Stop me if you’ve heard this before: 2023 is the best year in recent memory for video games. Well, not to be the resident Scrooge, but I am tired of this sentiment. There have been a lot of games this year. We’ve even given out more than a handful of 10/10s to several of them. Alas, as the new year approaches and I look back at every game I’ve played in 2023, I can’t help but question the sentiment that it’s been a great year for games. Rather, I find so much imperfection in every game I’ve loved this year.
Part of the problem is that 2022 was, to me, already an excellent year for games. Citizen Sleeper came out in the first half of the year and immediately established itself as one of the best games I have ever played. The second half of the year kept things going with Signalis, a game I can’t stop thinking about even a year later.
In comparison, 2023 kept me wondering if I would ever find something that could deliver on its intended experience. A Space for the Unbound in January seemed to be a promising adventure game but the narrative goes a little off the rails by its end in a way that I found took away from its themes of contemplating loss. The best offering I experienced in early 2023 was Bayonetta Origins, a game I have written about exhaustively. Yet in my review, I point out the game’s flaws — namely the lacking combat and repetition of its dungeons. Octopath Traveler II left me cold on release and took the entire year for me to reevaluate my thoughts on it, loving it despite its many flaws.
The more I heard others discussing how good games were this year the more I tried to decipher what was lacking in my mind. What I came to realize is that the games I loved the most felt like they had a unique vision that they were so committed to, but something derailed this ideal and left the game just short of reaching its true potential. This left me feeling that every game was unfinished and imperfect in its design.
The game that made me realize this was The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood. The indie deck-builder/visual novel was one of my most enjoyable games of 2023. The characters, art, and tarot deck building felt new and incredibly designed — until the game’s last third derails into a political election that throws most of the game’s mechanics to the side and railroads the player into an ending that ignores the majority of your decisions. Two-thirds of The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood is one of the best games of the year, but the last third betrays that potential.
This sentiment extended to other games such as Chants of Sennaar which muddles its deductive language puzzles with forced stealth sections that only act as padding to the game’s short playtime. Similarly, Viewfinder’s stunning central mechanic of photos that can change 3D space feels like one of the most revolutionary things in a game this year, but the story that surrounds this mechanic is uninspired and led me to put the game down forever. Sea of Stars, the Chrono Trigger-like RPG, was such an homage to its inspirations that it failed to deliver something fresh leaving me slightly cold.
There were also games I had been eagerly anticipating and finally got to play. Stray Gods and A Highland Song were games I was hoping to love but delivered incredibly flawed experiences. Stray Gods was a good idea executed poorly while A Highland Song felt like its gameplay was at odds with the larger themes.
This sounds like a lot of indie-bashing. That’s because the majority of games I play are indie games. AAA games weren’t without sin in my mind as well. Baldur’s Gate 3, Inverse’s game of the year, has been lauded as a watershed moment for RPGs, but the game’s third act tests even the most patient of players and was full of bugs upon release.
I know this sounds like I just hate video games. But that isn’t it. I love video games, and I love most of the games I’ve mentioned in this article. The issue is that I don’t feel like any of them fully and effectively delivered upon the premise that they set out to accomplish. Some piece of the puzzle is missing in all of them that keeps them from being truly great. None of them is perfect. Which, to be fair, is a high bar to meet as no game can be perfect.
That’s why despite the flaws, I still love these games. Each game has something in it that is unique and new for the medium. Viewfinder and Chants of Sennaar’s central mechanics are remarkable, the stories of A Space for the Unbound and The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood are impeccably written. Baldur’s Gate 3 is an astounding accomplishment in game design. They are all worthy of recognition — even if I can’t love them in their entirety on the level others can.
The two games that came closest for me were Alan Wake 2 and The Making of Karateka, which arrived in the later half of the year. Both of these games understand that reaching perfection is a nearly impossible mission, and instead revel in the dirty and ugly process of iterating a work to slowly remove flaws and make something better. Alan Wake 2 is the culmination of a thirteen-year development process and is textually about the difficulties of searching for artistic greatness. The Making of Karateka further tackles the specific struggles of game development by documenting how Karateka was made and what decisions go into each part of a game in service of making a better final product.
Both games grapple with their imperfections, the imperfections of making art, and the imperfections of video games themselves. They also make me appreciate the imperfections of every other game I played in 2023.