point against it but to me Cocoon represents one of the many ways puzzle games can exist in the space. It doesn’t all have to be about brutal challenge. Cocoon’s secret sauce is how good it feels to execute an idea, from the satisfaction of placing an orb on rails and letting it roll to its spot — like a bowling ball returning to a player after a strike — to the joy of launching yourself in the air and dropping an orb into a pipe with the power and grace of an Air Jordan moment.

Biomes combine the organic and mechanical to create an otherworldly feel. Sound design gives birth to insects and machines that sound so lifelike I'd recoil in disgust if the art wasn’t so beautiful and the color palette wasn’t so soothing. Cocoon is required reading when it comes to level design. Simple yet effective.

9. Venba

A story game with cooking mechanics, Venba is about an Indian family who moved to Canada in the 1980s. It’s, in part, looking at the challenge of passing on culture to a child who’s growing up in a new country. Admittedly, I went into Venba with doubt. I figured the game would be good but, as a first-generation child of a man who moved from Mexico to the United States in the 80s, I worried Venba would simply skim the surface: being revolutionary to outsiders but failing to make a big splash with those who lived the main beats. 

I could not have been more wrong.

Cooking scene from bird's eye view. There's a pot of red peppers, water, and other ingredients on a hot plate. Surrounding is is other ingredients such as onion, peppers, pastes, herbs, and leaves.

Venba is one of the most well thought out games of 2023. Not a single moment is wasted. Every design choice has intention and purpose. The music is incredible. The cooking is fun. The story is affecting. And there are even some surprising turns along the way. 

Gameplay wise, Venba is a cooking game with puzzle undertones. You’re tasked with making recipes but the instructions are incomplete. Using the clues you have, and a bit of trial and error, it’s up to you to make the dish. There’s a built in hint system should you ever get stuck. The art feels straight up out of a storybook and the sound design will leave your mouth watering. The radio plays music inspired primarily by Tamil film music spanning several decades as you cook, enhancing the immersion. 

Smart choices like representing English and Tamil through different text colors make it easy for players to follow conversations and strategic smudges on the dialogue boxes allow us to feel the exertion of trying to understand a second language.

Venba knows exactly when to be direct in its storytelling and when to let us fill in the painful gaps. But despite the moments of heartbreak there is a moment of peace reached through empathy and understanding. Venba is one of the most empathetic games I've ever played.

8. Pikmin 4

In a post-Tinykin world I wondered if Pikmin could still deliver and it absolutely did. Pikmin 4 is the gameplay flow fans know and love: gathering your crew of Pikmin, fighting Bulborbs, carrying pocketwatches (and other mundane loot) back to your ship, etc. But it had some welcomed quality of life changes such as the ability to end the day without going all the way to the ship and a way to easily see if any of your Pikmin got separated from the herd. Even Oatchi ended up being great, despite being an ugly, bootleg Poochy. But after getting used to the conveniences of attaching all my Pikmin to him for quick travel across water and land I realized he’s actually the ugly kind of cute and I was wrong to judge. 

A battle in what appears to be a backyard. Brittany (the pink-haired adventurer) facing a Bulborb. A red Pikmin and has been thrown towards it. Behind her are several other Pikmin.

But geniunely I think Pikmin 4 nails the cute, cozy collectathon the series is known for and my only disappointment is the lack of campaign multiplayer I fell in love with playing Pikmin 3 Deluxe.

7. Chants of Sennaar

How we make sense of the world (personal biases and all) and how language shapes the way we think, wrapped up in a puzzle game about deciphering language. When you start Chants of Sennar, your ultimate goal is unclear but it takes shape beautifully as this Tower of Babel adventure continues. Mechanically, you spend the game walking around different fictional cultures’ regions, one by one, figuring out their language in order to progress to the next area. 

Isometric view of town that has trees, buildings, and a bright yellow river. Colors are vivid. You can see the main character running down the stairs.

Deduction is done with your in-game notebook. As an example, the first two glyphs you encounter are next to a lever that opens and closes a door. You can jot down what the glyphs mean. Perhaps it’s up and down. Perhaps it’s open and close. Throughout the game there are built in checks where you sketch a drawing in your notebook and it’s up to you, as the player, to match the appropriate glyphs to the drawings. Once you’ve matched them correctly you will get the real definition of those glyphs written over any guesses you jotted down. 

