In a year as stuffed with great games as this one, it was always inevitable that lots of very good ones would be left on the cutting room floor of our Advent Calendar this year. It’s also perhaps no surprise that in the big spreadsheet of games I’ve played this year, I’ve set yet another new record for things I’ve played to completion. At time of writing, my list stands at 58 games for 2023, and by the time you’re reading this in your post-Christmas lunch coma, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had risen further. 58! That’s more than one a week! Honestly, what was past Katharine thinking? No wonder I’m so chuffing tired right now.
In any case, my list of honourable mentions is so long this year I’ve taken the cheeky liberty of cramming some extra entries into my 2023 Selection Box, bringing you five more personal picks that I think are just smashing and that you should absolutely play when you get a spare moment or three.
If you’re someone who grew up during the early days of the internet and had any kind of online community in your life, you need to play Videoverse. This touching visual novel is such a perfect portrait of how those nascent internet forums were often a lifeline for the people who hung out there, and at a time when our own online social networks are visibly degrading with every passing week, its themes of connection, empathy and simply being a good human become even more vital and powerful.
In it, you play as Emmett, a young teenager who’s on the cusp of two major milestones in his life: adolescene and a new console generation. His aging 1-bit Kinmoku Shark is about to be replaced by the more advanced (and expensive) Kinmoku Dolphin, but several members of the Shark’s built-in Miiverse-like forum community – the eponymous Videoverse – aren’t ready to move on yet. Emmett is particularly keen to hold onto his friendship with new Shark user and budding fan artist Vivi, whose shy demeanour hides a more turbulent personal life than she’s letting on. You’ll do this by both navigating Videoverse’s forum spaces – liking posts, responding to comments, and reporting trolls – and engaging in its characterful and well-observed text chat conversations. Its dialogue responses can have a surprisingly profound effect on the direction of Videoverse’s story, and the time you spend surfing and engaging with other forum posts makes the whole place feel alive and reactive to your presence. It’s a really wonderful and moving story, and it will make you long for a happier, kinder internet.
Season: A Letter To The Future
Speaking of yearning for better times gone by, Season: A Letter To The Future is one of the games that’s really stuck with me this year, and gosh darnit, it’s so beautiful and sad and warm and mournful that I just want to give it a hug and never let go. In this sort-of end of days travelogue adventure, you play a young woman who takes it upon herself to go out into the world and record its final moments, either by sketching sights in your scrapbook, recording sounds with your tape player, or scribbling down sayings and pasting in objects you find as you make your way through it. It’s never quite clear what this semi-apocalyptic event will look like, or even when it will take place – all you know is that it’s coming, and that the pendant your mother made for you before you left will save you from losing your memories when it happens.
Aside from some truly beautiful scenery to take in, Season’s greatest achievement is its extraordinary sense of place. As you cycle through its abandoned towns and villages, meeting folks still in the midst of packing up their stuff and moving to safer climes, you really get the feeling this place has been lived in to the full. There’s history here that you’re not necessarily privy to, and working out what to save and record can feel both momentous and overwhelming. How will you choose to remember the efforts of the people who grew up here? And what will your interpretations mean and say about this era for those who come to your scrapbook years down the line? Ultimately, Season is a game about looking at the world through an historian’s eye, and that’s something I’ve never seen a game try to do before. It’s a game that revels in peaceful and considered contemplation, and it’s a journey you won’t forget in a hurry.
Perhaps not the best game to play on your Christmas holiday, but The Wreck is another visual novel that really left its mark on me this year, and one I’d absolutely recommend you try and play when you’re in a good and stable frame of mind. It’s an intense and powerful portrayal of what it is to grieve and mourn those closest to us, but it’s also gut-wrenchingly witty, sarcastic, cathartic, and deeply human – exactly what you’d hope and expect from the next game by the Bury Me, My Love team.
Junon has a tough decision to make. Her estranged mother’s just gone into hospital with a serious brain condition, and it’s up to her to decide what to do about the next stage of her care – a role Junon never wanted or agreed to play in her mum’s life, but one that’s now been thrust upon her all the same. There are deep divisions between the two women that get examined and dissected in brilliant forensic detail over its five-hour run-time, from their choice (and subsequent success) of their careers to how they’ve formed and raised their respective families, and who, in particular, is responsible for the most terrible, unspoken secret that finally drove them apart. In order to process and sift through all this emotional baggage, Junon must excavate and untangle her memories to try and move forward. These take the shape of looping vignettes that see you swooping and diving through scenes and objects at critical moments in Junon’s life, and you can fast forward and rewind them Life Is Strange-style as you seek out certain words in the environment that will further Junon’s internal monologue. It all culminates in a devastating finale that will leave you feeling raw and vulnerable, but hopefully also grateful for having played it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but this is a special game all the same.
And now for something completely different. Cobalt Core is such a delight. If you’ve been longing for a sci-fi, deckbuilding roguelike to fill the hole left by Slay The Spire, or a devilish strategic puzzle ’em up to scratch the same itch as Into The Breach, this exquisite little gem is exactly what you need. And it’s actually properly quite funny, too, with some truly excellent sub-bosses, ranging from a chivalrous rat knight, a giant purple nautilus, and a wizard mouse whose accompanying space ship was a full-blown medieval castle. A truly wonderful little game.
At the start of each run, you assemble a crew of three to pilot your ship, each of which have their own deck of cards to reflect their various roles and specialities. Naturally, this alters the tactical rhythm of each run quite a bit, and the thrill of trying to make the best moves possible with that turn’s randomly dealt hand of cards is what makes Cobalt Core tick. It’s very Marvel’s Midnight Suns, to throw yet another game comparison into the mix, and I absolutely thrive on that stuff. And with each successful run, you get just a little bit closer to finding out why your entire crew is stuck in a pesky timeloop, too. Moreish and very good fun indeed, Cobalt Core is a real treasure.
Another dazzling roguelike for your consideration and my final Selection Box pick, Let’s! Revolution is arguably one of the best looking games of 2023. With superb animation and fluid, fast-moving tile-based warfare, this really is the fantasy Minesweeper roguelike you never knew you needed.
The Minesweeper element comes in as you try and figure out how best to move your warrior around its randomly-generated tile maps. Your goal is to find out where the game’s wonderfully repugnant King is hiding so you can chase him to the next level, but you’ll also need to avoid running into his guards stalking the roads and highways. How do you figure out where those road tiles are when they’re all upside down, I hear you ask? Minesweeper logic, baybee, as each non-road tile has a little number in the corner denoting how many road tiles it’s currently touching. What follows is a fiendish and gorgeous little puzzle ’em up that’s genuinely been one of the best surprises I’ve played all year. Don’t sleep on this revolution, folks.
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