This structure makes for the perfect blend of player freedom and safety netting. Chants of Sennar is the video game embodiment of educational philosopher Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal development (ZPD). The concept is that there are things a learner can do on their own, things a learned cannot do, and things a learner can do with help. The things a learner can do with help is where learning takes place. Chants of Sennaar exists in that zone, pushing the player beyond their comfort but providing enough help along the way to avoid frustration or dead ends. 

A graphic showing what the Zone of Proximal Development is. The outer circle is what you cannot do. The innermost circle is what you can on on your own. The middle circle is what you can do with help / where learning takes place. This diagram is next to Chants of Sennaar key art.

This quickly became one of my favorite games to watch others play. Seeing how they interpreted a sign outside a store, a sketch of someone making a pot, or a simple greeting reminded me there will always be a gap between people. We can be at the same place, at the same time, together, but what we take away from the experience will be always be a little different.

Still, there’s something that connects us. We all want to be understood. But Chants of Sennaar reminds us it is even more important to seek an understanding of others. 

6. Lies of P

My Souls history is off and on, usually more off than on. Who am I kidding? It’s almost exclusively off. I beat Demon’s Souls, largely thanks to being carried by my community once the multiplayer aspect unlocked. I generally enjoyed my time but I didn’t fall in love the way many before me had. Since then I’ve tried new Souls games as they’ve cropped up (from Elden Ring to Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty) but nothing stuck. 

The Watchman (an electrified robot with red eyes) lifting up P.

So when I booted up Lies of P I expected another grand opening, grand closing scenario. Instead I was met with a funky, fucked up robot puppet world I fell in love with. But beyond the setting the real secret sauce of Lies of P is the way tutorials are slowly rolled out to you as the game goes on. This, combined with generous checkpointing and making it easy to summon a specter (a NPC who fights alongside you against bosses), makes it the most approachable Soulslike I’ve ever played. It’s the first time I felt I could engage with the world without putting down my controller to text friends, google instructions, or watch a series of YouTube videos.

Lies of P maintains the difficulty fans of the genre know but has a simplicity and levity that’s both charming and practical. Weapons are straightforward in their stats and some can deal elemental damage, but they’re also mix and matchable. This makes it easy to switch up strategies without needing to do a severe overhaul to your character. It's a nice bonus that the weapons you create are wonderfully stupid. You can have a baton with a sword handle or stick an axe to a bat. It’s like Tears of the Kingdom if it was a rainy gritty nightmare. 

I haven’t beaten Lies of P yet and fear I’ll hit a skill wall I won’t be able to get through but until then I’m content to roam around, opening doors that satisfyingly connect the beginning to the middle of an area while wearing my donkey mask and sailor uniform.

5. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2

Marvel's Spider-Man 2 is, admittedly, more of the same. What we’ve come to know from the franchise with a few fun additions (web wings!) but damn, it’s really good. Nonstop fun, that good superhero lore integration, and some patented friendly neighborhood storylines.

Spiderman 2 key art featuring Peter Parker and Miles Morales suited up side by side.

So while the franchise has gotten a bit stagnant, the highs remain impeccable. Flying with Howard’s birds while Seabird by the Alessi Brothers swelled in the background was the best thing I did in a video game in 2023. Fighting through the Mysterium challenges was a beautiful blend of enriching combat and trippy visual feast. And when I was chasing Black Cat and that portal opened up to Antartica I was geniunely wowed. Here’s hoping that little Spiderverse easter egg leads us to a cool spin-off game. 

4. Dead Space Remake 

It wasn’t a big overhaul from the original but this was my first time playing Dead Space so it’s high on my list (no, I didn’t get to RE4 Remake sorry!). Dead Space excells at making a challenging combat room and then cranking things up even higher while also giving you the tools you need to get the job done. 

Isaac pointing his plasma cutter at a necromorph.

The Ishimura — the ship the game takes place on — is vast, dark, and detailed in all the right places. It was my home across these 12 chapters of stomping, impaling, and being jump scared by the simple sound of the sprinklers coming on to take care of the plants.

True horror is in the anticipation and the imagined; Dead Space lets you give in to your own fears and then makes them completely justified as enemies crawl out of vents, appearing (seemingly) out of thin air. 

Despite all the scares, Dead Space offers plenty of delights. Shooting the baby dolls in the head has them let out a doofy cry, carrying fans from room to room for impaling purposes feels silly, there’s a basketball minigame, and — for some reason — everyone was about to eat a cheeseburger before all hell broke loose (this game is filled with cheeseburgers). 

Dead Space screenshot. Isaac is pointing his light/gun at a burger sitting on a table on the Ishimura.

3. Alan Wake 2

In many ways, Alan Wake 2 is a flawed mess but it’s so deliciously fascinating I can’t help but look beyond the annoyance of fighting shadows as a light breeze eviscerates Alan. While gameplay struggles make the moment to moment experience of Alan Wake 2  a little rough, it’s a price I’ll happily pay to unravel this mystery and rewrite this horror story. The use of full motion video (FMV), photographs, music, and more all create took me on a ride that was equal parts awe-inspiring and gut-wrenching. 

Alan Wake 2 key art featuring Saga walking into a red forest with Alan in the background as a giant floating torso.

What really solidified Alan Wake 2 as one of my favorite games of the year is the way it was able to win me over on almost every decision it made. Saga’s intuition skills finally get answered. The run of the mill survival horror plotline of the cultists evolved into one of my favorite reveals of the year. And even the caseboard, which felt like a summary masquerading as player deduction, became a brilliant storytelling tool in its own right. 

At its worst, this game feels like a double disc album. Like wow, there is some really good stuff on here but there’s also some skippable tracks. In a different world this would be a certified banger but instead it’s just a super solid double disc. But at its best, Alan Wake 2 is more akin to a classic pulled from the literary canon: it can be enjoyed on a surface level, despite being a little tough to get through, but you’ll get more out of it the deeper you engage with the text. 

2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

It’s Breath of the Wild (BOTW) but better. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (TOTK) sits in a weird spot since it’s only better because it’s standing on the shoulder of a giant. A giant that will always be more beloved for moving open-world games forward and launching the Nintendo Switch into an era of success that hadn’t been seen since the Wii. 

Link dropping in fron the sky.

Still, TOTK has to get its credit for taking on the impossible task of following up on arguably the greatest game of all time and somehow rising to that occasion. The physics system in TOTK makes BOTW look like a first draft. Setting TOTK on the same map easily could’ve been stale but instead, it had this lovely blend of familiarity mixed with the novelty of the sky islands, the depths, and the general ways Hyrule has been altered since Link’s last adventure. 
My biggest worry going into Tears of the Kingdom was that I wouldn’t be able to build the fancy contraptions shown off in the trailers and would thus be stuck at arm’s length of the experience. This wasn’t the case because TOTK has some of the most brilliant and fun tutorials scattered throughout a game that I’ve ever experienced. Shrines were lessons in possibilities. But what made this format work is that some shrines were designed to force you to learn something specific and others simply invited you to learn but allowed you to problem-solve in your own way. 

Like a great teacher, TOTK was able to get players excited about a lesson plan. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the ever-charming, new NPC, Addison: who is stuck holding up President Hudson’s signs and could use your help keeping them upright. You get free reign to solve this however you want but Addison is often placed in prime locations with plenty of tools available to you, whether it’s looting the lumberyard to smatter together a contraption or chopping down trees in a wintery forest. 

And all smart design aside, I just love helping those backpack Korok babies find their friends. 

1. Baldur’s Gate 3

Baldur’s Gate 3 has better writing when a random bird is talking to me than most games have in their main plot. And the style of the writing is so in world and specific to the characters too. Where most games would write “c’mon, you can tell me” or “I’m dying to know,” this one writes “come on old chap I’m a devil for gossip.” If Baldur’s Gate 3 was a book it’d be the hot new, lengthly but bingable, fantasy series.

Astarion and Lae'zel having a conversation.

This game floors me in its details. Making the dice roll of how conversations go an actual dice roll adds excitement to the flow of dialogue. And getting to customize the dice is another nice touch in a game made, almost exclusively, of nice touches.

Every fight takes me forever to plan out and I’m not mad at it because it’s a result of me taking my time to explore, strategize, and get creative with each turn I have. All of which Baldur’s Gate 3 facilitates mastefully. I can turn into a freaking giant spider, put down webs, and then light those webs on fire to burn my foes. And each time I level up I feel like I’m visiting my new, favorite restaurant where I want to taste everything on the menu but can only pick a few things each time around.

I’m still too early in the main campaign to fully gush over the cast or make big comments on the overarching plot. But like many of the all-time greats, it didn’t take long for me to see what makes Baldur’s Gate 3 special but it will take me a long time to see all it has to offer.